The rise of Joseph Kony
Rebel commander Joseph Kony has spread terror across four African nations for three decades, even evading capture by US and Ugandan soldiers who have now given up the chase.
Kony became one of Africa’s most notorious rebels at the head of his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), combining religious mysticism with a sharp guerilla mind and bloodthirsty ruthlessness.
Kony’s rebellion claimed to be fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government and impose a regime based on The Bible’s Ten Commandments. It has killed more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children who were forced to become sex slaves, soldiers and porters.
While battling the Ugandan government Kony and his dwindling band of bush fighters have earned a grim reputation for kidnapping and mutilation.
The leader’s whereabouts are not known and his forces have been hit by a constant stream of defections, deaths and surrenders of both foot-soldiers and commanders.
Small LRA groups continue to carry out attacks, mostly on civilians in villages, in the border regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan.
In 2005, the self-proclaimed prophet – along with four of his deputies – were the first people indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Kony claims the Holy Spirit issues orders to him on everything from military tactics to personal hygiene, terrifying his subordinates into obedience.
The rebellion claimed to be defending the Acholi people against President Yoweri Museveni, who seized power from northern military rulers at the head of a rebel army in 1986.
Despite widespread northern resentment against Museveni, Kony’s policy of abductions soon lost him the support of local groups, who suffered in the government’s brutal war against the LRA.
At the height of the conflict, the government had forced some 2 million people into camps.
People kidnapped by the LRA say they were forced to maim and kill friends, neighbours and relatives, and take part in gruesome rites such as drinking their victims’ blood.
In the 1990s, the LRA conflict spilt into neighbouring countries after the Sudanese government began backing the group in retaliation for Uganda’s support of southern Sudanese rebels. When Sudan signed a peace deal with the southern rebels in 2005, support for the LRA dried up and, after being forced into neighbouring DR Congo by the Ugandan army, Kony agreed to peace talks.
But negotiations dragged on and, amid distrust and anxiety over the ICC warrant, Kony repeatedly failed to turn up to sign a deal.
Why Africom decided to quit
In late 2011, President Barack Obama deployed US special forces troops to help regional armies track down Kony.
Kony surged to unexpected worldwide fame in March 2012 on the back of a hugely popular internet video that called for his capture. Made by US-based pressure group Invisible Children, the Kony2012 film became one of the fastest-spreading internet videos in history after more than 100 million users across the globe watched it in just a few days.
But interest quickly waned. Despite the increased pressure, after more than 30 years in the jungle Kony remains a master of evasion, ditching satellite phones in favour of runners to communicate, and living off wild roots and animals.
A leaked document revealed the Trump government’s doubts about US involvement in the fight against the LRA, which is estimated to have cost US$800 million. The decision to pull US forces out, however, was taken last year, well before Trump took power.
The US and Ugandan armies claim the LRA is all but defeated and now irrelevant, yet Kony remains free.
In March, Africom said it would be wrapping up the operation. “This operation was a significant success,” Jeffrey Hawkins, the US envoy to CAR said.
Ugandan troops, who have been in eastern CAR since 2009, are also withdrawing from the area.
Earlier this year, questions seemed to arise over the level of US commitment to its operations in Africa. They came in a set of questions posed by the team of incoming president Donald Trump to the State Department.
“The LRA has never attacked US interests, why do we care? Is it worth the huge cash outlays? I hear that even the Ugandans are looking to stop searching for him, since they no longer view him as a threat, so why do we?” said the document.
Ledio Cakaj, a US expert on the LRA, said even if Kony dies, the LRA may rebuild, possibly by recruiting in CAR where there are “an almost unlimited number of fighters”.
Kony’s eldest son, Ali, may succeed his father if the leader dies. Both he and Salim, another son, play command roles. Salim is thought to look after military operations, while Ali is involved in planning, intelligence and smuggling networks involving elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.
“Both brothers have every incentive to remain doing what they have been doing all their lives and spearhead a regeneration of the LRA outside Uganda,” Cakaj said.
What will happen now?
Central Africa fears a return of the LRA after the hunt for Kony ends. Many say the LRA – known for its atrocious brutality against civilians including rapes, executions and torture – can still cause serious harm. Norbert Mao, a politician and former chairman of Gulu district in northern Uganda, where the group emerged in the 1980s, said the withdrawal of troops gives it a chance to regroup.
Brenda Atim, 28, a resident of Limu village in Gulu district, said victims of the rebels may not now get justice.
“This is a big blow to the families affected by the LRA. They thought Kony would be arrested and handed over to the ICC to answer to the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity which he committed. The affected families would have loved to see their tormentor in the dock as they receive justice,” he said.
The LRA “are a time bomb. They can explode any time and if we keep ignoring them, we shall pay the price. They are in touch with one another and militarily trained. They need a source of income and skill to live on. All they know is fighting,” said Mao.
Small LRA groups continue to carry out attacks. Campaigners say the group was responsible for the murder of 21 civilians and the abduction of around 700 in 2016, with attacks targeting remote villages in the border areas.
Pamela Faber at the Centre for Naval Analyses in the US capital said risks from the LRA remained.
“Even if the LRA is well past its prime, it has survived for three decades and that was a lot to do with responding to the challenges. Other groups can learn from it. There are risks of regeneration. For the people in those vulnerable border areas I don’t think it is yesterday’s war,” she said.
“This withdrawal will lead to a renewal of LRA attacks in the southeast,” warned Thierry Vircoulon, a French specialist on central Africa. “Nobody is under any illusion that the Central African troops which are to be sent there to avoid a security vacuum will be able to neutralise the LRA.”
As well as the threat from Kony’s militia, the eastern region is also struggling with attacks by other armed groups, regional police chief Ghislain Dieu-Benit Kolengo said.
He was referring to rebels from the mainly Muslim ex-Seleka militia and from the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), a splinter group from a rebel force in neighbouring Chad which rights groups say executed 32 civilians and fighters late last year.
“We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy.”
LRA warlord Joseph Kony
“The time has come to move forward because the organisation itself is really in a survival mode.”
General Thomas Waldhauser, head of the US military’s Africa Command
“Now that the Ugandan government is stopping the search for the LRA, it might become a mercenary force that can be used by any other groups to terrorise civilians. They will be soldiers of fortune and that’s a threat to the region.”
Norbert Mao, politician and former chairman of Gulu district in northern Uganda