In-depth: Life in northern Uganda

UGANDA: Nature, structure and ideology of the LRA

The Ugandan army has been unable to protect people in the villages from LRA attacks
NAIROBI, 1 January 2004 (IRIN) - The word 'Kony' in the Acholi language means, "to help", but in northern Uganda's Acholi sub-region, it is clear that it has other connotations: if anything, it has become synonymous with terror, destruction and suffering.

Over the last 17 years, Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has staged the most brutal rebellion ever witnessed in Uganda, turning the once thriving Acholi people into a displaced and terrified population.

LRA structure and ideology

The LRA remains one of the least understood rebel movements in the world, and its ideology, as far as it has one, is difficult to understand.

Apart from the original LRA manifesto, in which Kony proclaimed that he wanted to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni's government and replace it with one governed by the Biblical Ten Commandments, little else is known of the LRA's philosophy.

To the Ugandan army the LRA is simply a terrorist group, with no political agenda. According to Ugandan army spokesman Shaban Bantariza, Kony has snubbed all proposals to end the rebellion through peaceful means.

"You can't tell whether they want political power. Its only aim is to terrorise and brutalise the civilian population and to loot their homes," Bantariza told IRIN.

"What was originally a rebellion has turned into terrorism. If they had a political problem, we would have solved it a long time ago. The government has been encouraging everybody to participate in dialogue. Many people volunteered to mediate, including the Carter Centre and even the Pope, but Kony snubbed their efforts," he said.

Even more complex is the structure of the military command of the LRA, an army of abducted children, many as young as seven but "very dangerous", in the words of Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic Priest in Gulu and a member of the local Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.

"Kony is interested in children. If you tell a child who is terrorised and traumatised to commit an atrocity, the child will do it. This is not the same with adults," he says.

It is the children in the middle ranks, many of whom were abducted ten years ago and are now in their 20s, who carry out the worst atrocities, Rodriguez says. "A child grows into the kind of system where if you do good things, you are punished. If you do evil things, you are promoted to a higher rank," he adds.

"When they reach 20, they are completely assimilated. When the army attacks them, they are killed and treated as rebels. But if they escape from rebel hands, they are treated as abductees," he adds.

History of the rebellion

According to the Centre for the Prevention of Genocide (CPG), a US-based charity organisation, the LRA began primarily as a group of Acholi supporters of the former head of state, Tito Okello, who was forced out of office by Museveni's NRA in 1986.

The group consisted of remnants of the Holy Spirit Movement, formed in 1986 by a young Acholi woman named Alice Lakwena. Lakwena, who considered herself a prophet, had mobilised Okello's supporters and led them against Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA), which later formed the core of the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UPDF).

She armed her followers with sticks and stones and managed to convince them the army's bullets would bounce off their chests after she had anointed them with shea butter oil. Lakwena's rebellion was defeated by the UPDF and she fled to Kenya, where she is still in exile.

Shortly after Lakwena's defeat, her nephew, Joseph Kony, declared himself her "spiritual heir" and formed the LRA.

Over time, the LRA has become a sinister cult with Kony left at the centre of its command. With no clear political agenda, the group has no known associations or political allies within Uganda.

Who is Kony?

But who exactly is this 'Kony', the man who has continued to terrorise the northern Ugandan region?

Walter Ochora, the chairman of Gulu local district council, who has met Kony once, argues that the rebel leader is not insane, as many have suggested. "Kony is not mad. He knows what he is doing, very well. For him this war has become a way of life and he is gaining a lot from it," Ochora says.

Kony's own children, fathered in the bush, are said to receive preferential treatment compared with the abductees. They are given better food to eat and even receive primary school education from abducted teachers.

Kony is thought to be the father of between 30 and 100 children, according to information from children returning from LRA captivity. "While we were in Sudan, Kony's children and his commanders were going to school. They ate food that they got from [the Sudanese government garrison town of] Juba. The rest of us only ate the beans and millet we cultivated," said Onencan, a former abductee.

"During the drought season, the rest of us had to attack Sudanese villages and forcefully take food from them in order to survive, while Kony's children continued to be well fed," the 15-year old added.

Onencan, currently under rehabilitation at the World Vision Centre in Gulu town, described Kony as a devoutly religious man who - like Alice Lakwena - sees himself as a prophet. "We prayed a lot. We used to say the Lord's Prayer. The objective of the prayers was to help us with the war so we could one day win and come out of our present difficult situation and live decently," Onencan told IRIN.

Before any combat, Kony would predict the likely outcome, Onencan added. "Most of us believed him because he would predict things which would actually happen the way he had predicted. When we were not in battle, Kony would sit down and discuss with his commanders," he said.

Other former captives also speak of intensely spiritual prayer sessions, which blended Catholic, Protestant and even Islamic worship.

On Sundays and Fridays, prayers were conducted three times a day, according to Consi Lalam, another former captive undergoing rehabilitation at the World Vision Centre. "Some days we would be told to pray against something bad that was about to happen,” she said. "When the government was about to attack us in Sudan, Kony said he had seen a vision from the Holy Spirit that UPDF was preparing to attack us.

Fr. Rodriguez, who has managed to make contact with the rebels argues that Kony has not a "single religious bone in his body". "Some of the most sublime beliefs have been used throughout history to commit atrocities," he notes.

For others, like Charles Okot, a trader in the Gulu market, speculating on whether anyone knows why Kony is fighting is not the issue. "What is important is that the people must not be allowed to suffer. It is the responsibility of the government to protect its people. This is what we need to realise. Let us not think of the reason. Let us think of the people," he says.

Why the LRA is difficult to contain

But why has the UPDF been unable to destroy the LRA, as was initially expected of its anti-LRA offensive, code-named 'Operation Iron Fist'?

The LRA has stepped up its attacks on northern Uganda in retaliation for the offensive against its bases in southern Sudan. In response to Operation Iron Fist, the LRA has divided into smaller units and spread across Acholi region's three districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader.

In addition, the group has begun to spread its activities to a wider geographical area beyond Acholiland. More recent attacks have been carried out westwards into Adjumani, southwards into Lira and Apac, and eastwards into the Karamoja district of Kotido.

Although Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spent the second half of 2002 in the northern military headquarters in Gulu to personally oversee the war against the LRA, the attacks have escalated in recent months. Museveni returned to the north in July 2003

innocent civilians
LRA atrocities include the mutilation of thousands of innocent civilians.
Credit: Sven Torfinn (2002)
By June 2003, the LRA hit Soroti District in the Teso region, situated much closer to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, than to the border with Sudan.

According to Fr. Rodriguez, neither Operation Iron Fist nor the recent recruitment of some 7,000 pro-government home guard militia has improved the security for the local population in northern Uganda. He accuses the UPDF of failing to do its job, always arriving at the scene long after the rebels have committed atrocities and left.

"What puzzles me is that for so many months all you hear from the military is that they are winning the war, scoring many victories, making progress," he says. "But why is that progress not translating into the improvement of security of people on the ground?

"There is no single road that is safe here. The abductions are continuing."

The army has attributed this escalation to the destruction of LRA rear bases in southern Sudan, which, it says, has led to the disruption of the group's food supply lines. The army has also said that, in order to carry out its work more effectively, it needs more logistical and financial support.

Other observers say that the Ugandan military budget, standing at about US $150 million for 2003, is already too high. They say that cuts of 23 percent have been made from the budgets of other ministries to boost military spending with little to show for it in terms of increased security for the northern Ugandan population.

Those opposed to more military spending argue that, in fact, more of Uganda's military resources have been spent on the Ugandan army's activities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rather than on protecting the Acholi population from LRA attacks.

"The government does not treat the LRA as a priority issue," one NGO worker told IRIN. "A lot of resources have been spent in the Congo and they keep giving us wrong information about the north. The rest of the country has been made to believe that Kony is just a madman. So why have they not captured him?"

Officially, Ugandan soldiers were active in the eastern part of the DRC to prevent rebel groups operating against the Ugandan government from making incursions into Uganda territory. Earlier this year, the Uganda army officially pulled out of the DRC, but it still retains a small force patrolling the border along the Rwenzori Mountains, situated on Uganda's western frontier.

Is Sudan still supporting the LRA?

According to Walter Ochora, the turning point in Kony's rebellion came when he was used as a proxy force by the Sudanese government to attack the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

"He would attack SPLA, and many of his child soldiers would get killed. So when his force was depleted, he would return to Uganda and abduct more children. And the vicious cycle would continue," Ochora told IRIN.

Following a 1999 agreement between Uganda and Sudan to cease supporting rebel groups operating on each other's territory, and subsequently improved diplomatic relations, Khartoum says that it has long since stopped supporting the LRA.

However, the Ugandan military has said recently that the LRA has continued to receive weapons from elements of the Sudan People's Armed Forces (SPAF), even though Sudanese President Umar Hassan al-Bashir has extended the military protocol that facilitated Operation Iron Fist.

"The LRA had turned against SPAF when Sudan withdrew its support. So some people within SPAF began giving support to relieve them of the pressure of LRA attacks. Some elements are still giving arms to Kony up to now," Shaban Bantariza told IRIN.

Khartoum has strongly denied these claims. Hasan Yusuf Ngor, the Sudanese consul in Kampala, told IRIN recently the Sudanese government would deal severely with anyone found to be supplying the LRA. "We will listen, and certainly any officer caught red-handed doing this kind of thing will be promptly court-martialled," he said.

Religious leaders like Fr. Rodriguez have cited recent evidence implicating Khartoum. "We have been telling the international community that Sudan is still giving arms to LRA," he said. "We have been telling them this but they didn't take serious steps to pressure the Sudanese government. We shouldn't have such double standards in the international community.

"It is difficult to continue persuading the rebels to come for peace talks when there is someone behind telling them to come for more weapons. Let them put more pressure on Sudan to stop supplying weapons to continue butchering the people."