“We had our orders: kill the elephants, and give the tusks to our commanders to give to Kony. Those orders are still standing,” Robert, one of the most recent defectors from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, told us last week in Gulu, northern Uganda. Jacob, another LRA defector added, “We could eat the elephant meat, which was good, because it’s difficult for us to farm because we are moving all the time. But our orders were to give the elephant tusks to the commander, so they could hide them in a secret place. We didn’t know the purpose of the tusks.”
Over the past 26 years, the LRA has caused immense human suffering. They have abducted an estimated 66,000 boys, young men, and girls to be used as child soldiers, and at the height of the war, they displaced over two million people from their homes. An estimated 350,000 people remain displaced today.
Thanks to a coordinated international effort, the LRA’s size and capacity to inflict suffering is dwindling. The armies of Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo under the umbrella of the African Union have become increasingly capable of limiting the LRA’s ability to roam without consequence with the significant support of 100 U.S. Special Operations military advisers. As a result, LRA attacks have dropped by 53 percent in the past two years, and killings are down by nearly 90 percent. With between 250 and 300 fighters, today the LRA now has about one-tenth the number it had a decade ago.
President Obama, Congress, and activists, together with Ugandan and regional actors, have played a key role in this progress by deploying the U.S. advisers to help encourage the African-led counter-LRA efforts. But as long as Kony remains at large, civilians will continue to suffer and elephant ivory will continue to fuel the deadly acts of one of the region’s most vicious armed groups. Over the past quarter century, Kony has shown incredible resilience in times of desperation, regrouping the LRA by moving to new locations, abducting more children, and instilling a harsh climate of fear that keeps the group together. Until he is removed from the battlefield, the LRA will do whatever it takes to survive.
Three low-cost policy steps can make a major dent in the LRA now. First, Secretary of State John Kerry should lead a push for a global moratorium on ivory sales. Such a move, which already has the backing of 10 African heads of state and environmental groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants campaign, would help lower the price and demand for ivory and limit the LRA’s profits.
Second, the White House should ensure the counter-LRA mission has the air support it needs to access the remote areas in which the LRA operates. Currently, the mission relies on private contractors with insufficient lift capacity and limited flight hours to ferry troops and supplies to the isolated LRA-affected areas. This significantly limits the mission’s effectiveness, as it can only undertake one U.S. field-supported tracking mission at a time, despite the LRA’s presence in many different areas. Two to three additional helicopters, for example Chinook helicopters, would go a long way in restricting the LRA’s ability to move freely and significantly increase the chances of capturing Kony.
Third, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Raj Shah should intensify long-term reintegration support to those who escape from the LRA. Defectors like Robert receive little support when they return home. Most LRA defectors were abducted as children, some as young as five years old. They desperately need long-term reintegration programs to avoid isolation and stigmatization from local communities.
Robert told us that he had dreamed of escaping from the LRA for over a decade, but Kony’s brutality in killing defectors deterred him. He was lucky enough finally to run away, but hundreds of others like him still remain under Kony’s firm grip. It is time to help make their dreams a reality as well. By providing the right tools, U.S. policymakers can help cut off the LRA once and for all.
Lezhnev is senior policy analyst at the EnoughProject. Agger is Kampala-based field researcher for the Enough Project. They are also co-founders of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group, which helps former LRA child soldiers and their communities.