Over the weekend, former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander and one of Kony’s personal bodyguards, Okot George Odek, defected in the town of Pambayamba, Central African Republic (CAR) and is currently with authorities in Obo, CAR. With the help of our team on the ground in Obo, we will continue to update this blog with more details about Okot Odek’s surrender as they are confirmed. Here’s what you need to know at this point:
What we know happened:
Odek came out of the LRA on Saturday, February 6, 2016, in the community of Pambayamba, CAR, and was handed over to security forces in the region over the weekend. While a commander representing a rebel group associated with the former Seleka coalition, claimed that his soldiers “captured” Odek – who he referred to as “Sam”, this claim has not been verified and other reports suggest that Odek surrendered peacefully.
It is important to note that Pambayamba, the town in which Odek reportedly surrendered, is in CAR’s Haut Kotto prefecture, and has been among the towns in this region that have experienced an alarming surge of bold LRA attacks over the past month.
What We Know about Okot Odek:
Okot George Odek, who held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel within the LRA, is originally from the town of Odek in the Pader district of northern Uganda, which is also known to be Kony’s birthplace. He was abducted by the LRA in the mid-90’s in Gulu District in Uganda, when he was approximately eight years old, and has spent about 22 years in the LRA.
Odek formerly served as one of Kony’s personal bodyguards, during which time he earned a reputation within the LRA as a strong Kony loyalist. In 2008, after joining Joseph Kony at the Juba Peace talks, Kony appointed Odek as commander of the First Brigade within the LRA, a notably significant position for a young commander.
By 2010, Odek was considered one of the LRA’s most able commanders and led a group of more than 50 fighters that moved between Dungu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a small town called Gangala na Bodio at the southernmost point of Garamba National Park, where his group often camped. This group is believed to be responsible for attacks against civilians in and around Dungu.
According to former LRA captives and fighters, Odek was such a trusted member of Kony’s inner circle, that in January of 2012, when Kony put top commander and indicted war criminal, Dominic Ongwen, under “house arrest”, Okot Odek and Major John Bosco Kibwola were given authority over him by Kony. (Related: Dominic Ongwen eventually escaped from the LRA in January 2015, after learning that Kony ordered his execution. He surrendered to security forces in Central African Republic and is currently facing trial before the ICC.)
As of late 2012, Odek was most likely in charge of a small satellite group of LRA fighters in Congo under the leadership of Vincent Binany, who was later killed by Ugandan forces in January 2013. By the end of 2013, Odek’s group had moved the center of their operations into the Vovodo-Chinko River confluence in northern CAR, an epicenter of LRA activity during that period., Odek reportedly traveled regularly to liaise with Kony in the Kafia Kingi enclave, a disputed territory at the border of Sudan, South Sudan, and CAR, and a known safe-haven for Kony and top LRA commanders since 2011.
What this could mean for Kony and the LRA:
Okot Odek was a significant leader within the LRA and was one of the few remaining Acholi commanders trusted by Kony. His peaceful defection is further evidence that some long-time Ugandan leaders within the LRA are becoming increasingly desperate and disillusioned. Despite Kony’s propaganda claiming that LRA fighters will be killed if they surrender, Odek are apparently decided to take him chances and escape, rather than stay in the LRA. This is an encouraging sign that Kony could be losing his grip on the LRA command structure and that we now have a critical window of opportunity to permanently dismantle the LRA from within.
Odek’s “Come Home” messages could be hugely influential in catalyzing other defections of Ugandan fighters, and the release of the women and children they are holding hostage. Odek himself was directly targeted by defection messaging in 2013 and 2014. His surrender is an encouraging sign for the ongoing “Come Home” defection campaigns of Invisible Children and other partners.
Due to Odek’s close proximity to Kony while in the LRA, and his active role in strategic, high-priority areas for LRA activity, Odek will likely have extremely valuable information to share about LRA movements and tactics in the region.
Furthermore, this significant step forward in the counter-LRA mission sounds the alarm that the international community must move swiftly and decisively to ensure that proper reintegration support is in place throughout LRA-affected areas for returning LRA fighters and captives. Particularly, donors should prioritize support to community-led reintegration programs across DRC, CAR, South Sudan, and northern Uganda.