Uganda's rebels: From Holy Spirit to Lord's Army

By Halima Athumani, Wednesday, May 21, 2014

KAMPALA – Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army first emerged in the early 1980s as the "Holy Spirit Movement."

It was founded by Alice Lakwena, a woman who claimed that the Holy Spirit had called upon her to overthrow the National Resistance Movement of President Yoweri Museveni.

The regime was accused of discriminating against the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the region from which Lakwena hailed.

As resentment towards the government intensified, Lakwena's Holy Spirit Movement gained momentum and a following.

Lakwena, who believed she was protected by the Holy Spirit, was opposed to the use of firearms.

She ordered her followers to only use sticks and stones and to smear their bodies with shea nut oil to protect them against bullets.

Lakwena discouraged her followers from taking cover or retreating in battle, also ordering them never to kill snakes or bees.

She eventually went into exile after losing the battle against the government. In 1986, her niece, Joseph Kony, assumed control of the eccentric rebel group.

Basing his ideology on the biblical Ten Commandments, Kony changed the group's name to the "Lord's Resistance Army" and resumed the fight against Museveni.

Initially, the rebels had demanded an end to what they described as gross human rights violations and the marginalization of groups of people who may not agree with the LRM's ideology.

They also demanded the immediate restoration of multi-party democracy in Uganda, saying they wanted to ensure unity, sovereignty and economic prosperity for all of the country's people.

-Brutalities-

But the rebel group later lost support among local communities. In frustration, it began abducting thousands of children in order to increase its numbers, turning them into killers who massacred people in villages in Northern Uganda.

The rebels, often disguised as soldiers, would pounce on villagers who gathered for occasions, such as church services, killing the old and the weak with swords or stones.

The rebels had a habit of amputating their victims' ears, lips and noses to serve as a warning to others.

They would also abduct young villagers, including children, to be indoctrinated and turned into soldiers, porters, cooks or sex slaves. Captives of the group were often forced to kill or rape family members.

Children in northern Uganda came to be known as the "night commuters" since they were forced to walk for miles from their homes to the town center, where they would spend the night in schools, churches and bus stations to avoid capture by the dreaded LRA.

It is estimated that the LRA has abducted more than 30,000 children who were later turned into child soldiers or sex slaves.

-Funding-

In the early 1990s – having lost support in northern Uganda, where they had killed and maimed thousands of tribesmen – Kony and his men reportedly went to what is now South Sudan, where they allegedly received backing from the Khartoum government.

LRA commanders have reportedly been involved in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Kony and top lieutenants Dominic Ongwen, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Vincent Otti.

Kony, Ongwen, and Odhiambo all still remain at large.

Lukwiya was killed in combat by the Ugandan army in 2006. Otti was killed in November 2007 on Kony's orders after asking the warlord to sign a peace deal – a position Kony saw as betrayal.

-Peace talks-

In July 2006, the government of Uganda opened peace talks with the rebel outfit, which had indicated interest in peace negotiations.

Kony sent a delegation to negotiate on his behalf in talks hosted by Juba, which was then still part of Sudan.

In 2006, a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed between the two sides.

The LRA left Uganda for good with the launch of the Juba peace talks, which continued for the next two years, setting up camp in northeastern Congo's Garamba National Park.

But when a final agreement was ready to be signed in the summer of 2008, Kony repeatedly postponed the signing date. In November of the same year, he failed to show up for a scheduled signing.

Infuriated, the Ugandan government accused Kony of using the two years of peace talks to rest and regroup.

In the meantime, the rebels had continued to attack villages and abduct children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The LRA also kidnapped dozens of people in the Central African Republic (CAR) in March 2008, abducting hundreds of Congolese children from school a couple months later.

-'Lightning Thunder'-

In December 2008, the Ugandan army, with logistical support from the U.S., launched an attack on LRA bases in Congo's Garamba National Park, codenamed "Operation Lighting Thunder."

Other forces – from the DRC, CAR and Sudan – joined in the offensive, which ultimately failed to capture Kony or his top commanders.

Kony fled the area after reportedly being tipped off about the operation hours before the group's positions were pounded by air strikes.

In retribution for the offensive, the rebels attacked villages in the DRC in December of 2008, killing 865 civilians and abducting 160 more over the course of a two-week rampage.

They were reportedly instructed to target churches, where people would be gathered for Christmas Eve services, in a string of attacks that came to be known as the "Christmas message."

One year later, the LRA repeated its Christmas massacres in northeastern Congo's Makombo region – a grim reminder of its power to destroy.

Those attacks left 321 people dead, while 250 others were abducted.

The LRA's first major foray into CAR was in March 2008, when it abducted dozens of people in a series of raids near Obo, capital of Haut Mbomou, one of CAR's 14 prefectures.

The group is blamed for abducting, killing and displacing local populations across East and Central Africa.

According to Invisible Children, a local NGO, the scale of LRA violence has been staggering. It is reported that, since September 2008, the LRA has abducted 5600 people and killed nearly 3100.

Since the failure of" Operation Lightning Thunder," the Ugandan army has continued to hunt Kony across Sudan, CAR and the DRC.

In May of 2012, Caesar Achellam, one of Kony's top three commanders, was captured by the Ugandan army in CAR.

In 2013, LRA rebels pressed further north to Haut Kotto, CAR's largest prefecture, where they conducted several large scale attacks.

The Ugandan army, which serves as part of the African Union Regional Task Force, continues to hunt for Kony in CAR. But its troops enjoy limited access – mainly due to logistical constraints – to the areas in which Kony is thought to be hiding.

The LRA is currently believed to have split into several highly mobile sub-groups, operating with a significant degree of autonomy in both CAR and the DRC.

The LRA's total fighting force has reportedly dwindled from some 1000 at the end of the Juba peace talks in 2008 to an estimated 300 fighters in 2012.

This number, however, does not include the many abducted women and children used by the group as wives and porters.

Experts say the LRA is now involved mainly in survival activities that entail attacking civilians, killing, looting and kidnapping.

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