Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have terrorized communities across four African nations for 25 years, killing 100,000, according to a UN report, and maiming thousands more. Along the way, the LRA has filled its ranks by abducting tens of thousands of children and forcing them to become soldiers and sex slaves.
In 2010, President Obama directed the Department of State, Department of Defense, and USAID to develop a strategy to help governments and communities end the LRA’s reign of terror. To advance that strategy, U.S. Special Forces were sent to advise and assist the regional militaries pursuing the LRA. At the same time, the State Department deployed experts from the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), created by Secretary Clinton in November 2011 to prevent and respond to conflicts in key countries and regions.
Jon Gandomi is one of those diplomats. Gandomi, who has served as the Department’s field representative for LRA issues since June 2012, and his CSO colleagues helped build a network that includes local communities, U.S. Special Forces soldiers, Ugandan troops, UN officials, and NGOs working to end the LRA. Gandomi’s CSO predecessors were Jason Lewis-Berry, Scott Duncan, and Charlene Brown.
“An important part of the U.S. strategy is to encourage Kony’s soldiers, most of whom were kidnapped as children, to leave the LRA peacefully,” Gandomi says. “This approach has built unique partnerships among civil society leaders, communities, NGOs, and UN missions. All of us understand that most LRA members did not choose to be in the LRA and remain with them only because they fear retribution by Kony. If we can make it easier to defect, then we increase the chances of getting them home safely and weakening the LRA.”
The number of defections has increased noticeably over the past year, indicating that this unconventional approach is producing results. Since May 2012, scores of LRA members have defected or were released. NGOs believe that 15 percent of the LRA’s Ugandan male fighting force has defected in the last 18 months. The number of people killed by the LRA decreased by 66 percent from 2011 to 2012, and the Ugandan military has removed two of the LRA’s most senior and notorious commanders since 2012.
“We know from recent defectors that the LRA is at its weakest point in years and morale is at an all-time low,” Gandomi says. “The LRA is fighting for survival.” Gandomi has worked with U.S. Special Forces and local NGO partners to set up locations where it is safe for LRA members to defect. They advertise these locations through radio broadcasts, leaflet drops, and messages played on helicopter-mounted loudspeakers.
Gandomi says it’s hard for most Americans to appreciate how much the U.S. role in the counter-LRA mission means to people in central Africa. “All three of the countries where the LRA operates are among the world’s ten least-developed countries,” he notes. “The region is incredibly remote and has almost no infrastructure, security, or governance. The people who have lived the nightmare of the LRA are extremely grateful for the U.S. presence. They see it as a sign that their years of suffering and trauma at the hands of the LRA have finally been recognized by the international community.”
In addition to travelling with U.S. Special Forces within the region on a weekly basis, Gandomi also engages with local leaders, civil society, NGOs, and UN missions to deepen the coalition of partners working across borders to share information, lessons, and experiences. “The best ideas and innovations in the counter-LRA effort come from communities on the ground,” Gandomi says. “Oftentimes our job is simply to provide a larger platform and support the role they want to play.”
Supporting locally driven efforts is an approach CSO uses in other engagements around the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. “The most unpredictable part of the job is trying to plan around the weather,” Gandomi explains. “In the rainy season you could suddenly discover you’ll be spending the night at a remote field location because travel becomes impossible. You just have to settle in and enjoy being isolated from the rest of the world. During those times I really feel that it’s a privilege to be involved in this work,” Gandomi says. “The region’s challenges won’t suddenly vanish when Kony is captured, but we have a real chance at ending one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, and the benefits would be significant.”