After emerging during the chaotic late 1980’s, the LRA continued its struggle for decades to come. Over the years, the LRA has stated a number of different reasons for its armed struggle. Originally, they pointed to the government army’s violations of human rights in Acholi as one of the main reasons. They have also emphasized political discrimination against people from the north as well as a general distrust of the government and its government.
However, there is an additional dimension of the LRA, one that is more messianic. Many of the LRA rebels are driven by a strong belief that they are waging a divine struggle and that God sent the leader Joseph Kony as a prophet to lead them. Kony himself has said that he fights to kill all those who are warlike, to destroy all evil in the world and to promote justice and righteousness in Uganda.
The civilian population is hard hit
It was clear at an early stage that this conflict would hit the civilian population very hard. Both the government and the LRA have grossly violated human rights.
When the government carried out “Operation North” in 1991, a very brutal offensive in Acholi, the dynamics of the conflict changed. The army urged villagers to form self-defense groups that could defend the villages until government soldiers arrived. As such groups became more common, the rebels’ attacks on civilian targets increased.
Civilian massacres became a common occurrence and the rebels often maimed their victims by cutting off, for example, their lips or ears. This was a way of punishing the civilian population for not supporting the LRA. The escalation against the civilian population meant that the little popular support that the rebels previously had now disappeared.
LRA receives Sudan support
After a failed attempt to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict, it entered a new phase in 1994, when Sudan began supporting the LRA with arms supplies and healthcare. The rebels were also given the opportunity to use Sudanese territory for bases.
As the LRA was no longer limited by a shortage of weapons, it was now only a shortage of recruits that hampered the group’s growth. The result was a large increase in the number of kidnappings. The government responded by forcing the population to move to “protected villages” where the idea was that they would be protected by government soldiers. However, there were not enough government soldiers, which meant that the LRA could access recruits even more easily.
As relations between Uganda and Sudan began to improve in the late 1990’s, support for the LRA fell sharply. It also meant that in 2002 Uganda’s troops were allowed to enter southern Sudan to destroy the LRA’s bases.
The government’s offensive continued and in 2005 the military pressure led to the LRA splitting into several small groups, one of which crossed the border into the Congo, where a new main camp was established.
In January 2005, the LRA’s old enemy, the Sudanese rebel group SPLM, and the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement, and the SPLM gradually took control of southern Sudan.
At about the same time, the International Criminal Court in The Hague brought charges against five people in the LRA’s leadership, including Joseph Kony. This made the LRA more anxious to sit down at the negotiating table.
In May 2006, both the government and the LRA gave their consent to start negotiations. The process was characterized by periods of rapid progress, mixed with protracted deadlocks. When only one agreement remained to be signed in April 2008, it was clear that peace was further away than many thought. The signing was postponed several times and in September it was announced that the group that monitored the ceasefire had been disbanded and that the peace process was over. In this situation, the Ugandan government chose to try to reach a military solution to the conflict.
Operation Lightning Thunder
On December 14, 2008, Uganda carried out an air strike on one of the LRA’s camps in northeastern Congo. This was the prelude to Operation Lightning Thunder, in which Uganda, together with government forces from Sudan, Congo and eventually CAR, jointly tried to defeat the rebels in Congo. However, Kony was able to escape and coordinate the continued operations.
The rebels responded to the government’s offensive by targeting the civilian population, and during the Christmas period, they brutally killed hundreds of Congolese. The LRA’s large-scale attacks on civilians continued for the next two years. Both the Allied troops and the UN troops in Congo were severely criticized for failing to protect the population.
Operation Lightning Thunder lasted until mid-March 2009, when Uganda’s troops officially left the country.