In April 2016, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) started withdrawing from the hunt against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, ending a nine-year hunt for the rebels and their elusive leader Joseph Kony beyond the borders of Uganda.
Kony is easily Uganda’s most notorious rebel leader of all time, and for two decades led a rebellion in northern Uganda that left huge swathes of land abandoned as people, especially in Acholi sub-region, were herded into camps.
His method of work was brutal, leaving thousands of Ugandans murdered, mutilated or raped. For this, Kony and his top commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Of all Kony’s commanders, only one has ever been arrested and presented to the Hague-based court for trial, which has not taken place yet.
A sustained offensive by the UPDF, dubbed Operation Iron Fist, drove Kony out of much of northern Uganda and into what is now the independent republic of South Sudan, and inconclusive peace talks would follow in Juba in 2007 as Kony was holed up in Garamba Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After the collapse of the talks and resumption of hostilities, Kony was forced to retreat into the Central African Republic, where Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi, says the UPDF looked to “use attrition to degrade his (Kony’s) threat to regional security.”
In the pursuit that took place in the largely ungoverned forests of Central African Republic, UPDF was joined by American Commandos who former President Barack Obama sent in to help. Years went by and Kony proved elusive. The forces eventually withdrew.
After the withdrawal of the American Special Forces and the UPDF, the LRA now has less pressure and is intensely poaching wildlife that has become its lifeline.
Its core leadership, including Kony’s two sons who were both born in the bush during the 30-year insurgency, is alive and well, and is said to still be resilient.
Gen Muhoozi says when UPDF and the Americans left, the rebels took advantage of their absence to do “all sorts of things”.
“The LRA is still there. It still comes to the vacuum in our neighbourhood. So they are free to move to Central Africa to poach and do all sorts of things. And when we left they took advantage of that vacuum to stay alive,” Gen Muhoozi says.
In Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo, the countries with little government presence and no effective national armies, the LRA could easily regroup.
“For now, there is no immediate threat they pose because they are far away and they had been degraded to an extent that they pose no immediate threat to Uganda,” he says.
Ever since the Americans and UPDF withdrew, very few cases of abductions have been reported in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo. But Gen Muhoozi says the LRA still carries out abductions, but on a small scale.
“The activities they are doing are the usual signature activities of abduction, poaching and all those things,” he says.
Kony and the LRA could now be a shadow of the threat they were decades ago when they could conventionally engage UPDF, but they are not completely out.
They have continued to carry out a few abductions in the area. However, these few incidents are not reported about probably because little attention is now being given to the LRA activities after Americans and Ugandans withdrew.
“Kony has always been gallivanting between Kafia Kingi and some areas of the Central African Republic but he does not move a lot,” Gen Muhoozi says. Kony is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“I think it is to avoid detection. He is worried of being tracked. He does not communicate a lot apart from using couriers. He avoids electronic communication,” Gen Muhoozi adds.
This shows that although UPDF has physically left Central African Republic, they are still monitoring the warlord and his activities.
“I think he takes precautions. Even if we left… I told you that we struck the ADF (Allied Democratic Front) yet we are not in Congo. It is a precaution he takes,” Gen Muhoozi said, referring to the UPDF air attack on the ADF bases in Congo early this year.
For Gen Muhoozi, LRA will fizzle out and become a rag tag militia in the Central African Republic or Democratic Republic of Congo. Since LRA is now being seen as less threatening and countries like Uganda think it will fizzle out, there will be little or no pressure to have Kony arrested.
With less or no pressure, Kony, his sons and other LRA fighters might decide to permanently settle in Central Africa and their story will probably be told by their descendants of how their parents migrated from Uganda after years of fighting.
But this can only happen if the LRA makes peace with the communities by stopping abductions, stealing from the community and the killings.
If Kony is to permanently settle in the Central African Republic, it will perhaps be around Kafia Kingi, the area different reports by the Ugandan intelligence and the NGOs working in the area show he patronises.
According to the Enough Project report released in 2015, Kony’s initial base in 2011 was reportedly 10 miles from the Sudan Armed Forces garrison in Dafak, South Darfur, and his last known location in May 2015 was at the foot of Mount Toussoro at the Kafia Kingi-Central African Republic border.
It shows he might find a permanent home in these areas if no more pressure is mounted on him.
The Enough Project report also said that, according to the LRA defectors, Kony was unlikely to move deeper into South Darfur, as that area is more populated and insecure, and he would be much more likely to be spotted there.
There are indications that if the LRA stops violence against people in the Central African Republic and DR Congo but continues poaching, this might raise antennas from wildlife conservationists and this would bring him back to the limelight, and hence bring back pressure on him.
Already, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in December last year announced sanctions on his deputy, Okot Lukwang, who is also the LRA director of intelligence and Musa Hatari for their role in facilitating trafficking in ivory, weapons, and money in support of the LRA.
The sanctions followed a report by Enough Project entitled “Tusk wars: Inside the LRA and the bloody business of Ivory.”
According to sources, nothing much has changed ever since the report was released three years ago. The report showed under direct orders from Kony, LRA commanders, in particular two oldest sons, Salim and Ali, barter the ivory with merchants from the South Darfur town of Songo, in exchange for food, uniforms, and ammunition.
The Enough Project said one LRA group was based in DR Congo’s Garamba National Park where it poaches elephants and secures the ivory.
Another group, led by a young man called Owila, then reportedly transports the ivory from northeastern DR Congo to Kafia Kingi through the Central African Republic.
“The tusks are likely trafficked to Nyala, South Darfur, and on to Khartoum for export abroad, primarily to Asia,” the report said.
Chances that the LRA will stop poaching soon are said to be remote, however, since it is deemed to be their main source of revenue to buy guns. The group no longer has funders like in 1990s and 2000s when the group was reportedly getting support from Khartoum and other sources.
The other option LRA fighters have is to take advantage of Kony losing command and control of the group and defect and return home.
With Kony continually losing control over his fighters and a reported attempt on his life in 2015 by some of his fighters, it is thought that there is continued fracturing of cohesion and loss of confidence in him by the fighters who previously saw him as demi-god.
His fighters are said to continue to operate in small groups. This, the military says, is to avoid being detected and increase mobility. Some of these groups are said to be hundreds of miles from each other.
TRAINING CAR ARMY
The LRA has taken advantage of a weak CAR army, but Gen Muhoozi says negotiations are ongoing between Uganda, UN and the CAR to send a company of Special Forces to train FACA- the CAR army.
“That was part of the measures to fill the vacuum left by our exit. So we volunteered to train FACA-the CAR force, provided we were supported in that respect. And then, we volunteered to contribute to the UN mission. And we committed to initially deploy a company of Special Forces, but we have not deployed yet,” he says.
The date to deploy this force would be finalised after the UN has actualised the requirements of the planned deployment.
It will take long to train and have a strong formidable FACA force.
But having a strong FACA would be a major solution to stopping rebel groups like LRA using CAR as a safe haven to carry out its illegal and criminal activities.