Africa, Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

Efforts to Demobilise Uganda’s LRA Not Enough, Says Report

Andrea Lunt

NEW YORK, Feb 14 2011 (IPS) - The rebel group that terrorised Ugandan civilians for more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), could continue to haunt the people of Central Africa if the Ugandan government fails to properly support demobilisation efforts, according to a new report released Monday.

Compiled by the Washington-based Enough Project, “Too Far From Home: Demobilizing the Lord’s Resistance Army” tables the many challenges facing ex-combatants attempting to lay down their weapons, in what has become Africa’s longest running armed conflict.

The report shows the Ugandan government is complicating attempts to rehabilitate rebels by pressuring former combatants to fight with the army, sometimes without pay, and not adhering to the country’s amnesty laws.

Enough Project research director David Sullivan told IPS the government needed to pursue a clear and coherent plan to help LRA fighters reintegrate into Ugandan society.

“The problem is there’s not an overarching strategy to encourage fighters to give up their weapons,” Sullivan said.

“In fact some of the policies and behaviours of the Ugandan army and government have been discouraging fighters from coming home,” he added.

“Escaping from the LRA is very difficult and they’re punished if they do so. Then, when they get home there are a number of barriers; one is that they are often pressured into joining the Ugandan army fighting against the LRA without training or salary,” he said.

“The second issue is about amnesty. Contrary to the law some members of the LRA who did surrender are now being tried in Uganda, which sends the wrong message to those in the field who we’re trying to get to come out.”

Originally from northern Uganda, the LRA, led by Joseph Kony, has been forced to retreat into the neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic.

Recent research estimates about 400 soldiers still belong to the rebel army, with about one-third of those children.

And despite the United States last year implementing a new bill, the LRA and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, to step up efforts to eliminate the group, its fighters continue to kill and abduct civilians in Central Africa, according to Enough Project.

Ledio Cakaj, Enough’s Uganda-based field researcher and author of the report, said the demobilisation efforts required renewed political commitment from policy makers.

“While the debate on how to resolve the conflict has fluctuated between war and mediation, less glamorous and cheaper options such as encouraging defections and peacefully engaging mid-level commanders have been rarely pursued,” Cakaj said.

“It is time such efforts are taken seriously, especially with the recent U.S. legislation dealing with the LRA,” he said.

Cakaj said the trend of forcing ex-LRA soldiers into the army compounded the already difficult experience fighters faced in returning home.

“It is unethical that former combatants are pressured to fight in the same jungles they spent years trying to leave behind,” he said.

“Moreover, most, if not all, were abducted by the LRA, and coercing them to fight amounts effectively to abducting them again. It is also unlawful to conscript combatants into the Ugandan army with no training and no salaries. By failing to train and pay them, the Ugandan army is essentially exploiting formerly exploited youth.”

To ensure demobilisation efforts are effective, Enough Project works in partnership with organisations such as Grassroots Reconciliation Group which runs programmes for ex-LRA fighters in northern Uganda.

According to its executive director Sasha Lezhnev, former rebels can go on to lead constructive lives, if the community and government properly support their rehabilitation.

“Most of the (ex-LRA fighters) dream about starting small businesses and starting a family,” Lezhnev told IPS. “A lot of them do farming, communal farming is a big activity, and they’re really interested in getting involved in long-term crops. Many also go into more labour-intensive work.”

“However, a lot of them lack the start-up capital, literacy or small business skills to get some of those enterprises going,” he added, noting the need for more investment in long-term rehabilitative programmes.

While much has been done in Uganda to ameliorate the effects of one of Africa’s most brutal wars, Lezhnev said more work was needed.

“When you go out to the former LRA affected areas, at least on the Ugandan side, there’s an overwhelming sentiment among community leaders that the war is over, everything is okay, but you just need to scratch the surface to see all the scars of war are still there,” he said.

“The social scars between communities and ex-combatants, the stigma to prevent people from starting up a small business, the name-calling of kids in schools – it’s all really still going on,” Lezhnev said.

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