The LRA returns: how the militant group is staging a bloody comeback in central Africa

The LRA returns: how the militant group is staging a bloody comeback in central Africa

A seemingly depleted force, the Lord’s Resistance Army has escalated its violent campaign in 2016, with analysts warning that it is staging a bloody comeback.

Once Africa’s most notorious rebel groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, is increasing its attacks and abductions in a bid to secure much-needed resources.

Already this year the group has carried out a series of raids, with roughly 220 people, many of them children, abducted in the Central African Republic, according to LRA Crisis Tracker.  

This represents a stunning escalation of earlier activities. The group has undertaken more raids in the first two months of this year than the entire 2015. The surge in attacks has not gone unnoticed. Last week Washington announced that it would broaden longstanding sanctions against the LRA and its infamous leader, Joseph Kony.

Still, with increased attacks and continued involvement in the illegal ivory trade, the group, which is dispersed throughout central Africa, is reinforcing its forces and preparing to stage a bloody comeback.

Rebuilding its forces: increased attacks and abductions in 2016

After years on the run, the LRA is ramping up attacks and abductions in parts of central Africa. The rebel group, which began as a Ugandan insurgency in the late 1980s and gained worldwide attention following a viral campaign in 2012, has abducted 217 people this year, says LRA Crisis Tracker.

54 of those are thought to be children, raising fears they will be forced to become child soldiers, sex slaves, or forced laborers. Nearly all the raids were carried out against small villages and displaced communities in the CAR.

A map of central Africa

The mounting violence points to a worrying trend, analysts warn: after years of fleeing a regional task force, the LRA is entering a rebuilding phase. This is the opinion of Paul Ronan, director of the advocacy group The Resolve.

According to Ronan, the escalating attacks underscore a ‘disturbing upward trend’ that ‘could be a sign that [the LRA] is feeling emboldened and are trying to recruit kids to rebuild their fighting force.’

LRA forces have dwindled amidst sustained military pressure. Growing defections within the group and sickness and disease have also taken a heavy toll. In a report last year, The Enough Project, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, declared that the group is ‘undeniably in decline’ and estimated there are barely 100 active soldiers throughout Sudan, CAR and the DRC.  

But with the majority of regional forces battling al-Shabaab in Somalia and international attention focused on the Middle East, parts of the LRA are seizing the opportunity to regroup. Raiding schools, which offer ripe picking grounds for new recruits, and engaging in illicit financial activities such as ivory trading, are just some of ways it is attempting to rebuild itself.

In any case, the upsurge in violence comes at a difficult time for Washington. Since committing 100 US military advisors to help capture or kill Kony in October 2011, President Obama has been confronted by a string of more pressing security challenges in the Middle East, Ukraine, and North Africa.

Although removing Kony would represent a significant political victory, it is unlikely to feature high on Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Given this, Washington is likely to favor political measures to contain the group in the future. Sanctions imposed last week, which include placing the group on the Treasury’s financial blacklist, underline this strategy. But with the LRA embedded deep within the African rainforests, such actions are more a symbolic gesture than a statement of intent.  

The ivory trade: a lifeline for the LRA

In addition to its growing abductions, the LRA also engages in illegal ivory trading to ensure its survival. Poaching is now a lucrative business for African rebel groups, with many tapping into the billion-dollar Chinese black market in order to sustain their insurgencies.

For the LRA in particular, ivory has become a critical lifeline, allowing it to barter for food, clothes, and ammunition. Reports suggests the group has been trading in illegal ivory since at least 2012, though operations are now more organized.

Generally, a small group of hunters will procure the ivory in the DRC’s Garamba National Park, a hotspot for nefarious poachers. From there, it is passed to another group that traffics it through the CAR and onwards to Kafia Kingi, a Sudanese-controlled enclave where Kony is hiding out.

Finally, LRA commanders, including Kony’s eldest sons, Salim and Ali, barter the ivory with merchants from South Darfur.

An aerial view of Kafia Kingi, a Sudanese controlled enclave that borders South Sudan.

Given the LRA’s isolation, ivory trading is perhaps one of the few economic enterprises it can utilize to raise supplies and sustain its campaign.

Of grave concern, therefore, is Sudan’s alleged approval of the ivory trafficking. According to the Enough Project, ex-LRA combatants have described trading ivory directly with Sudanese army officers, while others turn a blind eye to the practice.

This, along with the fact that Kony resides in Kafia Kingi, a Sudanese-controlled area, suggests that the East African state is implicitly supporting the LRA once again.

Khartoum, for its part, denies the claims. It says it severed ties Kony years ago, having once supported the group in exchange for attacks and raids on South Sudanese forces in the 1990s. But critics claim there is simply no way Sudan could be unaware of Kony’s presence in Kafia Kingi or the LRA’s ongoing ivory trading.

Down but not out

Though reduced, the LRA cannot be counted out. In the short-term, growing abductions may temporarily increase its overall numbers and capabilities. Longer-term, however, ongoing defections, in concert with the military effort now in place, make it unlikely the LRA can regain its former strength.

Moreover, the isolation of its groups, many of whom are hundreds of miles apart and cannot communicate with one another for months on end, mean attacks will stay relatively confined.  

Yet the group still has the propensity to wreak havoc in remote areas of central Africa. And decades spent outrunning military forces has meant that it has grown remarkably resilient and resourceful, especially with Khartoum’s enduring support. Given this, regional forces and the West can ill-afford to become complacent in their fight against the rebel group. Having terrorized the region for the best part of three decades, the LRA is not done yet.


About Author

Andrew Manners

Mr Manners currently resides in the United Kingdom, where he works in a number of research roles in property, global politics, and international law. He has previously worked as a Research Analyst at Future Directions International, a Perth-based think-tank in Australia, where he focused on issues relating to East Africa and Indonesia. His commentary and and analysis has been featured on ABC News, ABC Radio National and Sky News, while his security studies articles have been cited in academic journals. More recently, he completed a Master's degree in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from Durham University. His recent research projects include a conflict studies trip to Lebanon, where he interviewed senior members of Hezbollah, and a policy initiative for Durham Law school focusing on the role of legal norms in international conflict negotiations.