African Communities Self-Help in the Battle Against Violence


Uganda’s Joseph Kony is an elusive and dangerous man. Much like Osama bin Laden before his demise this past week, Kony is an individual that most everyone yearns to bring to justice. He is neither as well-known as bin Laden nor as internationally divisive, yet he and his rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, have perpetrated scores of murders, mutilations, and child abductions in central Africa over their 25-year existence.

These LRA attacks are untenably vile and due to a confluence of variables, exceedingly difficult to thwart.

“I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge,” exclaimed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010. Secretary Clinton’s frustrations are shared by many, yet I further inquire, how after two decades of the LRA's targeting civilians is local communities' protection not first priority? Time after time, the most vulnerable populations are neglected even after everything from President Barack Obama’s LRA strategy to NGO advocacy briefs highlight the importance of protecting communities.

There is no better example of this disconnect than Operation Lightning Thunder launched in 2008. It was an ill-conceived military offensive heralded as a joint-operation between the Ugandan UPDF, Sudanese SPLA, and Congolese FARDC, with logistical support from U.S. AFRICOM. In reality, cooperation was limited due to mistrust between the three African governments, resulting in a primarily unilateral assault by the UPDF. Poor execution and minimal inter-governmental coordination during OLT’s initial assault led to a failure to contain LRA combatants, allowing Kony and his rebels to disperse into the expanse that comprises the common border between Southern Sudan, D.R.C. and C.A.R.

In response to the military offensive, the LRA retaliated not against the UPDF, but the unprotected civilian communities in their path. A wave of murders and abductions known as the Christmas Massacres swept across the Haute Uele district of the D.R.C., resulting in over 800 deaths, at least 160 child abductions and the displacement of thousands.

How those responsible for planning OLT did not anticipate such a response is either the product of ineptitude or worse, indifference. During the course of OLT, the UPDF depleted the ranks of the LRA, though these gains were offset by the high rate of civilian deaths. For every combatant killed or captured, at least 4 civilians were slain.  

Naturally, community responses emerged to fill the void left by insufficient protection.

The Arrow Boys of the Western Equatoria state of Southern Sudan are a prime example of locals tasked with defending their communities. They arm themselves with bows and arrows amongst other weapons and operate in conjunction with traditional leaders. They are familiar with the terrain and educate civilians on LRA community infiltration tactics. Unfortunately, village chiefs have recently resorted to donation collection in order to maintain the Arrow Boys.

The lack of systematic government protection for locals is a consequence of state failure that is exacerbated by resource deficiencies, geographic constraints, as well as insufficient clarity of strategy and coordination.

The localities in the D.R.C, C.A.R, and Southern Sudan targeted by LRA combatants are isolated and underdeveloped, deeming them difficult to access and often times cut off from information flows.

The ability to communicate between communities is vital for early warning. International donors should fund projects to enhance the telecommunications infrastructure in particularly remote areas. Erecting phone masts for the expansion of cell coverage is a concrete option. Establishing community radio stations charged with disseminating information within and across communities is another method that stakeholders should facilitate. Communication systems augment inter-community cooperation enabling a more robust local self defense apparatus.

In addition to community law enforcement and leaders, the U.N. missions in the D.R.C. and the Sudan should assist in the capacitating and oversight of local self defense groups as the armed forces have proven themselves unreliable. Oversight is imperative to minimize the risk of self defense collections evolving into militias.

Obama released a U.S. approach for defeating the LRA, yet the new policy awaits budgeting approval for FY 2012. Hopefully this renewed commitment by the U.S. will realize tangible protection mechanisms at the state level but for now the threat remains, leaving no room for a wait-and-see mentality.

So how do we end this “scourge”? That is a far deeper question but civilian protection methods are a major component of the answer. They hinder the LRA’s tactic of forced recruitment and minimize access to food and supplies. If the state cannot provide these protections then they should at least support local self defense in any manner possible. Community self defense may not be ideal, but at present, is the most practical. I say give the locals a fighting chance.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons