Choice Analysis Case Study: Negotiating with the Lord’s Resistance Army

Before Christmas I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Liu Institute to give a negotiation workshop to a group of visiting Ugandans. As some people know, but many do not, Uganda has had a large rebel force – called the L ord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – operating in the country’s north for over 20 years.

What makes this conflict particularly troubling has been the LRA’s strategy of kidnapping and indoctrinating and ultimately converting children into soldiers and supporters of the movement. To give you a sense of the scale and scope of the problem Wikipedia talks of the sadly named “night commuters” who: “between the ages of 3 and 17… would walk up to 20 kilometers from IDP camps to larger towns, especially Gulu, in search of safety.”(Photo on the right is of such a safe haven.)

LRA Child SoldierI met with tribal leaders who were attempting to negotiate the release of their women and children who, over the course of the conflict, had been kidnapped, indoctrinated and ultimately integrated into the LRA community (many to a degree that, even if their release were secured it is unclear that they would wish to leave their newly adopted home). In addition to running through some negotiation advice I decided to conduct a choice analysis. This is something I often do with clients – it is an ideal tool for understanding why someone you are negotiating with keeps saying “no.”

A choice analysis rests on a two simple assumptions:

  • People do what they believe is in their self-interest
  • We can’t influence people unless we understand how they see the situation

To conduct it you need to determine:

  • Who is the decision-maker?
  • What question does the decision-maker hear? (not, what question are you asking – there is a difference!)
  • What are the likely consequences for the decision-maker saying a) yes; b) no?

In the case of the Ugandans I was working with – the Choice Analysis looked like as follows:

Decision-maker: Kony (leader of the LRA)

The question they hear: Shall I today bow to the pressure of these weak and powerless tribal leaders and give up one of my best forms of protection? [One should always frame the question in the most negative way possible]

+ I keep my human shields and help ensure my safety

+ I keep wives close to me

+ I protect my own children

+ I assert my authority

+ My soldiers and followers see I am a tough negotiator

+ I demonstrate I’m more powerful than those who are asking

+ I can always say yes tomorrow

– The women and children are more likely to be caught in war zone


– I may be seen as conceding that I held people against their will and violated international law

– I lose future soldiers and supporters for my army

– I no longer directly protect the released members of my own and my soldiers families

– It may be perceived as a sign of weakness

– My subordinates may believe that I no longer have confidence in our future

– Undermines central abduction ‘doctrine’ of LRA

– People may think I believe others can take better care of these people than me

– I disappoint (and possibly betray) those women and children who are released but who don’t want to go

– I create expectations among other women and children that they too may get released if they would like

+ I gain credibility as negotiator and allow

   peace talks to continue

+ My reputation among local and international actors improves

You know you’ve done the analysis effectively when, if looking at it, you tell yourself – “Looking at it from this perspective I can see why they are saying no.”

So what does this analysis give us? It gives us a window into the interests and concerns that we have to address in order to craft a proposal that our target is more likely to say “yes” to.

In the above case Kony has legitimate concerns about the safety of these women and children should he release them back to their communities (in an effort to seek revenge against him an aggrieved individual might try to attack someone who is believed to be one of his wives or children). More importantly, life at the head of a rebel army in the African bush is fraught with danger – Kony can never show any sign of weakness lest he be overthrown. As such he can only say yes to a proposal that affirms his power and does not weaken him in the eyes of his soldiers and subordinates.  Also important is the fact that “releasing” these women and children would be a tacit acknowledgment that they had been kidnapped in the first place – something he is unlikely to want to do since that would strengthen the legal and political case against him.

There are of course, some who will argue that Kony is not a rational actor – that he is a murderer and a sociopath. The problem here is that if you adopt these as starting points where do you go…? How do you negotiate with him? Kony himself is alleged to have said “I’m not evil. I’m not stupid, I’ve built this whole army.” We can debate whether or not Kony is evil, but one doesn’t survive for 20 odd years as the head of a successful rebel army without a) being extremely smart; and b) possessing a finely (even ruthlessly) honed sense of self-interest. As difficult as it is to negotiate with someone like this we must appeal to these traits to be successful. Your odds will be better than negotiating with someone who is truly crazy.

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