The conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government has spanned three decades and is one of Africa’s longest. Since the breakdown of the Juba peace process in 2008, the conflict has spread to the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan with grave humanitarian consequences.
The LRA has been out of Uganda since 2006. A combination of military pressure, the Amnesty Act that encouraged hundreds to defect, successful community-based peacebuilding and the changing political-military situation in South Sudan forced the LRA out of northern Uganda. However, since 2008 the groups has been able to survive in the remote border areas of northeastern DRC, eastern CAR and parts of South Sudan, where state presence and services are minimal. In the context of little or no governmental presence at a local level, other security threats are increasingly overlapping with and compounding those posed by the LRA, including armed cattle keepers and cross-border criminal groups using tactics similar to the LRA.
Background to the conflict
Joseph Kony formed the LRA in northern Uganda in 1987 to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni. In the early 1990s, the LRA conflict spread over Uganda’s borders into eastern and central regions of South Sudan. From 2006, the LRA further spread into DRC, CAR and western regions of South Sudan.
An amnesty law, passed in Uganda in 2000, gave LRA abductees the chance to return to their communities without prosecution for their crimes. Thousands came home, but in May 2012 the Amnesty Act was allowed to lapse, potentially undoing the immense contribution it made to stability and recovery.
Civil society activists in Uganda delivered recommendations to reinstate the lapsed Amnesty Act to the President, and in May 2013 the law was successfully reinstated.
As support for the LRA waned in Uganda, Kony used ever more brutal methods to avoid defeat by Museveni’s army. He kidnapped children to act as slaves and trained them to fight. He forced them to kill family members so they would think they had no home to escape to.
He used terror tactics – cutting off civilians’ ears and lips – to frighten northerners into silent submission. The Ugandan army, realising the LRA drew strength from the civilian population, forced over 1.7 million Ugandans into makeshift camps between 1996 and 2006.
In the early 1990s the LRA crossed Uganda’s northern border into Sudan. Kony received support from the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which at the time was fighting its own rebels in the south. The end of the Sudanese civil war in 2005 and of this support was one the main factors that finally brought Kony to the negotiating table in Juba, South Sudan.
The Juba peace talks and military offensives
The Juba peace talks, between 2006 and 2008, offered the best hope for a settlement to the conflict in recent times. However, after a long process, the talks collapsed when Kony failed to sign the final agreement.
In December 2008, the Ugandan army with support from South Sudan and DRC staged a new military offensive. The attack – Operation Lightning Thunder – resulted in a renewed dispersal of the LRA into DRC, CAR and South Sudan and devastating consequences for the people of these countries. According to the UN, by July 2010, approximately 700,000 people had become internally displaced in South Sudan, DRC and CAR as a result of LRA activities since 2008.
In June 2011, the governments affected by the LRA agreed to join a Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the LRA (RCI-LRA), a multilateral political framework to facilitate diplomacy and joint military action and oversee the long-term recovery of the LRA-affected areas. The RCI-LRA has three linked objectives: to strengthen the ability of regional military forces to tackle the LRA, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and create conditions for the stabilisation of LRA-affected areas, free of LRA predation.
Its state parties are Uganda, the DRC, CAR and South Sudan. The African Union Peace and Security Council authorised the RCI in November 2011 with three components: a Joint Coordination Mechanism (JCM) a Regional Task Force (RTF) of up to 5,000 troops and the RTF headquarters. By early 2012, the RTF had been launched – a light touch, pragmatic and politically expedient response to a pressing regional problem.
The UN also has a regional framework that outlines overarching schemes to address the threat and impact of the LRA. It embraces the African Union’s Regional Cooperation Initiative. The UN framework was launched in March 2012. It has five goals:
1) Operationalisation of the AU’s Regional Cooperation Initiative
2) Enhanced protection of civilians
3) Expansion of Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation, Resettlement and Reintegration (DDRRR) activities to all LRA-affected areas
4) A coordinated humanitarian and child protection response
5) Long-term peacebuilding, human rights, and rule of law development.
However, the implementation and effectiveness of AU and UN strategies have been mixed. This is due to regional governments’ reluctance to respond to a conflict that falls low on their political agenda, as well as deep-seated mistrust between the governments of the region (especially between Congo and Uganda), which has prevented regional cooperation. In addition, the AU, UN and international donors have given priority to the AU Regional Task Force, a military operation led by Uganda and supported by the US, tasked with hunting down the LRA and eliminating its leadership. The strategies have failed to protect civilians in the LRA-affected areas, re-establish local governance structures, provide opportunities for political engagement, or ensure that the views of the grassroots population across LRA-affected areas – especially victims of the conflict – are carefully considered.