AFRICANGLOBE – The world was last Wednesday gripped by a new sense of anticipation when it was reported that the government of the Central African Republic had been in contact with Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, with a view to the latter’s surrender.
This could end 25 years of rebellion in which Kony has turned northern Uganda, parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and Central African Republic into a theatre for one of the Great Lakes region’s most brutal conflicts.
However, it has emerged that the reported proposition by Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony to surrender could be far from real, but it still points at fault lines that are becoming more pronounced in the rebel force’s camp.
It has been revealed that there has been no contact between the CAR government and the evasive Kony. However, talk of his surrender was triggered by contact between the CAR government and a small group of LRA fighters a few days ago.
“What we know is that one group of LRA fighters, between four and 15, mostly of mid-level ranks and one senior officer, made contact with the government in Central African Republic. It’s this group that gave the impression that Kony is under a lot of pressure and would be willing to surrender,” said Kasper Agger, field researcher for the US-based NGO Enough Project, which has been tracking the LRA conflict.
This development of a small group talking of surrendering indicates that there is growing apathy and disagreement within LRA ranks on how the rebel force can continue to execute its insurgency in territories distant from the Uganda government, the main target of the LRA uprising in 1987-88. Another top LRA commander, Caesar Acellam, surrendered with his family in CAR in May last year.
In September this year, the UN issued a statement saying that some 1,200 LRA fighters wanted to defect, but this raised questions of credibility, as the entire rebel force is believed to be down to a core of 250 fighters, and another 200 auxiliary members who include children and wives of LRA fighters.
Mr Agger argues that the credibility of Kony’s surrender proposition of Wednesday 20 should have been accompanied by letters or announcements from LRA spokespersons.
Indeed, other organisations like Invisible Children and the International Crisis Group that have kept tabs on this conflict — especially in the DRC and CAR, where it has mostly played out since 2005 when LRA fled northern Uganda — also argue that a rebel leader keen on surrendering, should by now have made goodwill gestures, by starting to release women and children that the LRA has been holding in captivity.
The UN, the 100 United States Special Forces troops and the African Union regional task force that are hunting the LRA are not sure of Kony’s current whereabouts after he got away in March this year following a raid by the Ugandan contingent of the regional task force on the LRA hideout in the Sudanese controlled Kafia Kingi area of South Darfur.
Indeed, the US Special Forces and Uganda troops are yet to make a decisive strike at Nzako in CAR, the location where Kony is suspected to have fled after he was driven out of Kafia Kingi.
According to a new report by Enough Project released on November 20, titled “Blind Spots: Gaining access to areas where the LRA operates,” the LRA is a much weakened outfit but the regional forces hunting it down are hampered by specific political and logistical challenges to access the remote areas where the rebel force operates.
But the report concludes that LRA’s surrender for now is still a farfetched proposition unless the rebel group’s safe havens are completely eliminated.
“Military pressure and defection programmes have reportedly reduced the number of LRA fighters to approximately 250 and largely pushed the group into hiding.
The dispersed LRA groups are able to survive by growing crops, hunting, looting civilians, and poaching ivory, which they exchange for vital supplies. The LRA can easily cross international borders to escape military pressure,” the report reads.
Even with the $5 million bounty on Kony’s head announced by the Obama administration early this year, his capture has eluded governments around the Great Lakes region and remains a headache for the regional task force, to the chagrin of the International Criminal Court that in 2005 indicted the rebel leader along with four of his top commanders — Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya and Dominic Ongwen (Otti and Lukwiya have since died) — for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Army and intelligence officials in Kampala also say no official contact has been made, but they are also picking up the vibes of what broke out on Wednesday.
Until AU Special Envoy on LRA Francisco Madeira says he has had contact with Kony, the surrender offer must be regarded as a gimmick by Kony or the small group that is in contact with CAR govt to buy more time as they strive to reinvent themselves.
“They’ve not communicated. We are aware they are trying to initiate contact, and we encourage it. The contact is probably with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because that’s how they usually communicate… we haven’t heard anything,” said Uganda People’s Defence Forces commander Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda.
Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem told reporters that sources at AU and UN had told Kampala that the LRA group that met the CAR government said that Kony was willing to surrender, but Mr Oryem questioned his demands, which he described as “not clear”.
“Our source at the UN informed us that they want food, clothing and medicine. We thought that the group that spoke to the CAR government might not be LRA but a credible NGO in Bangui confirmed that it was LRA. So, we are still monitoring to see how this develops, and to see if our source [Mr Madeira and Abou Moussa, UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Central Africa] can confirm this.”
By press time, Mr Madeira had not responded to our questions on the nature of contact or which groups he had spoken to in the LRA camp over their leader’s surrender.
Besides internally displacing thousands in DRC and CAR lately, at the peak of its devastation, the Kony-led LRA’s war had displaced up to 1.8 million people who lived in squalid internally displaced people’s camps in northern Uganda between 1994 and 2004.
Even in the IDP camps that were guarded by UPDF, the population in northern Uganda was insecure and often suffered vicious attacks by LRA — the most poignant of which were the Atiak and Bar Lonyo massacres.
About 300 people were killed and many more abducted at Atiak in 1995, while another 200 were either hacked or burnt to death at Bar Lonyo in 2004.
Talk of surrender by the ICC-indicted Kony also opens another debate; Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who referred the LRA situation to the ICC, has lately been vocally critical of the court, which derives its power from the Rome Statute.
President Museveni says the ICC goes after African leaders based on “biased and shallow analysis.”
On the one hand, having Kony at The Hague would be a moral, political and above all a military victory for the Ugandan leader who has always promised to capture or kill Kony, yet it does not bode well for his newfound alliances with African leaders like Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Sudan’s Omar Bashir who take issue with the Rome Statute.
By: Julius Barigaba