Joseph Kony has evaded the spotlight of international governments for decades: sometimes literally hiding in the dense forests of Central Africa, other times skirting around African leaders’ radars of what constitutes a “threat.” His guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), may be a small, dwindling force at the present, but their sporadic tactics demonstrate that they should not be underestimated.
The LRA originated in northern Uganda in 1986 as a result of a conflict against the Ugandan government headed by President Yoweri Museveni. At the time, Kony had high hopes of seizing the territory of northern Uganda and creating a Christian theocracy, supposedly instructed by the Holy Spirit. His interpretation of Christianity would be the rule of the land. Kony’s initial political aspirations, however, were cut short when the Ugandan armed forces finally managed to stamp the LRA out of their country by 2006.
Perhaps the glare of publicity from the proceeding Juba peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government incited volatility in Kony: after a two-year peace process, he turned down the final agreement. Some think Kony used this time to allow his forces to recuperate in secrecy, while others believe the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants placed on top LRA leaders (including Kony himself) thwarted any prospect of surrender by the erratic guerrilla.
Since the start of the Juba peace talks, the LRA has no longer operated in Uganda. Instead, they have been scattered throughout the border regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and present-day South Sudan. In doing so, the LRA split up into smaller groups, originally still under the strict command of Kony, as they pillaged and terrorized villages to survive and assert their dominance. After being forced out of Uganda, the LRA—rather than suffering—thrived in the power vacuum of the forested areas comprising the border regions of these three Central African nations. In this sense, the LRA was able to fulfill its role as a guerrilla group, taking over remote places with poor governmental security.
While the international community, including the US and the UN, worked to create effective armed forces to eradicate the LRA (such as through “Operation Lightning Thunder”), Uganda’s President Museveni stopped seeing the now-peripatetic guerrilla group as a threat and pulled out a large portion of his LRA search force in mid-2010. The Ugandan Foreign Minister, Oryem Henry Okello, even claimed that the guerrillas are “not a force to be reckoned with, they are very far away… and they are no longer a threat to the people of Uganda.” Similarly, the CAR, the DRC, and South Sudan saw the LRA as a distant, isolated danger. Moreover, the DRC, due to unfavorable relations with Uganda after troops crossed into the DRC earlier in the fight against the LRA, is more concerned about the “hazard” of Ugandan forces in Congo than the risks posed by the LRA. In 2011, the DRC decided to forbid Ugandan forces from operating on their soil. Ultimately, separate political issues and a lack of worry and urgency among some of the LRA-afflicted countries have impeded cooperation to finally oust the group.
Even with some of these intergovernmental issues, the LRA’s forces, spread out over large areas, declined. Internal cohesion became difficult for Kony to uphold, especially under pressure—both military action and defection persuasion—from international forces and agencies. Uganda, for example, put forth an Amnesty Act in 2000 and renewed it in 2015, and upwards of 27,000 former LRA rebels have left the group via this option. This is just one example of the successful effort to encourage LRA combatants to defect: US forces, NGOs, and a UN team have actively broadcast announcements urging Ugandan members of the LRA to “Come Home.”
The external pressure is a backdrop to severe internal strife within Kony’s ranks. In order to maintain control over the LRA, Kony has had to resort to punishment of disobedient officers. In 2013 alone, Kony likely prescribed the execution of five leading members whom he deemed unruly. Out of disagreement with Kony’s tactics, numerous LRA leaders have severed ties with the group’s founder within the past couple of years. In this recent declining phase, the LRA takes on some qualities of a predatory gang with corrupt infighting, no political goal, and a focus on survival. They are still alive, however: they continue to ravage villages and abduct civilians, and Uganda recently withdrew troops from CAR due to a perceived lack of commitment from the international community to finish off the group. The splintered factions that remain are but a shadow of the strong guerrilla group that once was; their demise, nonetheless, is waiting to materialize.