Contemporary military conflicts are rarely between nation-states – instead, they largely happen within the states’ borders and involve non-state actors. Insurgent groups built around charismatic leaders and not bound by the international norms of exercising violence in war constitute an increasingly important challenge to governments and civilian populations alike, especially considering their use of terror. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a radical Christian insurgency led by an enigmatic preacher Joseph Kony, is an example of such a threat that challenged authorities of Uganda and neighboring countries for decades. The organization’s indiscriminate use of terror resulted in the deaths of dozens of thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Despite the energetic and partially successful efforts to suppress it, the LRA still operates, albeit at a reduced scale. As Day (2017) notes, such resilience sets it apart from many other rebellions in Uganda and begs the question of what is the reason behind it. Research suggests that the LRA used both terror and spiritualism to challenge the Ugandan authorities and the population, and the combination thereof made this challenge so threatening and resilient at the same time.
Terror in the LRA
Terror is most likely the first association that comes to mind at the mention of the LRA, and for a good reason too. While the movement was not consistently successful in its clashes with the military of Uganda and the neighboring nations, it amassed a considerable victim count in civilian casualties. Estimates indicate that at least 100,000 civilians died at the hands of the LRA soldiers, and even more fled to escape the organization’s terror (Day, 2017). Evidently appalled by the sheer magnitude of this violence, some Western observers labeled the LRA’s terror as senseless violence “with no discernable agenda” (Day, 2017, p. 4). However, other scholars challenge this interpretation and point out that the roots of the LRA lie in the circumstances of the historically neglected Acholi populations of Northern Uganda (Day, 2017). From this perspective, the LRA’s use of terror is not violence for its own sake but the means of carving a rational goal. Through its excessive use of terror, the LRA aimed to coerce the Ugandan government to acquiesce to the creation of an Acholi political space ruled by Kony.
The merits of this argument, as opposed to the idea of senseless and barbaric violence, become clearer if one looks at the historical statistics of civilian casualties at the LRA’s hands. During the first years after its foundation in 1986, the LRA primarily engaged with governmental forces, such as security or police (Dowd & Drury, 2017). While the attacks against civilian populations happened, they were not originally the main focus of the LRA war effort. However, as the government’s military pressure on the organization mounted, the LRA shifted its focus and began retaliating against civilian populations with a considerably increased magnitude. Dowd and Drury (2017) point out that this “sharp and disproportionate increase in levels of violence against civilians” occurred precisely as the military fortunes turned against the LRA. Considering this, the LRA’s use of terror was a conscious strategic choice to provide an asymmetrical response to Ugandan military superiority by forcing the army to overextend in an attempt to protect civilians. Thus, the strategic use of terror was one reason why the LRA was able to pose a serious challenge to the Ugandan authorities and population.
Spiritualism in the LRA
Apart from its use of terror, the LR also puts a heavy emphasis on spiritual motives underlining its political and military agenda in opposing the Ugandan government. As mentioned above, the historical roots of the LRA as an organization are in the historical insecurity that the Acholi minority experiences within Uganda. Based on that, one could expect that the movement would frame its cause in ethnic rather than religious terms. However, research indicates that religion has a too significant mobilizing potential in contemporary Africa and, in particular, Uganda to ignore it. As a result, Ugandan insurgent movements tended to frame ethnopolitical causes in religious terms (Dowd & Drury, 2017). Even before Kony and his LRA, there was the charismatic preacher Alice Lakwena, whose Holy Spirit Mobile Force (HSMF) was based on the same Acholi nationalism but framed it as a spiritual crusade (Komakech, 2019). In this respect, the LRA essentially developed the premises laid out by Lakwena toward a more radicalized form.
The key concept of spiritualism, as understood in the LRA, is Acholi Manyen. Literally translated as “New Acholi” and opposed to the “Old Acholi” or Acholi Macon, this concept outlines the identity that the LRA aims to foster. It is largely founded on ethnic notions, but it also has a very profound spiritual component to it. The main factor that separates the “Old Acholi” from the “New Acholi” is the spiritual corruption of the former. Following Kony and the LRA is the only way of spiritual self-purification, and violence exercised in the name of their cause becomes the enactment of the divine will and for the lack of virtue (Komakech, 2019). Similarly, transition to the Acholi Manyen, even through coercion and the use of force, is framed as a spiritually purifying experience. Komakech (2019) points out that even many of the soldiers abducted as children – yet another practice the LRA is infamous for – came to interpret their abductions as a necessary step toward the spiritual betterment. Thus, the use of spiritualism and religion’s mobilizing potential was yet another factor that made the LRA a considerable challenge for Ugandan authorities.
Intersection of Terror and Spiritualism in the LRA
While both terror and religious motives are important in maintaining the LRA, it is their intersection that allowed the organization to function with such resilience in the long run. First and foremost, the combination of the two allows the LRA to frame its actions in a more appealing and comforting way to its individual members. As mentioned above, the use of terror was a staple of the LRA’s strategy to asymmetrically counter the government’s superiority in conventional warfare through the sheer scale of violence against civilians (Dowd & Drury, 2017). The strong emphasis on spiritualism and the divine sanction of the LRA’s activities proved to be of particular use in the exercise of this strategy. Framing the violence exercised within and outside the organization as the divine will enables a psychologically comforting shift of responsibility for one’s actions. If the orders to commit atrocities came from the supernatural entities rather than human leaders, then the LRA’s soldiers “had no choice but to obey the orders of the spirits” (Komakech, 2019, p. 112). As a result, spiritualism relieved the sense of personal responsibility for the terror that might have occurred otherwise.
Apart from that, the intersection of spiritualism and terror was also crucial in securing Kony’s continuous power over the LRA and his cult of personality through the decades. According to the available information, Kony, who still evades capture, engages in regular leadership purges against the subordinates who may pose a threat to him. For example, he imprisoned Dominic Ongwen, one of his top enforcers, for an attempt to challenge his authority, and the latter was captured while wandering after escaping from captivity (Day, 2017). This example indicates that, even as the LRA’s military capacity has shrunk to mere hundreds of fighters, Kony still possesses sufficient control to purge civilian populations and his own influential followers alike. Moreover, the emphasis on spiritualism provides an additional dimension to Kony’s control over the organization. Even among those former abductees who did not fully convert to the LRA’s ideology, many believe that he possesses genuine spiritual powers (Beevor, 2017). Thus, the combination of terror and presumed spiritual authority allowed the Kony to form an organization resilient enough to pose a challenge to its adversaries for a long time.
As one can see, terror and spiritualism were the two factors that made the LRA a significant challenge for the Ugandan authorities and the civilian population alike. The strategic choice in favor of terrorizing civilian populations was a crucial element of the LRA’s asymmetric strategy against the Ugandan security forces. Framing the organization’s cause in terms of spiritual betterment and purification allowed it to hold stringer ideological sway over its participants and supporters alike. Finally, the intersection of terror and spiritualism made the LRA’s activities and Kony’s personal authoritative leadership more sustainable in the long run, as evidenced by the fact that the organization’s continued, if weakened, existence.
Beevor, E. (2017). Coercive radicalization: Charismatic authority and the internal strategies of ISIS and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 40(6), 496-521.
Day, C. R. (2017). “Survival mode”: Rebel resilience and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Terrorism and Political Violence 31(5), 1-21.
Dowd, C., & Drury, A. (2017). Marginalization, insurgency and civilian insecurity: Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Peacebuilding 5(2), 136-152.
Kpmakech, D. (2019). ‘Acholi manyen made us fight’: Understanding the metaphor in the former Lord’s Resistance Army female fighters’ battle spaces. Journal of Science & Sustainable Development 6(2), 102-121.