Wednesday brought good news and bad news for Joseph Kony, notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. A major military operation to find and capture the wanted war criminal has been halted by turmoil in central Africa, even as officials in the United States placed a huge new bounty on Kony’s head.
About 5,000 African troops -- the vast majority of whom are Ugandan -- have suspended efforts to find Kony in the Central African Republic, or CAR.
The landlocked country has been plagued by LRA attacks for years, due partly to weak national security and an unstable central government. In late March, CAR’s capital city of Bangui was overtaken by rebels from a mutinous coalition called Seleka -- and the new administration is hostile to the presence of foreign troops.
Ugandan military chief Gen. Aronda Nyakairima announced Wednesday that the operation in CAR has merely been paused -- not terminated -- until the forces can come to an agreement with the self-proclaimed transitional government in Bangui.
“We're still there and we are going nowhere until we have consulted,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “We're officially there under the African Union.”
But while Ugandan soldiers have pulled back, the Americans are doubling down. The U.S. State Department is now offering a bounty of up to $5 million for information leading to Kony’s capture, as part of the War Crimes Rewards Program adopted earlier this year.
“We will not relent in bringing [major criminals] to justice,” Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp said at a Wednesday press conference.
“Today we are announcing we will provide the means to help achieve their arrest, transfer and conviction. This program was strongly supported by the Pentagon and by those involved in those efforts. They see this reward as something that could provide key intelligence about the location of Kony and others.”
The U.S. is also maintaining its own troops’ engagement in central Africa. In October 2011, President Barack Obama committed 100 armed military advisers to help the 5,000 African troops in their quest to capture Kony.
But with Ugandan forces going on hiatus in CAR, the U.S. must also stand down temporarily. This is an alarming prospect for human rights groups and advocates, especially since the American presence in CAR relies on the continued support of the White House.
“The administration should keep the advisers deployed and do everything it can to ensure the mission continues,” Ashley Benner, a policy analyst for the Washington-based advocacy group Enough Project, told International Business Times.
“Communities in Central and East Africa are counting on them, and the American public is watching closely.”
Speaking at the press conference with Rapp, acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Don Yamamoto affirmed U.S. commitment to the fight against the LRA, though he acknowledged that the adviser program had been hindered by the CAR rebellion.
“The U.S. remains very committed to the counter-LRA program along with our partners, and even though we’ve taken a pause because of developments in Bangui, we remain committed and we’re going to use all facilities and all technologies at our hands to try and locate Kony and his group,” Yamamoto said.
Kony is one of the world’s most high-profile wanted criminals. His LRA commenced activities during the 1980s as a militant insurgency in Uganda but has evolved to become a shadowy group whose members have recruited child soldiers and perpetrated attacks, murders, rapes, abductions and other crimes throughout central Africa.
Kony has been indicted on crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. His exact whereabouts remain unknown, but Nyakairima said last year that Kony was likely hiding out along the border between Sudan, South Sudan and CAR.
Kony and his fighters reached greater international infamy in 2012, when an advocacy group called Invisible Children released a documentary called "Kony 2012." The half-hour online video has reached millions of people, calling attention to the LRA’s atrocities and demanding action. The group’s efforts to spread awareness were highly effective, but Invisible Children lost some measure of credibility when its co-founder Jason Russell suffered a bizarre public breakdown in March 2012.
The LRA has apparently been growing progressively weaker over the past several years; its attacks have grown less frequent and fighters have been dispersed across the region. In 2012, one high-level commander was killed in battle while another defected.
Encouraging LRA desertion has been one of the key tactics of American and Ugandan operatives in the region, and these efforts have involved everything from paper leaflets to radio broadcasts to loudspeaker announcements. According to the latest report from The Resolve, an LRA-focused advocacy group based in Washington, 20 LRA members defected in 2012 and 15 of those had read the leaflets dispersed by international forces.
But the LRA still poses a deadly threat to people in South Sudan, CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These countries in the heart of Africa suffer from widespread poverty and weak security, leaving many communities vulnerable to militant groups. The LRA abducted 517 people and killed 51 civilians in 2012, according to The Resolve. That's down from 1,351 abductions and 706 killings in 2010.
As the tragedy continues to unfold, human rights advocates hope the American and African troops do not abandon their mission, despite the current turmoil in CAR.
“A year and a half ago, President Obama committed his administration to helping end the LRA conflict,” Benner said. “The U.S. must now see this through. If the Ugandan and U.S. forces withdraw prematurely, it is civilians who will suffer."