Father Benoit Kinalegu is surprisingly optimistic these days for a man whose job – or at least a large part of it – involves gathering information on massacres, rapes and abductions. But, then again, his tendency to play the armchair general might not seem to jive with his day job as a man of the cloth.
"We would like to see the U.S. Army intervene with adequate, appropriate and modern equipment for this kind of guerrilla conflict. The Americans must take charge of the situation on the ground but also in terms of war planning. It's not enough just to send money. And there must be follow-up," he says.
We are in the town of Dungu sitting on the veranda in front of the small apartment that serves as both his office and residence, and I've just hit upon a subject he likes to talk about...a lot. What should the Americans do?
On May 24th, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, making it American policy to provide "political, economic, military, and intelligence support...to protect civilians from the Lord's Resistance Army, to apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield...and to disarm and demobilize the remaining Lord's Resistance Army fighters."
Benoit knows a lot about the LRA. As head of the Church's Peace and Justice Commission in Haut-Uele, which has created a valuable network of clergymen, civil society members, and ordinary villagers in a zone with no phones and few roads, Benoit has kept a wary eye on the rebels since they first appeared in Garamba National Park in 2005.
Benoit also knows a lot about the new law. After all, he helped create it.
"It was a long process. It started out in 2008 as a proposition by human rights NGOs that our organization signed onto and that we all put forward to the American Congress. We wanted them to neutralize the LRA, bring security to the region, and think about the economic recovery of the areas destroyed by the LRA," he says.
In essence, the people of a long-ignored corner of Africa, improbable though it may have seemed at the time, were looking to the world's most powerful nation for help.
Since late 2006, the LRA had ceased to pose a direct threat within their home country of Uganda. But attacks were continuing in South Sudan. The rebels had begun looting villages in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007. And, in early 2008, they launched a wave of kidnapping raids in southeastern Central African Republic.
Help, of a sort, did indeed arrive in December 2008, but in a form everyone could have done without. After peace talks in South Sudan's capital, Juba, between the Ugandan government and LRA representatives broke down, the U.S. Military's Africa Command provided non-lethal assistance – logistical and intelligence support and military advisers – to a Ugandan airstrike and ground operation against the rebels' main bases in Garamba.
"The failure of this operation marked the beginning of large-scale massacres. It was as if the strikes destroyed an ant hill but scattered the ants everywhere," Benoit recalls.
In Garamba, the Ugandans missed – and not for the first time – an opportunity to kill Joseph Kony, the LRA's reclusive boss, and deal a knockout blow to the rebels. During Christmas week, the LRA struck back, launching a wave of reprisal massacres that by the end of January 2009 had killed nearly 900 civilians. And the astonishing brutality of the slaughter was such that nearly a quarter of a million people fled their homes.
For what it's worth, however, the ongoing catastrophe that has unfurled in the wake of the botched strike brought the issue of the LRA out of classified National Security Council meetings and onto the floor of Congress.
"Thus far, this operation has resulted in the worst-case scenario: it has failed to stop the LRA, while spurring the rebels to intensify their attacks against civilians," Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold said in a statement to the Senate in March 2009.
"To put it bluntly, I believe supporting viable and legitimate efforts to disarm and demobilize the LRA is exactly the kind of thing in which AFRICOM should be engaged. Of course, the key words there are viable and legitimate."
And a viable and legitimate solution to the LRA menace is what Sentator Feingold then set out to create, borrowing heavily from the propositions of Father Benoit and his fellow rights campaigners.
Though few Americans are even aware it exists, the new law is indeed significant. For one thing, it is perhaps the most broadly supported piece of Africa-specific legislation in history. Introduced by Senator Feingold last year at a time of tooth and nail partisanship, the act was co-sponsored by 65 senators from both sides of the aisle and passed in the upper house by unanimous consent in March. In mid-May, it sailed through the House with a voice vote. Within two weeks, it was law.
Perhaps more important, however, has been the level and tone of discourse from the key decision makers in the Obama White House surrounding a policy that – though it also puts heavy emphasis on diplomatic efforts and financial assistance – would seem to imply stepping up U.S. military involvement in what is essentially an African bush war.
"I have been following the Lord's Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don't understand why we cannot end this scourge. And we are going to do everything we can to provide support we believe will enable us to do that," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February.
And during his statement following the bill's signing, President Obama highlighted its emphasis on the protection of civilians.
"The legislation crystallizes the commitment of the United States to help bring an end to the brutality and destruction that have been a hallmark of the LRA across several countries for two decades, and to pursue a future of greater security and hope for the people of central Africa...I signed this bill today recognizing that we must all renew our commitments and strengthen our capabilities to protect and assist civilians caught in the LRA's wake, to receive those that surrender, and to support efforts to bring the LRA leadership to justice."
According to the law, the White House must formulate a new multi-agency strategy to deal with the rebels within 180 days, putting the deadline in November. And Benoit is impatient.
"It only says the law must be implemented by November. That doesn't mean they can't do it before," he says. And when I inject some skepticism into our conversation – suggesting that it is rather doubtful that any eventual American policy on the LRA will translate into a significant number of boots on the ground – he comes back with a pronouncement that at once reconciles his double persona: the man of infinite faith and the armchair general.
"I've always understood the Americans like this. When they had a problem with Gaddafi, they said midnight and it happened. The same with Sadaam Hussein. So we're just waiting. They've passed the law, so it will happen."
Then he smiles.