Joseph Kony and his outlaw Lord’s Resistance Army now have a chance to regroup, thanks to the collapse of government in the Central African Republic and new sanctuary in Sudan.
Kony is on the run from the International Criminal Court, which wants to arrest him on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and recruiting children fighters under the age of 15.
Ugandan troops with U.S. military advisers were hunting Kony and the LRA in the Central African Republic (CAR). But those operations were suspended after Seleka rebels took over the capital, Bangui.
“When the pressure is off, then the LRA goes on its business again and reorganizes,” said Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst with the Enough Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to stop genocide and crimes against humanity.
“Every day that this situation continues — that the Ugandans and the U.S. advisers are just sitting in their seats watching the game unfold — is creating danger for the LRA to set up new abductions, to set-up new safe havens, as they have done many, many times,” Lezhnev said.
A senior U.S. State Department official says it’s essential to find some way to get the Central African Republic back in the business of hunting down Kony and the LRA.
“CAR remains the center of gravity for this effort, where we are seeing the most significant LRA presence and LRA transit,” said the State Department official. “So if operations are not able to resume soon, then there is going to be a real problem.”
Jennifer Cooke, Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the situation is critical.
“With the collapse in CAR, I think the effort, the real sense of urgency and focus on getting Joseph Kony, has collapsed somewhat,” she said. “The Seleka coalition is very fractured. It’s a lot of very ambitious individuals and groups that have very different agendas. Governance and security broadly is probably not one of them.”
U.S. working with Seleka coalition
Eager to keep the pressure on, U.S. officials are working with Seleka leaders, who they say are more familiar with the LRA than the ousted government of Francois Bozize.
“What we’ve heard from the transitional leaders in Bangui has been very positive about wanting to collaborate with the Ugandans and the African Union and the United States,” said a senior U.S. State Department official. “But it’s getting through this period of uncertainty, so that operations are actually able to move forward, that’s key.”
Kony’s ability to move more freely for the time being worries Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of the Human Rights Watch Deputy. She is especially concerned about Kony’s experience exploiting instability.
“If nobody is particularly focused on the LRA as part of the larger regional issues, that is also another way in which they can regroup,” she says. “They sort of become invisible amongst all the other conflicts and crises, which has enabled them to persist for so long.”
A lot of that is based on Kony’s talent for evading capture.
“The terrain with the forest canopy makes it very difficult to track them, even with infrared technology,” Lezhnev says. “They move in groups of three to five. They’re now down to just a few hundred fighters. But Kony and his top commanders, but particularly Kony, has always been very, very resilient.”
Former altar boy rules absolutely
Kony is a former altar boy who now claims to speak directly with God. He rules his army absolutely.
“He controls who lives and who dies,” Lezhnev says. “I think he firmly believes — and judging by talking to his fighters — they believe at the beginning that he is a spiritual leader. But then when the powers don’t work, when his messages don’t come true, when he’s killing and abducting their brothers and sisters, they stop believing.”
Kony used a Christian cult in northern Uganda to launch the Lord’s Resistance Army against President Yoweri Museveni in the late 1980’s. Ambushes and abductions throughout the 1990s spread to Southern Sudan and Eastern Congo.
He agreed to peace talks in 2006 but didn’t show up when it came time to sign the final agreement two years later.
“He is not someone who has ever expressed any desire to negotiate or has shown any real capacity or interest in negotiating,” Lezhnev says. “It’s pretty much an all-or-nothing agenda. Or simply a survival agenda.”
Kony survived a coordinated assault by Uganda, Congo, Sudan, and the United States following the collapse of the 2006 peace talks, with LRA forces staging successive Christmas massacres in Congo.
“In Eastern Congo the security forces are really not up to the task,” Cooke says. “Central African Republic, they have never really been up to the task, but even less so now that the government in Bangui has collapsed and they are facing a calamity of their own.”
The Enough Project says satellite images show the LRA is also increasingly active in Sudan, setting up camps there as recently as February.
U.S. officials say Khartoum is likely aware of the LRA’s comings and goings in the Kafia Kingi enclave, but Washington has not yet seen sufficient evidence of “significant support.”
Lezhnev says the safe haven in Sudan is significant, especially now that there is new room to operate in CAR.
“Historically, the LRA has moved around to cross any international border in more-or-less failed-state zones, and that has enabled it, like a cancer, to survive,” Lezhnev says. “It’s very difficult to eliminate them in areas where governments frankly don’t care that much about controlling their territory and protecting civilians.”