Before the recent overthrow by rebels of its government, the Central African Republic (CAR) was best known for the exploits of a murderous warlord and self-styled mystic leader Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Have the recent events let Kony and the LRA off the hook again?
Starting off in the 1980s as a Ugandan-based quasi-Christian militia, the LRA became more and more violent over the years, terrorising northern Uganda for more than 20 years. An estimated two million people have been displaced and Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.
Now it seems Kony and the LRA – notorious for mutilating innocent people by hacking off lips and limbs, abducting children and forcing them to kill their parents before using them as child soldiers or sex slaves – is to receive a respite and allowed to regroup to restart their campaign of terror.
An international hunt for Kony began in 2008 after he became a threat to Uganda’s stability and President Museveni decided to send some of his troops after him and the LRA.
The hunt intensified in 2011 when 100 United States Special Forces were deployed to the CAR as advisors and to forward intelligence to Ugandan troops.
At present an African Union (AU) force of about 5 000, mostly Ugandan, are still trying to capture the elusive warlord.
Real pressure to bring an end to LRA terror came in 2012 when NGOs and human rights groups in the US, particularly the group Invisible Children, took up the case with a media campaign to expose Kony and his actions to the world.
Invisible Children released a video, Kony 2012, focused on increased awareness of the LRA and Kony. It became the most viral video in history, watched by more than 46 million people across the globe.
Kony and his cronies were expected to be apprehended and brought before the ICC in The Hague soon after that. But this is yet to happen and, by all accounts, Kony will now, as a result of developments in the CAR, find some breathing space and time to reorganise and regroup.
After the Seleka rebels took control of the CAR in late March, Uganda suddenly and unexpectedly announced the temporary suspension of their hunt for Kony.
At the same time, the US State Department announced that it was offering a US$5-million reward under a provision in the War Crimes Rewards Programme, authored by Secretary of State, John Kerry, when he was still a senator for information leading to the arrest of Kony and some of his lieutenants.
The decision to withdraw the troops looking for Kony and the issuing of a reward for his capture was met with disbelief and immediately dismissed as a serious mistake. While the campaign against the LRA has been criticised for not making much headway since it began, it is believed that over the last three years LRA killings and abductions have decreased. The danger is now that Kony might ally with sympathetic groups, rearm, and put the LRA in a stronger position than before.
A Uganda military spokesperson explained that the Ugandan troops faced opposition from the Seleka rebels, which is why they were unwilling to co-operate in the hunt for Kony.
The original agreement for the LRA operation was made with the now ousted CAR president, Françoise Bozize, who was a strong supporter of the efforts to eliminate the LRA. The continuation of the campaign now requires permission from the new rebel government. This became impossible since the campaign against Kony and the LRA is mandated by the AU, which has declared the Seleka authority illegitimate, placed it under sanctions, and suspended the CAR’s membership to the AU.
Some analysts still doubt how much determination there has been to destroy the LRA and capture Kony.
The weakness of the CAR government leading up to the overthrow of Bozize, should have given an advantage to Kony's hunters. The lack of the CAR government’s control gave Uganda and the US a free hand to do what was needed to capture Kony but they failed.
It is also suggested that capturing Kony has for some time not been a priority strategic objective for Uganda and it is increasingly difficult not to agree with those arguing that there is no real commitment and will to hunt Kony down.
It is hard to believe that the experienced and well equipped Ugandan troops, supported by US military advisors, who according to reports are using drones to track down Kony, keep on failing in their mission.
Amongst the questions that arise are:
· Is it possible that the political will is absent because, perhaps, there are some influential individuals, politicians and business people, in the region fearful that if captured, Kony might decide to reveal information causing them some discomfort?
· Is Kony perhaps a decoy for placing a hundred US Special Forces in central Africa for different reasons?
The on-going failure to capture a warlord on the run with little more than 200 diehard followers feeds the growing scepticism and disbelief.
The thought springs to mind that maybe the presence of South African troops in the CAR would have been supported by most South Africans if their brief included assistance in the hunt for one of the most cruel and murderous warlords in Africa. This is as good a reason for the presence of South African troops in that region as any argument raised to date.
If South African troops are deployed to the DRC to stop the advance of the M23 rebel movement why not Kony and the LRA?