LONDON (AlertNet) - U.S. President Barack Obama's new strategy to protect central African civilians from the rebel Lord's Resistance Army needs an injection of cash and a top diplomat to lead it if it's to succeed, advocacy groups say.
Obama announced in November that Washington would step up efforts to help governments in the region put an end to violence perpetrated by the LRA, a rebel group from northern Uganda which is notorious for terrorising civilian populations, slicing off people's lips and abducting children to work as soldiers, porters and sex slaves.
Obama's initiative was mandated by the bipartisan LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, described by the coalition as the most widely-supported piece of Africa-specific legislation in recent U.S. history.
The four advocacy groups - Resolve, the Enough Project, Invisible Children and Citizens for Global Solutions, which campaign for peace and justice in east and central African conflicts among other issues - have issued a "report card" assessing the anti-LRA policy and its implementation so far.
Based on that analysis, they have written to the president, urging him to dedicate "significant new staff, senior leadership, and funding to implement the strategy", including the appointment of a Great Lakes envoy who would report to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and coordinate work across government agencies at home and in the region.
The U.S.-based coalition says, if implemented robustly, the strategy could "play a critical role in ending one of Africa’s longest-running and most violent crises".
"However, we are concerned that the current vision and will for implementation may fall dramatically short of what is required to realise the full potential of the strategy and permanently end LRA atrocities," the letter added.
For two decades in northern Uganda, the cult-like LRA waged war against the government and local Acholi people, attacking villages, towns and camps for people forced from their homes.
At the height of the conflict, the United Nations called northern Uganda one of the world's most neglected humanitarian crises. Some 2 million people - about 90 percent of Acholiland - were uprooted from their homes and tens of thousands killed or mutilated.
A Sudanese-brokered ceasefire in 2006 brought relative peace to northern Uganda. But LRA leader Joseph Kony has repeatedly refused to sign a final peace deal, demanding guarantees he will not be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) which wants to try him for war crimes.
The LRA have camped out in remote regions of Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo since the peace process started, terrorising local populations.
Since September 2008, the LRA have killed at least 2,300 people, kidnapped more than 3,000 and caused some 400,000 civilians to flee across the region. Last year alone, they committed more than 240 deadly attacks, the coalition says.
"It's time for the Obama administration to show it is serious about ending LRA violence against civilians," David Sullivan, research director for the Enough Project, said in a statement. "By committing senior staff and resources commensurate to the urgency of the crisis, the United States can help galvanise wider international action that has been absent for too long."
The letter said Washington should devote "significantly more financial resources to implementing the LRA strategy" than the aid it has allocated to the issue in the past, which includes $23 million in support to Ugandan military operations since December 2008 and $35 million in emergency assistance in the 2010 fiscal year. But it did not call for a specific amount.
LRA COMMAND STRUCTURE INTACT
Other actions recommended by the coalition included boosting the number of U.N. peacekeepers and encouraging them to be more proactive, as well as improving telecommunications and road infrastructure in remote areas. It also recommended finding viable alternatives to the Ugandan military in apprehending or removing from the battlefield senior LRA commanders and expanding efforts to demobilise LRA commanders.
The letter said Washington should no longer rely on the Ugandan military to track down and arrest top LRA cadres because a growing body of evidence indicates it cannot do so.
Some two years after the launch of a Ugandan-led offensive by armies from the region, "the LRA's command structure remains largely intact and Ugandan and other regional forces have failed to protect a vast majority of civilians in LRA-affected areas from frequent and brutal rebel attacks," it adds.
The coalition plans to release "report cards" three times a year, focusing on five key elements of the new U.S. strategy: expanding U.S. engagement, protecting civilians from violence, helping them escape from the LRA, stopping senior LRA commanders, and assisting conflict-affected communities to survive and rebuild.
The first report card grades the content of each of these goals and their initial roll out, giving two Bs - which indicates "encouraging progress", two Cs - "little or inadequate progress" and one D - "efforts at a standstill".