By Hilary Heuler
KAMPALA, UGANDA — A new report finds that the rebel Lord's Resistance Army is weaker than it has been in years, due to the loss of irreplaceable Ugandan fighters.
Last week, the U.S.-based LRA Crisis Tracker Project released its annual report showing that attacks by the once-fearsome Lord’s Resistance Army, which terrorized northern Uganda for two decades, are at their lowest level since 2008.
For years the Ugandan and Congolese armies have been pursuing the remnants of the LRA across the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A number of LRA commanders have been killed, including four last year. According to Paul Ronan, author of the report, the rebel group has been severely weakened by the defection of Ugandan fighters who cannot be replaced.
“What we’re seeing is a decline in the Ugandan combatants within the LRA, which is really important because they are really the heart and soul of the group," said Ronan. "They can see that the numbers are way down, they can see that they’re getting pushed further and further away from Uganda. And they can also see that their day-to-day lives are such a struggle. It’s a pretty miserable life.”
The report says the group lost up to 20 percent of its Ugandan fighters in 2013 alone. Small bands of LRA fighters now survive primarily by looting rural communities, farming and trafficking Congolese ivory, even bartering from time to time in local markets.
Their looting patterns are those of common bandits rather than a powerful rebel force, says the report, with fighters stealing simple items like peanuts, soap and clothing.
The Ugandan army announced earlier this week that the LRA’s second-in-command, Okot Odhiambo, was most likely killed last year in the C.A.R. The news was hailed by the U.S. State Department as an “historic blow” to the group’s command structure.
But despite their weakened position, Ronan says most LRA commanders are still unlikely to surrender voluntarily.
“As hard as life is, it’s also the only life they’ve known for a long time. And they have extraordinary power in their little world, whereas if they come out they’re going to be prosecuted,” said Ronan.
Where the LRA is not getting weaker, says Ronan, is the Central African Republic, where its leader, Joseph Kony, is believed to be. The group has taken advantage of the recent violence in the C.A.R. to mount larger-scale attacks, he says, and warns that if international pressure is taken off the LRA it could still be possible for them to regroup.