This is a guest blog by Ledio Cakaj, an independent researcher focusing on the Lord's Resistance Army.
On 12 May 2012, the Ugandan army announced the capture of Caesar Achellam, a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) combatant. Achellam apparently fell into an ambush manned by Ugandan soldiers in the Central African Republic near the northern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The story of Achellam rise to prominence and subsequent defection sheds light on important changes within the LRA itself.
Achellam is one of the longest serving officers in the LRA having joined in the late 1980s. A former professional soldier in the pre Museveni Ugandan army, he rose in the LRA ranks and was reportedly in charge of external relations in the late 1990s. His position involved liaising with officers of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) who provided military support to the LRA until at least 2002. Achellam is rumored to have maintained an office in the SAF barracks in Juba when LRA groups were based near the Ugandan border. He reportedly speaks fluent Arabic and was a close confidant of LRA leader Joseph Kony.
According to former LRA combatants, Achellam fell out of favor with Kony at the end of 2006 when LRA forces completed relocating from southern Sudan to Garamba National Park in northeastern DRC. Vincent Otti, another senior LRA officer, accused Achellam of having secretly received money from the Sudanese. Achellam was demoted to the rank of private and his personal escort was taken away. Otti was himself executed on Kony’s order in October 2007, and Achellam reinstated as a senior officer, but his influence waned significantly.
Otti was one of the main negotiators during the Juba talks. His execution signaled the demise of these talks and meant that Achellam and his contacts in the SAF were useful once more, just as Kony was reevaluating his options. But Otti’s death and his alleged crime of having received money from the Ugandan government to defect from the LRA– in reality Kony feared Otti had become too powerful – hastened Kony’s implementation of a new internal policy where power shifted from senior to younger commanders, mostly Kony protégées. Achellam, like most other senior officers in the LRA suffered as a result.
There were early signs of this strategy as early as 1999 when Otti Lagony, the then second in command of the LRA was executed, accused of conspiring against their leader. Kony then instituted a practice of placing young officers, usually in their mid to late 20s who had been Kony’s bodyguards, in charge of LRA groups. In the aftermath of Vincent Otti’s death, LRA troops were divided into four battalions of about 200 fighters each and commanded by these young fighters, mostly captains or majors. Orders from Kony went through his bodyguards to these brigade commanders, entirely bypassing veteran officers who ultimately were relegated to acting as advisors.
The LRA has never been a strictly hierarchical organization. Kony’s decision to marginalize or eliminate top officers, and the fact that LRA groups are constantly on the move to escape capture has reinforced this. Because of the current military offensive, the LRA has increasingly become a gathering of semi-autonomous groups without a direct chain of command. Kony’s orders are disseminated to the various groups by messengers, but when the groups are forced to splinter to dodge the Ugandans, commanders are often forced to make decisions on their own in order to survive.
Each group’s power rests with its commander, who has to have Kony’s trust. More importantly, he must be able to cover long distances, find food, and motivate his troops in the process. In the immediate aftermath of the Ugandan army offensive of December 2008 that scattered LRA fighters throughout central Africa, older combatants like Achellam, who are in their late 50s and early 60s, were assigned to groups led by much younger commanders, so as to survive. Those who were separated from their groups such as Colonel Santo Alit and Brigadier Bok Abudema were killed by the Ugandan army in August and December 2009, respectively. Together with Achellam, these fighters remain the highest commanders captured or killed by the Ugandan army since December 2008.
The diminishing power of senior commanders and the emergence of young leaders at Kony’s insistence mean that Achellam’s capture does not represent a heavy blow to the LRA’s ability to survive or threaten civilian populations. It is clear, however, that morale in the LRA will suffer, and that Achellam might shed light on the current relationship with the SAF and whether the LRA has been resupplied and trained by Khartoum, as some South Sudanese officials have claimed recently. In all likelihood, Achellam’s operational value will soon become obsolete as all LRA groups he worked with change their movements and locations in anticipation of Achellam divulging their secrets.
Once Achellam is brought back to Uganda, questions about his legal status should loom large. The Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy already got the ball rolling when stating on 14 May 2012 that Achellam should not be granted amnesty by the Ugandan government but face justice. The question is what kind of justice and in what jurisdiction. Unlike other senior LRA commanders, Achellam has not been indicted by the International Criminal Court. It would stand to reason that he is eligible for amnesty under the Uganda Amnesty Act of 2000 which grants amnesty to all rebels who renounce violence.
Under this Act, at least 13,000 people formerly in the LRA have been pardoned in the last 12 years including top commanders Brigadiers Kenneth Banya and Sam Kolo, both more powerful and respected in the LRA than Achellam. However, in a surprise move last summer the Ugandan Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) brought charges of war crimes against Thomas Kwoyelo, an LRA fighter captured in DRC in March 2009. The trial was supposed to take place in front of a new division of the High Court but was halted when the Constitutional Court ruled that Kwoyelo was eligible for amnesty. Despite that ruling and the High Court’s decision to suspend the trial, the DPP has refused to release Kwoyelo from prison, essentially ignoring the judiciary.
Achellam could suffer Kwoyelo’s fate or – even worse for him – he could end up like Okello Patrick ‘Mission’. Having joined the LRA during the Juba talks in 2007, Mission - who has a degree from Makerere University – was put in charge of the political wing of the LRA and reportedly captured by the Ugandan army in March 2010 in southern Sudan. Instead of receiving amnesty, Mission is kept in a so-called safe house, an illegal place of detention run by Uganda’s security services. It is unclear where exactly he is now.
If history is an indicator, Achellam is likely to eventually receive government support, particularly if he publicly praises and helps promote President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). Banya and Kolo have campaigned for the NRM in the past, for which they have been financially rewarded.
Politics has often trumped demobilization and justice. Instead of ensuring that there are ample incentives for mid-level LRA commanders – the backbone of the movement – to defect, the Ugandan government has persecuted combatants such as Kwoyelo and Mission, while rehabilitating senior commanders, essentially confirming ‘the big man’ phenomenon, long prevalent in the Ugandan government itself.