A number of central African countries overwhelmed by the brutal attacks and mounting regional destabilization caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have established a comprehensive plan to combat the rebel group. Ministers from Uganda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic agreed Friday in a meeting in Bangui, the capital of the latter, to create a joint military task force, centre of operations, and border patrol capacity, all to be supervised by a representative from the African Union.
The ministers also arranged to modify the official status of the LRA from a rebel group to a ‘terrorist’ organization, a move intended to increase the level of shared funds allocated for the offensive and to raise the level of judicial cooperation among the four countries.
The Bangui meeting took place only days after an LRA attack on the border town of Birao in the northeast of the Central African Republic, where rebels allegedly raided shops, set fires, and forcibly took a number of children with them, including young girls. LRA rebels are frequently accused of using kidnapped boys as child soldiers, many of whom are made to commit unspeakably violent initiation rituals, while young girls are often forced into sex slavery.
Led by Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed ‘prophet’, the LRA was formed in the late 1980s with the intention of overthrowing the Ugandan government and replacing it with a regime dedicated to the ‘biblical principles’ of the Ten Commandments. In recent years, however, its mission has widened to include targets in neighboring countries. The group has been accused of egregious human rights violations wherever it operates.
The openSecurity verdict: According to remarks made on Friday by a spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for refugees, the LRA ‘campaign of terror’ has ‘intensified’ in recent months, with 344 people killed by the group in more than 240 individual attacks so far this year. Roughly 2,000 deaths can be directly attributed to rebel acts since 2008, with over 2,600 kidnapped and more than 400,000 displaced. Lack of infrastructure and security frequently delays the assessment of needs and the delivery of vital aid to targeted areas. Traumatized victims are often too frightened to return to their communities and farms. Because of this, crops are not planted and harvests are not collected. The attacks thus make the regional economy more dependent[DM1] on outside assistance.
The establishment of a joint military force is a promising development and appears to be modeled on a proposal in a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) about LRA atrocities in northeastern Congo. The report laid out in grim details the massacre in the Mokombo area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which at least 321 people were killed, ‘one of the worst…ever committed by the LRA in its bloody 23-year history’. In response to the mounting violence, HRW suggested, among other recommendations, the creation of a ‘comprehensive regional strategy’ between the four countries directly battling the rebels, with the protection of civilians and rescue of abducted persons a ‘priority’ in any military campaigns.
But as is often the case with complex conflicts, more steps can and must be taken. The head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said recently that the UN peacekeeping mission there, MONUSCO, should do more to protect civilians in areas where the LRA operates. ‘MONUSCO is failing tens of thousands of people in urgent need of protection and assistance," he said. With UN and national forces themselves guilty of human rights abuses in the region, it will be necessary that whatever additional forces are deployed act with professionalism and discipline if the deployments are to lead to an improvement in the lives of local civilians.
Indeed, though it is the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, it is still vastly overstretched, with only 22,016 uniformed personnel authorized to stabilize an enormous territory. The head of MONUSCO, Roger Meece, admitted as much: ‘In this vast area, larger than Afghanistan, it is not possible for MONUSCO to ensure full protection for all civilians…To approach this goal would require vastly greater force levels and resources."
Close regional cooperation between the governments, militaries, international humanitarian outfits, and non-governmental operations is the key to a successful offensive against the LRA. In an interesting development, a recent piece of legislation passed by the US Senate and currently before the US House of Representatives requires the White House to ‘develop a regional strategy to protect civilians in central Africa from attacks by the LRA, work to apprehend the LRA leadership, and support economic recovery for northern Uganda’. It was passed unanimously, though it remains to be seen what effect any such policy will have on the conflict if enacted into law.
Yemeni aircraft strike al-Qaeda militants in the south
Following an ambush on a military convoy which killed at least four soldiers, the Yemeni army escalated air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants in the country’s unstable southern region. Six militants are reported to have been killed in the strikes, along with four civilians. The air assault occurred in the Mudiyah district of Abyan province.
Concerns over the security situation in Yemen have increased in recent years. Its lack of a strong security apparatus, high levels of corruption, and widespread poverty present challenges for the central government in dealing with a laundry list of serious security issues, including a homegrown branch of al-Qaeda (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP), a simmering civil war in the north, a separatist rebellion in the south and the growth of armed criminal networks (the subject of a forthcoming report talk at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs).
AQAP has escalated attacks on both local and Western targets, leading the Yemeni government, headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, to go on the offensive against the group. The United States military has also been waging a clandestine war against militants in the country for at least a year.
Yesterday’s strike does not necessarily reflect a new shift in strategy by the Yemeni government. Independent of the ability or inability of the Yemeni army to consistently conduct such successful raids backed by detailed intelligence and planning, Saleh’s administration likely fears conducting them anyway, if only for reasons of realpolitik. The president is in a tight position, with US government officials pressuring him for a more comprehensive response, yet at the same time dependent on the goodwill of local tribes and militant sympathisers for his political survival. Negotiation with tribal networks for information regarding militants, rather than military action in cooperation with outside powers, has thus been historically the more popular tactic.
Global kidnapping rates rising; hostage trade now a £1B industry
According to a recent investigation by British newspaper The Independent, the global rate of people forcibly taken hostage is rising. Worldwide, around 12,000 people are kidnapped every year – Westerners, locals, tourists, aid workers, and others. In Somalia, roughly 106 foreigners are kidnapped every month. Mexico saw 7,000 taken in 2008 alone, and at least 1,000 were kidnapped in Nigeria. Ransom profits are rising just as rapidly. Nigerian officials claim that total ransoms paid in their country surpassed $100m in only a matter of years.
Until six years ago, South America contributed around 65% of total global kidnapping cases, though this number dropped to 37% last year as hostage-taking rates soared in other developing countries and conflict zones, from Nepal, Haiti, and Sudan, to the Philippines, Pakistan, and Iraq.
Nigeria in particular is high up on the list of global hostage ‘hot-spots’, with $200,000 the average ransom rate to see the safe return of a kidnapped foreigner. Foreign oil company employees are prime targets for militants in the Niger Delta area, with more than 200 such workers having been kidnapped in the past four years.