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Why has Kony survived UPDF fire for 22 years?

By P. Matsiko wa Mucoori & Steven Kibuuka

The LRA rebellion dates way back to 1987. It has now lasted about 22 years under Joseph Kony. Its quite intriguing how Kony, a semi-illiterate man who hardly went beyond Primary Seven and is not a known military strategist, could sustain a rebellion for this long. There are more complex factors that have sustained this rebellion than what we have been hearing.

Before the LRA, there was Uganda People’s Defence Army, a rebel group which had been formed a few months after the NRA (now UPDF) captured power in January 1986. The UPDA, under Maj. Angelo Okello, comprised mainly former soldiers of the defeated Uganda National Liberation Army.

 According to a former insider in the UPDA, Many of them had been with Gen. Salim Saleh in the UNLA in early days of the Obote regime before he deserted to join NRA. In 1987, Saleh contacted UPDA for peace talks. When the talks progressed, the UPDA tried to bring the LRA on board to abandon rebellion. The LRA instead shot at the UPDA at the venue of the meeting. Salehs efforts to end the northern conflict suffered a blow.

The UPDA finally signed peace with the NRA on June 3, 1988, but the LRA continued what has now become one of Africa’s longest armed conflicts. Why has this rebellion lasted two decades under a man with no proven military skills against  expert military strategists/tacticians and the resources of the UPDF?  Â

Causes for the prolonged northern conflict are both social and operational. Some insiders in the security put part of the blame on the NRA. When the NRA entered Kampala, jubilant southerners and the NRA fighters started anti-northern sloganeering like: Nyanya mbaya, nyanya mbaya, nyanya…. Turiwafukuza sehemu za Luwero, turiwanyanyasa, turiwapiga…” It literary meant: “Anyanya are bad, we smoked them out of Luwero…we cornered them and decimated them…” The phrase “anyanya” was a derogatory reference to northerners generally. This sectarian sloganeering bred deep rooted north-south divide under the guise of “patriotic songs.”

The UNLA used these songs to tell people that “these Nyarwanda (NRA had Byanyarwanda fighters) have come to kill us northerners.”Â

The northern-nominated UNLA had brutalised southerners during the Obote regime. The NRA were predominantly southerners and when they started the counter-insurgency operations in north, their long held anti-northern came into play. The population became hostile and uncooperative to the NRA. The NRA interpreted this hostility to mean sympathy for rebels. They started brutalising civilians. The conflict which had remained only between the NRA and UNLA now widened. The brutality escalated and things fell apart.

The animosity reached irreconcilable levels that even when UPDA signed the peace deal with government, many northerners decided to join Kony’s LRA or just remained hostile to government. To date, this hostility is still reflected in the dismal political support the NRM commands in the north. An insider in the government said that this unfriendly environment has also hampered effectiveness of the military efforts to end the insurgency.

The first major military operation against the LRA was Operation North under Gen. David Tinyefuza between 1990-1991. Tinyefuza, commonly known as ‘Swarzcopf of the North’ because of his ruthlessness during Operation North, cut off the north from the south at Karuma Bridge and declared the northern region a no-go area.

Tinyefuza ordered then prominent politicians like Otema Alimadi (RIP) to leave the north within 48 hours or else be arrested for sabotaging the operation. Politicians Omara Atubo, Zachary Olum and the then Gulu LC5 chairman Prof. Ogenga Latigo were arrested and brought before him. He ordered soldiers to whip and flog them. They were later flown to Kampala on treason charges.

Atubo confirmed to The Independent that he was caned on Gen. Tinyefuza’s orders.

“We were arrested and beaten badly in March 1991 before Tinyefuza because he had convinced Museveni that we were sabotaging the war [military operation] in the north. But what we really disagreed with was the scorched-earth method that Tinyefuza and government were using against our people in the north. This was very absurd,” he said. Atubo is now Minister of Lands in Museveni’s government.

Aswa MP Reagan Okumu, who was then a boy, told The Independent that he witnessed the late Maj. Ikondere, a unit commander, burying 15 youths in a grave he had made them dig. Ikondere accused them of supporting the LRA. “This operation failed because civilians were extremely tortured by the army and in turn started working for rebels. Some even joined the LRA because of torture,” said a source who was close to Operation North.

Okumu said Operation North targeted northerners. “It was not a military operation but a political operation waged by government against the people of the north. Government used the operation to humble the people of the north and humiliate their leaders,” Okumu said.

Local sources in Acholi said Operation North destroyed the rapport which commanders like Lt. Col. Samson Mande and Col. Pecos Kutesa had tried to build between the army and the population between 1988 and 1991.Â

It’s hard to measure the success of Operation North. The ruthlessness notwithstanding, the operation seemed to have weakened the LRA. But the government seemed to have made a hurried conclusion that the rebellion was over. The government scaled down the military deployment. A vigilante force called the Arrow Boys Brigade was then created to do the mop-up. The then Gulu Resident District Commissioner, Ochaya Owanyi, commanded the civilian force which was to use arrows and bows to finish off the LRA remnants. According to an elder from northern Uganda, this marked the beginning of the LRA massacres in the north. The LRA started cutting off people’s lips and ears, accusing the civilians of using their lips to inform government forces about the rebels’ whereabouts and their ears to listent to government instructions.

Okumu says that the atrocities happened because of the government telling lies that the war had ended.

Probably because of the belief that the war had ended, between 1992 and 1994 the army retrenched about 40,000 soldiers leaving about 60,000 in service. This reduced the number of troops available for operations. Even the 60,000 soldiers who had presumably remained in service were non-existing as a big number were ‘ghosts’, only existing on paper but physically absent. The thin presence of the army on the ground gave the LRA relief to reorganise and start civilian abductions to replenish their ranks. By 1996, the LRA had again become a strong force. In 1996, Col. James Kazini was posted to 4th Division in Gulu to command a new operation against the resurgent LRA. In 1997, President Museveni appointed Salim Saleh as overseer of military operations in the north.

Civilians were ordered to leave their homes for camps where the UPDF would protect them. The strategy was to isolate the LRA from the population so that the army could identify them easily and crush them. It was also envisaged this would deny the rebels communication with their informers who would hide among civilians. The President said the UPDF would deploy zonal forces across all sub-counties in the north to quickly track and destroy the rebels or respond promptly in case of a rebel attack on villages.  Maj. Kakooza Mutale went around telling civilians to move to designated camps and warned of a big impending war to finish off the rebels.

“Our people got so worried with both Kazini and Mutale’s message and that is how the internally displaced people’s camps started. It’s therefore not true that Kony forced people into IDP camps, it’s the government,” Okumu said.

People moved to the camps. Then why were the LRA not defeated? By December 1996, the UPDF decided to buy four MI-24 military helicopters from Belarus. A fully armoured MI-24 helicopter has firepower equivalent to that of a battalion (about 570-700 soldiers). Besides an MI-24 helicopter is quick, highly maneouvrable and bullet proof. The helicopters would reinforce UPDF ground troops to hunt down the roaming rebels. Given their speed, the MI-24 can promptly respond to enemy attack unlike ground troops whose mobility is slow.

However, corruption in the army and ministry of Defence messed up the helicopter deal. Only two helicopters were finally delivered in 1998. Even these two were not airworthy and Air Force pilots refused to fly them. They did not have the required armour either. Their tyres were peeling off and they remained parked at Entebbe Air Base. When the deal collapsed, even the other two helicopters were never delivered. This greatly hampered the UPDF plans to decimate Kony as President Museveni had assured the country.Â

The combination of weak air fire power and inadequate ground troops helped the LRA to elude the UPDF and continue their atrocities. Kony started attacking the IDP camps and killing people.

Then in 1998, Kazini was transferred from 4th Division to command operations against the ADF rebels in western Uganda. He was replaced by the then Col. Katumba Wamala. In 1999, Lt.Col. Nakibus Lakara, then 4th Division Second-in-Command, led a secret joint mission of Ethiopian, Eritrean, SPLA and UPDF troops inside Sudan to destroy Kony’s bases. The operation registered some success as many LRA camps were destroyed but the temporary victory was lost after war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea back home. This forced both countries to withdraw their forces. As a result, the operation collapsed.

Back in Uganda, Katumba registered good results due to improved civil-military relations between the army and the population. The population became cooperative and was giving the army useful information about the enemy.

“I involved the civilians because they knew these people [rebels], where they lived and this helped us crash them,” Lt. Gen. Katumba told The Independent.

Came Operation Iron Fist (OIF) in 2002 under Brig. Aronda Nyakairima. Maj. Gen. Kazini had been appointed Army Commander. In March 2002, Sudan and Uganda agreed that UPDF enters southern Sudan to hunt Kony.  Instead, the LRA changed tactics and retreated to northern Uganda and started terrorising parts of Acholi, West Nile, Lango and Teso.

Military sources said OIF failed partly due to poor planning and squabbles within the UPDF command.

“The Army Commander (Kazini) turned personal battles into national issues and ordered the 4th Division commander Col. Muheesi not to participate in the operation. This was the commander on the ground who knew about the LRA operations,” said a military source. Muheesi was replaced by Col. Nathan Mugisha.

When the UPDF’s latest mission, Operation Lightning Thunder, did not wipe out Kony in Garamba forest on December14, 2008, some people blamed the army for sending commanders who had no experience in fighting Kony.

The operation is commanded by Brig. Patrick Kankiriho, assisted by Col. Moses Rwakitarate and Lt. Col Muhoozi Kainerugaba, all of who, people say, have never fought the LRA.

However, former army spokesman Maj. Paddy Ankunda flatly dismisses the claims. In fact, Ankunda indicated there are more senior commanders in the Garamba operation with combat experience against LRA.

He said Kankiriho, Lt. Col. Balikuddembe, Lt. Col. John Byuma and Lt. Col. Emmanuel Kanyesigye were brigade commanders in the north. Balikuddembe  met LRA’s Dominic Ongwen during the 2004 peace efforts. He commands the infantry troops in Garamba.

Ankunda said Rwakitarate was 37th Battalion Commander in the north and now commands the Air Force Component in Garamba.

From Ankunda’s statement, it now appears the bulk of the Garamba commanders have the required combat experience.

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