By Raymond Baguma
This week’s deployment of a battalion of Democratic Republic of Congo army will undoubtedly boost the African Union regional taskforce involved in the hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA), Joseph Kony.
The Congolese light infantry battalion was presented to Dungu in Orientale Province on Wednesday by Maj. Gen. Amuli Bahigwa, the Congolese Chief of Staff in charge of operations.
Maj. Gen. Bahigwa handed over the battalion to the Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) issue, Ambassador Francisco Madeira.
The 500 soldiers constituting the battalion will be part of the 5,000 strong force that began work in September last year.
The 5,000-strong Regional Task Force (RTF) commanded by Ag Brig. Dick Olum includes troops from the LRA-affected countries of South Sudan, Uganda, DR Congo and Central African Republic.
Of these, Uganda contributes the bulk of troops with 2,000 soldiers, with 500 from South Sudan and 350 from CAR. The arrival of the FARDC troops has boosted the troop strength to 3,350 soldiers, which however is still short of the required numbers of 5,000.
According to the African Union Commissions, DRC’s deployment paves way for the full operationalization of coordinated operations against the LRA in Dungu Sector, besides the Sectors of Nzara in South Sudan, and Obo in CAR.
DRC’s deployment is in line with the decision of the first Ministerial meeting of the Joint Coordination Mechanism for the elimination of the LRA, made in Addis Ababa in May last year, which tasked LRA affected countries to designate Sector Commanders, contribute and deploy their contingents under the taskforce in the respective Sectors within an agreed timeline.
Previously, regional security officials had quietly expressed frustration that DRC’s failure to deploy a battalion under the African Union regional taskforce was affecting the hunt for LRA.
The region comprising of LRA-affected countries of DR Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic and South Sudan has succeeded in defeating the LRA because of cooperation. But there was a risk of reversal particular in the Dungu Sector, if DRC did not join.
In September 2012, the anti-LRA Regional Task Force (RTF) operation was launched in Yambio South Sudan. At that time, the African Union’s Special Envoy on the LRA insurgency, Madeira said the DR Congo had also pledged to send troops although he could not provide the numbers from Congo.
Yet most of the LRA attacks and abductions have been occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the troops under the taskforce were not allowed to operate. The deadline for UPDF anti-LRA operations in Garamba National Park of DRC ended and was never renewed.
Also, the recent discovery of the elephant ivory from LRA, believed to have been got from poached elephants in DRC, indicates that the arrival of the Congolese battalion is timely, to stem the killings of the endangered jumbos.
The LRA rebels have been operating on Congolese soil where they were facing no immediate danger of being attacked since the UPDF is not allowed into DRC. There are concerns that the LRA may be using the illegal ivory trade to raise money to finance purchase of supplies.
Kony is a fugitive with the International Criminal Court (ICC) having issued a warrant for his arrest in 2005, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. LRA is accused of abduction, as well as mass killing of civilians, abuses and widespread destruction and looting.
According to the latest LRA Crisis Tracker Report by the international NGOs Invisible Children and Resolve, the number of Ugandan adult males returning from LRA is increasing significantly, which reduces the fighting spirit of the LRA. The report covers the rebel group’s activities in Uganda, DRC, Central African Republic and South Sudan during the ended year 2012.
The report reveals that LRA’s strength has declined, and capacity to carry out major has reduced significantly. In 2012, the LRA combatants killed a total of 51 civilians, down from 154 deaths in 2011 and 706 deaths in 2010, according to the report.
“Though the LRA’s fighting force has been reduced since 2010, this drop in killings does not indicate that the group no longer has the capacity to kill civilians or commit large massacres. The drop in killings is also the result of a strategic decision by Kony in mid-2011 to reduce killings of civilians,” the report notes.
Also, what remains is for the four Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) to reach consensus on how to operate. There is a view that each troop-contributing country should protect its territory from LRA attacks; while there are also other officials who support a unified, coordinated force against the LRA.