New Approach Needed to Defeat Kony and the LRA

Last week, the United States government stepped up its efforts to find the ICC-indicted criminal Joseph Kony and his group the Lord’s Resistance Army. On January 15, President Obama signed into law the expansion of the Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program, which offers financial incentives for information relating to the capture of individuals wanted for terrorism or drug trafficking, and those indicted by the the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The new legislation expands the RFJ program to include other international criminal tribunals investigating crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. Topping the list of “most wanted” in the statement announcing the legislation was Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Previous attempts to defeat the rebel group have been based on military operations and the deployment of special envoys and representatives to the region to build cooperation between countries affected by the LRA’s activities. This new legislation is designed to strip away Kony’s protection and provide the intelligence to conduct targeted military operations.

Key Conclusions

    • The US continues its efforts to defeat the LRA, as it has done since 2002. By expanding the RFJ program, the US is adopting a new tactic to gain actionable intelligence to bolster the existing strategies of military operations and regional dialogue.
    • The LRA has benefited from the challenges posed by the cross-border nature of its attacks. It has exploited the regional leadership vacuum to continue to commit atrocities and terrorize the civilian population.
    • Given the multi-national area of LRA influence, defeat of the LRA can only be achieved through cooperation between LRA-affected countries, regional institutions, and the international donor community.


The enhanced State Department rewards program is the latest in a series of US anti-LRA actions. The US first included the LRA in the Terrorist Exclusions List and provided support for the Ugandan government’s military operation to defeat the group in Sudan, Operation Iron Fist, in 2002. The support was provided as reciprocation for Ugandan President Museveni’s immediate support for the US military responses to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and also fitted US counterterrorism policy in the wake of 2001 which predicted East Africa could be the next crucible of international terrorism.

In 2004, President George Bush asked the US State Department to begin compiling a list of the LRA’s financial sources, and the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act, which asked for a report on the topic, was passed. US interest fizzled out, however, as fears about “terrorism” in the region diminished and became usurped by more pressing threats. The Obama administration revived the campaign against the rebel movement with the deployment of US military advisors in late 2011, and in June 2012, the Senate Armed Services Committee authorized $35 million in logistical support.

But the rebel group has moved on; the LRA no longer concentrates its operations in Uganda, and the transnational nature of the group’s attacks demonstrates the need for regional and international leadership. In many ways, it was more straightforward when the US could address its support directly to the Ugandan government (though the Ugandan army has also been accused of atrocities), but the LRA has refused to conform to neat geographical boundaries, and it has used this to its advantage. The international community is challenged when rebel groups operate across borders, and action is constrained by bureaucracy, and debates over which organ has primacy or legitimacy, issues of sovereignty and troop contributions.

Rebel groups or insurgencies can exploit these impediments with sobering consequences. The most recently available update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on LRA activities reports that from January to September 2012 there were 180 presumed LRA attacks which caused 39 deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR). Abductions, including child abductions continued with 109 abductions in the DRC (a third were children) and 84 abductions (8 were children) in the CAR. These actions resulted in an estimated 443,000 people displaced from their homes in LRA affected areas.

As recent regional and international strategies to defeat the LRA have repeatedly underscored, the only route to success is through cooperation, but to mirror the apocryphal story of Henry Kissinger asking who to phone if he wanted to speak to Europe: who does one call to tackle the LRA?

Individual countries have been criticized for not playing a leadership role. In April 2012, the four originally affected countries—Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan—committed to a regional task force of 5,000 troops, authorized under the African Union Regional Cooperation Initiative. But the UN report notes that only half of those troops have been committed, and deployment has been delayed by disagreement over standard operating procedures between the troop-contributing countries. The AU Commission was due to convene to address this last week, but there still has been no agreement. And a December 2012 report of the Secretary-General included evidence of LRA activities in the disputed border region between South Sudan and Sudan, adding another country to the current list of LRA-affected countries.

One challenge is that these “allies” are wary of each other, distrustful of historic support for each other’s rebel groups, and preoccupied with battling groups inside their own national boundaries. The operations of the M23 group in the DRC and the Seleka rebel alliance in the CAR have meant that once again, the LRA can enjoy relative peace while the regional governments battle the crocodiles closer to their national canoes.

In July 2012, a UN strategy was endorsed in cooperation with the AU that called on international donors to bridge the funding gap and address a number of issues hampering implementation of the AU initiative. The strategy emphasized the need for cooperation between the governments of LRA-affected areas and between international donors in support of their task.

In December 2012, the Senate passed the 2013 defense authorizations bill which explicitly highlighted efforts to remove Joseph Kony from power and end the atrocities committed by the LRA. It reaffirmed the US commitment to assisting regional governments through the provision of intelligence capabilities and called for greater operational cooperation between the United States and regional African forces. It also urged regional governments to recommit themselves to the operations sanctioned by the African Union Peace and Security Council resolution.

Given the lack of definitive success to date, this new strategy by the US government to offer financial reward for information is a welcome development. The expansion of the RFJ program represents tacit support of the US for the ICC and reaffirms US determination to keep the LRA in the spotlight long after the Internet furor has subsided. Nevertheless, the ICC must remain politically neutral, and there is a danger that the RFJ program will lend weight only to investigations that the US deems critical to its foreign policy priorities, not necessarily all indictments issued by the International Criminal Court.

It remains to be seen if the promise of financial reward will result in actionable intelligence, but once gained by the US, the intelligence must be shared and jointly acted upon. What the effort still needs is leadership, and the question remains if that call will be answered.

Fiona Blyth is an intern in the Africa program at the International Peace Institute. 

Photo Credit: US Army