Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, August 22, 2011

Guest Blog: The Lord's Resistance Army and Us

Philip Lancaster was General Romeo Dallaire’s Military Assistant in Rwanda in 1994, was the head of MONUC's Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration division and the Coordinator of the UN Group of Experts on the Congo. Most recently, Philip was in charge of a international group researching ways of dealing with the LRA.

Given yet another famine emergency in the Horn of Africa, seemingly endless violence in the Middle East and the number of wobbling economies in both Europe and North America, it is understandable that concern about an obscure group of African bush fighters seems limited to a small band of Africa nerds.  But the surpassing indifference to the plight of the Azande people, who appear to have been left to the tender mercies of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is so far below the low standard of response common to these sorts of problems that it simply can’t be allowed to pass without comment.

In addition to a long running insurgency that savaged northern Uganda for over 20 years, the murder and mayhem caused by the LRA across south eastern Central African Republic (CAR), Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past few years was serious enough to bring both houses of the American Congress to set aside partisan politics long enough to agree on legislation. At about the same time, in August 2010, an international working group comprised of the US, UK and EU governments with participation from the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping and the World Bank, alarmed at the reports of LRA atrocities, assembled around consensus on the need for effective coordination across all the agencies and governments involved.

The UN Security Council weighed in again in July 2011 with a second resolution calling for the LRA to disarm and praising the actions taken so far by governments, international agencies and NGOs to address the harms inflicted by the LRA.  The Security Council particularly praised the efforts of the AU to organize a coordinated military and diplomatic response.

But what, exactly, has been accomplished?

More press releases, more declarations of intent to capture or kill Joseph Kony, more empty assurances of imminent victory and yet another round of search and destroy operations led by the Ugandan Army.  None of this is new and all of it has failed in the past.  The Azande people, an historically marginalized ethnic group of hunters, herders and farmers living in the border regions of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Southern Sudan have been targeted for special attention by the LRA, are caught in the yawning gap between rhetoric and action.  I am reminded of the feeling of abandonment felt by the few who stayed on the ill-fated UN Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda as the outside world decided that their reports of genocide must somehow be exaggerated.  Have we all become so cynical that we will let a whole people suffer like this – again?

While the challenges of taking effective action in such a complex environment are indeed daunting, it is the shallow understanding of the military dimensions of the problem that is so disappointing.  We have ample evidence from reports of the past 20 years that the LRA are a force to be reckoned with.  Ruthless as they are, their tactics are well adapted to the terrain and the nature of the forces they face.  And yet the proposed military responses under the new AU offers no new troops, no new thinking and no sign of serious military technical analysis.  A cynic might be led to think that no one really wants to look at the problem carefully out of fear of being called to do more than they might want to.

The LRA make deliberate use of terror to tie up military forces and survive by hit and run attacks that are well-planned and flawlessly executed.  The military response from UN Peacekeeping and national forces has been totally inadequate insofar as they focus on providing limited static defense of a small number of civilian settlements.  The LRA just find the ones that aren’t protected.  Since none of the armies deployed have a policy of pursuit after attack, the LRA consistently escape with loot and abducted recruits.

Chasing the leaders, which seems to be the strategy preferred by both the Ugandan People’s Defence Force and the US military, is a hit or miss approach that will call down more attacks on unprotected civilians as the LRA instrumentalise them to send their twisted message and replace battlefield losses by abducting new fighters.  While the Ugandan/US strategy has produced some attrition, it has also generated a bloody response and a massive recruitment campaign that seems to have gone unnoticed.

During interviews conducted as part of some recent research on this subject, UPDF officers presented slides showing the numbers of LRA killed or captured but nothing about the numbers recruited.  Subsequent questions revealed that the UPDF were not really interested in recruitment.  One suspects a repetition of the ‘victory by body count’ strategy that failed so spectacularly in Viet Nam.

It is clear that there will be huge difficulties in finding the right kinds and numbers of troops that would probably be needed to be effective against the LRA.  However, it is also clear that repeating failing strategies, no matter whether through the AU or some other agency, will not work – unless exceedingly lucky and Kony and his key leaders are all killed at once.

As a matter of simple logic, and as a first step, the question of who needs to act should be informed by an analysis of what kinds of action are likely to succeed.  This could be achieved by competent technical research conducted by one of the military forces involved and it would cost very little when compared with the cost of poorly aimed military strikes.  Yet, it doesn’t seem to have been done.  Even the wealth of intelligence available from the UPDF has not been shared with the other armies now engaged and so each of them, including the UN Peacekeeping forces, are learning about the LRA the hard way. And learning very slowly.  Nor does anyone appear to have conducted a formal command estimate of the LRA problem.  Normally, no serious army would take on any mission without analysis and yet the forces engaged against the LRA seem to be operating on the premise that it’s easier to fight than to think. Surely this must have something to do with political interference with what should be a normal military staffing action.  Isn’t it time they are allowed to devote some thought to the battle plan before more civilians pay the price for the inevitable next round of blunders?

As frustrating as the problem of the LRA is, it is also a fascinating mirror reflecting political dynamics in the West.  The nub of the political problem could be understood as a manifestation of the hypocrisy of our times.  It is as simple as the old children’s story about a village of mice deciding that the solution to their cat problem is to make it wear a bell. The problem seems solved until one of them asks who is going be the brave soul to hang a bell on the cat. In the LRA case each affected state has other priorities and no third party state is willing to commit political or military resources to give either the UN or the AU a real hope of success.

But everyone involved is too polite to point out that neither organization has the capacity it needs and won’t unless someone steps up to take the responsibility to ensure that it does. 

“Who shall bell the cat?”  But, it would seem, in this case, we haven’t even started looking for a bell.



Ruth said...

Amazing post.

VOA Congo Story said...

Hi Jason:

Steven Ferri from the VOA. I hope you're well. Do you have any interest in writing for our Congo Story blog? and/or allowing us to re-publish some of your blog posts?

Here's the link:

We'd love to have you back for another interview as well when you're in DC.

Best, Steven

Belén Uka said...

Dear Jason, I dont know where else to contact you. Im an undergraduate student of International Relations from the University of Guadalajara, Mexico and I have been interested in the DRC since I found out about it in my first year of international history course. Now I'm in my final year and I want to do my thesis about the conflict, my problem is that my university doesn't have academics focusing on Africa and now Im a bit stuck with my project but I dont want to abandon it. Please, I want to promote the analysis and knowledge about Africa in my university, (in this case, about the Congo) that's why I dont want to leave my thesis project despite what some teachers have suggested me to do it, so if you are interested in helping me (this is even from getting to know my project, giving me some light about it or recommending me someone, anything I would thank you)please send me an email or some details to contact you. Thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

Hi Belén Plascencia I advise you to don't work with Mr Jason about your theses. This man has biased opinions (not objective). Try to look for another one. You're will be mislead.

Anonymous said...

Long time, Jason,
I have a couple of questions for you that are not directly related to this post. As I do not have another way to contact you, I will take the liberty to post them here:
1) In your WSJ review of Consuming the Congo by Peter Eichstaedt, you write of 1 Billion $ of USA aid to DRC. Could you pls detail this aid. Not sure where this figure comes from.
2) You point out some errors in the book but you overlook the errors in the chapter on gold in Ituri and, in fact, ignore Ituri in most of your writing. Pls comment.
3) The FDLR is apparently heavily involved in mining and trade of conflict minerals. If so how do they logistically manage such trade. They certainly cannot go out through Rwanda??
I greatly appreciate your efforts in regards to informing the world on what is happening in the Kivus.

Jason Stearns said...

MP -

Some answers:
1. The $1 billion figure comes from Jonny Carson the Ass Sec State for Africa - he has said it on several occasions. It includes USAID money, US funding for MONUSCO and other multi-lateral funding. Not exactly sure how it breaks down (USAID budget is around $177 million without supplemental).
2. Mea culpa. I am not an expert on Ituri and prefer to write about things that I know - this also explains my relative silence on the LRA. In no way does this imply that I do not think Ituri or the LRA is important (although Ituri has been relatively quiet for the past 3-4 years).
3. The FDLR, like all armed groups, taxes the minerals trade, so they do't need to be involved in the export themselves, they just tax the diggers in the pits and the traders along the trade routes. In the case of gold, they are probably more involved in trading, in some cases dispatching reps to Bujumbura, Kampala and Dar es Salaam.

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