Kony 2017: The end of the LRA or a resurgence?

LRA leader Joseph Kony.

The hunt for warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is over. Both the United States and Uganda announced the beginning of a troop withdrawal and closure of programs seeking out the group in the Central African Republic.

The end of the military effort leaves a weak rebel group reeling from years on the run with the potential to regain strength and resume its brutal attacks, warn some experts. It also may lead to the return of violence in the Central African Republic where Christian militias launched attacks earlier this week leaving at least 30 people dead.

“It is disappointing,” Paul Ronan, the co-leader of reach and policy for Invisible Children, told Humanosphere. “There is a real underestimation of what the remnants of the LRA are capable of doing. At the same time the Trump administration is doing the troop withdrawal, their budget proposals are cuts to the institutions, such as U.N. peacekeeping, that are going to have to pick up the slack.”

Ronan said that the military effort deterred the group from carrying out the kinds deadly attacks it launched more than a decade ago. The U.S. became in involved in the Kony and LRA hunt in 2011 after a successful advocacy effort led by Invisible Children and other groups prompted President Barack Obama to authorize a force of about 150 military advisers. In the three years preceding U.S. involvement, the LRA killed more than 2,400 people. That dropped significantly with 183 reported LRA-caused deaths in past six years.

The group was forced out of northern Uganda in 2005, but the campaign forced Kony to move his forces deeper into the border region between South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While Kony was not caught, the effort diminished the size of the group. What remains is a fractured rebel group with fewer than 140 fighters and a weak leadership structure.

“The mission has been successful insofar as seriously degrading the group to a fairly significant degree – most importantly the loss of Ugandan commanders who are irreplaceable,” Ledio Cakaj, a researcher on central Africa and author of a book on Kony and the LRA, told Humanosphere.

Tracking the LRA. (Credit: Jonathan Hutson/Enough Project)

A resurgent LRA is a low concern to him. Reports from former combatants and the activities by the LRA point to a Kony who is increasingly paranoid. Most of the current LRA force is made up of non-Ugandans, but Kony is unwilling to promote any of them to top ranks in the rebel group. The attrition of Ugandan commanders because of defections and executions leaves a weak command structure with an unstable leader.

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“Kony still being there may see this mission succeed in the short term,” said Cakaj.

The greatest external pressure on the LRA now comes from regional rebel groups, poachers and armed cattle-herders. If anyone is going to kill Kony, it is likely to be one of those groups, Ronan said.

However, he worries that the desperation of the LRA may force it to overcome some of its problems and lead to a new period of growth. There are U.N. peacekeeping missions working in the three countries affected by the LRA, but they barely have the resources to keep up with their missions, let alone worry about a small rebel group hiding in the woods. Also concerning is the potential for other rebel groups to gain strength with the military withdrawal.

The over-burdened peacekeeping missions may have been aided by the Ugandan military force in the region. Ronan said that some ex-Seleka groups, which were accused of war crimes in the Central African Republic, could resume attacks following the troop withdrawal.

Not capturing Kony is still a failure for the military mission, both Cakaj and Ronan said. The LRA formed in the mid-1980s in response to the rebellion that led Yoweri Museveni to assume power of Uganda. Rebel groups fought back against crackdowns by the new government. The LRA used brutal campaigns and abductions to create a force of roughly 3,000 combatants at its peak.

Its tactics and treatment of children thrust the group to national attention and led to the formation of groups like Invisible Children, an advocacy nonprofit that started with a documentary film about children left homeless by the LRA. The idea of capturing Kony gathered international public attention with the viral and controversial ‘Kony 2012‘ video produced by the advocacy group in March 2012.

The video provided an overview of the LRA and called on people to support a final push that would lead to the capture of the leader. Critics panned the video that garnered more than 100 million views in a matter of days for simplifying the nature of the conflict with the LRA, overstating its impact on the region at the time and perpetuating what author Teju Cole called the ‘White-Savior Industrial Complex.’

The video was a turning point for Invisible Children. The video brought in millions of dollars in donations and derision for its advocacy work. By the end of 2014, a lack of funding and shift in priorities led the group to announce it was drawing down its U.S.-based programs and focusing on its central Africa-based programs that encourage LRA members to defect. The lessons from the successful advocacy effort and video campaign revealed the difficulty in changing U.S. policy.

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“What we realized is that it took a huge advocacy and grassroots lift to pass the LRA bill in 2010 to ensure the counter-LRA strategy that the Obama admin released had funding,” Ronan said. “That required a huge lift. I think what we realized what most of what we were trying to do was tinkering with the policy infrastructure in place, rather than building from the ground up.”

Invisible Children’s current work focuses on tracking LRA activity and supporting a network of radio broadcasts and leaflet drops that encourage LRA soldiers and people held by the group to defect. It is one of the most effective aspects of the U.S. and Ugandan military operation. Troops were on the ground to find Kony, but they also supported disseminating defection messages.

Eight of the nine adult male defectors, December 2013.

In December 2013, a group of 19 Uganda LRA members surrendered to the Uganda military in the Central African Republic. It was the largest defection in more than five years. The members cited flyers they read encouraging them to leave as one of the reasons they came forward. A year later, LRA rebel commander Dominic Ongwen orchestrated the defection of nine members and escaped the group weeks later.

“Possibly the biggest loss from the troops is less messaging for LRA members to defect and to facilitate their defections,” Ronan said. “We have been jaded enough since late 2016 that the U.S and Ugandan troops would capture Kony, but we were encouraged that defection messaging funded in large part by the U.S. military was having a slow but steady impact in encouraging fighters to come out. With the LRA so small we hoped that strategy could undermine Kony’s rule to the point he did not have much force to command.”

What comes next for the LRA is uncertain. The group managed to carry out small attacks and abductions during the military campaign. Defectors said Kony still gives abduction orders, a potential sign that he could increase efforts to build back the group. However, the damage may already be done after forcing Kony to live on the run for so long and leaving him with a weak force. An unstable Kony and the ongoing communications network may keep the LRA on the path toward dissolution.

“The thing I hope continues to happen is encouraging defection, it is the most underrated part of the mission,” Cakaj said.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.