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LRA Split a Tactical Ploy

Former commanders say the Ugandan rebel leader has moved to avoid capture, arrest and trial.
By Caroline Ayugi
A reported split in the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the relocation of some of its forces to the Central African Republic are tactical moves designed to protect its leaders from capture and punishment, say two former top rebel commanders.

Michael Acellam Odongo, who spent 19 years fighting with the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, said reports that the guerrilla force had divided in two did not mean the group was fractured or in disarray.

Instead, Odongo said LRA forces routinely divided into groups, but the different commanders remained highly coordinated. This tactic has ensured the survival of the rebel army, he said.

"Such kinds of groupings are formed … so that not all the fighters are killed," Odongo said.

Captain Ray Apire, who was one of the spiritual advisors to LRA leader Joseph Kony before leaving the rebels and winning amnesty, added, "All the LRA fighters remaining are very loyal to Kony.”

Apire said LRA members who were loyal to the group’s former deputy leader Vincent Otti, who was apparently killed by Kony last year for disloyalty, have now returned to Uganda. Some of them were killed by Kony, he claimed.

According to Apire, the LRA has been divided up into as many as ten different groups at various points in the past, each of them operating relatively independently, but all coordinated by Kony.

Recent intelligence reports from the Ugandan authorities also suggest that Kony has taken the majority of his forces out of their stronghold in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and led them into the southeastern corner of the Central African Republic, CAR.

Odongo suggested that Kony may have decided to move out because his location in DRC has been so widely publicised.

In CAR, Kony reportedly met rebels from Chad who have been trying to topple that country’s president Idriss Deby. According to The Daily Monitor newspaper in Kampala, the LRA leader may have met General Mahamat Nouri, who leads the rebel Union of Forces for Democracy and Development.

This has led to speculation that Kony, who once received extensive support from the Sudanese government for the LRA war against the Ugandan government, may now be planning to join combatants involved in the Chad or Darfur conflicts. President Deby says his insurgent enemies are supported by Khartoum, which has in the past made counter-allegations that he has backed rebels in Darfur.

More immediately, though, there are real fears that the LRA’s redeployment signals the imminent collapse of a peace deal the rebels reached with the Ugandan government last month after 21 years of civil war.

The agreement is supposed to be signed by March 28, after nearly two years of negotiations.

Kony has said he will not sign the document, which calls for a permanent ceasefire and the disarmament of LRA combatants, unless the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague withdraws the war crimes indictments it has filed against him and his top commanders.

Negotiators and lawyers for the LRA met last week with ICC officials in The Hague, who told them that the indictments will remain in effect, despite the political agreement reached with Kampala.

Although LRA representatives have insisted that Kony plans to sign the agreement, the former commanders who spoke to IWPR expressed doubt.

Odongo argued that if the LRA was serious about the peace deal, its forces should by now have gathered at the designated assembly point in southern Sudan so that demobilisation and disarmament can begin.

"The LRA should have all assembled in the designated place at Ri-Kwangba and obeyed the cessation of hostilities agreement," he said.

Both Odongo and Apire suspect that the LRA's demand that the ICC lift the arrest warrants is merely a delaying tactic.

Odongo said that even if the ICC warrants were lifted before Kony signed an agreement, he would come up with yet another demand so as to hold up the talks.

Apire said, "The recent series of signings that were done within the past few weeks mean nothing when the LRA is still being accused of allegedly recruiting, abducting and killing many people.”

Although the LRA has been cleared of recent attacks against villages in South Sudan, it is now suspected of attacking and looting the remote CAR town of Obo.

According to CAR deputy defence minister Jean-Francis Bozize - the son of President Francois Bozize - about 200 fighters attacked the town on March 5 and 6, kidnapping about 100 people whom they forced to carry plundered goods back to DRC. Most of the people abducted were later freed.

Odongo also suggested another factor could be at work - Kony has a history of acting irrationally. As Odongo put it, the LRA leader is "someone he can't explain, even to himself", and has said, "I don't want to be captured like chicken and killed. Other fighters can be defeated like that, but I will flee."

However, Christopher Omara, the chairman of Gulu district’s youth council in northern Uganda, argued that Kony was serious about demanding the withdrawal of ICC warrants. Instead, he wants to face the traditional system of justice and reconciliation known as “mato oput”, because he is well aware of its loopholes and failings.

"Mato oput was used to solve minor conflicts between families and clans, but the LRA war involved gross atrocities that were never committed before in Uganda,” said Omara. "This means other crimes will go unpunished, or the punishment becomes too lenient [so] that justice to the victims would be left hanging."

Although opinions vary on what should happen to the LRA leadership, many people in northern Uganda still hope rank-and-file members will eventually come home and return to civilian life. As Uma Kerubino, the Democratic Party branch chairwoman in Gulu, put it, "We want the LRA fighters to be integrated into the community and reconciled with the community."

Caroline Ayugi is an IWPR correspondent in northern Uganda.

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