Last week’s capture of Lords Resistance Army commander Thomas Kwoyelo bought Uganda more time to do what it has been unable to for the past three months: put an end to LRA leader Joseph Kony.
Kwoyelo was wounded in a clash with Uganda forces in the remote regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and became Uganda’s biggest prize in the on-going mission.
Although he is not one of the LRA top commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005, Kwoyelo is the highest-ranking rebel to be captured since operation Lightning Thunder began on December 14 with an air strike on Kony’s camps in DRC.
Kwoyelo’s capture comes just as the Ugandan government convinced the Congolese government to extend Uganda’s stay in DRC – permission that is critical if the mission is to avoid becoming a dismal failure.
Last month, Congolese president Joseph Kabila insisted that Uganda leave by the end of February. But after a meeting with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni last week in Kasese, Uganda, Kabila’s hard-line stance on a mission deadline softened.
Kabila is facing pressure to limit foreign troops on DRC soil because of concerns of a repeat of the Ugandan army occupation of much of eastern Congo from 1998 to 2003.
The International Court of Justice has ordered Uganda to pay compensation of an as yet unspecified amount – some suggest it could be of the order of billions of dollars.
The capture of Kwoyelo, though not highly significant in strategic terms, signals some success on the ground – success that has been distinctly lacking.
In addition to Kony, two other indicted commanders, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo, are still alive and at large in DRC. Until the Ugandan troops capture them, this war against the LRA could go on for many more months.
An extended conflict will be costly in terms of Congolese civilian lives and Ugandan military personnel and material.
So far, the rebels have killed an estimated 900 civilians since they were dislodged from their bases in the DRC’s Garamba National Park, and continue to rampage.
This past week, the LRA attacked the Sudanese town of Yei on March 4, killing six locals and abducted six others, showing how difficult it is to control the scattered units of the LRA, despite the involvement Ugandan, South Sudan and DRC forces.
Uganda reportedly has three battalions, about 3,600 troops, based in Sudan and rotates soldiers in and out of the region to carry on their mission.
The Ugandan army sees Kwoyelo’s capture as a major victory and hopes to gather details of LRA activities.
"He knows the tactics, he knows the methods and the sources of weapons," Captain Tabaro Kiconco, a Ugandan army officer, told the press last week. "He has been one of our most wanted commanders. Once he recovers, then we expect a lot from him."
Indeed, a lot will be expected from him, especially the whereabouts of Kony and the other commanders.
Last month, speculation was high that Odhiambo and Ongwen might surrender to Ugandan forces following a request to that effect which had been received in a phone call to the International Office of Migration, a Swiss-based aid group.
IMO and United Nations officials are reported to have spent days in the Sudanese bush waiting for the commanders to turn up. When they didn’t, it led to speculation that they might have been arrested by Kony.
Kwoyelo, meanwhile, has been airlifted to Uganda and is expected to recover from his wounds.
While Kwoyelo’s capture is considered a victory, there’s been much criticism of the joint military operation in DRC.
“Of course the operation has had some successes, but that’s not what we expected from our army going to Congo,” Cecilia Ogwal, a female member of parliament from northern Uganda, said. “The operation was rushed and not well planned. So in the end, it will cost Ugandans economically.”
The operation has diverted attention and money away from the reconstruction of the north, she said, which suffered greatly from 20 years of war with Kony.
“Most of the issues that had been raised and agreed upon during the peace talks have not been effected – even those that could be done without a peace deal in place, like rebuilding lives, especially of victims of the conflict,” she continued.
“We don’t know and we can’t anticipate how this war will end, so it is this uncertainty that you see when you talk to people of northern Uganda, even as the [Lightning Thunder] operation is going on.”
Ugandans can only hope that the extra time granted the joint military offensive against Kony will produce a positive result, and not simply end up being another drawn out and costly conflict.
Rosebell Kagumire is an IWPR-trained journalist now with the Independent, a publication of investigative journalism in Kampala.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.