The highest number of members to defect from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) since 2008 is a promising sign to the campaigners who hope to bring an end to the group’s violent reign.
A total of nineteen Ugandan LRA members, nine men, four women and six children, surrendered to Ugandan military (UPDF), in the Central African Republic. The loss is a notable one because of the reliance on Ugandan males to form the leadership within the LRA.
“A defection of this size represents a significant portion of the LRA’s remaining fighting force,” said Adam Finck, Invisible Children’s Director of International Programs.
Campaigners say the news validates the work they have been doing to use communication tools to encourage LRA members to put down their weapons and return home.
It is estimated that there are 550 members remaining in the Ugandan rebel group that was founded in the 1980s, down from a few thousand five years ago. Ugandan men make up about 200 of the total LRA members.
“This is the first time since Operation Lightning Thunder that a senior LRA commander walked out of the bush with his entire group,” said Paul Ronan, co-founder and Director of Policy for The Resolve, referring to an offensive in 2008-9.
“Every Ugandan male that comes out of the force is essentially irreplaceable.”
Activists, led by Invisible Children and The Resolve, celebrated the news. Best known for its controversial Kony 2012 film, Invisible Children has spent the past few years distributing flyers and broadcasting radio messages to encourage LRA members to defect.
The information features the images and voices of former members who assure those still in the LRA that it is possible to return home safely. Defectors usually come alone or with only a few others. There is a fear that telling the wrong person could reach LRA leadership, explains Ronan.
Lieutenant Colonel Okello Okutti and the members mentioned the literature and radio messaging when they showed up at an area fishing village. Intelligence provided by the former members is informing a new push by the UPDF.
“The UPDF are very happy that such a significant LRA group has returned, said Colonel Kabango, UPDF Commander and operational head of counter-LRA efforts. “We welcome others to make the same choice to come out.”
Ronan is pessimistic that the defection will lead to the capture of LRA leader Joseph Kony. The leadership will likely hear of the defection and move again within the largely lawless north of the Central African Republic. There is hope that further defections may follow, but given the semi-autonomous nature of the LRA, it is likely the decision will impact the central LRA.
“This is more evidence that the comprehensive strategy to stop the LRA is working,” said Ben Keesey, Invisible Children CEO.
Hopes were dashed when supposed surrender negotiations between Kony and the Central African Republic were proved false. Leaders with the LRA did speak with the Central African Republic, but it was to secure food and medical supplies. Similar communications were launched by the LRA and the Congolese government in 2005, shortly before the group sought shelter in the country. The discussions indicate that the LRA is looking to go to areas of the Central African Republic that will not experience outside interference.
Reaching out for help for the first time in eight years is a sign that the LRA is going through a difficult moment. The momentum, led by the defections, is a good signs to the campaigners. They feel that their strategy of using military support to keep the group on the run and uncomfortable makes the messaging to defect more attractive.
Ronan said the leaflets and radio initiatives are working, but there is a need for donors and the US government to provide more support.
“It is a huge challenge is trying to get bureaucracies to adapt at the speed with which the LRA does,” said Ronan. “What everyone is hoping to see is a sort of snowball effect where more people defect and a positive feedback cycle is created when using voices of new defectors to get people home.”