• January 8, 2015
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Examining Ongwen’s past and departure from the LRA

On Tuesday news broke that US military forces in eastern CAR had taken custody of senior LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, one of five LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005. The details of how he came into US custody remain murky, with some reports indicating he first surrendered to community leaders near the Central African town of Sam Ouandja and others claiming he was captured by Seleka fighters based there. He’s still in US hands, despite claims by some Ugandan officials he was transferred into their custody.

Next week we’ll be post more about the consequences of Ongwen’s defection, but for now here are some essential things to know about his past, including his troubled relationship with Kony and the circumstances of how he left the LRA:

Protégé to one of the LRA’s most brutal commanders

As has been widely reported, Ongwen was abducted by the LRA in northern Uganda at the age of 10 as he walked to school. He was then raised in the “household” of Vincent Otti, a senior LRA officer who would eventually become Kony’s chief deputy. Otti was notoriously brutal even by LRA standards, once leading an attack on his home village in northern Uganda in which over 300 people were killed. This insightful article by Ongwen expert Erin Baines details how Otti likely became a father figure to Ongwen and oversaw his transformation from a kid hoping to get good grades in school to a young man gaining approval by committing atrocities against civilians.

In 2007, during the Juba peace talks, Kony ordered the execution of Otti and several of his closest allies. He saw Otti’s popularity within the LRA as a threat to his iron grip on the group’s command structure and feared Otti’s support for a negotiated solution was gaining too much traction within the LRA’s rank-and-file. Following Otti’s death, Kony also demoted several Otti loyalists, while others, including Opiyo Makasi, fled the LRA fearing for their lives.

Complicated relationship with Kony

Ongwen was one of the few senior officers close to Otti to survive the purge, but he has had a roller coaster relationship with Kony ever since. In an organization where even grumbling to your peers about Kony can be grounds for execution, Ongwen had the audacity to plead with Kony not to kill Otti. As Ledio Cakaj wrote for the LRA Crisis Tracker bio on Ongwen, in 2009 and 2010, he reportedly refused orders from Kony to join other LRA groups in eastern Central African Republic. Kony responded by stripping Ongwen of much of his command responsibilities and placing him under the command of Kony’s former bodyguard Binany Okumu. More recently, Ongwen has been under the command of Jon Bosco Kibwola, another Kony loyalist.

Kony has likely tolerated Ongwen’s insubordination is part because he’s one of the LRA’s most capable fighters. Under Otti’s tutelage, Ongwen rose quickly within LRA ranks after being abducted, distinguishing himself as a fierce leader known for leading raids to abduct new recruits. In June 2008, he led a daring raid on a military garrison in South Sudan in which at least 14 SPLA troops where killed. Ongwen also helped lead an LRA group responsible for the infamous Makombo Massacres in northeastern Congo in December 2009, in which LRA fighters killed more than 320 people and abducted more than 250 others.

Surrender or capture?

Despite claims in various media reports, we still don’t know the circumstances of Ongwen’s departure from the LRA. We do know he has considered defecting from the LRA for at least a decade. Erin Baines has documented the fascinating story of how Ongwen gathered northern Ugandan civilians for a meeting in 2005 to ask them whether they thought Uganda would hand him over to a foreign court if he defected. The next year, he almost defected in northern Uganda with the help of a former wife. Kony’s decision to strip Ongwen of his responsibilities in 2009 was due in part to rumors that Ongwen was contemplating defection. Recent LRA defectors that I’ve interviewed report that as recently as this year Ongwen was expressing his disillusionment with the LRA and desire to leave the group.

One thread in all of these stories is that his fear of being prosecuted by the ICC ultimately discouraged him from actually defecting. If he did actually surrender of his own free will, as some media outlets are reporting, we’ll have to wait and see what tipped the balance in his decision-making. One possibility is that he feared punishment by Kony, who has executed or demoted several additional senior officers for various offenses since Otti was killed in 2007.

Other media outlets are reporting that Ongwen was captured during a clash with Seleka forces near the Central African town of Sam Ouandja. This may seem strange, given that LRA forces in other areas of eastern CAR, such as Nzako, have cooperated closely with Seleka rebels. However, Seleka forces based in Sam Ouandja have always had a more contentious relationship with the LRA, and have clashed with LRA forces near the town several times in recent years. This is in large part because LRA groups frequently loot food and diamonds from civilians in the area, possibly to resupply Joseph Kony and other senior LRA officers hiding in the nearby Kafia Kingi enclave.

The true circumstances of Ongwen’s departure from the LRA may lie in some gray area between “surrender” and “capture.” Such was the case with Caesar Achellam, a senior LRA commander who was taken into custody by Ugandan troops in May 2012. At the time, Achellam’s group was being closely tracked by Ugandan troops, but in the end it appears he tried to surrender to his pursuers. Perhaps Ongwen’s LRA group did clash with Seleka forces, and Ongwen took advantage of the chaos to defect. Many of the LRA combatants I’ve interviewed in recent years have left the LRA in similar circumstances.

About the Author

Paul Ronan
Paul Ronan

Paul Ronan is Project Director for The Resolve. @pauldronan