Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

LRA Prepares for War, not Peace

Officials fear the Ugandan rebel army is regrouping despite its stated commitment to peace talks.
By IWPR ICC
The feared Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, is building up its military capacity at a time when it is supposed to be preparing to disarm under a peace agreement, IWPR can reveal.



IWPR has investigated reports that the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, has embarked on a wave of abductions of civilians – many of them children – from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, CAR. This would give the paramilitary force a different kind of focus from its past as a specifically north Ugandan group fighting the government in Kampala.



Interviews with a range of sources have confirmed that hundreds of abductions have taken place in these three countries, and that the purpose is to provide new conscripts for the group.



The captured civilians are being forced to undergo military training at the LRA’s base in the Garamba National Park in northeastern DRC, close to the Sudanese border and not far from the CAR. In February and March, the rebels appeared in southeastern CAR, in what at the time was thought to be a strategic permanent retreat from DRC, but ended up as a prolonged raid which yielded loot and captives.



“Our intelligence suggests up to 300 children have been abducted from CAR and the Western Equatorial Province of South Sudan by LRA rebels,” said Chris Magezi, the spokesman for the Ugandan military in his country’s negotiating team at peace talks which have been taking place in the South Sudanese capital Juba since summer 2006.



”It is a big possibility they are trying to rebuild their force,” said Magezi, noting that abducted persons were reported to be undergoing intensive military training.



In addition to the 300 abductions in Sudan and CAR referred to by Magezi, a UNICEF report covering the period to the end of March cited a figure of over 200 abductions in DRC. It said the source for this number was the United Nations mission in DRC, known as MONUC.



The abductions have taken place just as the peace process was nearing its conclusion after 20 years of conflict in northern Uganda, during which the LRA has terrorised civilians, mostly from the Acholi ethnic group, abducting minors to fight and serve as sex slaves and porters.



The negotiations, which began in July 2006, were looking promising until LRA leader Joseph Kony failed to turn up for the signing of a final peace deal in the South Sudanese border town of Ri-Kwangba on April 10.



LRA GALVANISING ITS FORCES



Many analysts say that while the LRA has ostensibly remained committed to the peace process, it has in fact been actively preparing for war. They fear that by absorbing hundreds of new conscripts from three different countries, who speak local languages and are familiar with the terrain, the group could reconstitute itself as a stronger regional force, rather than a specifically Ugandan group.



Analysts say the reports of recent LRA abductions suggest Kony is attempting to replace troops lost through surrenders, captures and defections when the rebel group fled from their base earlier this year.



Riek Machar, the vice-president of South Sudan who has played a key role as mediator in the negotiations between the rebels and the Ugandan government, last week confirmed that the LRA had kidnapped 55 people in areas close to DRC.



“In the last three months, about 55 youth – 30 boys and 25 girls – are missing from this particular [South Sudanese] state of West Equatoria from Tumbura, Ezo and Yambio,” Machar told the Daily Monitor Newspaper.



In a major foray, the rebels left the Garamba park at the beginning of February, and crossed into CAR, before entering Sudan a few weeks later, and finally returning to their base in DRC.



In DRC, a political affairs officer with MONUC said he thought the LRA was forcibly recruiting combatants.



“We think around 200 people have been abducted from CAR in the last few months. This gives us reason to believe the LRA are trying to rebuild their fighting force," he said.



The officer told IWPR that in April, several men from DRC and CAR managed to escape the LRA base in Garamba, and walk for seven days to the relative safety of the town of Dungu in northeastern DRC.



"We have had three escapees who have come forward and been debriefed by us – one from CAR, and two from Congo. They confirmed that they were being [given] military training and that it was in Acholi…and [the Congolese language of] Lingala,” he said.



Joseph Ngere, acting governor of Sudan’s Western Equatoria Province, confirmed that at least 80 people were being held captive by the LRA, mostly taken from the CAR border towns of Ezo and Sarsubo. However, he thought they had been taken by the LRA to help them carry looted goods, and also to create a smokescreen to conceal the rebels’ identity.



“There is often information that it is not the LRA operating in Western Equatoria, but other groups. When [the LRA carry out] operations, they often send these abductees to go ahead and this way they try to conceal their operations by having the local population around them. People from CAR can help them collect intelligence and information and bring it back to them,” he said.



“They want to conceal the fact that this is the LRA and say it is locals.”



WARDING OFF ATTACK OR ARREST



Godfrey Byaruhanga, CAR researcher for the human rights group at Amnesty International, said the LRA was indeed rebuilding, probably anticipating future conflict with Ugandan forces.



He said the ceasefire agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government had expired and had not been renewed, so the rebels were preparing for a possible attack by the Ugandan army. The possibility of such an operation, which would involve an incursion into DRC territory, has been hinted at by Kampala on more than one occasion.



“They are rebuilding their force because some of their fighters may have left the main base, or opted to return to Uganda. So the LRA needs to rebuild its force to counter any attack that could come from the government of Uganda. But also with a bigger force,” said Byaruhanga.



The Amnesty researcher also suggested that in boosting the ranks of the LRA, Kony could be trying to evade arrest by the International Criminal Court, ICC.



In October 2005, the ICC unsealed arrest warrants against Kony and four of his lieutenants, charging them with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two are now dead, with some confusion over reports that a third commander was killed in recent internecine fighting.



“It would be more difficult to arrest the leaders of the LRA if they had a bigger force,” said Byaruhanga. “They could resist any attempt by the Ugandan government, or international community, to arrest the leaders who are accused of war crimes and are supposed to respond to the accusations in The Hague.”



A STRONGER REGIONAL FORCE



Analysts say that if the LRA continues to forcibly recruit civilians from across the region, it could re-emerge as an aggressive mercenary force to destabilise a much larger area.



Such a group could also benefit from the ongoing plunder of the region's mineral wealth, or the lucrative gun trade that has equipped the myriad militias that operate in the region.



Officials in Uganda say that in recent months, LRA activity has become a problem for South Sudan, DRC, and CAR, as well as Africa’s Great Lakes Region.



“Kony is no longer a problem of Uganda, but of the Great Lakes region,” said Uganda's state minister for international affairs, Oryem Okello, who is deputy chief of the government delegation at the Juba talks.



Intelligence sources in Kampala told IWPR that Kony may have made contact with international gun-runners in an attempt to rearm.



“Kony has made contact with mercenaries including French and South African mercenaries. He might make a windfall [profit] in this lucrative business,” said a source.



Some observers claim Kony is being financed by the central government in Sudan to buy weapons in order to cultivate the LRA as a potential reserve force against the military forces of South Sudan, in the event that hostilities resume.



The South Sudanese fought a protracted war against Khartoum which ended in a 2005 deal that gave them a measure of autonomy and some posts in central government, but there are real fears of a resumption in hostilities because of a national census which could, in the long run, help determine whether the south should split from the north completely.



In earlier years, the Sudanese government backed Kony’s insurgency against the Ugandan administration of President Yoweri Museveni. In its turn, Khartoum accused Museveni of sympathising with the South Sudanese rebels before the country’s long-running civil war concluded.



Ngere, the Western Equatoria governor, said he suspected the LRA was receiving funding from Khartoum, funneled via Chadian rebel groups.



”Without support from Khartoum, they would not be so active.... In terms of munitions and intelligence, I am sure they are being supported by Khartoum,” he said.



However, Byaruhanga thought this unlikely.



“In the past, there has been a tacit admission by Khartoum that it was sponsoring the LRA, but I am not aware that [it] is still sponsoring the LRA as it was in the past,” he said.



“I am not convinced that any longer the LRA is the kind of force it was five years ago. They can cause insecurity for the SPLA in the south, but they keep shifting from place to place and are no longer a viable force to destabilise Southern Sudan.”



WITNESS REPORTS CONFIRM ABDUCTIONS



The testimonies of people who were seized by the LRA and later managed to escape have added to suspicions that the rebel group is expanding its ranks from the wider region.



IWPR has seen a report compiled by DRC authorities in Dungu from testimony given by three people who escaped from Garamba, where the LRA has been based since 2005.



The men, two of whom were from DRC and one from Obo in CAR, reported that the LRA now had 1,200 members, divided between two main bases in Garamba. They suggested that about 600 of these had been abducted, but it was not clear what proportion were captured in recent months.



They said they were taken to the Garamba park, along with other people from DRC, Sudan and CAR, to undergo military training which began just before they escaped.



The training was conducted in the Zande language mixed with some broken Lingala, said one of the men. Zande is spoken by people in DRC, CAR and South Sudan; and Lingala in DRC.



The escapees also said that as the LRA travelled back from the CAR town of Obo to Bitima in DRC, the group kidnapped virtually everyone they encountered, abusing and torturing those deemed to be “weak or lazy”.



The accounts given by the men gave an insight into life in the LRA.



“The LRA move in big groups, but split into smaller groups during breaks for rest and feeding,” said the report.



“They feed on good meals of rice, sweet potatoes, beef, powdered milk and a lot of tea,” it continued, noting that the meat came from cattle the LRA had rustled, and that the rebels also cultivated their own crops, including maize, sweet potatoes and beans.



The abducted persons confirmed earlier reports that the LRA was well equipped and used solar energy to power electronics.



"In the camps, they have entertainment and video shows at night and were powered by solar panels with batteries that were used for charging their…satellite phones,” said the report.



BOLSTERED LRA WOULD HAVE SERIOUS IMPLICATIONS



Officials are concerned that increased LRA activity in DRC and CAR could make the security situation there worse. Both countries which have seen extensive brutality against civilians by lawless groups, many of which the ICC is investigating.



Nganatouwa Goungaye Wanfiyo, president of the Central African Human Rights League, told IWPR that the abductions had “increased the climate of insecurity that prevails in CAR”.



Magezi said abductions were also having a devastating impact in South Sudan.



“In Southern Sudan, they are trying to resettle refugees who have been in Uganda, and are trying to organise themselves in preparation for their own referendum and census. Definitely, they are disrupting peace initiatives in each region,” he said.



Byaruhanga said increased LRA activity was destabilising the region and increasing the risk of the civilian population being subject to violence.



“These countries also harbour indigenous rebel groups which have been perpetrating attacks against the civilian population,” he pointed out.



Jorge Valles, chief of child protection for UNICEF in the CAR capital Bangui, said people in the southeast of the country had already suffered grave atrocities at the hands of the LRA and continued to be at risk.



"We verified around 160 abductees, including 65 children – 40 boys and 15 girls – from which 43 were under the age of 15,” he said. “Not a single one has been released.”



"Abductions, beatings, ill treatment and sexual violence have happened. Women and children [have been] raped and suffered different forms of sexual violence.”



CALLS FOR REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL ACTION



Byaruhanga said it was important for the governments of all countries affected to take action against the LRA, with the backing of the international community.



“Otherwise, this instability and insecurity will continue for a long time to come,” he said.



“Regional governments need to coordinate their activities to secure the release of the abductees – who include older people who were kidnapped from Uganda as children – but also more importantly to execute the ICC arrest warrants and bring the culprits to justice.”



Byaruhanga noted that it was tricky to arrest Kony as long as he kept shifting from one place to another.



“If there was concerted and committed action by the regional countries – with the support of the international community – it would be a lot easier to get hold of the people and make them release the hostages, and arrest the war crimes suspects,” he said.



“Renewed LRA activity does increase the risk for the civilian population, and requires greater protection from the regional governments and the international community.”



The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch has expressed concern at reports that the LRA is active across the region.

“Reports of LRA movement and involvement in human rights abuses in Central African Republic are alarming and reinforce concerns as to the LRA's good faith,” said a statement from Human Rights Watch.



“This should be a clear wake-up call to the UN Security Council and secretariat against any request which may soon be made to defer the ICC's investigation and prosecution in northern Uganda.”



In response to news of the abductions, the ICC has reiterated its demand for action on the outstanding arrest warrants against Kony, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo.



"The prosecutor is very concerned about the reports of new mass abductions allegedly committed by the LRA in Southern Sudan, DRC and the Central African Republic as well as reports that these new abductees are being subjected to military training,” said an ICC spokesperson.



“These are worrying developments and provide additional urgency to executing the warrants of arrest.”



PEACE PROCESS IN TATTERS



With continuing reports of LRA abductions, looting and killing in the region, hopes that the Ugandan authorities and the rebels will sign the peace deal are fading fast. Given the latest developments, it seems less and less likely that Kony has any intention of sending his troops over the Sudanese border to Ri-Kwangba, the designated assembly point where LRA members are supposed to gather ahead of the disarmament and demobilisation process set out in the agreement.



South Sudanese vice-president Machar last week questioned the LRA’s commitment to peace, asking, “I wonder why the [LRA] continue to abduct children from Congo, CAR and Sudan, which is mediating, and continue to say they are committed to peace.”



Human rights groups have criticised the Ugandan government for negotiating a deal with rebels which provides for national trials as an alternative to extradition to the ICC. They say such trials could be tantamount to granting immunity for the brutal crimes committed against civilians over the years.



Some have also criticised the international community for giving the LRA food aid while it engages in talks, in order to prevent it from plundering local villages.



Magezi said that in spite of its participation in the peace process, the rebel group had committed a trail of human rights abuses across the region.



“The LRA has continued with its activities, namely carrying out rapes on civilians, abductions and killings, especially in DRC, the Western Equatorial Province of Southern Sudan, and now most especially in CAR,” he said.



Radio Okapi, a UN-sponsored radio station in DRC, said the rebels were blamed for a variety of brutal and unexplained killings in February; and in March it reported that the LRA had abducted several people, included a teacher and three girls, from Doruma, about 200 km west of the LRA camps in Garamba.



LRA COMMITMENT TO TALKS SEEN AS CYNICAL PLOY



Magezi suggested that the group was only going along with negotiations to buy more time.



“The LRA is enjoying the benefit of the doubt by continuing the peace process, but it is clear that the LRA is not committed to the peace process. I am sure regional powers will come together and discuss and take appropriate action,” he said.



Byaruhanga agreed the LRA had shown few signs of abandoning its old ways and embracing peace.



“The LRA has made it a habit and policy of abductions as a means of building up its forces over the past 20 years, and it has continued to do so despite what is supposed to be the ongoing peace process between the LRA and the Ugandan government,” he said.



“The problem is that he [Kony] and his fighters have been living a life of crime – committing war crimes against ordinary people – and they are not going to change their behaviour now. He is not interested in ending the life he has led over the last 20 years.”



According to Byaruhanga, the peace talks appear to have failed.



“Kony has promised on several occasions that he would sign peace agreements but he has failed to show up, and has imposed new conditions for signing. He is not interesting in signing peace agreements,” he said.



He suggested that Kony feared being turned over to the ICC, “It appears he is afraid of what might happen, like being taken to The Hague to respond to what crimes he or his fighters have committed over the years.”



The peace talks have also been undermined by reports that Kony had killed his second-in-command, Odhiambo, along with eight others. Odhiambo – who is one of three remaining men on the ICC’s wanted list – became LRA deputy commander after Vincent Otti – also indicted by the Hague court — was reportedly executed by Kony because of perceived disloyalty.



Reports of Odhiambo's death are now being contradicted.



“He is alive and he was recently seen with Kony,” said a Ugandan intelligence source. He added that the rumour of his death had been started by the LRA peace delegation team and was untrue.



Walter Ochora, a high-ranking Ugandan government official in the northern town of Gulu, believes that the political chaos surrounding the negotiations has been deliberated created by Kony as a delaying tactic to make the peace talks go on indefinitely.



Now the rainy season has begun, Ochora added, the new vegetation will assist the LRA tactically by providing dense cover.



''Like now, the LRA wants to buy time so that the bush grows for their hiding, and [then they will] start committing atrocities,'' Ochora told IWPR.



NORTHERN UGANDANS FEAR LRA RESURGENCE



Meanwhile civilians in the LRA’s traditional battleground of northern Uganda are left scared and confused about what might come next.



Cyprian Aliabayo, an NGO coordinator in Arua, told IWPR that the recent abductions make people nervous.



"People are right to be nervous because Kony has a history of attacking,” he said.



"People don't know what is going to happen next. News of abductions, plus the failure to sign the peace deal, gives us the impression that something is not right, and that Kony is planning to reorganise or attack. The evidence is there."



Katy Glassborow is a reporter for IWPR in The Hague. Peter Eichstaedt is IWPR’s Africa Editor, Emma Mutaizibwa is an IWPR contributor in Uganda. Additional interviews were conducted by Marie Delbot, a translator working with IWPR, and Caroline Ayugi, an IWPR-trained journalist in northern Uganda.





More IWPR's Global Voices