One ongoing peace and security issue facing Africa, as it concludes its 18th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of States and Governments of the African Union (AU) is the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.
Talk is now of the accelerated implementation of a recent AU initiative of cooperation against Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The initiative's launch was authorised by the AU Peace and Security Council on 22 November 2011 and is supported by the United Nations (UN) and other members of the international community. What is the likelihood of a successful outcome of this regional military approach?
In principle, the AU is demonstrating the will to decisively deal with the LRA problem, for if it is done right, the new initiative could eliminate the LRA threat in the region. While this initiative is designed to remove or reduce the threat of the LRA, there is no guarantee that it will facilitate the termination of the local-level conflict drivers in LRA-affected countries. However, this initiative comes after several botched attempts at dealing with the LRA problem. Before initiating a new multilateral response, it is worth asking why previous multilateral initiatives were such a dismal failure. Paradoxically, the decision to deploy a regional intervention force demonstrates the impact that the LRA had on the region. Although the insurgent group's threat capability has been reduced, it is still easily able to abduct its fighters and loot for its sustenance and supplies.
The new initiative can be successful, but the stakes are higher this time and failure is not an option. The conflict with the LRA is a regional issue directly affecting the people and governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, the Republic of South Sudan and Uganda. LRA attacks on their territories have arguably galvanised the four countries, and a regional approach would make sense. While it is obvious that the political and technical meetings in Addis Ababa will merely be a formality in ensuring the acceleration of agreed activities, there is a danger of misinterpreting and misplaying this initiative, whose strategy is aimed at achieving a final settlement of the LRA problem. Several points can be made in this regard.
Firstly, the reliance on a regional intervention force, whose mandate is yet to be finalised, is based on some assumptions that the LRA is an easy problem to solve, and that the insurgent group's threat capability has been reduced. This may prove to be a grave mistake, as indicated by the failure of previous military campaigns. In the minds of many, any new campaign will not only have to avoid the shortcomings of previous ones, but will have to deal with a hamstrung regional military approach that emphasises force projection over territorial defence. This time round, the consequences of another failure will be prohibitive, in the sense that once committed, the AU mission would then have to use all necessary force to avoid failure and would be under immense pressure to escalate military involvement to ensure success, with grave consequences for all concerned.
Secondly, the new regional intervention force relies on the same regional forces that cooperated in previous failed military initiatives and still harbour historical antagonism - why will they win this time? The new force should therefore not merely improve on existing military operations, but needs to refrain from merely duplicating operational structures and techniques that do not work, while at the same time leaving the military command in the hands of national governments, which could fuel suspicion and intraregional tensions within the alliance, which in turn could severely limit cooperation and coordination - and hence the AU's overall ownership of the mission.
Thirdly, the AU decision to mobilise a regional force is a political one, and undoubtedly this will affect the direction, duration and outcome of the initiative. Given the context of previous military campaigns, the questions of power, interests, and bureaucratic and domestic politics will be important factors to consider. As Chester Crocker puts it, 'intervention (just like non-intervention) is an inherently political action with inescapable political consequences'. What would be of interest to the regional actors concerned is the avoidance of the dominance of Uganda, whose army is better trained and armed to deal with counterinsurgency.
Fourthly, the timing of the regional initiative is a crucial element, given the fact that the presidents of the four countries involved have more pressing issues to deal with domestically, and this may affect the dynamics of the regional initiative. The LRA is currently out of Uganda and hence its perceived threat has been transferred to populations across the border. Kinshasa and the DRC army have downplayed the LRA problem, and its presence in north-eastern Oriental Province, over 1,000 kilometres from Kinshasa, makes it a low-priority matter for the DRC authorities, as it does not feature as a key security issue in the capital. Bangui does not feel threatened by the LRA's sporadic attacks in the remote south-east, since it does not threaten key economic interests or political constituencies. Juba has more pressing problems of its own and hence the LRA does not feature as a key security threat.
Lastly, the LRA stalemate has had its various phases, and in its current phase of de-escalation and abatement, it would be prudent to complement the regional initiative with non-military approaches to conflict prevention. Taking place in remote areas largely devoid of state authority, the LRA still continues to cause destruction among communities. Civilian protection should therefore be a priority, with progress monitored and reviewed and the means for doing so elaborated before deployment. A World Bank report on the diagnostic study of the LRA submitted to the International Working Group on the LRA six months ago argues that none of the previous strategies in use by the forces and agencies in the region is adequate to the challenge presented by the organisation. In response to this fact, the report proposes a rigorous study of the historical context of the problem, the potential for a negotiated solution, the relative capacities of the forces available and the political issues affecting their availability as the first step in generating more creative and effective solutions, and points out that humanitarian work can only mitigate a situation that requires, ultimately, a comprehensive agreement that includes political, security and development aspects.
If the new regional initiative does not take these matters into account, there is a good chance of failure and the region may be condemned to seeking yet another solution to a low-intensity security issue, while at the same time having to deal with governments that continue to deny the real threat of the LRA. If the regional intervention force can improve on the current situation, then so be it, with, of course, a few caveats drawn from history, if one is willing to learn from the past.
Dismantling the LRA is a core cross-border responsibility, dependent on regional security cooperation and increased levels of response to the national conflict drivers in the affected countries. The price of conflict is high, but it seems that the cost of establishing durable peace in the LRA-affected countries will be even higher.
Sandra Adong Oder is senior researcher in the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division of the ISS.