- January 25, 2016
- News & Analysis
In the past week, anybody who has a Google alert for “LRA” has been inundated with news related to the ICC’s confirmation of charges hearing for former LRA child soldier and commander Dominic Ongwen. The attention on Ongwen, who stands accused of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, is a positive, pushing forward the debate on how to address the legacy of LRA atrocities in east and central Africa.
But while the world watches court proceedings at The Hague, Joseph Kony is adding yet another chapter to the LRA’s brutal legacy of killings, abductions, and displacement. So far this month his LRA forces have abducted 79 people during 16 attacks on communities in the Haute Kotto and Mbomou prefectures of eastern Central African Republic. In one recent attack, LRA fighters abducted two civilians and forced them to guide the group to the Catholic mission in the town of Bakouma. The assailants reportedly abducted several guards at the mission, harassed and abused several Latin American nuns, and looted food and communications equipment.
LRA attack surge a departure from recent history
Understanding the scale, boldness, and rapid succession of this month’s LRA attacks in eastern CAR requires an understanding of the LRA’s recent evolutions. From March 2008–March 2010 Kony ordered his fighters to conduct brutal massacres and child abduction campaigns in DR Congo and eastern CAR, abducting more than 3,000 people and killing another 2,480. Many of these attacks were reprisals, an intentional show of strength following poorly executed military operations by regional governments that failed to capture Kony in December 2008. However, Kony underestimated the international outrage those atrocities would generate, which in turn spurred the African Union, US military, and UN peacekeepers to deploy additional troops and resources to combat the LRA. By 2010, renewed military operations and defection campaigns had reduced the number of LRA fighters by half and placed severe stress on the group’s command structure.
The intensified pressure forced Kony to change tactics. Since 2011, high-profile massacres and child abductions by the LRA have dropped dramatically and most attacks have been focused on acquiring needed supplies without drawing attention to the rebel group. LRA officers began to buy supplies with proceeds generated by ivory acquired from illegal poaching in DR Congo’s Garamba National Park, realizing that such black market transactions were difficult to trace. LRA looting raids have avoided large towns, usually targeted civilians working in their fields, hunting or fishing in the bush, or traveling along remote roads. LRA groups also gravitated towards safe havens where African Union forces lack either permission or logistical capacity to consistently operate, such as DR Congo’s Bas Uele province, Sudanese-controlled areas of South Darfur and Kafia Kingi, and territory in eastern CAR occupied by ex-Seleka fighters.
As LRA violence tailed off beginning in 2011 and the explosion of civil conflicts in CAR and South Sudan drew more focus, attention on the LRA has waned and deployments of African Union troops have shrunk, slowing military operations. Defection campaigns driven by the US military continue to get results, but few Ugandan LRA members have defected in recent months. As 2015 drew to a close, the LRA’s attrition rate had slowed considerably and LRA groups seemed relatively secure within their safe havens.
A statement of strength or sign of weakness?
The success of Kony’s “lay-low” strategy is what makes the LRA’s sudden surge of violence in eastern CAR so puzzling. Though it would be overdramatic to equate this trend to the large-scale massacres from2008–2010, it is certainly a departure from recent LRA attack patterns: the LRA’s total of 94* abductions in eastern CAR during the first three weeks of 2016 nearly match the group’s total of 103 abductions there in all of 2015.
Could the recent attacks, like those from 2008–2010, be an intentional statement of strength? Their timing with the Ongwen court proceedings at The Hague warrants consideration, especially given the reports that LRA fighters harassed Latin American nuns at the Catholic mission in Bakouma. One of the few occasions LRA fighters harmed non-Africans was in November 2005, when LRA fighters killed a British man in Uganda’s Murchison National Park in what was widely interpreted as retaliation for the ICC’s announcement of arrest warrants for Kony, Ongwen, and three other LRA commanders. Still, it is difficult to believe that Kony is making a strategic decision to flex his muscles at the international community, given that the LRA’s fighting strength remains at historically low levels.
The LRA attacks in and near Bakouma could also be linked to recent reports from Radio Tamazuj of increased friction between LRA groups and members of the Fallata tribe in South Darfur and Kafia Kingi. The reports quote a Fallata leader calling for the expulsion of the LRA from the area, claiming Kony’s forces have killed several members of his tribe in recent years. These reports have not been independently confirmed, but if true they could indicate that the LRA groups that have operated for years with relative impunity in South Darfur and Kafia Kingi have been forced to cross the border into eastern Central African Republic. In this scenario, the recent surge of attacks in and near Bakouma could be the work of LRA groups recently uprooted from Sudanese-controlled territory who are desperately looking for supplies in order to survive.
It is also possible that the recent surge of LRA attacks is linked neither to the Ongwen court proceedings nor to political dynamics in South Darfur. Though Kony has ordered LRA groups to reduce violence against civilians since 2011, periodically LRA forces commit a series of more brutal attacks. One of the last such surges was in May–September 2012, when LRA forces attacked many of the same towns in eastern CAR that they have attacked so far this month. One of the most prominent attacks during that period was also in Bakouma, when LRA forces looted a uranium mine owned by the French mining company Areva in June 2012.
A protection challenge for international forces
Regardless of what is motivating the LRA fighters currently wreaking havoc in Haute Kotto and Mbomou, these recent attacks have exposed glaring gaps in civilian protection. LRA forces have reportedly driven people from several villages, including Bakouma, and burned at least one village. Many of their attacks so far this month have targeted mining centers, where the extraction of gold and diamonds drives the local economy.
The Central African military will be unable to provide credible deterrence to the LRA in the short-term future, meaning that the brunt of responsibility to responding to the LRA will fall to the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR (MINUSCA), as well as the African Union’s counter-LRA force and their US military advisers. Despite its current focus on facilitating historical elections in CAR, MINUSCA must step up measures to protect civilians in Haute Kotto and Mbomou prefectures, including patrols to the villages most often targeted by the LRA. Meanwhile, policymakers in Washington, Kampala, Brussels, and Addis Ababa must ensure that AU and US troops have the resources and access they need to capture senior LRA leaders and facilitate the defection of the many men, women, and children looking for a way out of their nightmarish captivity.
International responses to the surge in LRA attacks will be complicated by the presence of ex-Seleka factions in the region, some of whom have developed opportunistic trading relationships with LRA groups. In order to permanently deny the LRA safe havens in eastern CAR, MINUSCA will have to expand its reach further into Haute Kotto in order to allow the Central African state to slowly reestablish itself.
Additionally, the African Union and United Nations should step up efforts to investigate the recent reports of the LRA’s presence in South Darfur and Kafia Kingi and its alleged violence against civilians there, and engage the Khartoum government to ensure that Kony and his forces are no longer able to enjoy safe haven in Sudanese-controlled territory.
* In addition to the 79 abduction in eastern CAR’s Haute Kotto and Mbomou prefectures, LRA forces abducted 15 people on January 19 in Tamboura, a village in Haute Mbomou prefecture.
Photo: Ferry crossing over the Mbari River on the Bangassou-Bakouma road, CAR [2012, Paul Ronan]