Friday February 28 2014

It is time to start focusing on rehabilitating LRA returnees

By Michael Mubangizi

Early this month, Invisible Children, together with The Resolve, launched the 2013 Annual LRA Crisis Tracker report that tracks, analyses and reports on incidents of LRA conflict, including attacks, killings, abductions and defections in east and central Africa. Through such publications and open-source sharing of collected data, the report helps overcome the current deficit of relevant and timely information related to the LRA crisis and to support improved policy and humanitarian responses.

Overall, the report notes a sustained decline in LRA atrocities and the waning of the groups’ capacity for destruction. The notable exceptions to these was an upsurge in LRA activities in Central African Republic where the group is exploiting the instability there to launch attacks - for the first time in over two years. The LRA committed three attacks in South Sudan.

The report also found that the LRA lost nearly one-fifth of its core fighters in 2013, who either defected or where killed. Presently, the LRA’s greatest weakness, the report says, is its inability to replace the combatants that comprise the core of its command structure and fighting capacity. Commendable as these findings are, they point to the need for intensified support to efforts aimed at permanently ending the LRA and addressing its immediate and long-term effects.

These include supporting programmes that promote defection, rehabilitation and reintegration of those who escape or leave LRA captivity. Success at this has the possibility of encouraging more LRA defections as it reassures potential returnees of a better life after LRA. Presently, the existing rehabilitation and reintegration services fall short of the needs of returnees.

It is most disheartening to know from statistics from the Amnesty Commission that of the 26,390 returnees who have been guaranteed amnesty since 2000, only 7,129 have been reintegrated because of inadequate funds! In order to resolve these rehabilitation and reintegration gaps, there needs to be a more deliberate cooperation between regional governments, military actors, and civil society groups, buoyed by appropriate funding support, if we are to see meaningful change in the lives of former combatants and communities affected by the LRA conflict.

Another pertinent issue is getting people out of LRA displacement. October to December 2013 statistics by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicate that more than 326,000 people remain displaced from their homes in LRA-affected areas of CAR, DRC and South Sudan. This means in spite of the decline in LRA atrocities, fear deters many civilians from returning home.

Society and communities hosting these returnees should also not put them under undue psychological pressure through hostile and condemnatory reception as has been previously witnessed in some communities. This needs an appreciation by all that most of the LRA elements are victims of abductions. Many of them have involuntarily spent productive years of their lives in captivity. As such, condemning them would be submitting most to a double jeopardy.

While laws like the Amnesty Act facilitate the defection of rebels, and encouraging other rebel groups to settle their grievances peacefully with the government, such hostile reception deters effectiveness of this well-intentioned legislation.

Ending the LRA conflict needs diverse but complementary approaches. As such, besides recovery activities and efforts aimed at getting people out of LRA displacement, communities need to be better protected from attacks. Defection efforts need to continue to be prioritised, as this has been a strong factor in the reduction of LRA capacity for destruction.

There is also need for continued engagements with relevant international leaders and bodies to take urgent action to stabilise CAR that is now the epicentre of LRA attacks. The international community must stay focused on this mission as hundreds of thousands of civilians are being impacted by LRA violence and the fact that Kony can still rebuild if pressure eases.

Mr Mubangizi is Invisible Children’s regional public relations and advocacy officer.