Agnes Asiimwe reports on the elusive Joseph Kony leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who has survived several operations by the Ugandan army to capture him. Now the Americans have waded in, but can they catch him?
One of Uganda’s most wanted men once again narrowly escaped capture in October. Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), was taking a dath in Ndjema in the Central African Republic when the Ugandan forces arrived.
The army spokesperson said Kony fled after his guards fired warning shots. The army only got a basin and a towel and was convinced that it was Kony himself bathing since there was a lot of security around.
New African could not verify these claims. Nonetheless it is not the first time the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) has narrowly missed Kony by a whisker. The UPDF has spent over 20 years trying to capture him in vain.
Kony went into the bush in 1985, and now he and his top commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In early 1991, the army launched Operation North with the objective of defeating Kony’s forces, which were then operating from the forests in northern Uganda. The operation ended up making the rebels more brutal.
In early 2002, the army launched Operation Iron Fist in Southern Sudan. The army even claimed that it had got Kony’s Kaunda suit, but the man was nowhere to be found.
Faced with a lot of fire, the LRA shifted their bases to South Sudan. The operation, which was sanctioned by the South Sudan government, did not eliminate the LRA either.
Then in December 2008, the army launched Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) in the Garamba National Park in DRCongo where Kony was holed up at the time. This operation involved Lt Col Muhoozi Kainerugaba, President Museveni’s son and commander of the Special Forces.
The army returned home with a guitar, a wig, three rifles and cooking utensils. The LRA had made a clean exit before they could be captured.
OLT had enlisted the support of the South Sudan army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the DRCongo army. Previously, Kony would kill civilians in northern Uganda and then either run to the forests of South Sudan or the forests of the Congo.
With these two armies on board, it was assumed that Kony could be surrounded. But the Congolese army was disorganised and Kony was able to move onwards to the Central African Republic where he continues to sow mayhem as he raids villages in search of food and supplies.
The military operations disorganise his forces and weaken him for a time, but over the years Kony has proved that he can always regroup and resume fighting.
Observers say Kony is to the LRA what Jonas Savimbi was to UNITA in Angola. To end the LRA’s terror, the observers say, Kony must be eliminated.
In October 2011, in an official notification to the US Congress, President Barack Obama announced that he had sent a team of US combat troops to Uganda “to take Kony out of the war zone”.
He explained that the rest of the roughly 100 military advisers would be deployed over the next month to Uganda – as well as to the neighbouring countries of South Sudan, DRCongo, and the Central African Republic. The troops would only use force in self-defence and would not engage in direct combat.
In May 2010, the US Congress passed a law, the Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, which called for comprehensive US efforts in mitigating and eliminating the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.
Joseph Kony, 49, started his war in the mid-80s as Uganda was going through one of its worst conflict periods. As Kony entered his 20s, Tito Okello, an Acholi like Kony, was Uganda’s president. Okello’s presidency was ended quickly by a group of rebels, mostly from the south and west of the country, led by Yoweri Museveni.
Tribal sentiment heightened as Okello’s followers spread the belief that Museveni and his fighters aimed to eliminate northerners. When Museveni finally captured power, rebel remnants of the fallen regime regrouped into the Uganda Peoples Democratic Army (UPDA). Kony joined the UPDA as a “spiritual” mobiliser.
Eventually, the UPDA signed a peace deal with the government. Kony, possibly not happy with the turn of events, left and started his own group. He was aged 23.
But he was not the only ambitious one. His cousin, Alice Lakwena, formed her own rebel outfit, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces. Lakwena’s forces were later defeated by the government. Disappointed and frustrated, some of the remnants of the Holy Spirit Forces joined Kony’s group, which was originally known as the United Holy Salvation Army, then later changed to the Uganda Christian Democratic Movement, and finally to the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Kony used mysticism to inspire awe from his followers. In August 2006, Kony had a rare meeting with religious and cultural leaders from northern Uganda.
“I would like to declare our political agenda,” Kony told the group that included journalists. “We are fighting for the 10 commandments of God. If you look at the 10 commandments of God, are they obeyed?”
Because of the lack of a serious political agenda, many regarded Kony as deranged and delusional. He remained elusive but deadly, raiding villages in northern Uganda.
By the mid-90s reports were becoming apparent that the LRA was getting support from Khartoum, Sudan. Kony was quoted in 2006 as having said: “I joined Khartoum because Museveni was supporting the SPLA, but I am not a terrorist…”
The first attempts to hold peace talks started in 1993 and collapsed in 1994. Other talks started in 2007 and the parties even signed a cessation of hostilities agreement.
The former Mozambican president, Joachim Chissano, was appointed the special envoy of the UN secretary general to mediate the process. The LRA then demanded that International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants against Kony and his senior commanders be dropped or there would be no peace deal.
“The government said they could only approach the ICC after signing the comprehensive peace agreement. In April of 2008, Kony never turned up on the day of the signing of the final peace agreement. In December, Uganda launched Operation Lightning Thunder. The fighting was back on. Kony has since cut off all communication.
President Obama’s notification says the US forces are in the region to assist with “the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA”.
Moses Asasira, a development economist in Kampala, says the Americans are here because Uganda has been a long-term strategic partner of the US in regional security. “The pursuit of Kony is meant to assist Uganda, which has always taken a lead on regional security risks with America.”
Asasira adds: “It will also help America to benefit from the entire region’s oil resource potential because East Africa and the Great Lakes Region at large is the latest oil exploration point in the world. And America cannot sleep when China is scratching its head on how to get to the region’s resources to feed its resource hungry economy.”
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Research, Makerere University, said the belief that the Americans were interested in Uganda’s oil was speculation.
“Why would Kony prevent the Americans from accessing Uganda’s oil if he is hiding in Central African Republic? That’s a misplaced assumption because for the Americans to have access to Uganda’s oil, American oil companies must be here, they must be involved in the exploration. There is not a single American company here.”