Joseph Kony became one of Africa’s most notorious rebels at the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), combining religious mysticism with bloodthirsty ruthlessness. The rebel commander has sown terror across four African nations for three decades, evading capture by US and Ugandan soldiers.
Kony’s insurgency claimed to be fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government. It has killed more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children who were forced to become sex slaves, soldiers and porters. The former Catholic altar boy and his band of fighters have earned a grim reputation for kidnapping and mutilation. The leader’s whereabouts are not known.
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.
One commander, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial while the three others are believed to have been killed.
A member of Uganda’s northern Acholi ethnic group, Kony attended primary school before taking up arms around 1987, following in the footsteps of another rebel, Alice Auma Lakwena, a former prostitute who is believed to have been either his cousin or aunt.
Lakwena, who died in exile in Kenya in early 2007, believed she could channel the spirits of the dead, and also told her followers that the holy oil she gave them could stop bullets.
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 war against the LRA. At the height of the conflict, the government had forced some 2 million people into camps.
Kony, who is thought to be in his 50s, speaks broken English and Acholi and has only rarely met outsiders, but in an interview with a western journalist in 2006 he insisted that he was “not a terrorist” and had not committed atrocities.
“We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy,” he claimed.
Nevertheless, LRA kidnap victims say they were forced to maim and kill friends, neighbours and relatives, and participate in gruesome rites such as drinking their victims’ blood.
In late 2011, following pressure from campaigners, US President Barack Obama deployed troops to help regional African armies track down Kony.
Kony surged to worldwide prominence 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.
The US and Ugandan armies now claim the LRA is all but defeated, yet Kony remains free, outsmarting and outlasting all who have tried to find him.