African Studies Lord's Resistance Army
Patrick Vinck, Phuong N. Pham, Niamh Gibbons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0122


Since 1987, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent rebel group headed by Joseph Kony, has been terrorizing the population of northern Uganda and the neighboring countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), and Southern Sudan. The LRA was created initially as a rebellion against Yoweri Museveni’s government, after Museveni, from southern Uganda, seized power from the northern-dominated government and army of then president Tito Okello in 1986. Revenge killings and massacres against people of the North following Museveni’s coup fueled a long-standing divide between Uganda’s north and south. Several rebellions emerged in the North with popular support, most notably the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), led by Alice Auma, who claimed to be possessed by a spirit called Lakwena and saw herself as a messenger of God. The HSM was ultimately defeated. Alice’s father, Severino Lukoya, attempted to continue the movement, but he was ultimately arrested. Joseph Kony emerged in this context as the leader of his rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army, initially with the support of army veterans. Kony, a spirit medium possibly related to Alice Auma, saw himself as a liberator of the Acholi people (a large ethnic group in northern Uganda), with his own beliefs and rituals. Kony’s LRA, however, failed to sustain any initial support from the population and local leaders because of its brutality. The group and its leader have also been consistently perceived as lacking a political agenda, although the LRA has issued political statements over the years. These have not been commonly understood and were overshadowed by its professed spiritual goals and seemingly gratuitous violence against civilians. Accusing the population of aiding the government in seeking his defeat, Kony increasingly turned his military campaign against Acholi civilians, and later against civilians in neighboring regions and countries. Abduction became the primary means of recruitment, with a minimum of sixty thousand civilians forcibly conscripted to serve as soldiers, porters, forced sexual partners, and domestic servants. Many more were abducted for short-term forced labor. More than 1.8 million people had been displaced into squalid camps by the end of 2005. The Ugandan army has also allegedly recruited children, has committed torture and killings against civilians, and has destroyed civilian targets. The Ugandan government’s policies in response to the LRA insurgency—particularly the relocation of the population of conflict-affected districts into camps—has also been severely criticized. In response to the violence, a number of attempts have been made to end the war, either through dialogue or through military means. No peace agreement has ever been finalized, however, and the LRA and its leader have managed to escape any government military action, regrouping and rebuilding through massive attacks on civilians and the use of abduction as a form of forced recruitment. A 2000 law offering amnesty for any Ugandan who engaged in armed rebellion helped bring low-ranking LRA members out of the movement. As the war continued, the office of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) began to investigate the situation, on the basis of a referral from the Ugandan government. In 2005 the ICC released warrants for the arrest for Kony and his top commanders. By 2006 the LRA had withdrawn its forces from northern Uganda and had moved to the neighboring countries of the DRC, CAR, and Southern Sudan. The movement continues to carry out attacks against civilians, with no clear military goal beyond maintaining its own survival.

General Overviews

Known for its brutality, the Lord’s Resistance Army is nevertheless shrouded in mystery. Gersony 1997 provides an early account of the LRA’s establishment and early operations. Doom and Vlassenroot 1999 provides further detail on the origins of the LRA within the broader Ugandan historical context, emphasizing the role of spirits in shaping Kony’s vision. Behrend 1999 is a similar approach to Alice Auma’s Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), to which Kony claimed to have familial as well as spiritual connections, although this is subject to debate. For a more detailed historical and cultural context, Girling 1960 offers an anthropological study of the Acholi ethnic group in which the LRA is rooted. However, the LRA did not exclusively include or affect this group. Ehrenreich 1998 assesses various competing narratives, from insanity to geopolitical conspiracy, that have been used to explain the prolonged conflict. Allen and Vlassenroot 2010 provides a more recent overview of the LRA conflict, including the involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Rather than focusing on the LRA and its leader, Finnström 2008 presents an overview of the conflict from the perspective of those living through the war, and an overview of the LRA’s political agenda, arguing against the common description of the group as lacking clearly articulated goals. Dunn 2004 highlights some of the Ugandan military failures in seeking to end the conflict. The Refugee Law Project, based within the Faculty of Law at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, has produced a number of reports about the conflict with the LRA, most notably Refugee Law Project 2004, a working paper based on consultation about the causes and consequences of the war.

  • Allen, Tim, and Koen Vlassenroot, eds. The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myths and Realities. London: Zed, 2010.

    Edited volume with comprehensive overview and analysis of the LRA movement, roots of the conflict, ideology, political impact, and consequences for civilians up to 2010, as well as an interview with Joseph Kony. Also examines the Juba peace process and the ICC indictments, and the ensuing debate on the interaction of peace and justice.

  • Behrend, Heike. Alice Lakwena & the Holy Spirits. Translated by Mitch Cohen. Eastern African Studies. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain, 1999.

    History of the HSM and its organization under Alice Auma, who claimed to be possessed by a spiritual force known as Lakwena, in the social and historical context of Uganda.

  • Doom, Ruddy, and Koen Vlassenroot. “Kony’s Message: A new Koine? The Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.” African Affairs 98.390 (1999): 5–36.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a008002

    Background on the origins of the LRA in Ugandan history, including the status of the Acholi as an already war-weary and marginalized people at the time of the movement’s emergence, and progress of the conflict, peace efforts, and international dimensions up to the article’s publication in 1999. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Dunn, Kevin C. “Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army.” In Special Issue: ICTs, “Virtual Colonisation” & Political Economy. Review of African Political Economy 31.99 (2004): 139–142.

    Background on the LRA movement’s formation and motivations, as well as an account of the movement’s military fortunes, political impact, and international connections during the period from 1999 to 2004. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ehrenreich, Rosa. “The Stories We Must Tell: Ugandan Children and the Atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army.” Africa Today 45.1 (1998): 79–102.

    Essay comparing and contrasting various narratives around the root causes of the conflict and its impact on the population.

  • Finnström, Sverker. Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda. Cultures and Practice of Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

    Anthropological approach to the LRA conflict, attempting to portray the reality of those living through the war, particularly the generation born after the conflict’s emergence. It also assesses the conflict’s root causes, with specific focus on the Acholi experience of violence and aspirations for peace, and examines the political agenda of the LRA.

  • Gersony, Robert. The Anguish of Northern Uganda: Result of a Field-Based Assessment of the Civil Conflicts in Northern Uganda. Kampala, Uganda: USAID Mission, Kampala, 1997.

    A study of the conflict in northern Uganda’s Acholi and West Nile Districts, on the basis of interviews with three hundred individuals, including community and political leaders and displaced families. Covers the rebel movements directly preceding the LRA, the movement’s establishment and early operations, and government responses.

  • Girling, Frank Knowles. The Acholi of Uganda. Colonial Research Studies 30. London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1960.

    Ethnographic account of the Acholi society, described as a stateless society lacking centralized judicial or executive bodies.

  • Refugee Law Project. Behind the Violence: Causes, Consequences and the Search for Solutions to the War in Northern Uganda. Refugee Law Project Working Paper 11. Kampala, Uganda: Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University, 2004.

    Overview of the conflict, the LRA as an organization, and the causes and consequences of the war, on the basis of interviews with opinion leaders and community members, as well as literature review. Analysis of potential solutions to the conflict as they appeared at the time of publication in 2004.

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