How to make sure conflict does not recur in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
“With two hundred men, we could get rid of most of the LRA in DRC,” a foreign security official told me in August when I was touring the Uele district, in the far north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Lord’s Resistance Army has been abusing the population there since at least 2008. But in contrast to the foreign official’s confidence, the striking fact was that the fight against what remains of the LRA is at a standstill. It needs fresh impetus, because the LRA has demonstrated repeatedly its capacity to go underground then surge again more violent than before.
After 2008 the LRA fragmented into small groups scattered in the DRC, the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. Today, the LRA in the DRC is reduced to a rump of fighters located in the Garamba National Park. It survives in the bush by cultivating fields, poaching and smuggling ivory. According to local civil society and state security services, the weakening of the LRA means that, in this region, its attacks have drastically decreased and are only motivated by the search for food and basic items. In the Uele, many fighters confess to being hungry and even the core fighters, mainly from Uganda, have little desire to fight. According to hostages released by the LRA, some fighters have considered surrendering, but only to Ugandan civilian authorities.
But if the weariness of the LRA in Congo is obvious, it is not due to the military prowess of the Congolese army or the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), nor by defections of Ugandan LRA fighters. UN and NGO statistics are telling: only one Ugandan fighter defected from the LRA in DRC in 2012-2013, and none have been captured in this period. This situation is in stark contrast to the developments in the CAR, where 31 Ugandan fighters have defected over the past year and a half.
Why is the anti-LRA effort in north-eastern DRC so weak? Joint patrols by MONUSCO and Congolese soldiers do help to secure roads, but the regional task force created in 2011 and coordinated by the African Union (AU) only exists on paper. The 500 Congolese soldiers tasked to fight the LRA in the Uele are being trained in the town of Dungu but lack transportation and logistical support for their deployment.
A campaign to encourage defections, led by local and international NGOs and MONUSCO, has had little result. Leaflets are air-dropped over LRA areas, defection messages are broadcast on FM radio, and, since 31 July, U.S. soldiers, as part of a multi-year mission supporting the Ugandan army, are allowed to fly over LRA areas to broadcast defection messages through loudspeakers. But these measures are evidently not enough to neutralise or reduce a residual group of fewer than 250 combatants.
Why? First, the military pressure on the LRA in DRC is close to zero: Congolese and MONUSCO forces secure the main roads but do not exert any tactical pressure on the LRA. Second, the DRC government has lacked the will to secure its territory, while in CAR the state has now collapsed following the March 2013 coup. The defection campaign is also thwarted by fears of revenge (by villagers or Congolese soldiers) and the leap into the unknown that a return to Uganda would mean for LRA fighters. As the LRA has retreated deeper into the bush of far north-eastern DRC in the past few years, anti-LRA efforts have lost steam and Western donors, notably the U.S. and the European Union, have not made them a priority.
What can be done? In the Uele, remaining LRA fighters could be neutralised by:
- setting up a small MONUSCO base close to the Garamba National Park in order to be able to conduct operations in the park;
- exerting effective military pressure. Intelligence provided by U.S. military personnel based in Dungu should allow Congolese and MONUSCO forces to locate and dismantle the LRA bases, especially in the Garamba National Park; and
- publicising widely the safe options for LRA deserters and reassuring them about their fate when they return to Uganda. In Uganda, amnesty is provided to all LRA rebels who surrender except for the three indicted by the International Criminal Court (Joseph Kony, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo). The defection messages must make clear that they should surrender to MONUSCO forces and will be treated according to humanitarian law. If necessary, Ugandan civilian leaders should be brought to the area in order to facilitate contacts and talks with the LRA fighters.
In order to be effective, the fight against the LRA must include military pressure on remaining combatants, improved coordination and increased defection campaigns, and clearer explanations of how Congolese and Ugandan deserters can benefit from an amnesty and reintegration program. Because the Congolese government and MONUSCO are focusing on the fight against the M23 rebellion in North Kivu, they are satisfied with the present LRA containment strategy. But in the near future, the LRA elements operating in north-eastern DRC could potentially regroup, perhaps with additional support coming from LRA rebels located in the rudderless Central African Republic, and launch new attacks.
In 2011, the International Crisis Group report titled The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?underlined that the main problem of the AU-led regional task force was the lack of commitment from contributing countries. Two years later, this lack of commitment remains a reality and constitutes the core reason behind the LRA’s survival in the Uele.