Congo Withdrawal Sparks Panic

Failure to defeat LRA leaves many former victims fearful of rebel backlash.

Congo Withdrawal Sparks Panic

Failure to defeat LRA leaves many former victims fearful of rebel backlash.

The Ugandan army’s sudden withdrawal from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, after three months of a futile effort to capture rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, has caused panic across northern Uganda.

Many in northern Uganda who have been enjoying more than two years of peace after two decades of war, fear that the Ugandan military’s failure to capture Kony has opened the door for his army’s return.

“The news alone is throwing the region into panic,” said Peter Odok Ochieng, the chairman of Pader district, which for two decades was controlled by rebels. The Ugandan retreat is taking place too quickly, he said.

“People had hoped Kony was going to be forced to sign a peace agreement by the military,” Ochieng told IWPR.

“As all attempts have failed, Kony will definitely find his way to Uganda. This will mean that all the efforts [to rebuild] we have been trying for the last two years will be fruitless,” he said.

Ochieng said local representatives have urged the government to keep up the pressure on Kony.

“As leaders from northern Uganda, we advised government not to give up. If guns have failed, they can return to talks. However, I don’t think Kony will accept this time around after this attack on his base.”

Military officials announced March 15 the withdrawal of 4,000 troops who have been chasing Ugandan rebels in northeastern DRC, ending an offensive that began with a December 14 air strike on Kony’s camps in the remote Garamba National Park.

Kony and his top commanders remain at large despite having been indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague in mid-2005 for numerous counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity during an insurgency lasting 20 years.

In 2006, after abandoning northern Uganda for northeastern DRC, the rebel army began peace talks with the Ugandan government which ended in late November when Kony refused to sign the agreement for the third time in 2008.

After the mid-December attack scattered the LRA, the Ugandan army rescued about 350 abductees and killed about 165 rebels, according to army statements.

“We are withdrawing our forces from Congo because our mandate expired,” said military spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye. “We failed to achieve our objective number one, to force Joseph Kony to sign a final peace agreement.

“The Congolese forces will continue to hunt for LRA rebels. We shall continue to share with Congo forces intelligence information on LRA and provide them with logistics support.”

A minister of state and leader of the Ugandan peace talks, Henry Okello Oryem, said, “Uganda has achieved 90 per cent of its objectives in DR Congo. There is no harm for us to withdraw from Congo now.

“In the three months, we have managed to destabilise LRA. We have reduced the LRA capacity. They can’t now fight, abduct and loot.”

Few in northern Uganda agree, however.

“How can they talk that they achieved 90 per cent of their objective?” asked Yusuf Adek, a senior advisor to the LRA and a former member of the rebels’ peace negotiating team.

“How many commanders have they captured or lost their lives?” Adek asked. “Ninety per cent would mean it that it will be Kony only surviving by now.”

Adek said he and others want the government to resume peace talks.

“As negotiators, we don’t support war, as it’s always destructive,” he said. “We call upon the government to return back to the table.”

In Kitgum, another area hard hit by the LRA war, member of parliament Beatrice Anywar Atim said that a military solution to the LRA problem has eluded Uganda for decades, and that she was not surprised it had failed once again to stop Kony.

“As victims and leaders from Acholi sub-region, we have always said the military can’t produce the results we desire,” Atim said.

“This operation has humiliated Uganda army and government. It has shown that [the government] are war mongers. The major target was to kill Kony or capture him. However, they have return without us seeing Kony’s head ….”

Nicolas Opio Bunga, chairman for the regional government in Apac, northern Uganda, said the withdrawal has left people extremely worried.

“The intention of the operation was to bring Kony on his knees, which they have failed,” Bunga said. “Kony is still at large and has a capacity to recruit through abductions, and again return to northern Uganda.

“I am worried about people as Kony has not been captured. Their minds can’t rest now. They know the rebels can re-enter into the region any time.”

Betty Akello, a resident of Pader asked, “Is our security now guaranteed? Our future is at stake. Why did they withdraw without capturing or killing Kony?

“We fear LRA rebels are going to regroup and return to cause havoc and mayhem in northern Uganda,” said Martin Ojera Mapenduzi, a district official in Gulu.

He also doubted the ability of the Congolese army to control Kony.

Kulayigye assured northern Ugandans they would be safe, however.

“The people’s security is guaranteed,” Kulayigye said. “We are going to strengthen our border security to ensure LRA rebels don’t re-enter northern Uganda to cause any havoc and suffering.”

Few feel secure, however.

“Kony is going to revenge on our people,” said Joseph Okello of Amuru. “The army started this operation and now halted it without any success. Kony and his troops are going to come back with anger and revenge on the northern people.”

Samuel Richard Egadu is an IWPR-trained journalist.
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