UPDF spokesman: Our mission was very specific, to neutralise the LRA
Obo, Central African Republic | AFP | Sweat soaks into the bright red neckerchiefs of the soldiers slouching to attention on a steamy parade ground deep in the inaccessible forests of Central African Republic (CAR).
The military display marked the end of a failed years-long hunt for Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that has its origins in 1980s Uganda.
Arrayed against this elusive, lonely and brutal figure and his dwindling band of fighters, were a host of regional militaries supported by US special forces.
And yet, as Ugandan and American troops abandon their “capture or kill” mission, Kony remains at large.
The job of finding him now rests with the under-manned and poorly-trained Central African forces.
Lieutenant Hubert Zinja, spokesman for Central African troops in the town of Obo — until this week the nerve centre of the US-backed, Ugandan-led hunt for Kony — insisted they were up to the job.
“We are ready with what we have. We have the capacity to fight rebels,” Zinja said.
– Civilians abandoned –
Civilians in Obo do not share his confidence.
Simeon Mbolinjbajbe, headmaster of the local secondary school, fears the departure of the Ugandan troops (UPDF) could lead to reprisals from LRA fighters believed to be hiding in the dense bush surrounding the town.
“When the UPDF are leaving, the people of Obo think they are abandoning them for any eventual attack because for us their presence means security,” said Mbolinjbaje.
“We are worrying about what will come after them.”
For three decades the LRA has cut a swathe of murder, rape and abduction across central Africa, preying on civilians in four different countries.
The UN estimates the LRA has slaughtered more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children since it was established by Kony in northern Uganda in 1987.
A self-styled mystic and prophet, Kony launched his bloody rebellion to impose his own interpretation of the biblical ‘Ten Commandments’.
Forced out of Uganda in 2006, the LRA splintered into small units that have roamed the lawless border regions of CAR, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in the years since.
Kony is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
– Catching Kony ‘never our mission’ –
Standing in the shade of a tree on Obo’s main street, a Ugandan soldier fiddles idly with a rocket launcher as he watches over thatched market stalls with a sparse offering of plastic torches, rubber shoes and softening vegetables.
Close by, Steve Kaimba, a local government spokesman, agreed with the headmaster that the withdrawal of foreign troops leaves peril in its wake.
“We often say that there (has been) an important downsizing of LRA, but if LRA still run around, it means that nothing has been done,” he said.
In 2009, the UPDF ended Operation Lightning Thunder, an earlier mission to kill or capture Kony that, like this one, has been outlasted by the fugitive rebel leader.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Uganda is eager to claim victory.
At Thursday’s handover ceremony in Obo, Brigadier Richard Karemire, spokesman for the Ugandan army, claimed catching Kony “was never our mission”.
“Our mission was very specific: to neutralise the LRA,” he said.
“It is no longer a threat to Uganda.”
As the Ugandan military washes its hands of the rebel its country spawned, the people of Obo watch and wait to see what comes next.