KAMPALA, Uganda, Aug 4, 2005 — The mind of Joseph Kony, the self-styled messianic leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, remains elusive terrain, but he probably celebrated the death of Sudanese First Vice President and southern leader John Garang.
Few doubt that Mr. Kony viewed Mr. Garang, the founder of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, as a nemesis hostile to his interests.
"Garang was opposed to [the LRA] as a freedom fighter and a liberator, and now in his final days as president of southern Sudan, whose people were also under LRA terror," Ugandan army spokesman Lt. Col. Shaban Bantariza said.
The rebels killed nine Sudanese in a camp for internally displaced people near the town of Juba last month.
Before the crash in a Ugandan presidential helicopter killed Mr. Garang and 13 others on board along the Uganda-Sudan border on Saturday, he vowed to expel the LRA from its sanctuary in his region.
"Kony won’t be hiding there for long. It is not only Kony, but also all the militias who have been operating in the area," he told the majority government-owned New Vision daily in his final interview. "We need to provide peace, security and stability."
The threat posed by the LRA, identified by Uganda and the United States as a terrorist group, to civilians on both sides of the border demonstrates how deeply intertwined the fates of two troubled regions have become in the past decade.
Ugandan officials have frequently said that peace in southern Sudan would put an end to the 19-year conflict blighting their country because the rebels would not be able to operate freely, running back and forth across the highly permeable border.
Col. Bantariza said the SPLA and the Ugandan army agreed to cooperate on fighting the rebels and even planned to carry out joint military operations.
But Mr. Garang’s death has at least postponed those plans, deflating the dreams of northern Ugandans.
Roughly 1.6 million of them live in camps for the internally displaced, almost wholly dependent on foreign food handouts to survive, since they’re too afraid of the LRA to live at home.
"[Garang’s death] certainly is going to complicate the peace process in northern Uganda," one well-placed observer in the region said.
Not that anyone would consider negotiating with the LRA, a highly mobile outfit with no stated aims other than establishing rule based on the Ten Commandments, to be an easy task.
Its relationship with Sudan’s Islamist government stands as perhaps the most unique quid pro quo arrangement in recent African history.
In 1993-94, as Uganda gave staunch backing to the SPLA, then fighting the Sudanese government, officials in Khartoum repaid the favor by providing Mr. Kony’s rebels with shelter in southern Sudan and weapons to attack northern Uganda.
But the LRA then increased its reliance on the forced recruitment of children into its ranks.
At least 20,000 of them have been abducted to serve as soldiers, sex slaves and baggage handlers, according to the United Nations.
But the Sudanese government did not flinch, according to the International Crisis Group, a think tank dedicated to conflict prevention.
"Sudan bears the major responsibility for the duration of the northern Ugandan conflict because it has played a central role in revitalizing and sustaining the LRA during the last decade," it said in a June report.
Sudan committed itself to severing ties with the LRA in 2002, though several northern Ugandan officials remained skeptical since Mr. Kony and his rebels continued to move and back forth across the border.
Once inside, it’s easy to remain hidden since southern Sudan is incredibly vast — it’s the size of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi combined.
Ugandan army raids in the area, authorized by Khartoum under a 2002 military protocol, have produced some successes, such as the destruction of a major LRA hide-out in 2004, but they have failed to crush the rebels.
Meanwhile, the ICG said the Sudanese government is still providing supplies to the LRA, including ammunition.
"The LRA is rejoicing over Garang’s death," said John Prendergast, special adviser to the ICG. "Its leadership will seek to take advantage of the vacuum, and will test the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] in the coming weeks to see if it will maintain Garang’s commitment to an anti-LRA agenda."
Ugandans are hopeful that Salva Kiir, Mr. Garang’s successor, will uphold his predecessor’s commitment to fight the LRA, but no one knows for sure.
Certainly, Mr. Kiir now has many priorities that demand his attention.
Violence raged in Khartoum as southerners rampaged in grief after the announcement of Mr. Garang’s death before northerners launched reprisal attacks, leading authorities to impose a nightly curfew.
Mr. Kiir called for calm and unity, and, together with two American mediators, he is focusing on implementing the peace deal that was signed in January.
The international community indeed fears a new slide toward warfare between northern and southern Sudan, which currently faces rebellions in western Darfur region and in its east.
What worries Ugandans, however, is the prospect for turmoil inside the SPLM.
Such fears are based upon precedent as a 1991 split between Mr. Garang and one of his top officials, Riek Machar, resulted in two years of infighting along tribal lines.
"If Garang’s death leads to instability, then it will create new conditions for escalation in LRA banditry," said Morris Ogenga-Latigo, an opposition member of parliament from northern Uganda.
A well-placed observer echoed Mr. Ogenga-Latigo, saying if southern Sudanese started to fight one another, that would be disastrous and would give Mr. Kony’s rebels the opportunity to find new allies.
According to northern Ugandans, the LRA may have reached one of the lower points in its two-decade history owing to the depletion of high-ranking officials from its command structure known as the Control Altar, which includes Mr. Kony, his deputy and the heads of all departments such as administration, medical support and air defense.
Some of those defectors laid down their arms as part of an amnesty law that offers forgiveness, money and other benefits.
The Ugandan army has also killed a few other officials since January 2004.
Yet the LRA has shown it’s still capable of launching attacks in northern Uganda since the collapse of peace talks earlier this year.
Nor are its most senior members in a rush to leave the bush since the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor opened a case against them in April 2004 and is now preparing to issue indictments.
Mediator Betty Bigombe said she renewed telephone contact this week with Mr. Kony’s deputy, Vincent Otti, who is passing along messages to his leader, but she said direct communication will not be possible until Mr. Kony gets a new satellite phone.
Still, few Ugandans are willing to absolve Sudan of blame for its role in helping create the north’s misery.
Nor can they ignore the geographical connection that binds the two regions together.
"Once southern Sudan begins to stabilize, that impact will be felt in northern Uganda," Mr. Ogenga-Latigo said. "Now it’s a complete unknown until we see the developments over the next few weeks."