In its nearly 20 years of fighting in northern Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) killed or injured thousands of civilians, abducted scores of children to fill its ranks, and traumatized a whole generation of Ugandans. But in recent years, it was beginning to look as if Uganda's nightmarish two-decade struggle against the LRA was at last coming to an end. The rebels had mostly been driven out of northern Uganda in 2005 by government troops, and the last LRA attacks on Ugandan soil were in 2006. The terror that once plagued the country's north was finally fading into memory.
The LRA, however, was not. It was just moving next door -- to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR), where the rebels have continued their trademark nastiness, including a DRC rampage between Dec. 14 and 17, 2009, that killed more than 300 people. The massacre, chronicled in a recent Human Rights Watch report, shows that the LRA is still an immense threat to unarmed civilians.
Why is the LRA still around? The Ugandan government has been trying to wipe out the group for ages, with some recent support from the United States. The governments of the DRC, South Sudan, and CAR have pitched in, all to no avail.
On top of it, the LRA should, in theory, be quite easy to defeat. It's relatively small -- according to a Ugandan Army spokesperson it has just 200 active fighters. The Enough Project estimates that there are another 800 or so kidnapped civilians on top of that -- two-thirds of which are likely children. The LRA has little firepower -- most of the DRC attacks were committed with blunt weapons like sticks and axes. It has no support from the civilians it preys on. Of course, its leader, the elusive and still at-large Joseph Kony, claims to commune with spirits and have mystical powers. But setting aside the supernatural, how is it possible that the LRA -- with no support base or weaponry -- is still thriving?
Put simply, the LRA's fortuitous combination of murky international alliances, child soldiers, and bumbling enemies has proved stronger than any military offensive over the last 20 years.
For much of the 1990s, the LRA took advantage of an ugly enemy-of-my-enemy game played between Sudan and Uganda. Kampala (and quietly the United States) funded the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a mostly black-African and Christian rebel group in South Sudan, in its struggle against the Arab-dominated Sudanese national government; Khartoum supported the LRA in retaliation. So in exchange for keeping Uganda off balance and occasionally fighting the SPLA, the LRA got weapons and protection from Sudan.
Officially, Sudanese support for the LRA ended in 1999, though it is believed to have continued sporadically afterward for several years. Then, in 2002, the Sudanese government appeared to sell out the LRA completely. In what was called Operation Iron Fist, the Ugandans were allowed to attack the LRA's permanent bases in South Sudan and, it was hoped, finally end the insurgency. But the Khartoum government demarcated a "red line" across which Ugandan forces were not supposed to attack. Conveniently, the LRA simply retreated behind the boundary -- perhaps even with the material and intelligence assistance of the Sudanese military.
Finally caving to international pressure, Sudan let the Ugandans attack beyond the "red line," but the Ugandan attack narrowly missed nabbing Kony. Although there is no proof, it is commonly believed he was again tipped off by Sudan.