From Acellam Down To Ongwen, LRA Withers On War Strategy

He was looking outside the open window; he stared hard at the afternoon skies as they spit rays down his blue hospital pyjamas and red sandals. Like him, many other rebel warlords had spent their later years after the war reminiscing in tales of the bush wars. Often isolated in the Acholi quarters, many of Kony’s captured commanders were now used as pawns by the UPDF to send out ‘come home’ messages and also gather key intelligence on rebel movements.

Unluckily for Caesar Acellam, four bullet wounds and a prestigious rebel career had denied him the privilege of being in the Acholi quarters for long. Acellam was the most trained LRA officer, he’d received formal military training in Sudan and it is from there that he had learnt both Arabic and English. His fluency in both languages was undoubted, if anything, it had earned him the eye of Joseph Kony who had extensive support from the Arabic speaking Sudanese soldiers.

Acellam spoke lightly, often pausing to look outside the window and let off a slight chuckle. I found him at his lunch comprised of malakwang – a famous dish – and rice with millet. He offered me half the plate, which offer I turned down due to the little time I had been allowed to access him.

The soldiers at the ward kept guard, in the huge Nakasero Hospital complex, it was easy to miss their green camouflage uniforms and black shiny boots but they stood in good positions to see whatever happened in the ward.

He asked me for my name – which I’d told him at the start of the interview. “Raymond” I muttered. “So Raymond, why do you want to talk to me now?” He asked with a straight face.

I provided him with a brief profile of him and how that profile was more newsworthy than anything the LRA had produced. He then started to ease into the conversation. Ten minutes in and he was comfortable taking off the docket around his waist to show me two bullet wounds that made the total of four bullet wounds he had suffered in an ambush attack for his capture. The UPDF had monitored him for over a month and deployed at the    River Mbomu banks a whole two weeks before he crossed it. They disguised as farmers and some as villagers picking water from the fresh river to give Acellam’s guard the confidence to cross.

Acellam was a wise rebel, his intelligence had kept Kony off the UPDF’s radar and produced shameful headlines of how saucepans and Kanzus were captured by the UPDF instead of Kony. It is this instinct that kept him at the River Mbomu for two weeks before deciding to cross.

He landed in the ambush quite well, Lieutenant Col Abdu who commanded the operation rounded him up with his wife and some children, three other aides of his escaped the ambush but Acellam didn’t due to bullet wounds.

I asked him to describe the nature of his capture and whether he had voluntarily offered himself for capture but he refused to answer that. He said I’d need clearance from Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence to get those details . I grudgingly agreed and we talked about his LRA days.

Acellam, like Ongwen, confesses the UPDF has offered them good treatment under their custody., Part of this is the strategy the force has employed to deal with the LRA. Former commander of Operation Iron Fist and some parts of Operation Lightening thunder, Gen Tinyefuza said in an interview that the UPDF had deployed more than just one strategy to wipe out the LRA.

In his bush war days, Acellam was revered as the best intelligence officer of the LRA. In this photo he talks to the media during the failed peace talks. He later fell  out with kony over his stand on the execution of Vicent Otti
In his bush war days, Acellam was revered as the best intelligence officer of the LRA. In this photo he talks to the media during the failed peace talks. He later fell out with kony over his stand on the execution of Vicent Otti

Total decimation of the capacity by LRA to wage war was one of those. The strategy was/has been successful; keeping the rebels out of Uganda and in split groups having to fight and hunt for food has disoriented the force, angered Kony and also led to key defections. It would never have been possible to capture rebels like Acellam in conventional warfare, their dodgy nature and heightened intelligence in Northern Uganda kept them a foot ahead of the UPDF. Yet in CAR and DRC, they had to walk long journeys for food and arms supplies. Many of them, exhausted by the walking and lack of combat operations and with obscure leadership abandoned the fight.

Ongwen himself like Acellam had fallen out with Kony over the execution of the second in command Vicent Otti over his willingness to talk to the Kampala government.

Ongwen’s surrender can be no different from this. From information I have gathered, he had sent numerous messages to the Seleka mistaking them for the UPDF requesting to surrender peacefully. Ongwens fighters had been heavily beaten by the African Union Taskforce soldiers – but majorly by South Sudan’s commando force that makes rounds in Southern CAR. He had spent over a year without word from Kony and was increasingly isolated.

Former military police commander Colonel Kabango shaking Ongwen's hand minutes after he was handed over to the UPDF by US forces
Former military police commander Colonel Kabango shaking Ongwen’s hand minutes after he was handed over to the UPDF by US forces

At the time of his surrender, Ongwen had a pair of clothes, three files and one gun. What was surprising though is that he surrendered alone to the Seleka militia – a rogue force of rebels too. The Seleka called the UPDF base in Obo and a team of intelligence officers was dispatched to meet him. They confirmed it was Ongwen but could not airlift him for Southern CAR for reasons undisclosed at the moment. They called in US forces who have the might of Osprey aircrafts that lifted him from where he had surrendered to the AURTF camp in Obo. It is also still not clear if a bounty was offered to the Seleka for Ongwen.

What we can take away from Ongwen’s surrender is the continued decimation of LRA’s warfare capacity. An Invisible Children report drafted earlier had suggested that the LRA’s might is in the region of 250 people and only half have the capacity to wage war. Capacity in this case being having guns and leadership. Kony is still rumoured to be in Kafia Kingi despite two operations on the area yielding no results. He is also the only remaining known member of the ‘Control Alter’ which is LRA top most decision making organ. Much like the military high command of the UPDF.

Despite being almost shattered, the LRA has not been taken off the UPDF’s threats to Uganda.

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