Basic History

For over two decades LRA violence has terrorized communities throughout central Africa, and the rebel group has been at the heart of one of the longest, most violent conflicts on the continent. But while some things about the conflict appear simple, a broader look at the region’s complex history is necessary to understand why LRA atrocities have endured for so long and how best to stop them.

Three concepts key to understanding the LRA crisis

Before diving into the dates, names and places, there’s a few broad themes that have been recurring throughout the conflict that are worth highlighting:

The LRA thrives where governments fail: The LRA has been responsible for some of the worst violence in Africa’s history, and is rightly condemned worldwide for these atrocities. However, governments in central Africa have been responsible for crimes against many of the same communities vulnerable to LRA attacks and have failed to take adequate steps to prevent LRA violence. A lasting peace to this conflict will not be possible unless steps are taken to both end LRA violence and improve the governance and behavior of governments in the region.

It’s all interconnected: Though the primary drivers of this conflict have been the LRA and the Ugandan government, a wide range of actors in the region and international community have shaped this conflict over the past twenty years. The US in particular has played an influential role. For years the US was a staunch ally of the Ugandan government and largely ignored the conflict in the north, helping to perpetuate the conflict. In recent years the US, while still a key ally of the current government, has played a more active role in providing assistance to war-affected communities and in supporting both peace talks and military efforts aimed at ending LRA violence.

People suffering from the LRA are already on the margins of society: All four countries the LRA has operated in since the 1980s have suffered civil wars and internal divisions and have struggled to construct democratic and inclusive governments. The people living in areas affected by the LRA have been among the most neglected populations in the region, including the Acholi people in northern Uganda and Azande people vulnerable to LRA raids in far-flung corners of the DR Congo, South Sudan and CAR. On the margins of political decision-making and economic development, these communities’ please for peace have often been ignored by regional and international leaders.

The seeds of division

This crisis has its roots in northern Uganda as essentially two conflicts in one: first, the fighting of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which was initially waging war against the Ugandan government and terrorizing the civilian population in the north; and second, the deep grievances of northern Ugandans against the existing government. The war arose out of the divisive political climate that was embedded by British colonialism and perpetuated by post-colonial politics. The British employed a “divide-and-rule” strategy, pitting southerners against northerners to maintain control of the country.

Since gaining independence in 1962, Ugandan politics have been marked by continued ethnic and regional divisions, most notably the divide between the North and South of the country. In addition, armed rebellion has been seen by many groups in Uganda as the sole and legitimate means to express political grievances and attain political power. Repression and violence, not limited to the notorious reign of Idi Amin, has been a constant feature of the Ugandan political system.

The rise of the Museveni regime meets opposition

In 1986 Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) took power by military coup in Uganda, ending decades of rule by dictators from northern Uganda. But instead of ending a period of regional divisions and rebellions, President Museveni’s rule began to perpetuate it. Since 1986 at least 22 groups have taken up arms against the Ugandan government. The most significant of these rebellions has taken place in several stages in northern Uganda, especially in the Acholi sub-region. When Museveni captured power in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, he was violating the December 1985 Nairobi Peace Accord, a power-sharing agreement that he had signed with General Tito Okello, a northerner. Fearing repression, northerners in Kampala fled north once the NRA arrived. Museveni discharged all northerners in the civil service and military, ordering the NRA to pursue these elements. In the Acholi sub-region, there was fear and panic as many thought the NRA would take revenge on northerners, whom they blamed for much of Uganda’s violent history.

In this climate of mistrust, the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) organized itself in southern Sudan to defend the north against the NRA. Initially, the UPDA consisted of former government soldiers and disillusioned, unemployed young men from northern Uganda. The UPDA received strong support from the local population. However, the success of the UPDA was limited, and by July 1987, many UPDA soldiers accepted an offer of amnesty from the NRA. In June 1988, peace talks between the NRA and UPDA led to the Gulu Peace Accord, in which more than two thousand UPDA soldiers were incorporated into the national military.

Rise of the LRA

While the UPDA faded, another rebellion of a different nature grew under the leadership of Alice Auma Lakwena. Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) was founded to “purify” Acholi society and liberate the north from the NRA control. Lakwena was believed to be a spiritual messenger with mystical powers. The HSM, like the UPDA, received strong support from the northern population. Yet, after winning a series of battles, HSM was overwhelmingly defeated by the NRA in November 1987. Following Lakwena’s defeat, her father, Severino Lukoya continued to fight, claiming that he was also a spiritual messenger. His rebellion failed to win the support of the public, and quickly dissolved.

The defeat of these three rebellion movements left a power vacuum in northern Uganda that was immediately filled by Joseph Kony. Kony, a former UPDA fighter, was a simple Catholic preacher and a teacher and during his time with the UPDA he claimed to have become a spiritual messenger in the tradition of Lakwena. Kony refused to recognize the Gulu Peace Accord of 1988, and split off to form the Uganda People’s Democratic Christian Army. The name was later changed to Uganda Christian Democratic Army, and finally in late 1991 to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which remains its name to this day. Since its founding in 1988, the LRA has combined an apocalyptic spiritualism with opportunistic politics and warlordism. Receiving little support from the war-weary northern population, Kony’s group began attacking local civilians, in direct conflict with his call to address the grievances and marginalization of the Acholi people.

In an act of retribution for the lost support of the North and also as a mechanism of forced recruitment, Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army began filling its ranks by abducting children and young people, as many as 66,000 northern Ugandan youth over the course of the war. Utilizing psychological warfare, the commanders have been able to manipulate and terrify these children, forcing them to commit unspeakable atrocities. In some cases, children have been forced to kill family members or burn their own villages to prove their obedience and entrench their fear. Many abducted Ugandan girls have become the “wives” of the commanders, forced to have sex with and do domestic labor for their captors.

Failed negotiations and the forced displacement policy

In 1993, Betty Bigombe, then Minister for the Pacification of the North, led peace negotiations between the Government of Uganda and the LRA. The talks were reportedly within hours of completion when President Museveni issued a seven-day ultimatum for the rebels to surrender. The peace process collapsed. Since then, the Community of Sant’Egidio of Rome, the Carter Center in the United States and the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Uganda has organized other mediation initiatives. However, these efforts have all been plagued by ill will and mistrust by both warring parties and none have succeeded.

In 1996, the Government had begun a policy of “protected villages,” moving people from their homes into camps in an attempt to isolate LRA fighters. However, these “protected villages” quickly turned into a displacement nightmare. In 2002, the government launched a new military offensive against the LRA, Operation Iron Fist, causing the rebels to move into the Lango and Teso regions of northern Uganda and creating a dramatic surge in the number of internally displaced persons in northern Uganda. By 2004, 1.7 million people – over 80% of the region – were displaced in squalid camps lacking access to basic resources. Within these camps, problems of starvation, poor sanitation, psychosocial trauma, lack of education, HIV/AIDS and prostitution persisted on gross levels. In 2005 reports revealed that nearly 1,000 people were dying each week as a result of camp conditions. Camp conditions have been potent symbols of the exclusion and marginalization of northerners by the Museveni regime and have exacerbated northern grievances against the government.

The LRA becomes a regional menace

Though the LRA rebellion is rooted in Uganda’s unique history, it has thrived on and been enabled by dynamics in the broader region of central Africa. In fact, the LRA has not committed an attack on Ugandan soil since 2006, and long before lost any claim it once had to represent the grievances of communities in northern Uganda. The LRA’s goals are limited to the interests of its senior military commanders and it survives by preying on remote, marginalized populations across central Africa. In recent years the LRA has targeted populations living in remote corners of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic (CAR) – all countries that have struggled with their own brutal civil wars and failed states. The people living in areas currently affected by the LRA, many of whom share an identity as members of the Azande tribe, are politically marginalized within each of these three countries.

The LRA’s first foray outside of northern Uganda was into neighboring South Sudan. Beginning in 1994, the Government of Sudan, based in Khartoum, provided military support and safe haven to the LRA. In exchange, Khartoum used the LRA to destabilize South Sudan and fight the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) based there. In retaliation, the Ugandan government funded the SPLA. The US government, concerned about Khartoum’s involvement in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa, also funneled weapons to the SPLA through the Ugandan government. The result was a massive flow of arms to the region. The 1999 Nairobi Agreement between Sudan and Uganda supposedly ended these proxy relationships, and the LRA’s security in South Sudan became more uncertain after the SPLA and Sudanese government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. However, allegations that the Sudanese government continues to provide covert assistance to the LRA persists and there are concerns that the relationship could be resumed if they see the LRA as a tool to destabilize South Sudan ahead of its 2011 referendum on independence.

In 2005 the conflict spread even further as the LRA, losing its foothold in northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, moved into the northeastern corner of neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. There decades of misrule by strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and years of war fought on Congolese soil by self-interested militaries from across Africa, including Uganda, had left a shell of a state. Northeastern Congo’s dense forests and the failure of government institutions and security forces to provide stability offered a perfect haven for Joseph Kony and his rebel forces.

In time, after establishing bases in Garamba National Park in DR Congo, the LRA also ventured north into Central African Republic in search of new recruits and potential hiding places. In March 2008 LRA fighters abducted dozens of people from the CAR town of Obo, and promised local residents that they would return. The CAR government and military, like their Congolese counterparts, have been unable to extend their authority into these remote regions to prevent LRA fighters from keeping that foreboding promise.

The Juba peace process: Hopes for a negotiated solution breakdown

Despite the expansion of the conflict into the broader region, in the summer of 2006 momentum for a peaceful resolution to the conflict surged with the beginning of peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government. The talks were hosted in the new South Sudanese capital of Juba by the region’s new government, which hoped an end to LRA violence would help consolidate its power and rebuild war-torn communities. Negotiations began in July 2006 and were widely believed to be the best opportunity to end the conflict.

Despite some early progress, the peace talks quickly ran into complications. Senior LRA commanders, including Joseph Kony, refused to participate directly in the negotiations, citing concerns about arrest warrants issued in 2005 by the International Criminal Court on charges including war crimes and crimes against humanity. However the LRA’s appointed negotiating team was plagued by infighting and concerns that it held the confidence of neither senior LRA commanders nor communities in northern Uganda. The Ugandan government’s commitment to the peace process was undermined by threats to resume fighting made by President Museveni and allegations that it had violated the ceasefire agreement with the rebels.

Hope for a final agreement was sustained by a series of intermediary agreements, including one on transitional justice mechanisms in Uganda, and by the efforts of special envoys from the US, Europe, Africa and the UN to keep the parties at the table. In early 2008 a flurry of progress culminated in planned meeting in April 2008 between mediators and Joseph Kony to attain his signature on the Final Peace Agreement. However, Kony failed to show up for the ceremony, or for a subsequent meeting with northern Ugandan civil society leaders in May 2009.

These disappointing developments were not, however, the first indication that the peace process had failed to gain the buy-in of LRA leader Joseph Kony. Months before failing to sign the peace agreement, Kony had oversaw the execution of his top deputy Vincent Otti after Otti allegedly argued too forcefully in favor of a peace agreement. And just weeks before the planned signing ceremony news began to slowly surface of an LRA raid into a remote region of CAR in March in which rebels kidnapped dozens of people.

In September 2008, following efforts by the Congolese army to contain its movements, the LRA resumed systematic attacks on civilians by kidnapping dozens of schoolchildren and taking control of a large swath territory in northeastern DR Congo, dealing another blow to hopes for a negotiated solution. Under pressure by Kony’s refusal to engage the peace talks and the Ugandan government’s growing impatience with the process, mediators set a November 30th deadline for Kony to sign the peace agreement. On November 29th, a group of Ugandan civil society representatives met with Joseph Kony, but were unable to get his signature on the peace deal.

Operation Lightning Thunder and LRA massacres

On December 14, 2008, two weeks after the last meeting between Kony and peace negotiators, the Uganda military launched an offensive against the LRA’s bases in DR Congo’s Garamba National Park. Dubbed “Operation Lightning Thunder,” the poorly planned offensive failed to surprise the elusive rebel leaders, who responded by ordering massive reprisal attacks on civilians in vulnerable areas of the DR Congo and Sudan. The US provided significant financial, logistical and diplomatic support for the operation, despite the failure of the military planners to include a coordinated strategy to protect civilians from predictable LRA reprisal attacks, a tactic the LRA had used in response to past offensives by military forces.
Just days after the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder the LRA carried out a series of coordinated massacres specifically targeting gatherings of Congolese civilians gathered at their places of worship. Over 865 civilians were killed in these attacks, one of the worst massacres of the war.

Civilians in the crossfire: The crisis since Operation Lightning Thunder

Following the Christmas Massacres the Ugandan army quickly expanded its operations against the LRA and by mid-2009 had thousands of troops operating in DR Congo, South Sudan and CAR. The Ugandan military has cooperated with the national militaries in all three countries and to some extent with UN peacekeepers in DR Congo and South Sudan, though the capacity and will of these forces to protect civilians and pursue LRA rebels has been lacking. In March 2009, under pressure from Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Ugandan government announced a withdrawal from DR Congo, but unofficially maintained an unknown but significant number of troops in the country.

Despite claims by the Ugandan and Congolese military that the LRA rebels are on the verge of defeat, over 18 months of military operations since the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder have failed to bring a conclusive end to LRA violence. With the help of continued US logistics and intelligence support, the Ugandan military has succeeded in capturing or killing several senior LRA commanders and has improved its efforts to protect civilians vulnerable to LRA attacks. However, the operations have also pushed the LRA further north and west than they had previously ranged, making more communities targets of rebel raids. The LRA’s ability to maintain its core leadership structure and coordinate attacks across vast stretches of territory has demonstrated that its capacity to wreak havoc on the lives of civilians in central Africa remains intact.

In DR Congo LRA rebels have displaced over 230,000 people and killed or abducted thousands more since the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder. In March 2010, research by Human Rights Watch brought to world attention an extensive series of attacks that took place in December of 2009 – beginning on the one-year anniversary of the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder – that have become known as the Makombo Massacres. Over 321 civilians in the Makombo region of northeastern Congo were brutally murdered over a four day period and another 250 were abducted, many of them children.

DR Congo has suffered the worst LRA violence since the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder, but rebel attacks have also continued in South Sudan and Central African Republic. In South Sudan LRA attacks have displaced tens of thousands of people and even targeted Congolese refugees who fled to South Sudan after LRA attacks in DR Congo. In Central African Republic LRA rebels resumed widespread attacks on civilians in June 2009, but despite dozens of confirmed attacks little is known about the impact of rebel violence on the dispersed villages and farms there.

Though LRA rebels pose as much of a threat as ever to innocent people in central Africa, the future of efforts to protect civilians from the LRA and prevent their leaders from ordering more attacks remains in flux. There is widespread speculation that Ugandan soldiers will be recalled home by the end of 2010, raising concerns about the ability of the other national militaries and UN peacekeepers in the region to protect civilians from the LRA. Despite this uncertainty, the US and international community have overseen the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers in DR Congo from the frontlines of LRA violence, and have been reluctant to consider viable alternatives to the Ugandan operations.

The long road to recovery in Uganda

Though LRA attacks continue in the wider region, northern Uganda has been free from rebel raids since 2006. The Juba peace process gave unprecedented momentum to efforts to spur economic recovery in northern Uganda and foster efforts aimed at healing divisions within the country. However, the 1.7 million northern Ugandans displaced by the conflict have still struggled to rebuild communities devastated by over two decades of war. Over one million people have returned home, but many have struggled to rebuild the agricultural livelihoods that sustain most families and resolve widespread disputes over land rights. Efforts to heal the political and economic divisions within Uganda – which gave rise to the LRA and threaten the country’s future stability even if the rebel group never returns – have also stalled since the Juba peace talks ended.

Slow progress in overcoming the legacy of conflict is due in part to inadequate leadership from the Ugandan government and international community on crucial recovery and reconciliation initiatives. Government recovery programs have been poorly managed and underfunded, and many northern Ugandans lack basic services such as schools, health centers and clean water. The Ugandan government’s track record of corruption, poor governance and constriction of political and media freedoms throughout the country has caused rising tensions within Uganda, while many people fear that the contentious 2011 presidential election could spark renewed violence in the country.

Breaking the stalemate: Hopes for a lasting peace

Developments in 2010 have brought renewed hope that the international community will finally commit to seeing an end to the unchecked violence of the LRA and lasting peace in the region. In May 2010, the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, committing the US to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the crisis. The law, the most widely supported piece of legislation on an African policy issue in at least 40 years, calls for more robust efforts to permanently stop LRA leaders and help communities affected by the conflict recover from the war. Working with regional governments and the people directly affected by this conflict, we remain hopeful that US and international leaders will help write the final chapter to this conflict.

last updated July 2010