With top LRA commander out of the picture, what next?
On Sunday, news spread that Caesar Achellam, one of Joseph Kony’s top commanders in the LRA, was captured by or defected to Ugandan forces in southeast Central African Republic. Achellam is the first high-level commander to be captured or killed in over two years and his removal provides a major boost of confidence in the ongoing Ugandan-led efforts to end LRA violence in the region. But whether Achellam’s exit is the “beginning of the end” — as some news agencies have reported — or just a blip on the radar is yet to be seen. The coming weeks will be crucial to watch.
Who is Achellam?
Caesar Achellam was one of the oldest and most respected commanders within the LRA. He was one of the few left in the LRA who joined the group voluntarily after fighting for the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA), a rebellion that also formed in northern Uganda but preceded the LRA. Before joining the UPDA, Achellam was reportedly part of Uganda’s national army, but was forced out when Uganda’s current President Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986.
After joining the LRA in the late 1980′s, Achellam played a key role within the group as a military strategist, and was responsible for overseeing military training for LRA abductees. He was an important liaison between Kony and the Sudanese army, and even reportedly speaks fluent Arabic (in addition to Acholi and English). Recent LRA defectors have reported that in 2009 Achellam led a delegation of LRA fighters that met with Sudanese army officials in South Darfur – where Kony has reportedly sought refuge in recent months.
Achellam was long thought to be interested in defecting from the LRA. Nonetheless, his removal is a huge blow to the group, particularly to the morale of mid-level commanders and fighters who greatly respected him. If he is willing to share information with the Ugandan government – which he may be doing in a bid to avoid prosecution for war crimes – he could provide regional governments with an up-to-date analysis of where specific LRA groups and commanders are now located, what their future plans and strategies are, and exactly how the LRA command structure has evolved in the past year.
So what next?
Whether or not the information that Achellam shares leads to further success in dismantling the LRA’s command structure over the coming weeks will be an important test for ongoing efforts to decisively defeat the LRA. And whether Achellam was captured or whether he defected at the last minute, it’s clear that persistent military pressure by Ugandan forces played a key role in his exit from the LRA. Achellam’s removal demonstrates that targeted military operations against the LRA that focus on apprehending senior LRA commanders can have an impact.
These operations have been boosted in recent months with the deployment of US military advisers and political authorization from the African Union. However, as we have said before, they also suffer from a sharp decrease in the number of Ugandan forces deployed, inadequate helicopter capacity, political squabbles amongst regional governments, and inadequate measures to protect civilians from LRA reprisal attacks.
Achellam’s exit also highlights the need for renewed efforts to encourage other senior LRA commanders and rank-and-file fighters to defect. In accordance with Ugandan law, and because he is not one of the three LRA commanders wanted by the International Criminal Court, Achellam is eligible for amnesty should he apply for it. If he is granted amnesty, this would greatly incentivize the defection of LRA fighters who remain in the bush, thus weakening the group’s capacity to commit further atrocities. Some have called for Achellam to instead be brought to trial for crimes committed in the LRA, but doing so would deter other LRA fighters from leaving the bush.
Ugandan forces and US military advisers deployed in the region should move quickly to get the message to remaining LRA commanders and fighters that Achellam is safe and is being treated well in Ugandan custody. Achellam was reportedly traveling north from Democratic Republic of Congo into Central African Republic with a group of 65 LRA combatants. If US advisers assist the Ugandan military in conducting aerial leaflet drops in the areas where that group remains there is a strong chance that more fighters, abductees, and associated women and children can be convinced to come out peacefully.
Photo credit: James Akena/Reuters