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Defining the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)
October 18, 2011
Last week, President Obama authorized 100 U.S. troops to travel to Africa to help stop the Lord’s Resistance Army. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a guerilla army force that claims connections to Christianity, yet this group has persecuted Africa’s Christians for more than two decades.The LRA commits atrocities that include pillaging, enslavement, sexual slavery, rape, murder, and brainwashing children and utilizing them as child-soldiers.
A far cry from biblical Christianity, the LRA’s religious motivations appear to be based on extreme occultic tendencies and tribal animism. Interestingly, the LRA’s interaction with the Muslim government of Northern Sudan has increased the group’s syncretism. The LRA reportedly incorporates Islamic principles into its operations. Most significantly, the Lord’s Resistance Army is used as a proxy militia by Northern Sudan to debilitate the Christian populations in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda.
I. Overview of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)
A cult-like rebel army group that employs terror tactics in its fight to overthrow the Ugandan government, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has terrorized Africans with brutal, horrific measures since the early 1990s. The LRA initially began as a rebellion movement against current Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. LRA rebels say they are “fighting for the establishment of a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments.”
Joseph Kony, self-proclaimed prophet and Ugandan native, commands the LRA. The guerilla force is infamous for its violence, including the routine abduction of African children from villages, who are terrorized into functioning as guards, concubines, and slaves in the LRA.
The LRA is approximately 2,500 strong and operating in two languages: Acholi, the language of the majority people group in northern Uganda, and Arabic. The use of the Acholi language ensures that the LRA maintains operations and a power base in Uganda. Conversely, the LRA’s use of the Arabic language demonstrates the group’s increasing familiarity with Islam. Practically from its inception, the Lord’s Resistance Army has been supported by the Muslim government of Northern Sudan, Uganda’s neighbor to the north. Under the leadership of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Muslim leadership in Northern Sudan has harbored the LRA within its borders and has reportedly “armed, trained, and [given] intelligence” to the group.
Conflicts within Africa are rarely isolated events. While the LRA-Ugandan conflict heightened throughout the 1990s, so did the civil war in Sudan. Complex alliances ensued. Uganda’s president Museveni sympathized with the primarily-Christian South Sudan. Ugandan support for South Sudanese military forces alienated both the LRA and the Northern Sudan government and resulted in the Northern Sudan-LRA relationship. It appears that the Northern Sudanese government views the LRA as a ready-made vehicle for the expansion of Islam in Sudan, Uganda, and other Central African nations.
According to Elizabeth Kendall, writing for the ASSIST News Service, “There is more to the LRA than mere human evil.” From its very beginning, the religious makeup of the LRA has been a mixture of skewed Christian beliefs, tribal animism, and superstition. An October 2009 release from the ASSIST News Service states,
According to testimonies from defectors and rescued children, Kony routinely enters a trance to become possessed by a spirit—claimed to be the Holy Spirit. If Kony talks while possessed, by repute whatever he says comes exactly true. The spirit reportedly alerts Kony to military movements, instructs him whom to kill and is always hungry for more human blood.
Other news reports identify Kony as a “notorious witchdoctor who believes that he is the reincarnation of Jesus.” While in name the LRA aligns itself with the God of the Bible, in reality, the rebel group exhibits extreme occultic tendencies and collusion with demonic forces.
In recent years the group’s continued interaction with members of the Islamic world has resulted in even greater syncretism. Reports have surfaced that Joseph Kony now incorporates “tenets of the Islamic faith” into his religious practices. The LRA’s close dependence upon the Muslim government of Northern Sudan has allowed Muslim beliefs and practices to infiltrate the group’s worldview.
Regardless of the precise religious motivation behind the LRA’s actions, the group’s ruthlessness is nearly incomprehensible: the coercion enacted toward African youth to become sex and labor slaves; the massacre of thousands of innocent African civilians; and the immediate and painful execution of those who disobey or rebel and those who are believed to be in league with evil spirits. The guerrilla force is famous for cutting off the lips of its victims. The International Criminal Court (ICC) summarizes the LRA’s crimes as “enslavement, sexual slavery, rape, murder, intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population, enlisting children and pillaging.”
In 2005, after nearly a decade and a half of guerilla warfare against the civilian populace of Uganda and other Central African nations, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony and other top leaders of the LRA. In 2006, the LRA and the people of Uganda embarked upon a “peace and reconciliation” process. Though this stage of “forgiveness” is said “to have lapsed as often as it has advanced,” the Ugandan government pursued official peace negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army. An astounding outcome is seen in the U.S. Department of State’s “Advancing Freedom and Democracy Report” for Uganda: “No LRA attacks [were] reported in 2007.”
Yet unsurprisingly, the peace process came to a halt in early 2008. Following the brief and politically-motivated reconciliation negotiations, Joseph Kony refused to sign the “Final Peace Agreement” with the Government of Uganda. The LRA returned to its former tactics in full force, complete with expanded territory. Kony remains at large, sought by the ICC for his crimes against humanity.
As of April 2008, the LRA continues its mass killings of African civilians with a renewed vigor. A spokesperson for the Ugandan army reveals though that recent killings have targeted people groups other than the Ugandans. “We have not rescued many Ugandans recently …We are rescuing Central Africans, Congolese and Sudanese.” In response to the LRA’s territorial expansion, the governments of Uganda, Southern Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) launched “Operation Lightning Thunder,” an offensive against the LRA in early 2009.
The guerilla army denies seeking re-alliance with Northern Sudan, though the relationship between the LRA and the African Muslim community persists. The LRA is currently based in the DRC.
This second phase of the LRA’s existence (following the attempt at reconciliation) is marked by two new factors. First, the Ugandan Daily Monitor reports the loss of ideological or political motivations. The newspaper suggests that the rebel army force has transitioned into committing acts of violence simply to remain in existence. The LRA abducts children “to replenish” its guerilla numbers and raids and pillages villages for sustenance and continued survival. Whether or not the motivations of the group have changed, the violence of the Lord’s Army continues to be unparalleled. Secondly, the LRA’s horrific campaign has spawned imitator groups. “Dissident branches” of the LRA, or even entirely separate groups, have purportedly abducted children and committed atrocities in the same central African region, following in the footsteps of the Lord’s Army.
II. African Christians and the Lord’s Resistance Army
Central Africa’s Christians have not been spared in the nightmare created by the Lord’s Resistance Army. How do the history and politics of the LRA affect Christians in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda?
Listen to two accounts from earlier this year, documented by the Barnabas Aid, an organization that supports persecuted Christians:
In the South Sudanese region of Mundri, LRA fighters abducted two ten-year-old boys, one of them the son of a lay preacher in a local church. When the father and another church member followed the LRA soldiers, they were captured, bound and brutally murdered in front of the boys, who were later found abandoned and traumatised in the bush.
The Lord’s Resistance Army makes direct attacks upon the Christian community and the African church:
In DRC a congregation was at worship on Christmas Day  when it was attacked. At least 418 people were killed, 67 children abducted and 1,023 houses burnt down. Around 150 people are believed to have been murdered the next day at a concert organised by a church in Farajde City. On 26 December 45 people, mainly women and children, were hacked to death inside a church near Doruma, DRC. In Duru 75 people were killed and a church burned down. Then on 24 January … a church building filled with worshippers holding a prayer vigil was torched by the LRA.
A Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, from the ASSIST News Service, documents this additional instance:
In early September  a large band of LRA soldiers stormed into a church in Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala’s diocese [in remote southern Sudan], desecrated the building and abducted 17 youths … 12 people were subsequently abducted from a village near Nzara, and six people ambushed in the forest outside Nzara were killed after being nailed to pieces of wood fastened to the ground. Those who discovered the bodies likened it to a grotesque crucifixion scene.
Unfortunately, the instances detailed above are not freak coincidence. The LRA does not merely cross paths with African Christians on occasion. Instead, the persecution inflicted by the LRA specifically targets the Christian population in central Africa. Recently, thousands of Christian civilians in South Sudan have been forced to flee their villages, as attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army have taken on an increased brutality. The modis operandi of the LRA continues to be terror and intimidation. These tactics are expressed in the continued abduction, brainwashing, and slavery of children, including those from Christian families; the widespread displacement of Christians from their villages; the desecration and burning of Christian churches; and the mutilation and murder of African Christians of all ages.
Several factors help to explain the reality of the persistent and focused persecution of African Christians by the Lord’s Army. First, the regional focus of the LRA. The army currently operates primarily in South Sudan, northern Congo and eastern Central African Republic, where the populations are comprised of predominately Christian peoples. Secondly, Islam’s influence upon the LRA. The army’s dependence upon the Muslim government of Northern Sudan is a two-way street. While the LRA gains training, funds, and protection, the Muslim Sudanese government benefits as well. By supporting the LRA, Northern Sudan essentially gains a “proxy militia” against Africans who “reject Khartoum’s Arab Islamic imperialism.” Northern Sudan uses the LRA to carry out the Islamic vision. The result of these factors? Churches and Christians are common targets of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Linking the LRA’s campaign to the greater Islamic commitment to “jihad” gives a broader context to the horrific situation that African Christians face. The holistic nature of Islam dictates that even regional “skirmishes,” such as the LRA’s rebellion against the Ugandan government, should be used to silence Christians and to expand the authority of Islam. Central Africa’s Christians live not only with the threat of the LRA; our fellow Christians in Africa also bear the brunt of a rapidly-expanding and increasingly-dangerous Islamism.
Consequences of the LRA’s violence are many. The LRA’s brutal campaign has resulted in a widespread refugee situation: over nearly two million Africans in Northern Uganda have been driven from their villages and are living in temporary camps. Many have lived in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps for close to a decade. This displacement compounds other refugee problems in Africa, specifically those created by the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan. The northern and western parts of Uganda have been beset by famine.
The forced withdrawal of several major international humanitarian organizations, such as the World Food Program, demonstrates another significant repercussion of the LRA’s decades-long rampage. As fewer organizations are on the ground to provide aid to the Central African population, the burden to help victims of the LRA’s violence rests upon the shoulders of African Christians. Yet when the LRA traumatizes the region’s Christian community, the rebel army debilitates the very individuals who routinely provide “virtually all services, provision of shelter, humanitarian aid, healthcare, education, care of orphans and rehabilitation of victims” in the Central African region. The LRA’s continuous attacks maim and greatly impair the African Church.
Lastly, and most significantly, the Lord’s Resistance Army has inflicted the most permanent damage to Africa’s children, Christian or otherwise. An estimated 25,000 children have been kidnapped by the LRA over the past two decades. World Vision, an international aid organization, reveals,
A significant number of children have escaped from LRA captivity or are rescued by the Ugandan army. But these children have been traumatized by their experience and … sadly, these children are frequently mistrusted or hated by their communities for what they have done, or are perceived to have done, while with the LRA.
When the LRA abducts children to fight with the guerilla army, it not only removes the young victims from their familiar environment of home and family, but the Lord’s Army subsequently forces the children to commit atrocities against their very own families and villages. LRA leaders use threats of torture and death to terrorize the child prisoners into doing their bidding. Such despicable tactics set the LRA apart as a terrorist group.
The LRA’s manipulative and destructive use of goods and persons demonstrates the ferocity of the guerilla army. Paired with the leadership and support of the Muslim Northern Sudanese government, the effects of the rebel force are far-reaching indeed.
Figure 1: Central African Republic, the DRC, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda (Encarta.com)
Figure 2: LRA attacks, December 2007 - January 2009 (BBCNews.com)
- Smyrna would like to thank Brittany for compiling this report
Barnabas Aid. “Central Africa: Attacks by Lord’s Resistance Army on Churches.” Prayer Focus. February, September, and October 2009.
CBN News. “Missionary Fights for Children of East Africa.” 12 September 2009.
Economist.com, “Kingdom Come,” 16 September 2009.
“Uganda: A country adrift, a president amiss,” 12 February 2009.
GlobalSecurity.org. Military. Africa: The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Holmes-Brown, Bev. “Where Devastation Meets Forgiveness.” ASSIST News Service. 20 May 2007.
Kendal, Elizabeth. “The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) Terrorises.” Religious Liberty News Bulletin. 7 October 2009.
International Criminal Court. Prosecutions. Northern Uganda. “Lord’s Resistance Army.” July 2004.
Invisible Children. “Uganda Today.”
Nyakairu, Frank. “Are resurgent Ugandan rebels backed by Khartoum?” Reuters. September 10, 2009.
“LRA rebels deny CAR abductions.” Ugandan Daily Monitor. 31 March 2008.
Okeowo, Alexis. “Forgiving the Lord’s Resistance Army.” Time 10 November 2007.
Petraitis, Richard. “Joseph Kony’s Spirit War.” 2003.
US Department of State. Country Notes: Uganda, May 2008.
Virtual Presence Post: Northern Uganda. “Peace Process.”
World Vision. Our Work. “World Vision’s Work in Northern Uganda.”