By Andrew M. Mwenda
A story of intrigue, bad weather, double-crossing
First, it was his Kaunda suit, then his walking stick, later his military pips, now it is his guitar. Over the years, the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) has captured many of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony’s personal effects but never the man himself.
The December 14, 2008 UPDF air raid on the bases of the LRA in Garamba National Park on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) northeast border with South Sudan was supposed to be the rebel leader’s last day on earth.
Instead, Joseph Kony survived this one too ‘ having left his camp, according to testimony by President Yoweri Museveni, almost five to 10 minutes before UPDF assault helicopters struck. UPDF infantry troops airlifted by helicopters 48 hours later only captured a few of his personal effects ‘ including, according to the army, his guitar, wig, laptop, and equipment that Kony used to track enemy plane movement.
What happened? Was this a well planned operation that got botched by poor execution? Or was it a badly planned and ill-timed operation that would never have achieved much? Or was there betrayal from within? What are the likely consequences of the air raid and the follow-up operations on the future of Kony and his brutal rebellion? And what is going to be the future of the peace agreement Kony was supposed to sign? Kony has ordered his troops back into their killing rampage inside DRC and seems unstoppable. Are these the last kicks of a dying horse or the renewed vigour of a man whom the gods have blessed?
On November 28, 2008, former Mozambique president, Joachim Chisano arrived in Uganda. He was on his last leg as Special Envoy of the United Nations Security Council to the peace talks between the government of Uganda and the rebel LRA, a job supposed to expire two days later on November 30. He was also supposed to report to the Security Council on the progress of the talks on December 16. Although Chisano had seemed a frustrated man, there was some little hope in him.
The leader of the LRA delegation to the talks, David Nyekorach Matsanga, had informed the Ugandan authorities that he had talked to Kony and that the LRA leader had agreed to sign the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) on November 29. Yet Matsanga also doubles as Museveni’s agent in Kony’s ranks, a factor that Kony knows since the media have published his private communications with Museveni. Yet in spite of his untrustworthiness, Matsanga still had the ability to convince Chisano that he would deliver Kony. Trusting Matsanga to deliver Kony is one of the factors that show lack of seriousness about the talks.
Yet sources close to Chisano say Kony’s signature would have been a wonderful farewell gift to respected former Mozambique president even though his efforts to get the rebel leader to sign the agreement had hit a dead-end. Chisano had come to bid farewell to the talks. But he decided to give the process a chance. On November 29, he joined then Ugandan Internal Affairs minister, Ruhakana Rugunda and South Sudan vice president Riek Machar to journey to Ri Kwangba for the signing ceremony. Kony did not sign the FPA.
Indeed, Kony travelled within ear distance of Ri Kwangba. He sent his troops who searched the peace team thoroughly claiming they had poisons which Ugandan President Museveni had sent to kill him. Then after humiliating them, he extorted from them all the money they had carried and refused to meet them. Instead, he asked clergy, politicians and Acholi cultural leaders to go meet him. He told them he would only sign if the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants were removed. Chisano left Ri Kwangba a frustrated man.
In a meeting with Museveni in Kampala, the Ugandan president made it clear to Chisano that he was going attack Kony militarily. He promised to consult with DRC President, Joseph Kabila and South Sudan President, Salva Kir, for a joint military operation. The aim, Museveni reasoned, was not to stop the peace process. It was to use military pressure to force Kony to get serious about signing the FPA. Chisano left. That same day, Museveni called a UPDF High Command.
‘Begin preparations for Plan B,’ Museveni reportedly told the meeting, ‘And leave no room for Kony to escape.’
UPDF already had a plan to attack Kony designed in October. It had three major elements. The first would be intelligence gathering ‘ that is why military intelligence played a crucial role. The issues to address would be: what is the size of Kony’s army? It was established that he had over 500 soldiers under arms. What is their level of training? Where are they located? How much arms and ammunitions do they have and where are they stocked? What type of weapons do they have? What is the terrain in the area? The info was collected but how accurate it was remains unclear.
However, one component worked well. Using advanced eaves-dropping equipment provided to Uganda by the Americans, military intelligence had established the actual location of Kony’s camps including the actual location of the rebel leader’s hut. They had spent months recording his communications with his troops.
The second element would be the air assault with two components. The first would be an aerial bombardment of Kony’s camps in Garamba using MiG-21 bombers. These would fly from bases in Uganda, drop bombs on Kony’s bases and land in DRC for refuelling before going back on mission. This would send the rebel army into panic and disarray. Sources say UPDAF had the actual coordinates of Kony’s personal hut which had been fed into the MIGs for accurate bombing, leaving no chance for the rebel leader to escape.
The second air offensive would be the use of Mi-24 helicopter gunships. These would fly commando troops and land them in the camps to do mop-up operations like secure the camps, search and destroy remaining enemy pockets and capture intelligence documents, electronic equipment and arms and ammunitions.
The third would be the ground offensive commencing immediately the air raids began. This would be an improbable undertaking since Uganda would have to move troops from Koboko to Ngaramba, over 700 kilometres away. The move also required assemblage of a large force of two brigades (over 4200 soldiers) with tanks, APCs and trucks. There are hardly roads in South Sudan and DR Congo. So the journey would be long and odious, taking days to reach Kony’s bases. It is here that the strategy began to develop its major pitfalls that reduced its effectiveness.
First, the MiG 21 bombers Uganda has have small fuel tanks i.e. they cannot fly from bases in Nakasongola, Entebbe or Gulu, bomb Garamba and return to base without refuelling. Some UPDF sources claim that the MiGs Uganda bought in 2000 were actually meant for training, not combat operations. In fact, some even claim that they have small bomb pots i.e. they have limited bomb carrying capacity. The constraint on their fuel meant that to use MiGs, Uganda would have to seek the cooperation of DRC to use their airbases for takeoff and landing.
The second challenge was the extensive mass of territory where Kony is. MiG 21 planes are not designed to attack tactical targets, especially mobile targets like soldiers on the run. They attack strategic targets like static objects such as bridges, military bases/camps, buildings, etc. The main aim of MiGs in the Garamba operation was therefore to cause scare and confusion forcing LRA to abandon their camps in a hurry leaving vital equipment and documents. The effective assault force would be the Mi-24 helicopter gunships which would attack moving troops, carry out search and destroy missions and land soldiers on the ground to hold the objectives.
Involving SPLA and DRC
In both these cases, remnants of the LRA would have some opportunity to escape especially given the expansive nature of the territory around Garamba. It is this second factor that made a ground offensive a critical component of the operation. It is difficult to move ground troops from Uganda to surround the area. To close the routes for escaping LRA rebels required the cooperation of the DRC army and SPLA. Yet the operation was supposed to be under total concealment, a factor that would give it critical strategic advantage. Involving the DRC and South Sudan governments would render the operation liable to leakage. But this trade-off had to be done.
In fact, involving DRC was important for a third reason: sovereignty. Sources say Museveni was conscious not to send Ugandan troops into Congolese territory without the approval of Kabila as that would have serious diplomatic implications. In any case, Kony had started killing Congolese, a factor that had forced Kabila to have a self interest in joining Uganda to fight LRA. Indeed, the DRC president had began deployment of troops jointly with MONUC near Garamba. This should in turn have warned Kony of an impending attack. Yet Kony did not seem bothered. Sources say the LRA leader is confident of the combat effectiveness of his troops against MONUC and the DRC army.
If UPDF was to assault Kony from the air, DRC was needed to close escape routes of remnants of the rebels fleeing combat in the south. In fact, there had been a tripartite meeting between Uganda, DRC and Rwanda in Goma in July. The meeting discussed the problem of rebels based in DRC destabilising Uganda and Rwanda. Sources say during the meeting, DRC showed intentions to agree on joint operations with Uganda against Kony and with Rwanda against the FRDL.
It is for this reason that Uganda contacted DRC and informed them of the operation. DRC gave a no objection. UPDF began its preparations but made sure that it involved Congolese as little as possible, and kept them at the periphery for most of the planning. The role of the DRC forces was to close the entire stretch from Dungu to Faradge in order to block the southern escape route of fleeing LRA rebels.
The second group were the SPLA. To move ground troops to Garamba required marching UPDF through South Sudan. To block LRA rebels escaping northwards required SPLA to block the entire stretch of territory from Yambio to Tore. So the SPLA was contacted but with a lot of trepidation. There was fear that some sections of the SPLA could leak the operational plans to LRA, especially those sections closely linked to Machar. In fact, UPDF sources say, Machar was deliberately kept out of the loop on the operation ‘ a commitment Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) president Salva Kiir made to Museveni.
The possible leakage
It is from the SPLA involvement that rumours began to spread. Informed sources say that DRC troops sent a message to Kony that in exchange for cash dollars, they could supply him vital information about UPDF plans to bomb him. Kony was cash-strapped and sent an SOS to Khartoum. His allies there sent him cash to pay the DRC troop informers. Ugandan authorities had deliberately misinformed the DRC about the actual date of air raids ‘ presenting it as something likely to happen in January just before Barack Obama is sworn in as president. Hearing this, Khartoum sent Kony portable electronic gadgets that can track planes flying and the conversations they are conducting. One such equipment was captured in Kony’s camp.
Sources in South Sudan say that some people within SPLA informed Machar about the operation and the plot by Museveni and Kiir to keep him out of the loop. According to these sources, Machar was angry that he could be kept out of the loop, and even suspected of likely leaking vital intelligence to Kony. In revenge, he also informed Kony of the impending attack. Luckily for Uganda, even Kiir did not know the actual date and hour of attack ‘ they had kept it deliberately vague. So, although information leaked to Kony, it was not air-tight to allow him complete escape.
Other sources say Museveni was enraged when he heard of Machar’s betrayal and asked Kiir to arrest his vice president or allow Uganda to apprehend him. However, UPDF insiders say this could not have been true. First, Machar did not know of the plan. If he did, it is unlikely he would jeopardise his relations with Uganda and the international community by informing Kony. And even if he informed Kony, Museveni is not the type to call Kiir and ask for Machar’s arrest. Whatever the true story is, it is clear that Kony knew of an impending attack in advance, although he did not know the actual timing.
Executing the mission
UPDF were to strike Kony at Suke and Pilipili, sending his rebel army in disarray. The MiG-21s were supposed to take off from Uganda at 6 a.m, bomb the camps, then land in RDC for refuelling and go back to mission. To Kony’s good fortune, that morning the weather was extremely bad and therefore visibility was poor. So that MiGs could not take off. Were the gods working for Kony? UPDF waited: 7a.m; 9a.m, 10a.m, 11a.m; the weather remained bad thus giving poor visibilit. The MiGs could not fly. The planned operation was stalling. Officers decided to call Museveni about what to do next.
Meanwhile, in Garamba, Kony overslept. He woke up to an ordinary day at about 9a.m. At 10.30 a.m, he called his parade. ‘We are headed for Christmas,’ he told the assembled soldiers, ‘we have all the food we need except beef. Let us go hunting.’ At 11.10 a.m, the parade ended. Kony dashed to his hut, picked his gun and immediately left for the hunting trip without waiting for many soldiers to follow him.
Meanwhile in the West Nile town of Koboko on the Uganda, DRC border, the ground troops ‘ two entire battalions were assembling with trucks, APCs and tanks. Wanainchi were getting excited about the level of military preparedness. The MiGs could not take off given the bad weather. So should they abort the entire operation to another day? But the ground troops had been assembled and this had already become visible to ordinary people. They would talk and Kony would get informed that something was afoot. To call off the operation would give Kony time to escape. After consulting with Museveni, at 11a.m, it was decided that the MiGs should be abandoned and instead only the Mi-24 helicopters deployed for the operation.
But this meant that the critical advantage of surprise by fast moving MiGs would be taken away. MiGs are supersonic jets i.e. they travel at a speed faster than sound. So they can reach and bomb a target before the people on the target can hear them. Helicopters on the other hand are slower. You can hear them come, two to three minutes before they reach you. That gives you time to run and hide. So, UPDF had compromised the objective of encirclement of LRA with ground troops in order to keep the operation in total concealment. This gave it the advantage of surprise. Yet with the MiGs out of the picture, the element of surprise had been diminished.
The helicopters moved. By 11.30a.m, they were in Garamba and began to bomb the area. But they could not land troops to hold the ground because the enemy had not been softened enough. After the assault, they left to refuel, a factor that given lack of ground troops to occupy the objectives, allowed LRA rebels to return to base, carry away their dead, rescue their injured, pick vital equipment and documents and escape. UPDF soldiers who finally occupied the bases were lucky to find Kony’s guitar and his equipment to monitor airplane movements.
But there are bulky items Kony could not carry in such haste especially his large stockpiles of food in his granaries and his extensive gardens flourishing with a potentially high harvest.
Did the mission achieve its objectives?
If the mission was to kill Kony, then it failed in its objective. Since Kony recruits support by claiming godly powers, it is possible his escape will convince many among his followers that he has the Almighty looking after him. How could he walk away from the camp only to be attacked 10 to twenty minutes later?
But UPDF insist their mission was to cripple his ability to make war. The problem here is that Kony has not always needed any ability to make war ‘ at least not against the UPDF. His pastime is to kill innocent civilians. The question therefore is: Has UPDF destroyed his ability to do this? Hardly! Immediately after the operation, Kony ordered his troops to intensify the killing of civilians. On December 23, he killed 75 people in Butima, on Christmas Eve, he butchered 30 in Faradge, on Boxing Day he slaughtered more, oOn December 27, he killed 35 people in a church in Duruma, and he continues his rampage and appears almost unstoppable.
UPDF analysts say that his killings are the last kicks of a dying horse. Ground troops are following him in hot pursuit. But apparently, the DRC troops did not close their area to Kony. Their two battalions of ill-trained, poorly disciplined soldiers with their MONUC auxiliaries are too scared to confront Kony. The SPLA did not do better either. Rather than close Kony’s escape route, they were drunk on Christmas Eve and throughout the entire holiday season and left Kony to escape. Whether it was deliberate strategy or unintentional is hard to tell.
Even UPDF was beginning to crack under the weight of ethnic tensions as some claimed that only officers from Rushere, the president’s home village were given command of the operation ‘ in order to keep the glory in the president’s village. The Chief of Military Intelligence that planned the attack, Brig. James Mugira is from Rushere. The commander of the operation, Brig. Patrick Kankiriho, is from Rushere as is President Museveni’s son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Keinerugaba and some insist Col. Moses Rwakitarate ‘ although he actually comes from Rwampara. Rwakitarate’s mother used to be the head of household at State House.
Meanwhile, Kony has now split his forces into small and highly mobile bandit bands of between 15 and 20 people making it extremely difficult for the UPDF to follow them, track them down and annihilate them. For now, UPDF has been left to hope that divided and disorganised, they will run out of food supplies, out of contact with each other and in mute despair turn their backs on Kony and return to Uganda. This has always been the hope after every major operation without delivering the prize of ending the rebellion ‘ from Operation North in northern Uganda to Operation Iron Fist in Southern Sudan. Will it work this time?
Whence the peace talks
Talking and fighting are complimentary in a conflict situation, Rugunda told The Independent. And there are many examples from Sudan to Mozambique where government and rebels spent years simultaneously on the negotiating table and the battle front. As Museveni has himself said, the aim of the operation was to force Kony to Ri Kwangba for talks. ‘In spite of the attack,’ Rugunda says, ‘Government is still committed to the talks. If Kony does not want to be hit, let him assemble at Ri Kwangba.’
Observers say that Museveni’s strategy historically has been to defeat the enemy military and then negotiate with them. ‘So Museveni has never been involved in peace negotiations,’ an observer said, ‘What he does should be called surrender talks. But the president has always been keen to be generous to the defeated by integrating their troops into the NRA/UPDF and giving their political leaders jobs in government. Kony is the only one who has consistently refused this option.’
As things stand today, there has never been a ceasefire agreement between government of Uganda and the LRA. What was initially signed was the cessation of hostilities agreement. ‘Government signed it reluctantly,’ Rugunda said, ‘and we kept renewing it ‘ doing so seven times over the last two years.’
In the absence of a ceasefire agreement and without renewing the cessation of hostilities agreement, Uganda was justified to take military action. In fact, the presence of Kony in DRC violates the terms of the cessation of hostilities since one of the conditions was for LRA to assemble in Ri Kwangba. But whether the attack will force Kony to sign the agreement has an obvious answer: the LRA leader does not need a peace deal. The only option appears to hunt him till he is defeated. UPDF has historically proven unable or unwilling to finish him off ‘ for a number of reasons prime among which is the fact that Kony seems functional for Museveni’s politics and UPDF’s influence in our body politic. And these reasons have not changed much since the December 14, 2008 attack.