No quick fix in Northern Uganda

It is critical for Congress to ensure the United States’ actions promote sustainable peace, reconciliation, and development in the region, rather than further entrench conflict and insecurity.

Unprecedented legislation has the potential to foster reconciliation and recovery for Northern Uganda. Or will it repeat past mistakes by inciting new U.S.-backed military operations?

After twenty-three years of conflict and turmoil at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, current legislation has the potential to spur development and promote healing and reconciliation in Northern Uganda. In the acrimonious and hyper-political atmosphere that has characterized the 111th Congress, the bill has managed to garner support from both sides of the aisle. As Northern Uganda has been wracked with numerous violent conflicts since achieving independence, this bipartisanship is particularly admirable for legislation that addresses long-standing reconstruction and humanitarian needs for the country and other communities affected by the LRA in Central Africa.

However, this bill also requires the Obama administration to develop “an interagency framework to plan, coordinate, and review diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military elements of United States policy across the region regarding the Lord’s Resistance Army.”  To many, this seems like a perfectly reasonable policy prescription. After all, the LRA are responsible for murdering civilians indiscriminately, maiming victims, and abducting children. As far as rebel groups go, the nature of this conflict has been as ruthless as they come. 

The Northern Uganda Recovery and Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament Act of 2009 opens the door for AFRICOM, the U.S. military command for Africa, to support military intervention aimed at the LRA. Given the current realities of U.S. foreign policy, military mechanisms – including AFRICOM – are privileged over diplomatic avenues or development efforts. Significant budget and personnel disparities, not to mention political support, favor increasing military might at the cost of disempowering civilian agencies.

A military operation aimed at the LRA is not a new strategy. After losing patience in a peace process widely accepted as responsible for Northern Uganda’s current stability, the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) teamed up with the DRC and South Sudan armies in late 2008 promising to rout the LRA and free abducted civilians once and for all.  This joint offensive, dubbed Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT), failed to apprehend top LRA commanders, resulted in vicious backlash attacks on civilians, and caused the violence to spread to neighboring areas previously not affected, displacing thousands. This operation marked AFRICOM’s inaugural activity on the continent, since they provided technical and logistical assistance to the UPDF.  Led by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who favors the use of military might to end the conflict, OLT was widely condemned as a failure.  Further, the UPDF are still receiving substantial U.S. support to actively pursue the LRA across central Africa. 

The UPDF tried in vain to eliminate the LRA through Operation North in 2001 and again through Operation Iron Fist in 2002. Even the United Nations’ peace-keeping force in DR Congo (MONUC) targeted the LRA in 2006. The result? Eight MONUC soldiers were killed, five wounded, and Kony remained at large. Again, the LRA responded with brutal retaliatory attacks on civilians. Clearly, the military option has been utilized and has failed every time to apprehend top commanders and demobilize the rebels.

The bill rightly requires the U.S “to work multilaterally with regional mechanisms, including the Tripartite Plus Commission and the Great Lakes Pact.” Close coordination with existing and emerging diplomatic efforts is imperative; civil society must be consulted at every step. However, the bill concedes the strategy “may include a classified annex.” It is crucial to demand a non-violent, civilian led effort that protects civilians and holds the U.S. accountable for its actions in the region.  Furthermore, any action must take into consideration the abducted individuals within the ranks of the LRA to help foster their safe return to their respective communities.

Since OLT, the LRA have decentralized into small bands of soldiers that operate in three separate countries. This makes a targeted military option nearly impossible, given challenging terrain and the number of splintered LRA groups that now operate. Secondly, the Ugandan government last year arrested individuals accused of organizing a new rebel group within the country.  Additionally, the LRA’s financial supporters remain unknown. These reasons illustrate that Joseph Kony is no longer the “end all be all” for both the LRA and the continuation of violence in the region. A quick fix does not exist.

Previous military failures prove that now is the time to fully utilize the diplomatic and economic elements of U.S foreign policy.  Civilian agencies, rather than AFRICOM, must take the lead in developing and executing an inter-agency strategy to disarm and demobilize the LRA and negotiate a comprehensive and holistic solution to the conflict. It is critical for Congress to ensure that the United States’ actions promote sustainable peace, reconciliation, and development in the region, rather than further entrench conflict and insecurity.   
 
Mary Stata is Legislative Assistant for International Affairs at the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.
Wade George Snowdon is the Information, Research, & Documentation Officer for the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) in Gulu, Northern Uganda.