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Revisiting 'Operation Lightning Thunder'

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In this first part of our commentary revisiting Operation Lightning Thunder in Garamba, DR Congo, Ronald R. Atkinson weighs the failures '" and successes the incursion against UPDF's stated objectives and accountability.

On December 14, 2008, the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF) began bombing camps of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army/Movement (LRA/M) in Garamba National Park in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The rebels had largely relocated there during the Juba peace talks that began in July 2006. The air attacks were meant to be the surprise opening of a multi-pronged offensive against the LRA, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder, which officially ended on 15 March 2009 when the UPDF abruptly began what was announced as an eight-day withdrawal from the DRC.

Two UPDF commanders offered assessments of the three-month operation. At the handover ceremony to the Congolese army (the FARDC), Uganda's Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, said that the UPDF was leaving when the LRA was at 'their weakest point we have ever seen.' Air Force Chief of Staff, Col. Moses Rwakitarate, added: 'UPDF's victory is not capturing Kony but failing the enemy's normal operations. Therefore, Operation Lightning Thunder was a success because we have managed to kill many of Kony's fighters and rescue over 300 abductees' (Daily Monitor, March 16, 2009).

Did Operation Lightning Thunder leave the LRA at their 'weakest point'? Was the operation a success? How should success (or not) be measured? Trying to answer these and other questions presents a daunting challenge, first because attempting to establish what most likely happened in 'the fog of war' is always a difficult and approximate exercise. It is especially difficult here because almost all information publicly available in Uganda on the operation comes from the UPDF itself or the Ugandan government, both with overwhelming incentives to present a particular version of events.

This account will revisit Operation Lightning Thunder utilising UPDF and Ugandan government information, as well as press accounts and a number of assessments of the operation produced by international research and advocacy groups. But the story of Operation Lightning Thunder recounted here will also draw on information, not previously public, obtained from both former UPDF soldiers who were in Garamba and former rebels who have been in contact with LRA fighters who were also there. Some of this new information flies directly in the face of UPDF and Uganda government claims.

Success of failure?

From its beginning on Sunday December 14, 2008, the Ugandan government and UPDF called the operation a joint one with the the DRC and GoSS, and it has almost always been reported this way in both the local and international media. But it was an overwhelmingly UPDF affair in fact, with the two other armies (and their governments) not even notified until the attack had begun, and then playing a minimal support role at most.

Although stated military objectives shifted during the course of the operation (see Col. Rwakitarate quote above), there can be little doubt that the initial list included the intention to kill or capture Kony and his top commanders and cripple or destroy the LRA. This was explicitly stated by UPDF spokesman, Capt. Chris Magezi, a day after the initial air attacks began: 'The operation is on until we achieve our objective to destroy and eliminate or capture rebel leader Joseph Kony' ( New Vision, 16 December 2008).

But Kony was not captured or killed, nor were any of his top commanders. One major named Okello Lupore was killed; another, a Col. Kwoyelo was wounded and captured (although he had been under arrest by the LRA for over a year and thus had played little or no military role during that time). UPDF claims to have killed another LRA senior commander identified as 'Lt. Col. Okello Yape' were dismissed by former LRA fighter I talked with, who said his name was Yaapeke and he was actually a very young guy and 'not even a Lance Corporal.'

If the objective of killing or capturing Kony and his top commanders was quietly dropped (or even denied as ever having been an objective), the army from the beginning emphasised the goal of rescuing rebel abductees. It is difficult to determine whether the number so rescued '" about 300 '" meets the UPDF definition of success or not. And as the Conciliation Resources report cited above notes, 'while the goal of the military operation was to rescue as many people as possible from the LRA, few provisions have been made to cater for those that return.'

But such rescue was at least in the UPDF's objectives and planning. Something entirely omitted was the objective of protecting local civilians in the aftermath of the attack. Anyone who knows anything about the LRA should have known that when the rebel group is pushed, let alone attacked, they will retaliate at soft targets that the rebels see as linked to or associated with those who are opposing them. In this case, those targets were DRC and South Sudanese civilians whose governments assisted or at least condoned the UPDF attacks.

After the announced ending of the operation on March 15, the limited public information available on the operation is telling. Even government spokespersons and supporters trying to paint the most positive picture possible have had a difficult time doing so. The pages of the government New Vision newspaper make clear, sometimes despite claims to the contrary, that the UPDF have failed to kill or capture top rebel leaders, inflict serious losses on rebel fighters in general, rescue more than limited numbers of LRA abductees, or '" crucially '" provide or even plan for the protection of local civilians.

Here are some reported statistics, based on UPDF sources. After five weeks, on January 20, the paper reported that 48 rebels had been killed, 10 captured, 21 surrendered, and 11 captives rescued. On February 11, nine weeks into the operation, considerably higher figures of rescued abductees were given (280 total; 120 'reporting' to the UPDF, 165 to the FARDC). On the February 15, the number of rebels reported killed was upped to 146, although 100 of these were identified only as 'dead bodies our troops have come across in the bombarded forests.'

There were no updated figures over the rest of February. Then, just a day before the official end of the operation, a New Vision Special Report (March 14, 2009) gave the following summary numbers: 6 UPDF killed (the UPDF shortly after officially upped this to 12); 1 jet down; 150 rebels killed (virtually no change from two weeks before); 5 LRA commanders captured (with Col. Kwoyelo being the highest-ranking); and 300 abductees rescued (only 20 more than the end of February). No Kony. None of his highest-level commanders. And given that the tally of rebel deaths included the 100 bodies found in the forest, only 50 were reported killed in direct engagements.

Whether these figures represent success or failure, what has come to be almost universally accepted as a disaster was the failure during the UPDF operation to protect civilians from a wave of horrific attacks. These attacks, affecting much of northeastern DRC and nearby areas of South Sudan and CAR, were unprecedented in scope and scale since the LRA established a base in Garamba in 2005. Up to 1,000 or more were killed, estimated abductions range from 250-870, and up to 200,000 were displaced. The UPDF disclaimed any responsibility for protecting these civilians from LRA reprisals, instead blaming its faux-partners '" the FARDC in Congo and SPLA in South Sudan '" as well as UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo for failing to do so. Near unanimous criticisms on this issue have stood in stark contrast to the almost equally wide-spread support of the operation when it began.

Such criticisms, along with many others, can be seen in five reports from international organisations that have assessed Operation Lightning Thunder like Human Rights Watch and the US-based advocacy group, ENOUGH Project.1 All of these reports include important research on the ground in DRC and South Sudan. But none rely on anything other than UPDF information for the military aspects of the operation. This information, as already shown, is not especially positive. Nor does it always reflect what seems to have actually happened, as indicated by both former UPDF soldiers involved in Operation Lightning Thunder and former LRA who have been in touch with rebels who were there. Here is what I have learned.

New information

First, both UPDF and LRA sources indicate that many more UPDF soldiers were killed than the 12 officially acknowledged, including several hundred killed in one large rebel ambush. When one former UPDF soldier who had been in a unit where wounded and dead soldiers were taken had finished his account, I totaled up the number of dead he had noted. It was between 600 and 700. He nodded and said that the final figure could easily reach 800, as not all the bodies could be recovered from the swamps in Garamba and some were still dying of their wounds.

Second, both UPDF and LRA sources said that some UPDF soldiers were captured.

Third, two LRA sources provided a detailed account indicating that the LRA acquired several hundred US weapons, with ammunition, during Operation Lightning Thunder.

Fourth, the UPDF and Uganda government have claimed that when the operation began, the LRA fighting force numbered 600-800 (with one estimate as high as 1,000). Both LRA sources and those outside in touch with the rebels indicate that the total number of LRA fighters was substantially higher, about 2,000 to 2,500. This latter figure is much more in line with what I was told by reliable LRA and GoSS sources in 2006, when LRA fighting strength was at least 4000 in South Sudan and another 800-1000 in the recently established LRA base in Garamba.

Fifth, reliable information from both former abductees from South Sudan and LRA sources indicate clearly that since at least the last year-and-a-half to two years, and possibly longer, the LRA before Operation Lightning Thunder was training virtually no new abductees from the DRC or Western Equatoria in South Sudan as fighters. Thus, arguments by the ICC, Uganda government and others that the LRA was using the peace talks to buy time to build up its fighting force are not accurate.

Sixth, the same sources say that the LRA has not been receiving arms or other supplies from Khartoum over the same time period. So they were not using the peace talks to rearm, either.

Seventh, despite the proclaimed pullout of all but a small number of UPDF intelligence-unit soldiers, a number of sources assert that there could be at least 2,000 UPDF still in DRC, not all of whom appear as typical soldiers.

Ronald R. Atkinson is a Professor, Department of History, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Comments (4)Add Comment
MJPC Urges the ICC to Refer Congo to the UN Securi
written by Rizik P., June 10, 2009
"There are serious dangers in continuing to allow Congo defy the ICC arrest warrant against Ntaganda; it sends a wrong message and could have disastrous effects in other countries"

Citing the importance for the newly-created International Criminal Court (ICC) to remain an impeccably impartial institution, the MJPC reiterated its call on the ICC to refer the DR Congo to the Security Council for possible sanctions.

The MJPC (Mobilization for Justice and Peace in the Congo) warned that in the Congo as elsewhere, the ICC
as a new international instrument to promote the rule of law and ensure that the gravest international crimes do not go unpunished could quickly lose its moral value if it does not take concrete steps to start enforcing its own issued arrest warrants.

"Frankly the ICC cannot put off forever bringing the DR Congo before the Security Council for its continuing refusal to execute the outstanding ICC arrest warrant against Ntaganda," said Makuba Sekombo, Director of Community Affairs of the MJPC, an organization that strongly denounces defying ICC arrest warrants in Congo. "There are serious dangers in continuing to allow Congo defy this arrest warrant, its sends a wrong message and could have disastrous effects in other countries," added Sekombo.

Ntaganda is accused of several war crimes and crimes against humanity including: the massacres of 150 people in the town of Kiwanja in 2008 in his duties as military chief of staff of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), torturing and ****ing of hundreds of civilians of Lendu and Ngiti ethnicity between August 2002 and March 2003 when he was chief of military operations of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), slaughtering of at least 800 civilians on ethnic grounds at Mongbwalu, including the first priest ****ed in the Ituri conflict, Abbe Boniface Bwanalonga, ****ing of a Kenyan UN peacekeeper in January 2004 and kidnapping a Moroccan peacekeeper later that year, and recruiting child soldiers in the eastern region of Ituri. The MJPC is strongly urging the Congolese Government and MONUC to execute the arrest warrant issued by the ICC against Ntaganda.

According to Mr. Sekombo, the failure in the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda to date highlights the lack of seriousness in enforcing arrest warrants issued by the ICC and strongly urges the ICC to refer the case of Ntaganda to the UN Security Council to find solutions in accordance with Article 87, paragraph 7 of the Treaty of Rome.

The MJPC is calling for Congo to be taken to the Security Council, as it claims Kinshasa is in clear violation of the ICC treaty which Congo ratified in 2002. The ICC cannot afford to ignore its statutory responsibility to report this matter" to the Security Council," he said, adding that the Security Council would have the authority to require Congo to take all necessary corrective measures to enforce all ICC arrest warrants immediately.

An online petition has been set up asking concerned citizens around the world to demand the UN Mission in Congo known as MONUC and the Congolese Government to act decisively to enforce the ICC outstanding arrest warrants against Ntaganda. The petition can be signed at

Click here to read a full article on referring Congo to the UN Security Council if it continues to defy the execution of the Arrest Warrant of the ICC Against Ntaganda by Makuba Sekombo

About MJPC
MJPC is a non-profit organization working to add a voice in advocating for justice and peace in the DRC particulary in the east of DRC where thousands innocent civilian including children and women continue to suffer massive human rights violations while armed groups responsible for these crimes go unpunished.

Press Contact:
Makuba Sekembo
Sacramento, CA
written by Mate Magwara, June 10, 2009
Prof. RR Atkinson has clearly served his role as one of the propagandists for LRA, thanks to whoever approached him for hiring. He has the audacity to rely on "former UPDF" officers and "former LRA", well knowing nobody will challenge him to name them. So the whole article is a hoax called 'investigative' jounalism.

If Atkinson has reason to disbelieve the UPDF, he should have sought tour guides into the Garamba. If 800 soldiers died in a single ambush, then how many had actually been deployed? When were those former soldiers retired? There have been no known retirement exercise since the Garamba operation ended.

Whatever the intentions of the so called commentary, it is all in bad taste and full of lies meant to give the terrorist LRA a human face. Unfortunately, the whole Prof. Atkinson of an American University is standing on the wrong side of history as he writes. All he wrote in this article is pure imagination. The truth lies elsewhere the good professor tries to divert his readers from.
written by Arthur G, June 16, 2009
I find this article rather suspect and not quiet sure what to make of it. what appears apparent however, is some relative peace returning to Northern Uganda, albeit not at the level one would want. let Ugandans focus on defending the peace jealously and not allowing the north to regress back to the dark years that have cost too many lives.
It is my hope that editor in chief of the Independent has full confidence that the sources quoted in the article are indeed reliable and the paper is not participating in sensational tabloid journalism just to make money without consideration of the negative impacts such stories could have.
MJPC blames the Congolese Government for the Deter
written by Paul T, June 30, 2009
MJPC blames the Congolese Government for the Deteriorating Situation in East Congo(DRC)

"There is no excuse for missing to pay salaries to soldiers in lawless eastern Congo for six months"

Following the deteriorating situation in east Congo, the MJPC called today for the Congolese Government to urgently pay the salaries to thousands of soldiers who have not been paid for over six months in eastern Congo, take swift action to enforce the International Criminal Court's (ICC) warrant against Bosco Ntaganda and to hold accountable perpetrators of sexual violence against women for their acts.

"Failing to hold accountable individuals who commit war crimes and crimes against humunity continues to be the leading cause of widespread and systematic sexual violence acts against girls and women in the easten Congo" said Makuba Sekombo, Community Affairs Director of the Mobilization for Justice and Peace in the DR Congo (MJPC).

Mr. Sekombo again criticized the government of Congo for not only the continuing failure to protect women and young girls from sexual violence, but also for "encouraging conditions that create opportunities for sexual violence to occur". "There is no excuse for missing to pay salaries to soldiers in the lawless eastern Congo for six months" said Sekombo.

The MJPC has also renewed its call for the Congolese government to take urgent needed action to end human rights abuses in east Congo, hold perpetrators accountable and ensure reparation for the victims of sexual violence.

The MJPC has been urging the Congolese government to compensate the victims of sexual violence in order to also help combat impunity in eastern part of Congo where sexual violence against women and children has been widely used as weapon of war for more than decade. The MJPC online petition calling for for help to put pressure on Congolese Government to compensate victims of sexual siolence in Eastern DRC can be signed at

About MJPC
MJPC works to add a voice in advocating for justice and peace in the DRC particulary in the east of DRC where thousands innocent civilian including children and women continue to suffer massive human rights violations while armed groups responsible for these crimes go unpunished

For more information about the MJPC and its activities, visit or call Makuba Sekombo @ 1-408-8063-644 or e-mail: The online petition calling on the Congolese Government to put urgently in place a comprehensive program of compensation for the victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo can be signed at

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