Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ugandans Edgy Over US Move Against LRA
Civilians displaced by recent LRA attacks in southern Sudan, which neighbours Uganda. (Photo: UN Photo/Tim McKulka)
As Washington prepares to unveil a strategy aimed at neutralising the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, many in northern Uganda are mindful of how past attempts to deal a knock-out blow to the rebel movement have succeeded only in increasing instability in the region.
While welcoming greater support in apprehending Joseph Kony,the leader of the LRA, and his henchmen, they are concerned about the consequences of a military campaign against the rebels who've terrorised civilians across eastern and central Africa over the past three decades.
Although Washington’s plans have yet to be announced, one of the principal fears in northern Uganda is that, rather than defeat the LRA, the United States might simply succeed in pushing them further afield, to commit atrocities elsewhere, or even prompting their return to Uganda.
Previous international initiatives have not been immediately successful. Five years after the International Criminal Court, ICC, issued arrest warrants for senior LRA commanders, none have been caught and two have died while on the run.
And while the rebel movement has now been forced out of northern Uganda, humanitarian groups report that it continues to rape, maim and kill in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, Central African Republic, CAR, and south-west Sudan.
In May, the US president Barack Obama signed a bill requiring policymakers to come up with a strategy for dealing with the LRA by the end of November.
Two weeks later, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an influential group that has been at the forefront of a peaceful resolution of the conflict in northern Uganda, wrote an open letter to the US president, urging caution.
“Military action has time and time again not only failed to end the conflict but caused it to spread into regions once immune to LRA violence resulting in further suffering of civilians,” the letter read.
It continued by urging Obama to explore “non-violent actions” that would help to resolve the violence afflicting countries in the region.
The Acholi religious leaders claim that military efforts by the Ugandan government have in the past failed to comprehensively defeat the LRA.
In fact, in many instances, they have led to retaliatory attacks by the LRA on civilian populations in not only Uganda but now also Sudan, the DRC and CAR.
In 2001, the Ugandan army launched an operation to flush the LRA out of its hideouts in southern Sudan. The rebels retaliated by sneaking back into northern Uganda and carrying out numerous atrocities.
In December 2008, the Ugandan army, along with its regional allies, struck LRA hideouts in Garamba in eastern Congo. Again, the LRA retaliated by killing civilians, this time in the DRC and CAR.
“If [the US] wants to fight Kony then this is bad because it will spoil our peace,’ said Margaret Ajok, 28, a resident of Rackoko village in Pader district, a view shared by many local people.
Elizabeth Acan, a 53-year-old widow from Paicho in Gulu, once at the epicentre of the conflict, said, “Although I want Kony tried by the ICC for the killings that he is [responsible for], I don’t support anything that proposes war to solve a problem because war spoils our future and the future of our children.”
Some, however, say the region has little to fear from an American intervention.
“The [US initiative] will help consolidate the existing peace and reconstruction efforts taking place in northern Uganda,” said Milton Odongo, deputy resident district commissioner of Gulu. “It will also help the government of Uganda to hunt for the LRA terrorists.”
Odongo does not think that there is any danger that military action against the LRA will bring a resumption of hostilities. “The peace in northern Uganda is irreversible,” he said.
At Unyama Trading Centre, not far from Gulu, Nelson Labeja, 65, summed up the anger many people feel towards the LRA.
“If possible, I want Kony shot dead because you cannot arrest an armed man like him,” he said.
THE SHAPE OF US STRATEGY
At the moment, it remains unclear what the US strategy for apprehending LRA commanders will look like. The bill suggests that it will have two components – one to respond to humanitarian needs and the other to provide military, economic and intelligence support for disarming the LRA.
Ledio Cakaj, a field researcher in Uganda for the Enough Project, which campaigns against human rights abuses, thinks that the greatest contribution the US will be able to make will be in terms of better equipment and intelligence.
“In a perfect world, if we really wanted to see the end of the LRA immediately, then we should send specially-trained elite forces, be they American, British or any other western force to finish the job,” said Cakaj. “Practically speaking, given how the US army is stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, US soldiers on the ground are not going to be an option.”
There have been numerous attempts to apprehend LRA commanders, but, according to Cakaj, these have been hampered by a lack of resources, particularly helicopters.
Most recently, at the start of July, the Ugandan army reportedly shot and killed one of Kony’s bodyguards in Djemah, a town in CAR. Kony, however, managed to escape.
Simon Oyet, a member of parliament for Nwoya County in Amuru district, welcomes US support for apprehending members of the LRA, but thinks that it should go beyond just providing equipment and money to the Ugandan military.
“Uganda does not have the capacity to arrest Kony,” he said. “This can only happen with US support to reinforce the Ugandan army militarily by having men on the ground. If [this doesn’t happen] the arrest of Kony will remain a dream. I also have worries that, if the Americans give money to the Ugandan army, it will be grossly abused and we will have the same old story.”
But he does think that the US initiative sends out a positive message.
“The [US] bill will restore confidence in people of northern Uganda that the LRA conflict will one day come to an end,” he said. “And, to the LRA, the bill has sent out the message that they are now a world problem being confronted globally.”
For their part, the Ugandan government welcomes US support.
“The critical economic assistance that will come with it will improve the life of the common man in northern Uganda, which is not in a conflict situation anymore,” said Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kulayigye. “US support will also come with technological assistance for Uganda in the fight against the LRA. Everything has an end. Kony will also have his end.”
Out of 13 arrest warrants that have been issued by the ICC, only four have so far been executed.
As a judicial body, the ICC does not have a way of enforcing indictments itself, and therefore has to rely on the cooperation of countries – not only member states, but increasingly those that remain outside the signatories to the international court.
Some of the most influential countries in the world have still not signed up to the Rome Statute. These include the US, Russia, China and India.
During the recent ICC review conference in Kampala, ICC president Sang-Hyun Song described the cooperation, both of member states and of non-member states, as “the weakest link in the Rome Statute system”.
“Four of 13 arrest warrants have been executed... What makes cooperation the weak link in this system is that the ICC lacks the means to enforce it,” said Song.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo says that the initiative taken by Washington shows how those countries, which for the time being remain outside the ICC, can nonetheless contribute towards the successful functioning of the court.
“Joseph Kony is still committing crimes and he must be arrested,” he told IWPR. “We appreciate the US and other countries in supporting the territorial states to bring about his capture. This is of the utmost importance. Humanity has to help the victims by stopping these crimes.”
Moreno-Ocampo added that there have been positive signs that non-member state parties are increasingly willing to cooperate with the court.
He highlighted the example of Russia, which he claims has been freely providing “substantial information” to the ICC’s investigation team about what happened in the conflict in Georgia in August 2008.
One ICC source also suggested that US cooperation will be crucial for the probe into violence in Kenya, since many of those likely to be indicted have links to the US.
“We’re starting to see great cooperation from state and non-state parties alike, and this is a very positive development,” said Moreno-Ocampo.
Moses Odokonyero is an IWPR-trained reporter. Blake Evans-Pritchard, IWPR Africa Editor, contributed to this report.
This article is part of a series of articles produced by IWPR-trained reporters to coincide with the ICC review conference, held in Kampala between May 31 and June 11. This series aims to go beyond the negotiations that took place in Kampala, assessing what the issues raised during the conference mean to those communities that the ICC is supposed to serve.
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