Solutions to a ‘wicked’ problem – dealing with Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Our Canadian human security and peacebuilding class visited Gulu in 2005, just after the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony. The community’s leaders were not happy, feeling this would disrupt their efforts to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In fact, they had travelled to the Hague to ask the ICC not to proceed with the warrant.

During our visit, we heard from Betty Bigombe, a former cabinet minister in the Ugandan government, who had been involved in supporting the local peacebuilding process and had met with LRA forces in the bush – difficult and dangerous work. I remember she mentioned that Kony and the LRA kept a close watch on the community, and that this offered possibilities of influencing their activities, but at the time, I didn’t fully realize the significance of this comment.

I have since learned that in many conflict areas, communication channels often remain open between fighters in the bush and their family and friends in the community. Sometimes these channels encourage those in the bush to return home by sharing stories of ex-combatants and how the community is treating them. Armed groups in the bush, in fact, sometimes send small groups back to the community to test the veracity of these stories, offering one potential way to reduce or end the impact of such groups locally.

In the case of Joseph Kony, however, given his appalling brutality and apparent ability to move around the region unchecked, the only solution external eyes can see seems to be a military one. You can see this sense of revulsion about Kony and the LRA in the reaction to the Kony2012 video that went viral, understandably prompting many people to ask why this has been allowed to continue for so long.

The problem is that effectively, the LRA problem is much more complicated than just ‘taking out Kony’ – it could be called a ‘wicked’ problem in more ways than one. And in terms of answers, the voices that have been heard most loudly have not been the voices of the local people who know the most about the problem and who have worked hard to address it over many years.

Military campaigns have actually broadened the scope of the LRA’s depredations, into the remote borderlands areas of Southern Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo where governments are effectively absent. You can see this clearly in a map in Conciliation Resources’ excellent 2011 report, When will this end and what will it take?

Moving into these areas from northern Uganda, where Kony began several decades ago, has changed the LRA’s ethnic makeup (more than 3,400 people, mostly children, have been abducted since 2008) but not the fact that the LRA is mostly made up of children who fear being beaten or killed if they resist or try to escape. Each military attack leads to more LRA attacks on civilians and more kidnapping of children, thus widening the scale of the problem. As the LRA has moved into these new regions, it has collaborated with some local groups, which in turn disrupts the normal communal conflict resolution strategies that maintain order in the absence of government in such remote regions, and its attacks have caused massive displacements of people.

LRA activities in the borderlands regions of Central African Republic, Southern Sudan and northern Democratic Republic of Congo have severely disrupted livelihoods in the entire region. People stay in towns rather than cultivate their fields and so local prices for staples rise, and land use conflicts increase within the small area where it is safe to cultivate. As displaced people come to towns, humanitarian agencies draw in staff from elsewhere, compounding the pressure on local resources. Local self-defence groups, created to protect local communities, can end up themselves becoming a community problem – although not always.

Communities who aid those who escape from the LRA often are attacked as a result, and the report notes that the LRA has been known to carry out fake surrenders which target both potential escapers and receiving communities. In much of the region, even if they do manage to escape, former LRA members – male and female – often have a difficult time being accepted back into their communities.

What is needed to deal with such a difficult problem, the report concludes, is a multi-pronged and long-term strategy. Dealing with the LRA alone does not recognize that it is a part of a “complex web of violent conflicts and regional political and security rivalries.” Such a comprehensive approach needs to combine political, mediation, security, humanitarian and developmental efforts and should have three main strands, the report suggests.

Strand one: address the regional military and political rivalries through political dialogue that focuses on Khartoum, Kampala and Juba and involves other regional actors. Military actions should focus primarily on protecting civilians rather than pursuing the LRA
Strand two: develop a regional approach to demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of former LRA combatants that is set within a context of seriously addressing “governance, social and developmental challenges in these neglected areas.”
Strand three: put the option of dialogue with the LRA back on the table and create space for informal engagement to happen.

A key part of the strategy involves seeing local people as partners, rather than ‘passive beneficiaries”, and investing in their role and their capacity. Local people understand the conflict’s local dynamics and consequences; they can go into affected areas; and they have a long-term commitment to address the effects of the violence. Thus they can “play peacebuilding roles across borders that governments and intergovernmental bodies cannot”. The report provides a list of specific recommendations in this area.

In a blog post entitled What will it take to end the conflict with the LRA?, Kennedy Tumutegyereize puts it this way:

Despite enormous odds, support for a strategy based on protection and engagement is widespread among those who bear the brunt of the conflict, civil society and communities across the region. They recognise that building a just and lasting peace takes time. This is a job that requires support for local approaches and peacebuilding initiatives rather than imposing more external firepower.

In 2005, when we asked people in Gulu what we could do to help, they said: “tell people about us.” Over the years, many of us have done that – but our voices did not have the impact of that one viral video, Kony2012. I am grateful to Invisible Children for making the problem known worldwide. Now I hope that everyone who has seen the video and wondered “what can we do” will listen to the voices of the local people who have lived with this terrible problem all these years.

More reading:

For more information about local perspectives, see #StopKony: efforts to end the LRA conflict must listen to local people (Conciliation Resources)

When will this end and what will it take? Peoples perspectives on addressing the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict. Conciliation Resources, November 2011 report.

** “Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)