LRA: Uganda’s worst export of the century
Joseph Kony could have been sent packing from the northern Uganda but this did not stop his Lord’s Resistance Army from showing its ugly head in South Sudan, DR Congo and Central African republic. As Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi writes, a walk through Kony’s footpath reveals that his fighters have left many scars that will take centuries to heal.
Politicians in Kampala celebrate the end of the war in the north of the country. It is a key campaign issue for President Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement as the country draws closer to a critical election early 2011.
But in President Museveni’s own home district, a family is wailing the loss of a son and a father who dedicated his time to serving his country and spent 17 years on war fronts before being killed on duty thousands of kilometres from his home in a foreign country whose language he cannot even speak.
The Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency has defined much of President Museveni’s 24-year hold onto power in Uganda. But since 2005, the government has celebrated its victory over the rebel LRA which at the height of its rebellion forced 1.6 million people into camps for the Internally Displaced (IDPs), saw an estimated 20,000 children abducted to serve either as child soldiers or sex slaves for the rebel commanders and thousands either killed or maimed.
Mr Museveni has boasted that the war is now over and the opposition “have no lies” to tell the voters. Politicians, especially of the ruling party from the northern region, have been celebrating the end of the war and the return of peace. Yet the war has not really ended, it is only the theatre that has shifted. The LRA has become Uganda’s worst export of the 21st century. With all its top command on the International Criminal Court wanted list, the LRA now operates as the first African cross border rebel group in at least three countries and remains a constant threat in their home country Uganda.
With them, they exported their signature brutality of clubbing victims to death publicly that gave them the reputation of notoriety. In their adventures in territories inside the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2008, the rebels are said to have killed anywhere between 2,000 to 2, 500 civilians, forced hundreds out of their homes, maimed several and generally made life miserable for tens of thousands. Though Uganda maintains a 3,000-strong force pursuing the rebels in the far lands in a continuation of Operation Lightning Thunder launched in December 2008, the cries and wails from the victims are far from home.
It is the killing of people like Lt. Henry Taremwa (promoted posthumously to Captain) that flashes the ominous reality back to an audience working hard to forget the conflict. The silence from the government and the military about deaths of Ugandan soldiers in a foreign land is simply too loud. “Why can’t they tell us the truth?” asks a brother to late Taremwa. “Must we have our troops so far away? They chased away Kony, why follow him there?”
Apparently, the military authorities have still refused to explain the deaths to colleague soldiers - even the affected families a month after the soldier fell in an LRA and Sudan militia ambush on May 27. At least 17 soldiers were reported killed though Uganda’s Army Chief, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, says only 10 soldiers died. While the military policy is to release the bodies to relatives, there is no word about the recent CAR fatalities.
“We are suffering, we know he was killed in service of his country but why deny him a chance for a decent burial? Since we learnt of his death we are not being given any official information, people have been gathered at home [to attend the funeral and interment]; we put announcements on radio but still no word from the authorities,” Mr Musinguzi cried out in a June 29 interview.
It is the number of civilian deaths that are not disputed. In two separate reports, international human rights bodies; the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and The Project to End Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (Enough) released in April, the LRA had massacred up to 1,800 people in previously unreported assaults. In a week of madness the rebels are said to have murdered 400 residents in a single village. Roaming with relative ease across international borders, killing at will despite the pursuit by Ugandan soldiers, the LRA, has become Uganda’s worst export of this century.
Ugandan authorities and politicians shy away from discussing the damage a home-grown problem - the LRA that is - has caused vulnerable Africans in the largely ungoverned, and ungovernable, parts of the continent’s central wilderness. Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, Uganda’s defence and military spokesman, says Uganda “feels bad but not guilty” for the LRA activities in neighbouring countries.
In an interview with Sunday Monitor, Lt. Col. Kulayigye said LRA’s destructive excursion into the new territories beyond Uganda’s border is “not a Ugandan problem but rather an African one”. He argues that rather than exploit weakness in the Ugandan security system the LRA exploited broader continental problems that have especially bedevilled the Great Lakes Region. “I see it as the African backwardness,” the spokesman says, “You need to see the contextualisation of the conflict system in the Great Lakes Region which has been exploited by the LRA.”
Moving to CAR
By moving to CAR, Lt. Col. Kulayigye says the LRA, exploited the vacuum of a conflict-prone region to find sanctuary. Asked how he feels about the high numbers of innocent victims in both South Sudan, CAR and the DRC, Lt. Col. Kulayigye said: “We feel bad not guilty. We feel concerned that innocent people have been killed but we don’t feel guilty because we did not export them there. In fact we have tried to pursue them to bring an end to their (atrocities).”
The LRA’S centres of activity are reported to be Obbo, Ndjema, and areas north east of Ndjema. The rebels are also operating in DRC areas of Ddungu and other parts of North Orientale province.
LRA terror spread
A high-school dropout, Joseph Kony first came to prominence in January 1986, in his mid 20s. Originally Kony’s group was named the United Holy Salvation Army. The bulk of his foot soldiers were children. He is estimated to have taken 104,000 or more boys and girls since the LRA started fighting in 1986. He often killed their family and neighbours when abducting these children, forcing them to fight for him
Many international attempts at peace and an end to the abduction of children by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army occurred between 1996 and 2001.
All of them failed to end the abductions, rape, child soldiers, and civilian casualties including attacks on refugee camps. After the September 11th attacks the United States declared the Lord’s Resistance Army a terrorist group and Joseph Kony a terrorist.
Joseph Kony was thought to have been possessed by spirits; he has been portrayed as either the Messiah or the devil. He reportedly made annual trips to the Ato Hills in Uganda. He would allegedly ascend to the highest of the hills and lie down in the hot sun for days.
As the UPDF closed in on Kony and his fighters, he had no option but to shift his bases to South Sudan and DR Congo. When he was pursued there in 2008, the Operation Lightning Thunder managed to force the rebel leader to flee to CAR.
Compiled by Juliet Kigongo