Ghost of conflict past: The post-referendum LRA

In 2006 – ancient history in the modern media – the Lord’s Resistance Army left Northern Uganda. They left in their wake one of the most under-reported African conflicts of the last century, with hundreds of thousands displaced in IDP camps, and thousands more bearing the physical and psychological scars of a campaign of terror that included such savage pearls as forcing individuals to chew the limbs off a victim, or make soup using their parents.

The LRA left Northern Uganda not through a military defeat quite so much as they left by exploiting negotiations held in Southern Sudan to relocate their operations to the west of the Nile in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In response the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) was allowed to have a presence in Southern Sudan to clear up any rear bases left in the area and, more importantly, to ensure that they could not return to the positions in the area that they used to stage their attacks on Northern Uganda.

There are two points in this history that bear paying attention to in the light of the South Sudanese referendum. The first is that the LRA exit from Southern Sudan and the UPDF’s subsequent presence in the region was made possible as much by a UDPF military offensive as by the LRA’s major benefactor – the Khartoum government of Sudan – no longer picking up the tab for their marauding in the region.

the LRA is by no means a spent force. Currently circulating in the Eastern DRC and Southern part of the Central African Republic, they are responsible for the displacement of over a quarter of a million people

The second is that the LRA is by no means a spent force. Currently circulating in the Eastern DRC and Southern part of the Central African Republic, they are responsible for the displacement of over a quarter of a million people in the region, according to some estimates. The disastrous and hyperbolically-named ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’ in 2009 not only failed to wipe out key LRA leadership, but sparked further reprisal attacks by the group.

The key LRA leadership, as far as anyone knows (and unfortunately, nobody seems to know a huge deal) is still largely Ugandan and ethnically Acholi, from the Northern Ugandan region of Acholiland, where the organisation had it’s roots. So Uganda remains an area that, on a leadership level, is familiar to LRA commanders – possibly still more so than their DRC/CAR route.

So what is the relevance to the Sudanese referendum? With the soon-to-hopefully-be government of Southern Sudan eager to demonstrate that they can rule over the new nation, it is likely that the Ugandan army will soon lose their mandate to hang around as a barrier to the LRA’s return in the South. This, geographically at least, opens up the Southern Sudanese flank – if the government of Southern Sudan cannot secure it – to an LRA return.

This would be disastrous, as it would rewind the history of the last five years in Uganda and Sudan

Further cause for concern is the LRA’s past as a proxy army for the North who, if they feel the need to pressure the South militarily, but cannot do so directly, may return to paying the way for an LRA return to harrass the area. This would be disastrous, as it would rewind the history of the last five years in Uganda and Sudan, to the point that the LRA could conceivably re-establish their bases in the Southern Sudan and return to their earlier activities – attacking supply lines and other assets of the now-government of Southern Sudan, as well as launching cross-border raids back into Uganda, where the memory of the LRA remains a terrible fear across Gulu and Kitgum provinces.

It’s not a will happen prediction. There are too many ifs and buts. What is certain is that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, the withdrawal of the UPDF from Southern Sudan and the antagonism between North and South Sudan offers at least the possibility of releasing a particularly savage and too-soon-forgotten genie from the forests of the Eastern DRC.