2011 may prove to be a key year in the struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the brutal group led by convicted War Criminal Joseph Kony, that has waged a twenty-four-year campaign of terror throughout Central Africa.
Intermittently professing the intention of overthrowing Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni and setting up a state based on the Ten Commandments (though briefly flirting with Islam), Kony’s rag-tag band of devotees and press-ganged child soldiers has long shed any vaguely coherent objective; simply rampaging through Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, carrying out a horrifying string of human rights abuses, including looting, rape, mutilation and thousands of murders. Three factors however, may soon bring this terror to a close.
Firstly, the secession of South Sudan in July, has given the Sudan Peoples’ iberation Movement (SPLM) – a long avowed enemy of the LRA, the strength and status of an official government, as well as potentially reinforcing Kony’s physical detachment from his backers in Khartoum, who as late as 2010 were allegedly using the LRA as proxies to attack opposition in Darfur.
Secondly, an advanced crisis-mapping project has now been launched, compiling information on the LRA’s scattered activities across Central Africa’s porous borders, raising international awareness and providing unprecedentedly detailed data for the governments and NGOs seeking to track and ultimately halt the brutality.
Perhaps, most importantly of all however, Barak Obama this week announced the deployment of one hundred US troops to train and support the four national governments combating the LRA.
Though only mandated to engage in combat for the purpose of self defence, this force will be working with units actively pursuing Kony, marking the most significant external involvement to date and a distinct strengthening of international efforts to crush the LRA once and for all. Possibly the key effect of this will be ingraining a level of professionalism and commitment that has been lacking from previous regional efforts due to a range of incompetencies and hidden agendas.
Resolve, the key human rights group working to end LRA atrocities has welcomed the move, highlighting the likelihood of quicker responses, better intelligence and more focussed US assistance. Still, that hasn’t stopped certain other quarters from criticising the deployment, drawing parallel's with the tragic 1990s US mission to Somalia, pointing out that the LRA is already at its weakest point to date and questioning whether the conflict is even relevant to US national interests.
To a great extent, these objections are fallacious. Unlike Somalia, this is to be a limited non-combat mission, which inevitably poses risks, but to nowhere near the level of the circumstances that led to Black Hawk Down. In terms of the LRA’s perceived weakness, whilst the group is seemingly now fragmented and boasts nowhere near the thousands of troops that it once did, it is still capable of carrying out appalling massacres as demonstrated just last February. It is also worth noting that LRA weakness has been highlighted for years, yet still it lumbers on.
As for ‘national interest’, one only needs to highlight that halting the systematic rape of young girls, conscription of young boys and murder of whole villages is – or least should be – in every state’s interest, no matter where in the world it is taking place.
Still, there are are some serious questions to be answered: such as those around the dangers of training Ugandan forces known to contain political death squads, Democratic Republic of Congo forces known to have committed mass rape and Central African Republic forces guilty of torture and enforced disappearances. Could the US involvement ultimately end up improving the capacity of these armies to terrorise their own populations?
There is also the long-term issue to consider: other militias operating in Central Africa, particularly in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are just as dangerous as abhorrent as the LRA. What action, if any, will subsequently be taken to disarm them?
The USA must tread carefully, but Obama is taking a risk in order to draw a line under one of the most barbaric chapters of African history and for this he must be commended. Some are already questioning US motives, particularly whether this is a return favour for Uganda’s work against Al-Shabab in Somalia or part of an ongoing trend based around targeting particularly dangerous or loathed individuals. Though, whilst these questions must be asked, they will ultimately be of little relevance to those who have lived in fear of the LRA for two decades, if and once Kony and his men are finally stopped.