The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)
Northern Uganda has been a vulnerable population right from the time of Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena then up to Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) outfit who devastated the region.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which had been waging a war in northern Uganda and committing gross human rights violations since 1989, had been supported by the Sudan government in retaliation for Uganda's support of the Sudanese rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Under United States (U.S.) pressure the Sudan government cut off assistance to the LRA.
In March 2002, with the permission of the Sudan government, the UPDF launched a major offensive against the LRA in southern Sudan - "Operation Iron Fist." The initial plan to eliminate the LRA failed, as the LRA fled to mountains in southern Sudan and then crossed back into Uganda. These military operations had a horrendous impact on the civilian population in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. By the end of 2013 the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which launched its uprising two decades earlier, had moved from Uganda to the border region of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), where it could rebuild in the political chaos sweeping through the country.
A report released by the Washington-based Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative in August 2015 said efforts to combat LRA rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and elsewhere had made significant progress since 2010. Just a few years ago, the LRA had about 800 combatants. As the result of defection campaigns and operations conducted primarily by the Ugandan military, along with the support by the US, by 2015 it was estimated to have about 200 combatants left.
On 05 March 2012, the non-profit organization Invisible Children, released a video on the internet to kick off an awareness campaign entitled "Kony 2012," to highlight the actions of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The goal of the campaign was to promote efforts to capture and bring Kony to justice by the end of 2012. Criticism was leveled at the campaign and at Invisible Children over how information was presented in the video and their overall activities. Criticism included: implying that Joseph Kony and the LRA were still operating in Uganda (which they are not), implying that the LRA is still a large organization (which it is not), stating that Kony and the LRA were objectively worse than other similar actors in the region (such as recently convicted Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga) or governments accused of human rights violations (like that of Uganda), and suggesting that Operation Observant Compass was the first attempt by the United States to provide support for regional forces to capture or otherwise neutralize Kony and the LRA (which is incorrect).
Joseph Kony was born in 1961 in the village of Odek among the Acholi people of northern Uganda. He inherited power through his aunt because she was the tribe's mystic who started the Holy Spirit Movement, which sought to unseat the Kampala government. This movement was started by his aunt, Alice Auma, and required that the Acholi people retake the capital city Kampala. It was believed that doing so would redeem the Acholi from the violence they had collectively done to the civilians of the Luwero triangle and initiate a paradise on earth.
Even though this movement failed, Kony used a similar spiritual base. He believed that he was a prophet sent from God to purify the people of Uganda and to create a bastion of peace. Kony had been a soldier with the Uganda People's Democratic Army (UPDA), which got him involved in military affairs. The leaders of the UPDA signed an agreement with the Ugandan government called the Gulu Peace Accord of 1988 in which most of the former rebels were integrated into the government's army. Kony refused to go along with the agreement and splintered off with other soldiers. With the combination of his military background and religious beliefs he created the Uganda Christian Democratic Army and began fighting against the government. In 1991 he changed the name of the group to the Lord's Resistance Army.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, operated in the north from bases in southern Sudan. The LRA committed numerous abuses and atrocities, including the abduction, rape, maiming, and killing of civilians, including children. In addition to destabilizing northern Uganda from bases in Sudan, the LRA congregated in the Bunia area in eastern Congo. They linked up with the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR) and other rebel groups that were battling with forces from the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).Even though Joseph Kony and his rebel force, the LRA, professed to fight a spiritual war for the Acholi people against the GoU and its military, the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), the majority of Acholi people did not respect or voluntarily assist the LRA. This repudiation can largely be attributed to the enhanced phase of terror inflicted upon the civilian population after the peace talks brokered by Betty Bigombe in 1994 fell apart. Rape, landmines and the mass abduction of children as combatants became the signature work of the LRA. To this day, the facial mutilations of women who had their lips, ears and noses severed at gunpoint are visible in displacement camp settings. When the peace talks failed, the Sudanese government allegedly began to heavily support Joseph Kony. By providing safe refuge in the form of encampments, land to cultivate, materials to build homesteads, hospitals for treatment of war-related injury and even pharmaceuticals for treatment of common infections such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the Sudanese supported the LRA by enabling them to systemize their incursions into Uganda from protected base camps in the Sudan. To a large extent the Sudanese support of the LRA, including weapons, ammunition and landmines, was the key factor in consolidating Joseph Kony’s reign of terror as the longest child hostage crisis in human history. By October of 1996 the casualty levels were high, the numbers of abducted children numbered close to five thousand and, the conflict had intensified with rebel incursions becoming a normal part of daily life. Due to the focused efforts of the LRA the GoU facilitated the shift of villagers into Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps, and approximately 210,000 villagers moved from their homes into government-sanctioned camps. Voluntary movement was not considered an option. At the time, most of the camps were located in the Kilak, Aswa and Nwoya counties of Gulu district, as they were the most affected by rebel incursion. By the year 2000, there were approximately 23 government-recognized camps in the region. In the wake of September 11th, 2001, and with increased pressure by the US government on Islamic states supporting terrorism, the Sudanese and Ugandan governments committed to improving bilateral relations. In March 2002, the Ugandan government launched ‘Operation Iron Fist’ (OIF), a military offensive against the LRA. Thousands of ground troops and air support were deployed. The government’s intention was to resolve the situation in the North using military force, and diminish the effects of what was becoming an international embarrassment for the government. In response, the LRA rebels poured back across the Ugandan border and sought revenge against the civilian population with intensified attacks on communities, increasing abductions and forced recruitment. The number of abducted children under 18-years of age jumped from approximately 12,000 as of June 2002, to nearly double that by June 2003 and at least 30,000 by May 2004.
The LRA continued to kill, torture, maim, rape, and abduct large numbers of civilians, virtually enslaving numerous children. Although its levels of activity diminished somewhat compared with 1997, the area that the LRA targeted grew. The LRA sought to overthrow the Ugandan Government and inflicted brutal violence on the population in northern Uganda. LRA forces also targeted local government officials and employees. The LRA also targeted international humanitarian convoys and local NGO workers.
The LRA abducted large numbers of civilians for training as guerrillas. Most victims were children and young adults. The LRA abducted young girls as sex and labor slaves. Other children, mainly girls, were reported to have been sold, traded, or given as gifts by the LRA to arms dealers in Sudan. While some later escaped or were rescued, the whereabouts of many children remain unknown.
In particular, the LRA abducted numerous children and, at clandestine bases, terrorized them into virtual slavery as guards, concubines, and soldiers. In addition to being beaten, raped, and forced to march until exhausted, abducted children were forced to participate in the killing of other children who had attempted to escape. Amnesty International reported that without child abductions, the LRA would have few combatants. More than 6,000 children were abducted during 1998, although many of those abducted later escaped or were released. Most human rights NGOs placed the number of abducted children held captive by the LRA at around 3,000, although estimates varied substantially.
Civil strife in the north of Uganda led to the violation of the rights of many members of the Acholi tribe, which was largely resident in the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum. Both government forces and the LRA rebels, who themselves largely are Acholi, committed violations. LRA fighters in particular were implicated in the killing, maiming, and kidnapping of Acholi tribe members, although the number and severity of their attacks decreased somewhat compared with 1997.
The LRA rebels stated that they fought for the establishment of a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments. They were notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to become rebel fighters or concubines. More than one-half-million people in Uganda's Gulu and Kitgum districts had been displaced by the fighting and lived in temporary camps, protected by the army.
As the years progressed, the LRA lessened their attacks in Uganda and began to attack other regions. They spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The LRA continued to move between these three regions and evaded capture despite the efforts made by joint military operations of the countries. The LRA continued to plague these regions with their only goal being survival. They performed raids on remote locations to gather food, money, or people which would help sustain their rebellion.
Operation Iron Fist, the military offensive against the LRA launched by the Uganda government in 2002, created circumstances where more people were displaced from traditional homesteads and interrupted significantly the households ability to generate income from the sale of harvests including groundnuts, sim-sim and maize. When families cannot dig and become completely food-aid dependant, the most vulnerable of all are the daughters. This lack of dynamism in IDP camp economies has kept displaced families in perpetual poverty and has led to fundamental changes in the way women and men lead their lives and provide for their families.
The situation whereby mothers were forced to leave girls idle and unsupervised in the camps during the day due to security concerns was quite different from leaving a daughter at home alone in a village-setting, prior to the war, where homes were at least three kilometers apart. For a child to move from household to household looking for where to sleep and to get something to eat was totally unacceptable in the Acholi culture. It was disgusting, worrying, and it undermined the socialization process. Parents reported feeling incompetent and useless in such circumstances and felt that their power and rights to protect their families and children had been taken away with the on-set of displacement camp living.
The night-commuting phenomenon during the war, where thousands of children flocked from their villages to Gulu town to sleep in churches, hospitals, and on verandas in order to avoid abduction and other violence, is well documented. At its peak in the spring of 2004, there were 40,000 children commuting every night. Children would walk several kilometers to town every night to sleep; in the morning they would walk back home, go to school, and then come back into town to sleep again.
The last LRA attacks in Uganda were in 2006, but Kony and other senior figures remained at large. One, Dominic Ongwen, was apprehended in 2015 and is awaiting trial at the ICC in the Hague. Thought to now number no more than 200 to 300 fighters, the group still carried out attacks in recent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic. At least 13,000 members of the LRA have been granted amnesty in Uganda, according to official figures.
Belief in spirit power and in channeling remains widespread and vigorous among the Acholi people. The Kony movement’s profound failure and its many killings have caused many Acholi to re-examine and reject, based on empirical evidence, the assertion that Kony has spirit power. The population still fears Kony. But many stated they now believe that his power derives not from spirits, but from Sudan.
In the view of many Acholis, the Government of Sudan assisted the LRA in retaliation for Ugandan Government support of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern Sudanese insurgency which for many years waged an armed struggle against the Khartoum government.
“When President Obama came into office in 2008, the LRA had about 800 troops. When the bill was signed into law in 2010, Kony had about half that number. Today, thanks in large part to the military operations and the defection campaign that are supported by U.S. troops in the field, there’s only about 190 to 200 troops left," Paul Ronan, project director at Washington-based Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, said in August 2015.
As LRA attacks and abductions increased, and districts in Northern Uganda previously relatively unaffected by the war became targets of the LRA’s insurgency, unprecedented numbers of people fled their homes and were displaced into IDP camps all over Acholiland. The total number of people displaced and aid-dependent swelled. While in August 2001 there were an estimated 480,000 IDPs, by 2005 the total number of displaced persons had expanded to over 1.8 million, which accounted for over 90 percent of the population of Northern Uganda. At that time, nearly 70 percent of the displaced population was under 25-years of age. With the majority of people in the northern region now in camps, an unintended consequence of OIF was the complete destruction of Northern Uganda’s economic base, agriculture. Like many conflict-affected regions across Africa, Acholiland - once a very fertile region of the country - was left neglected, untended and uncultivated.