In the dense jungles of Eastern DRC, several Thuraya satellite phones show some activity. Ugandan military intelligence, with assistance from the United States of America, track these conversations as much as possible. It’s a source of vital intelligence on the movements of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Especially its elusive leader Joseph Kony who has shown he has more than nine lives.
While Kony’s skills at eluding capture are now legendary it only partly explains his survival for over two decades being hunted by one of the most aggressive military governments in East Africa. Joseph Kony’s fortunes are often not determined by the brutal efficiency of his brain-washed teenage brigades but in the air conditioned boardrooms of statesmen in such capitals as Kampala, Washington, Khartoum, Cairo, and Nairobi. It is here where political and military alliances are fashioned and agenda’s not present in LRA’s minimalist plans are grafted into its military action.
Such agenda’s have included America’s war on terror, Southern Sudan’s liberation war, regime maintenance in Chad and Central African Republic, Uganda’s pacification of so called northern tribes and so forth. “Joseph Kony has done well for a primary school drop-out” said Col Walter Ochora, now Gulu Resident District Commissioner about the ability of the LRA’s leader to dance around these many agenda’s while maintaining control of the rebel army. It’s a sophistication that comes with experience.
Kony has been a hired gun many times over. In the 90’s he served as an officer in the South Sudan Defence Forces, an outfit but together by the Khartoum government as a bulwark against the main force of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
The LRA was a natural ally for Khartoum because Ugandan troops were actively fighting alongside the SPLA. According to President Yoweri Museveni supporting the aspirations of black Christian southerners was a pan-African goal for the Ugandan military even if today the President has spoken out in support of Sudanese president Omar El Bashir, accused of war crimes for a similar confrontation in Darfur.
National borders like that between Uganda and Sudan melted away as the battlelines were redrawn beyond the LRA’s rebellion against Museveni to represent various other wars the rebels were now participating in. They included the war in which southern Sudan sought to break away from the north and a religious war between Christians and Muslims which internationalized the conflict- bringing in powerful lobbies and refocusing the foreign policy of such world powers as the United States of America on the patch of ground in which Kony and his fighters drew their battle plans.
Whenever these alliances changed the LRA shot in a different direction and those interested in finishing off the rebels and their brutality- including the abductions and mutilations that defined their style- came to learn that crafting regional alliances capable of pressuring the rebels was the only way to bring Kony’s nine lives to an end. It is for this reason that the group found itself in distress last December when a joint military operation was launched against them by the governments of DRC, Uganda and the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan. It was a coup for American policy makers who had been busy for the last several years in creating the Tripartite Plus security clearing house. Originally meant to bring together military and intelligence chiefs from Rwanda, Uganda, DRC and Burundi, the meetings of the Tripartite in the last few years have come to focus on how these governments could work together to reduce the stresses of the various rebel groups they all supported against each other.
In December 2007, just a year to operation Lightning Thunder, President Joseph Kabila and Yoweri Museveni met in Arusha in a Tripartite brokered effort to stop the two governments from fighting each other. This followed clashes at their common border since August of that year. The two agreed to jointly deal with so called “negative forces” including the LRA. “”We strongly condemn what Mr Museveni and Mr Kabila have agreed on. We are ready to fight anyone who attacks us.
This deal is not in good faith” said the LRA Deputy Commander Vincent Otti- about the arrangements. When Lightning Thunder struck Otti was dead but his fears had come true. Despite accusing each other of breeding rebel groups- DRC and Congo had found common ground. Prior to their deal Uganda had accused DRC of aiding the LRA including providing it with safe passage.
However just like in the past regional alliances which are not based purely on need to snuff off the rebels but formulated on other agenda’s wither away giving the rebels some breathing space. According to the UPDF the operation Lightning Thunder has succeeded in breaking the back of the rebels but before Kony could be caught or killed, the plug was pulled and the alliance which had been critical to the assault unraveled giving Kony and his beleaguered troops yet another lease of life.
The LRA has been in this position before and lived to fight another day. In 2003 after years of fighting Uganda-SPLA armies the Khartoum authorities who were now talking peace with southern rebels broke their bond with the rebels and allowed Ugandan commandos to attack a large settlement of the LRA 40 miles outside Juba, the Southern capital. What happened next repeated itself in Garamba almost exactly. Intelligence information indicated that Joseph Kony was in the camp as were his top commanders.
His satellite phones were being tracked but when the attack got underway- Kony apparently tipped off made his escape. The army later announced as it did recently that they had captured some personal effects and some useful intelligence on the LRA. It was said then that elements of Sudan’s intelligence network had warned Kony. Speaking about the hunt for the rebels following the Nisitu attack, Shaban Bantariza then army spokesman said Kony and “ 200” of his fighters were hiding out of reach of the army, allowing the rebels to reorganize and tend to their sick. The bilateral deal that Ugandan and Sudan did to enable the attack was however time-bound. Soon the deadlines came and the UPDF withdrew ended the operation. Lightning Thunder has followed a familiar script therefore.
On December 14th Joseph Kony was again apparently tipped off as the UPDF operation launched helicopter attacks on his camp. Indeed a sadder story is told about the equipment that the rebels used to listen to the pilots chatter. Its claimed that at the last meeting that Kony held in which he refused to sign a peace deal- he received some 8-12 suitcases which came aboard the same aircraft that brought elders to the meeting place in south Sudan.
Some intelligence sources believed the bags, carried by one of Mr. Kony’s relatives, contained radio listening equipment. The Ugandan authorities were reportedly made aware of the bags by a member of the Acholi delegation and at least a phone call [made by Ochora] had asked that they be seized. They were not. Now as the rebels melted away “out of reach” of the UPDF, the operation which had scored some successes has come to an official end, giving the rebels another lease of life.
The Congo factor The loosening of the noose on Kony has come this time around because Kabila was under pressure from his own Parliament to ask Rwanda and Uganda to remove their armies from Congolese soil. According to various sources Kabila ended Lightning Thunder after he was accused by lawmakers including Vital Kamerhe, the ex-Speaker of Parliament, for allowing foreign troops to deploy inside the country without approval of the Congolese legislature.
The exit of the UPDF may signal a continuation of the old ways when mutual hostility between governments fanned security competition and allowed groups like the LRA to flourish. In DRC for example President Joseph Kabila has built a political platform in which he is a defender of the Congolese people against external aggressors. That platform slipped a notch or two when he invited his usual enemies in the eyes of the Congolese politics- Rwanda and Uganda, willingly to conduct military operations inside Congo. Not long ago, he was calling on the two countries to stay out of Congolese affairs pushing his approval rating as a national leader. It does not matter that Kabila himself served under Ugandan and Rwandan military commanders before he became President.
Following pressure to kick out the UPDF Kabila and Museveni met at the border this month at which the Ugandans, who had all along said they would remain indefinitely inside Congo until Kony is captured or killed- agreed to unconditionally withdraw. According to Maj Felix Kulaigye, the Congolese army had deployed an extra brigade in the region to fill the gap that the UPDF had left. He further said that a smaller contingent of UPDF crack troops had remained inside Congo to help track the LRA. “They are in an intelligence led operation meant to support the Congolese army to protect civilians and finish the job” Kulaigye said.
The Ugandan army, he said, had received assurances from the UN Peace Keeping force in Congo as well as the Congo army that they could handle the LRA. “Our remaining troops will provide some support because as you know we have more experience than them with the LRA” he said. He however denied that the withdrawal- which had retained the two countries goals to finish off the rebels was not being conducted cosmetically to give Kabila some breathing space in Kinshasa from lawmakers. In which case the UPDF’s clandestine presence would still continue its intention to capture or kill Kony. The UPDF’s main body is still within striking distance and Brig Patrick Kankiriho who has returned to Kampala has reportedly been replaced by another ranking officer to oversee the next phase of the engagement.
“ The situation will be reviewed jointly by the Ugandan and Congolese military but as far as I know the military arrangements so far are in support of the Congolese army” Kulaigye said. Nonetheless the vacuum that the army left was felt immediately with the reported fresh killings by the LRA which will comprise part of the evaluation of the situation when the chiefs of military intelligence of both countries meet in April. The LRA has once again survived long enough for the short-lived alliance to falter. The Sudan factor One concern for the inability of regional alliances to sustain themselves long enough to write the LRA out of the history books is the enduring political gains for maintaining the rebels.
For example observers say that the situation in Southern Sudan is ripe for LRA to find fresh utility for its former benefactor, the government of Khartoum. Recent pressure on the Omar El Bashir’s government including the warrant out for his arrest on war crimes- they argue are pushing a confrontation between the north and south which has traditionally been conducted through military and political proxies. An upcoming referendum in Southern Sudan which seeks to declare it independent is not helping matters nor are the sticky issues of disputed boundaries in the oil rich areas separating the north from the South. It also does not help that security reforms in the South have dragged.
A recent mutiny of veterans closed down the common border between Uganda and Sudan causing millions of shillings in lost trade. Insecurity, driven by unruly soldiers, is a constant issue for civilians and foreigners in the South while political in-fighting an corruption have hurt the credibility of the SPLM administration in Juba. While many analysts say there is no indication that Khartoum is in touch with the LRA, the reasons and opportunity remain ever present for them to desire introducing the rebels as spoilers in the situation above.
“ It’s the lack of capacity to do anything about the situation not necessarily explicit support from Khartoum that is the problem” said Julia Spegiel, an analyst with the genocide prevention network Enough- on phone from Gulu. She says that regional powers and their international partners must do more to pressure Kabila to allow the UPDF in to finish the job. “Round 2 will have to be different with more international engagement and greater intelligence and logistical corperation” she added. In the meantime however the LRA and Kony lives to fight another battle.
submitted to the Daily Monitor