Last week the Ugandan military revealed that they think there is a "high possibility" that Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) officer Okot Odhiambo died in December of 2013 from wounds suffered during a clash between LRA forces and Ugandan troops. Odhiambio is one of Joseph Kony's most trusted commanders and his chief deputy. He is also one of three remaining commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Reports of Odhiambo's death come from two separate LRA fighters who have defected in the past six weeks. However, because neither of them reported seeing Odhiambo's body, the story remains unconfirmed. As reported in the 2013 LRA Crisis Tracker Annual Security Brief, the LRA lost as much as 20 percent of its core fighting force last year to either military operations or voluntary defections. Odhiambo's death would be another demoralizing blow to a rebel group already struggling to survive.
As we wait for more news (which could be a while), here are a few things you should know about Odhiambo:
1. He's not one of Kony's child soldiers: The LRA's core fighting force is composed of Ugandan men, a vast majority of whom were abducted as young boys when the group was still operational in northern Uganda. In recent years, Kony has been promoting many of the younger Ugandan abductees, relying on them rather than more senior LRA members who joined the group willingly. Odhiambo, who self-enlisted during the early days of the LRA, is a rare exception of an older commander who has retained Kony's confidence.
2. He is one of Kony's enforcers: Odhiambo has retained his influence in part because Kony has often relied on him as an enforcer. In 2007, while comfortably camped in Congo's Garamba National Park, senior LRA commanders fiercely debated how seriously they should take ongoing Juba peace talks with the Ugandan government. Kony's chief deputy at the time, Vincent Otti, was largely in favor of the negotiations. However, Kony was more skeptical of the peace talks, and soon lost trust in Otti. In October 2007, Kony instructed Odhiambo to execute Otti and his core loyalists within the LRA and then rewarded Odhiambo with Otti's post. More recently, Odhiambo oversaw the demotion of Kony's half-brother, David Olanya, who reportedly angered Kony by sleeping with one of his wives. Last year Kony also allegedly executed his top enforcer, Otto Agweng, meaning the loss of Odhiambo could further diminish the LRA leader's ability to maintain discipline within the group.
3. He's also one of Kony's most trusted messengers: Odhiambo has also been at the center of the LRA's strategic efforts to stay one step ahead of the Ugandan military forces pursuing them. During the Juba peace talks, Kony twice sent Odhiambio on dangerous missions to reestablish ties with the Sudanese military, which had provided the LRA with weapons, ammunition, and training in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though Odhiambo failed to reach Sudanese military bases, during his return to Garamba in March 2008 he abducted dozens of people from the town of Obo in the Central African Republic. These attacks marked the beginning of a wave of large-scale abductions raids over the next year and, ultimately, the end of the Juba peace talks.
4. His death might be a sign that the AU counter-LRA operations are working: In recent years, Odhiambo's movements have been extremely difficult to track. However, some military intelligence reports in late 2012 and early 2013 placed him in an LRA camp hidden deep in the dense forests of Congo's Bas Uele district. Ugandan troops haven't been allowed to operate in Congo since 2011, making the region a safe haven for LRA forces who transported looted supplies and illegal ivory from there to LRA commanders in CAR. But in 2013, a Congolese military contingent of the African Union's counter-LRA force finally became operational. In September 2013, with substantial support from U.S. military advisers sent to support the AU mission, the Congolese troops destroyed the LRA's farms and camps in Bas Uele. Though Odhiambo and other LRA members had fled the camp before the assault, the renewed military pressure in Congo may have forced him to seek refuge in Central African Republic, where Ugandan troops could finally pursue him.
5. His death would be a game-changing opportunity to bring LRA fighters home: Regardless of what Odhiambo's death would indicate about African Union military operations, if confirmed, it will present an enormous opportunity to encourage more LRA members to peacefully defect. Innovative partnerships between NGOs like Invisible Children, U.S. military forces, and local community leaders have resulted in an unprecedented barrage of leaflets, radio messages, and helicopter loudspeaker messages across central Africa, encouraging LRA fighters deep in the bush to defect. There have been positive results, as at least 38 Ugandan fighters have defected since 2012, including eight in the past three months who have all cited the influence of these "Come Home" messages. The death of the Odhiambo, one of the pillars of the LRA's command structure, could erode Kony's grip on the LRA and encourage even more defections.