The silence of the dense Congolese national park of Garamba was shattered by the sound of approaching aircraft and the loud crack of heavy bombardment on the erstwhile camp of the fugitive forces of the Lord’s Resistance Army exactly a month ago today. The December 14th raid code-named “Operation Lightning Thunder” and conducted by an elite force within the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces has forced the rebels to flee their bases some of which, like their headquarters, is now the staging ground of the three nation assault against the rebels.
What had been planned as a surgical strike of the LRA, after a month, is now an extended search and destroy mission which in recent weeks involved the pursuit of the rebels has they leave a reported trail of death and destruction in their flight path.
If the operation, jointly announced by the militaries of Democratic Republic of Congo, the Government of South Sudan and Uganda was meant to cripple the capacity of the rebels- it is yet to succeed.
The initial euphoria among allied circles that the bombing would have killed the core of the rebels has long since been replaced by the reality that the campaign to finish them off will now take longer.
It now appears that the Ugandan government must seek an extension of their stay inside the DRC if they are to maintain the momentum against the rebels.
This is because the initial agreement for Lightning Thunder” opened a 30 day window for the UPDF.
A drawn out military expedition will also require more men to stay longer inside the Congo, a potentially a political hot potato for both Uganda and her large neighbor because of their recent history of hostilities.
In the 90’s and up to 2003, Uganda controversially occupied the Congo after her troops participated in the removal of the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. That expedition turned bloody when the national army remained in Congo after political disagreements with Mobuto’s successor, Laurent Kabila whose son Joseph Kabila is now President. After international condemnation forced a withdrawal of troops Uganda has continued to face accusation of maintaining armed proxies inside Congo in part to maintain a sphere of influence in competition with Rwanda. As the operation to deal what was intended as a fatal blow against the LRA got underway, a UN Panel of Experts report on Congo accused the two countries of continuing to fuel conflict in the East between the Kinshasa authorities and rebels led by Gen Laurent Nkunda.
The exact details of the agreement for Ugandan military presence in the current campaign is not known but suffice to say it is not open ended.
According to Hon Okello Oryem [Minister of State Foreign Affairs] Uganda had indicated to the Congolese that a month was an unrealistic timeframe to hunt down the LRA anyway. He also said Kampala and Kinshasa had a bilateral deal on the matter.
The permanent secretary of the Ministry, Amb. James Mugume, told Daily Monitor that because the operation is a joint effort negotiated within the framework of the Great Lakes Conference on Peace and Security [GLCPS], the UPDF was obligated to stay put until the job was done.
“There is no time limit” he said in an interview recently. It’s unclear how Uganda’s bilateral arrangement fits into the framework of a joint effort under multilateral agreements which like the protocols of the GLCPS are still being negotiated.
Information from the army which remains the main source of news about the campaign suggests this operation is not about to end.
So far the aerial raids remain the main success against the rebels. While they may be on the run there are no large reported casualties sustained by the LRA.
LRA leader Joseph Kony is reportedly still alive and apparently his officer core too. With superior knowledge of the terrain, the rebels could theoretically wage an unconventional war, much like they did for close to two decades against the UPDF in Northern Uganda. At one point the rebels claimed they had shot down a UPDF helicopter. So far however their mark in the contest has been civilian deaths of close to half a million people while rebel negotiators continue to ask for a ceasefire.
This week the government of Central Africa Republic fearful of civilian massacres and displacements said it was setting up a border force to bolster its own security.
With a large area bordering three four countries the job of uprooting the LRA will not just require time but perhaps nothing short of a Ugandan occupation force inside Eastern DRC. Lightning Thunder, although taking place in Congo,is already being couched in Northern Uganda terms. The army has declared it will protect civilians against rebel massacres after Christmas Day massacres left dozens dead. Speaking to the Daily Monitor at the time Capt Chris Magezi said “It is a strategy we used in Northern Uganda and it succeeded”, speaking about the need to secure civilians even as the army pursued the rebels.
The reference to controversial protected villages which have come to characterize the two decade Northern Uganda strategy of the Uganda government may perhaps be the most troublesome parallel of the operation. Almost as crucial to breaking up the rebel organization is the need to protect civilians against their attacks as was the case in the north. Already voices including that of US Senator Russ Feingold, the chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Africa are concerned about the vulnerability of civilians. More voices are bound to follow especially after the first independent NGO field reports of the rebel massacres begin to paint the rebels signature brutality. For better or for worse however the protection of civilians will come to rely on the capacity of the alliance to expand and deepen its operations against the rebels with more men, weapons and vigor.
Lightning Thunder has received all round support, even with reservations, from most stakeholders in the Northern Uganda peace process. It also succeeded singularly in building up an alliance between three governments.
Its future will rely on how solid the partnership remains.
Protection of civilians would be the obligation of the Congolese government or Sudanese ones but in the course of the current campaign it could remain a shared responsibility.
As a necessity which points to a longer and perhaps even risky extended stay of the UPDF in Congo.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the so-called Plan B military option against the LRA was formulated in the US supported Tripartite Plus Group which brings up regional military heads from Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi [South Sudan is not a member], the presence of Ugandan troops in DRC remained a matter for Congo and Uganda.
Speaking on this subject Hon Henry Okello Oryem, a former member of the government peace team said consultation with Congolese authorities would continue throughout the campaign. Other well placed sources have told this newspaper it is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which negotiated the deal to get Ugandan troops in but the Ministry of Defense, more specifically the office of the Chief of Defense Forces, Gen Aronda Nyakairima which has been leading the effort.
An extension of the UPDF stay, if it comes to that, will likely be negotiated through similar channels. There are also some expected challenges.
While the military establishment in both Congo and Uganda may be on the same page, bilateral relations are often run by politicians who place political interests first. Ugandan military presence in Congo is an incendiary subject for Congolese politicians and may be responsible for the resurgence of Congolese nationalism in recent times.
In the last Congolese general election, President Kabila had to defend himself from accusations, ironically from Ugandan allied Jean Pierre Bemba, that he was not “100% Congolese” a thinly veiled attack on his past relations with Uganda and Rwanda. Many Congolese welcomed the withdrawal of Ugandan troops and much of the violence in the Kivu’s is attributed not just to ethnic competition but to civilian hostility toward perceived Rwandan/Ugandan meddling. If Congolese politicians make the continued stay of Ugandan troops an issue it may affect its near future.
At home President Yoweri Museveni is also bound to face fresh criticism if the operation drags on.
His critics, including members of parliament from Acholi, say the government jumped the gun by attacking Kony and should have pursued talks with the rebels longer. Opinion on this is that by touching the hornets’ nest, and if a military campaign does not succeed immediately, LRA could regain capacity to cause havoc in the north where resettlement programs are beginning to take root. While the war theatre is removed from Ugandan territory, small groups of rebels can spread fear by random attacks which would unsettle the peace there. A long campaign would also open the army to scrutiny given its past record in the DRC which can galvanise into the sort of international discomfort with foreign influence inside Congo. While there in the 90’s Ugandan forces were accused not just of pillage and plunder but of possible human rights abuses which was confirmed in the judgement against Kampala in the International Court of Justice. An award of 10 billion US dollars to Congo is still being negotiated between the two governments. If UPDF have to stay to hunt Kony, all of these factors will come to play in various forms, perhaps even running interference with the military objective to finish off the rebels as a national security threat.
A second look will no doubt compare in retrospect if peace talks should still have been pursued against the rebels.
Over the years the fate of the LRA rebellion has changed significantly on one variable- regional alliances. The tide has tilted against the rebels whenever agreements are reached, like the one between the Ugandan government/ South Sudan’s SPLA and the patrons of the LRA, the government of Khartoum which in 2003 saw the routing of the rebels from their bases in Sudan. If these alliances remain intact the rebels will always be under pressure. If they collapse to special interests however it will give the rebellion another lease of life beyond Lightning Thunder.