Obama Takes on the LRA

Why Washington Sent Troops to Central Africa

Joseph Kony

A rare photo of Kony from 2008. Read more of Foreign Affairs' coverage on Africa, sign up for our newsletter, or subscribe.

As a United Nations staffer said recently, while attending an internal briefing on the Lord's Resistance Army, the violent central African rebel group, earlier this fall, "November is LRA month." Indeed, the LRA and its notorious leader, Joseph Kony, are suddenly everywhere: several non-governmental organizations have held advocacy briefings about it at the United Nations, and the Security Council met on November 14 to discuss them. Meanwhile, journalists in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere are suddenly seized with the mission of finding out what is really happening on the ground in central Africa.

Two events underlie the renewed interest. First, in October, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would be sending "combat-equipped troops" on a kill-or-capture mission to take out Kony. Second, on November 2, Hollywood released Machine Gun Preacher, a movie billed as the true story of an American missionary's Rambo-esque crusade against the LRA. Curiosity about the events depicted in the film will soon subside, if early reviews are anything to go by, but Obama's decision, which he pitched to the American public as a dramatic new development, is another matter.

The LRA conflict goes back to the late 1980s. After toppling the regime of Tito Okello, the victorious forces of Uganda's new president, Yoweri Museveni, sought to impose his authority on the Acholi population in northern Uganda, which had been closely associated with Okello. A diverse range of resistance groups emerged at that time; all were eventually defeated, except for the LRA, which proved more resilient than anyone might have imagined. In the decades that followed, the outside world largely looked the other way as Uganda's north sunk into violence and deprivation. That changed in the early 2000s, when images of thousands of children taking refuge in the town of Gulu, Uganda, first hit mainstream television. Various celebrities began to speak out about the war, mostly

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