While a viral video has helped millions of people discover the Lord’s Resistance Army, the video conceals a key reality on the ground: the LRA is a rapidly weakening force, and probably a dying organization, reduced to stealing food from villagers to survive.
The once-feared gang of killers and child-kidnappers has only about 200 members still alive, according to estimates in Congo, where it is now based.
The LRA was a formidable and terrifying force when it was based in northern Uganda in the 1990s. But it was chased out of Uganda in 2006 and is now increasingly weak and desperate, constantly on the run from U.S. and African military pursuers.
Sheltering deep in the remote jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it operates mostly in small groups of five or six, raiding villages for food and sometimes abducting one or two villagers to work as porters, reports say.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, keeps track of the LRA’s impact on civilians. It says the rebel militia has launched 20 attacks in northeastern Congo this year – but most of the attacks were low-level raids with little impact.
In total, the LRA killed just one person in Congo this year, while abducting 17 people and displacing about 3,000 people, according to the UNHCR. Those numbers are far less than the toll it inflicted at its peak in the 1990s or even as recently as 2008.
The rebels are fleeing deeper into the Congolese jungle as they are pursued by troops from Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Since last year, the hunt has been bolstered by 100 military advisers from the U.S. army, who are providing high-tech weaponry and communications equipment to help track down the LRA.
The attacks by the LRA in Congo this year are “the last gasp of a dying organization,” says Mounoubai Madnodje, spokesman for the UN peacekeepers in Congo.
“They used to control villages and take hostages,” he told the Reuters news agency. “Right now it looks more like people trying to survive. … It’s small-scale attacks.”
The LRA perpetrated massacres of civilians in Congo in the Christmas period in 2008 and 2009, but more recently those attacks have been halted. In the second half of last year, its attacks began to decline dramatically.
The Pentagon has spent about $40-million on the anti-LRA mission since last October, deploying 100 military advisers to help the four African armies in their hunt for the LRA.
Many commentators in Uganda have scoffed at the viral video about the LRA, produced by a U.S. group called Invisible Children, which has been viewed by more than 13 million people this week. The total number of victims of LRA attacks since 2006 in all African countries is less than the number of car-accident victims in a single year in Uganda, one commentator noted.
And while the Ugandan military has been heavily involved in the hunt for the LRA over the past few years, it also has been widely criticized for human rights abuses including rape of women and looting of mineral resources.
Some observers suggest that the Ugandan military, controlled for 25 years by Uganda’s authoritarian president Yoweri Museveni, could have defeated the LRA many years ago if it had chosen to do so.
“For years I’ve believed – and in fact have said publicly – that Museveni could have taken out the LRA but was in no hurry to do so,” said Stephen Lewis, the former UN ambassador for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
“When years ago, I spent quite a bit of time in Northern Uganda for UNICEF, almost all of it dealing with the terrible consequences of Kony and company, it was widely felt in the Ugandan foreign diplomatic corps that Museveni was deliberately not pressing the advantage,” Mr. Lewis said. “I’ve heard awful stories about the behaviour of the Ugandan troops.”