In October 2011, President Obama sent 100 U.S. Army Special Forces personnel to central Africa to help the Ugandan military pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its notorious leader, Joseph Kony.
Five years later, although the LRA is much weaker, Kony remains at large, orchestrating attacks against civilians. The Ugandan military, which has been leading the anti-LRA effort, has announced that it will withdraw from pursuing the group by the end of the year, citing a lack of international support.
With Kony’s increasingly erratic and brutal leadership alienating many followers, the best opportunity to dismantle the LRA at this point may be encouraging disillusioned members to defect.
The U.S. joined the fight against the LRA
When President Obama first took office in 2009, LRA forces had killed more than 600 civilians in attacks called the Christmas Massacres — and both grass-roots activists and the U.S. Congress pressured the president to work to dismantle the LRA. In May 2010, Congress passed the bipartisan LRA Disarmament Act, which directed Obama to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the crisis.
Obama’s strategy included the deployment of the U.S. Special Forces, primarily tasked with helping Ugandan troops pursue Kony. Crucially, the Special Forces, as well as civil society groups, also expanded nonviolent campaigns to encourage LRA combatants to defect by delivering “Come Home” messages with leaflets, radio broadcasts, and loudspeaker announcements from helicopters.
From 2011 to 2014, Ugandan troops captured or killed several senior LRA commanders. But the most substantial losses came from defections from LRA groups in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), southeastern Central African Republic (CAR) and southern Darfur.
In 2012, for example, 80 percent of Ugandan male combatants who left the LRA surrendered voluntarily, while military forces killed or captured the remaining 20 percent. From 2012 to 2014, at least 239 women and children — whose daily labor sustained LRA operations — escaped from long-term captivity.
Our research estimates that the number of LRA combatants fell from 400 in 2010 to about 250 by 2013. But the pace of defections slowed considerably in late 2014 as U.S.-Ugandan military operations became less effective — there is no public record that these efforts resulted in a single LRA combatant killed or captured after June 2014. Absent military pressure, LRA members, particularly Ugandan males in command positions, had few incentives to risk a long and hazardous journey home.
Fighters also fear detention or prosecution by Ugandan authorities. The decision of the Ugandan government to prosecute Thomas Kwoyelo, a former mid-ranking officer who had little influence in Kony’s inner circle, raised concerns among remaining fighters. These fears resurfaced in late 2014 when LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who had escaped Kony’s house arrest, was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to be tried on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Defectors with nowhere to go
Our research interviews with recently returned LRA members suggests that Kony’s leadership is becoming more erratic and harsh, disillusioning even his most loyal followers. But Kony’s false warnings that the ICC will target all LRA defectors have reinforced their fears of prosecution.
The experience of LRA commander Achaye ‘Doctor’ illustrates the dilemma of fighters who no longer want to fight for Kony’s LRA but are too afraid to leave the bush. In late 2014, he and several confidants split from Kony’s command but never surrendered to Ugandan authorities, in part because they had heard of Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC and feared a similar fate.
Instead, Achaye’s splinter group set up camp along a remote stretch of the DRC-CAR border and began abducting young Congolese boys to train, possibly seeking to boost the group’s fighting capacity to prolong its survival — or fight off hostile LRA groups loyal to Kony.
In May 2015, seven fighters in Kony’s inner circle defected — reportedly after trying to kill him and his closest bodyguard, Okot George ‘Odek.’ In February 2016, Odek himself escaped after Kony executed another LRA veteran and threatened Odek with the same fate.
Defection messaging does work
Even if a Ugandan military withdrawal reduces external pressure on the LRA, Kony’s increasingly erratic and brutal leadership is a strong internal force encouraging his followers to abandon him. Still, years of LRA propaganda and isolation reinforce fears of surrendering.
Defection messaging can play a key role in undermining these residual fears, regardless of whether the Ugandan forces are present. Odek and other recent escapees stated that defection messaging helped them decide to leave Kony and the LRA — and they claimed that they preferred to surrender to U.S. troops, citing fears about turning themselves in to Ugandan authorities.
Our research shows that defection messages are most successful when they target specific LRA commanders. One method is collecting recordings or photos from family members and then releasing them via radio or leaflets. Photos or recordings from recent defectors targeting comrades still active in the LRA also can have a powerful effect, as LRA fighters identify closely with former comrades and their experiences.
A critical point is that the messengers convincingly argue that defectors will not face prosecution in Uganda or The Hague, as per Ugandan policy under the Amnesty Act of 2000.
Fresh content and attention to cultural nuance in these messages helps build trust and convince LRA fighters that leaving the ranks is their best option. This approach utilizes the expertise of civil society leaders and former LRA combatants in northern Uganda.
Even as they focus on arresting Kony before the Ugandan military withdraws, the U.S. Special Forces and international partners could expand this defection messaging, starting with people like Achaye Doctor, as the next phase of the counter-LRA effort.
Ignoring the LRA is not a viable option. In early 2016, LRA groups launched their most violent campaign against civilians in years, abducting 220 civilians in eastern CAR in six weeks. Both the splinter group and Kony loyalists targeted young boys and girls during these attacks and may be seeking to train a new generation of fighters.
Ledio Cakaj (@LedioCakaj), a writer and researcher focusing on armed groups and reintegration of former combatants, is the author of “When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard.” (Zed Books).
Paul Ronan (@pauldronan) is the director of the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative and co-manages the LRA Crisis Tracker, an online mapping platform tracking activity by the LRA and other armed groups.