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

Uganda to Step Up Battle Against Rebels

Kampala military chiefs threaten hot pursuit of rebels into neighbouring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By Fawzia Sheikh

The Khartoum government’s decision earlier this month to lift the “Red Line” restricting the Ugandan army’s pursuit of Lord’s Resistance Army deep into Sudanese territory may signal a turning point in Uganda's war with the rebel force.


The decision came days after the International Criminal Court, ICC, in the Dutch capital, The Hague, issued arrest warrants for five senior members of the LRA, including leader Joseph Kony and his right-hand man, Vincent Otti. The court last year began investigating whether the group's top brass should be tried on crimes against humanity.


The LRA, which objected to Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni's rise to power in 1986, has terrorised northerners in a violent spree of murder, child abduction and sexual slavery.


A sizeable LRA contingent took refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, in September before some eventually fled back to their home base of Sudan.


"Now things are changing," said Colonel Shaban Bantariza, spokesperson of the Uganda People's Defence Forces, UPDF, and the ministry of defence, insisting that Ugandan forces will now be able to pursue Kony “wherever he goes" in Sudan.


The Red Line was formerly the Juba-Torit Road - close to the southern town of Juba where the new southern Sudan regional government is based - 100 kilometres north of the Sudanese border with Uganda.


The Sudan government's new spirit of cooperation may be explained in a number of ways. Khartoum may have finally cracked down on the LRA - to which it once gave bases to operate against Uganda - because it believes the rebels have begun to target security and other installations in Sudan, said Mohamed Guyo, senior researcher and acting director of the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.


Guyo said the LRA may also have outlived its usefulness as a Sudanese partner in a proxy war in northern Uganda, given the recently concluded peace and shared government agreement between the mainly Arab and Islamic Sudanese government in Khartoum and the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, based among non-Muslim black Africans in the south of the country.


The long-anticipated actions of the ICC have also been supremely important. Since the United Nations is already pressuring Sudan to resolve hostilities in its troubled Darfur region, the Sudanese probably did not want to battle the ICC as well, said Guyo.


The ICC arrest warrants, issued in mid-October, may not lead to Kony's immediate capture, but they have put political pressure on countries or individuals that might back the LRA, said Paul Nantulya, at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, "This is one of the policy goals of the Ugandan government."


The warrants against Kony and his men are the first issued by the new human rights court since its creation in 2002. The chief ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, put particular emphasis on the LRA’s policy of kidnapping children, forcing them to become soldiers and using young girls as sex slaves. The ICC has no police of its own and must depend on cooperation from Sudan and the DRC, where Kony has his bases.


It is far too early to know if an ICC trial will ever be held, but in the meantime people in areas of northern Uganda under assault by the LRA live in terror of both Kony’s forces and of the regular Ugandan army. Villages have been razed and some 1.6 million people have become internal refugees, many living in poorly-serviced government camps. The lives of countless young people have been seriously disturbed.


Colonel Bantariza accused the Sudanese military of allowing Kony during the last two months to cross the Red Line and recover from encounters with the Uganda People's Defence Forces. Likewise, he said, Congolese troops and MONUC, UN forces based in DRC, have done nothing to prevent Otti roaming freely between the Congo and southern Sudan.


The Ugandan army said Otti is positioned somewhere along the Congo-Sudan border, while Kony is located west of the town of Torit and east of Juba in Sudan. Uganda believes two other indicted LRA commanders, Raska Lukwiya and Okot Odhiambo, are travelling with Kony and Otti respectively. The Ugandan army in September killed the fifth indicted rebel, Dominic Ongwen.


Despite Sudan's increasing assistance, the Ugandan army said its neighbour is unwilling to collaborate on military operations with Uganda. The Sudanese army will help only to coordinate information via two new military intelligence centres established in the towns of Yei and Juba.


Otti and a group of 60 LRA fighters and their families are known to have crossed into the lawless eastern part of the DRC in mid-September. There they asked the Congolese army for amnesty, explained Colonel James Mugira, Uganda’s acting intelligence chief. He said they ignored requests to disarm and wanted to establish another front in their rebellion against Museveni's government.


Under pressure from the DRC government and MONUC, some eventually returned to Sudan. But LRA rebels who had not departed DRC by mid-October killed and injured a number of UPDF soldiers when they crossed into Uganda and launched a rocket-propelled grenade against a Ugandan army vehicle.


"The LRA is seeking refuge in DRC because of the semblance of stability in southern Sudan brought about by the signing of the January 2005 Sudan peace agreement," said Guyo. The LRA had hoped to capitalise on past problems between the DRC and Ugandan governments, he continued.


Ugandan army commanders have been accused in reports by the UN and human rights organisations of looting natural resources in DRC.


Colonel Mugira said the LRA's incursion into DRC precipitated cross-border meetings between the Uganda and the DRC governments and MONUC. It also sparked a diplomatic row between the governments when various Ugandan officials announced the Ugandan army, which had deployed two battalions in the West Nile region bordering DRC, planned to pursue the LRA if the DRC government and MONUC failed to act.


The presence of the LRA in DRC again underscores how easily rebel groups can operate in that country without the approval of the government and with MONUC’s over-stretched forces unable to contain them, said Nantulya. "Until ways are worked out for the DRC to re-establish effective control of the area, eastern DRC will therefore always feature as a black spot in regional security," he said.


Fawzia Sheikh is a regular IWPR contributor.