In 2012 a 30 minute documentary about a rebel leader in Uganda set the internet alight. KONY 2012 brought to the public view the gruesome activities of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his kidnapping of young children. While the campaign itself was short lived, the Bush and later Obama administrations had already pledged support to the Ugandan military to confront the LRA as early as 2008 and had steadily increased its funding, including deploying military advisors in 2011. The efforts on the part of the US and Uganda have led to some success with the disarmament of fighters and the capture of one of the LRA’s leaders, but four years and millions of dollars after the video, Uganda has given up on defeating the LRA, with potentially disastrous consequences for the civilians left behind.
Uganda announced on June 10th that it will withdraw its forces stationed in the Central African Republic to hunt the LRA. The withdrawal of their approximately 2,000 military personnel will take place by the end of the year. Ugandan forces chased the rebel group from Uganda and into parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the CAR, where any semblance of state control from either the Congolese or Central Africans is virtually nonexistent.
The financial and technical support provided to Uganda by the United States and others was significant, and incentivized the Ugandan military to pursue Kony far outside Ugandan borders, but recent unrest due to the reelection of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled since 1986, as well as disputes over how the funding is allocated has raised US concerns about continuing to aid Uganda in this endeavor. The repression of oppositions groups during the election and a recent coup attempt further prevents the US from entirely trusting Museveni with AFRICOM’s resources.
Both Ugandan and US sources have justified the expenditure and now the withdrawal by stating that the campaign has dispersed the group and that it is now a shadow of its former self, yet this stance fails to take into account both the strategy employed by the LRA and its recent surge in attacks and kidnappings across the DRC and CAR.
The LRA’s dispersion is not demonstrative of defeats and disorganization, but strategic dynamism that stands to seriously hamper further attempts to combat them. The LRA in its current form would be extremely challenging to effectively defeat, and are extremely spread out. LRA fighters travel in small groups and favor small arms, to such an extent that they abandoned heavy weapons provided to them by the Sudanese government because they were too large to maintain and transport on foot. The LRA prefers ambushing undertrained soldiers and raiding undefended villages, not confronting the relatively well trained and equipped Ugandan forces.
Their extreme mobility and diffusion throughout one of the densest jungles on earth makes uprooting them a difficult proposition, and one which the United States is unsure how to approach. A Congressional Research Service report from September 2015 observes that the lack of an effective endgame for some of the least developed regions on earth and few development goals beyond defeating the LRA calls into question the purpose of the operation. The occupying Ugandans represent the closest thing to protection from crime and rebel groups the southeast CAR and northeast DRC has seen in decades, and now they’re leaving.
The regions of the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo that the LRA, and by extension the Ugandan military, operate in are often completely cut off from the distant central governments. The Central African Republic is particularly remote, to the point that Bloomberg incorrectly identified the CAR as a neighbor of Uganda, even though their borders are 423km away from each other at the closest point. The CAR is rife with internal conflict: Christian and Muslim militias battling, roving groups of bandits, and the occasional entrance by the Janjaweed militia from neighboring Sudan to poach stand between the newly elected central government and Kony. Even MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping force deployed to the CAR after a 2013 coup and spread across the country, doesn’t venture regularly to the southeastern part of the country, with “sector east” command located far from the area in which the Ugandans and LRA operate. The DRC isn’t faring much better as it struggles against a multitude of insurgencies in its northern territories and political strife centering on the reelection of Joseph Kabila as President. As such the LRA is often able to operate with impunity in these regions, with only the Ugandans as the only principal deterrent to the group’s operations.
Despite the Ugandan success in driving the LRA from its territory, the group remains extremely dangerous to small, isolated communities. According to LRA crisis tracker there have been 91 attacks and over 300 abductions in 2016 alone, and that only accounts for incidents which were reported. The group is very clearly still active and far from defeated, with Kony and much of the leadership are still at large.
Elements of the international community recognize the importance of the Ugandan mission. When Uganda announced their planned withdrawal the African Union immediately sent a plea to the government to reconsider. The Ugandan government has replied that it will consider the request, but spokesman Paddy Ankunda observed that Uganda has been discouraged by a lack of international support for the operation.
The Ugandan withdrawal from the CAR and DRC leaves an already dangerous region even more vulnerable to the LRA and others. Their failure to defeat the group, despite claims to the contrary, leaves the possibility open for a continued LRA resurgence, and perhaps a return by the group to Uganda. While the approach taken by the international community to combat the threat may not be the best one, a full retreat will only continue the cycle of violence and destabilization caused by the LRA.