Kony: The real story

Friday March 23 2012

Photo/Design Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

This is the story of Kony, or rather Kony 2012, that sensational and controversial video by the US charity Invisible Children campaigning for the arrest of Ugandan war criminal and warlord Joseph Kony, which has gone off the social media charts.

I covered some of the worst phases of the Kony war, so let us go back 26 years ago, which is where this story must begin:

When some years ago I was editing The Monitor, the leading independent daily in Uganda, we got into so much trouble with President Yoweri Museveni’s government, it seemed it was the only thing we did.

When Museveni was in a foul mood, he would refer to The Monitor as “Uganda’s Enemy Number One.”

When he was more cheerful, he would call the MD Wafula Oguttu (now MP) or myself for a more amiable chat.

In November 2002, then Kenya president Daniel arap Moi, who was stepping down from office ahead of the December election that brought President Mwai Kibaki to power, was doing his farewell rounds in East Africa.


On November 28, he was in Kampala meeting President Museveni when there was a terrorist attack on the Kikambala Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, a favourite of Israeli tourists; that killed 15 people.

There was also a missile attack on an Israeli charter plane carrying tourists on the same day nearby.

Moi cut short his trip to Kampala and rushed back to Kenya.

Just over two months later, in January, I transferred to Nairobi to work for Nation Media Group, which had bought a controlling interest in The Monitor.

If Moi had not left power, or if his party, the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), had not lost power, perhaps I would never have got my work permit.

To get a work permit, the security chaps do a security clearance. Not surprisingly, when Kenyan security checked with Kampala, they got back one of the largest filings they had ever received from Uganda.

The Kenya immigration officers had been reading my column in The EastAfrican and, as it turned out, following my never-ending battles with the Museveni regime from both Daily Nation and The Monitor, that used to sell well in Nairobi (before the Internet ruined the party).

When I went to fill in the paperwork for my work permit and get fingerprinted, a few immigration officers came to stare at me.

Two of them later told me they could not reconcile Onyango-Obbo the journalist with what the person they read about in the security files, so they wanted to see that I did not have some strange horns growing on my head and Spock ears.

The Ugandan security information had apparently painted a very scary picture. Eventually we had a good laugh, and I got my work permit.

In Kenya, I eventually got to meet several people who were close to Moi, including some who were with him on his November 2002 farewell trip to Uganda.

They told me that in a meeting between Museveni and Moi, before the Kenya leader had to rush back to Kenya, Museveni told him that things had been fine in Uganda over the previous 16 years except for three horrible people.

One, was Dr Kizza Besigye (and his wife Winnie Byanyima). Besigye was Museveni’s doctor in the bush during the guerrilla war, and political confidant in his first few years in power.

The two famously fell out after Besigye wrote a long critique in which he lambasted “undemocratic tendencies in the National Resistance Movement.”

In 2001, Besigye ran against Museveni for the presidency, offering the Big Man his first real electoral challenge.

That election was the turning point for Museveni’s rule, because it forced him to show a side of himself Ugandans, especially in the south and west, had not seen.

His campaign shamefully stole the election, and unleashed a level of violence that no one in these regions of Uganda had expected he ever would. The mystique started to unravel.

His second biggest headache, Museveni reportedly told Moi, was “Onyango-Obbo of this subversive paper The Monitor.”

Third, was Joseph Kony, the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

To be fair to Museveni, I have never confirmed if he actually said these things.

However, on more than 10 occasions he had publicly criticised The Monitor for allegedly giving comfort to Kony because we were the first to push for a deeply unpopular position: Talks between the Uganda government and the LRA.

Not just Museveni, but quite a few people, including many who were well disposed to The Monitor, thought we had lost our marbles.

We said Kony should be punished. But to save lives, and to stop the killing of child soldiers who had been abducted and forcibly recruited into the LRA, talks were necessary.

In 2006, The Monitor was vindicated. The Uganda government and the LRA started talks that ended in 2008 in failure.

But an important victory was won. Thousands of abducted boys and girls returned home for a chance at normal life and a childhood that had been brutally ripped away from them.

These children are partly represented by Jacob, the boy portrayed in the 30-minute documentary “Kony 2012” by the US charity Invisible Children that was posted on YouTube on March 5 and almost immediately went viral.

As of writing this article, it had been viewed over 100 million times… and growing.

The documentary is the mainstay of an Internet campaign to bring the war criminal Kony to justice.

And, my, it has attracted some very virulent criticisms too. It had to. Kony and LRA always do. I should know.

Uganda is a country where, because of its history, enmities and hatreds are not set in stone. They are always porous.

If they weren’t, we would all have been killed in the nearly 30 years of war and conflict the country endured.

Thus despite my troubles with the Museveni government, not only did he, as earlier indicated, occasionally reach out, but some of my closest friends were and remain in his political and security system.

They would come to arrest us, yes, but they would grant us the small concession of not leading us away in handcuffs.

The Monitor’s and my views on Kony and the LRA were a constant point of friction between us.

One day a friend returned from the north where he had been commanding operations against the LRA.

He called and came to the office for coffee. He appeared agitated, which was unusual for him.

He had dropped out of university to go and join the Museveni war, and had fought in all the wars at home, in Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo against Mobutu Sese Seko in 1996/97.

He had seen it all, and it was hard to rattle him. But something had.

He told me the story. He led soldiers to a village to rescue victims of the LRA.

Kony had decided to punish the village for allegedly reporting on his troop’s movements to the government.

The particular case that had done it for my friend was that of a young woman.

The LRA had punctured a hole in her upper and lower lips, then run a padlock through it — and walked away with the key.

When they found the woman, she was emaciated, and had a rotting wound around the padlock.

“Tell me, Charles, how can we negotiate with animals who do that?”

For several minutes, I was dumbfounded, and couldn’t answer.

In that sense, then, the Museveni government truly clamped its nose in 2006 when it sat down to talk with the LRA.

Yet, that is not all. The war against the LRA would have ended much earlier, but the Museveni regime needed to milk it for other internal political reasons.

Sowing the seeds from which the nightmare was born.

By the time the Uganda government and the LRA started talks in Juba in 2006, the country held a world record, with the largest camps for internally displaced in the world.

There were between 1.4 million and 1.6 million packed into the squalid compounds.

The camps joined both the government and the LRA in common cause — they served their agendas very well.

At the start of the 1990s, the Kampala government announced a controversial scorched earth policy in its war against the LRA.

It said it was burning food gardens to deny the LRA sustenance, and thus weaken it.

Also, that it would begin moving civilians who were being attacked by the LRA into “protected camps.”

What were to become eyesores teeming with 1.6 million people years later, started with a trickle that was barely noticed.

Human-rights groups and Western diplomats in Kampala did notice, and screamed murder.

They were ignored. There was huge domestic support for the Museveni government’s counter-insurgency tactics in the north, because resentment of the north still ran deep in the populous south and west of the country.

This is because since independence, politicians and generals from the north of the country had ruled Uganda.

The first independence Prime Minister and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) leader Milton Obote, from the north, fell out with the largely titular president from the south, King Freddie Mutebi, a southerner, in 1966.

Obote ordered his army commander, Gen Idi Amin, to attack the king’s palace on the outskirts of Kampala, abolished kingdoms, and a year later scrapped the semi-federal constitution.

He notoriously introduced a constitution that was passed in under five minutes, with parliament surrounded by army tanks.

And, shortly afterwards he rolled out one-party rule. Mutesa died in exile a broken man, passing away in his tiny London flat in 1969.

The official cause of death was alcoholic poisoning.

Obote- and north-hating put down deep roots in Buganda, and some of the districts in western Uganda whose kingdoms were abolished in 1966.

In 1971 Amin, also from the broader north, overthrew Obote and unleashed one of the worst military tyrannies in Africa ever.

A combined force of the Tanzania People’s Defence Force and Ugandan exiles ousted Amin in April 1979, and Prof Yusuf Lule, a southerner, was installed as president.

He lasted only 68 days. His successor, Godfrey Binaisa, also from the south, did much better. He nearly made one year.

The force behind the overthrow of both Lule and Binaisa was the all-powerful Military Commission of the interim Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), the government that took over from Amin.

It was composed of the commanders of the main rebel armies that had ousted Amin.

Though Museveni was a member, it was dominated by Obote loyalists from the late 60s Uganda military when he was president.

In May 1980, when the Military Commission overthrew Binaisa, an election was coming up.

The elections were held in December 1980, and were a shambles.

When it appeared that the opposition Democratic Party was winning, the Military Council suspended the announcement of results, briefly detained the head of the electoral commission (who later fled the country), and a few days later announced that the UPC had won the poll.

That gave Obote, who had returned from exile in Tanzania a few weeks earlier, a second bite at the cherry as president.

Museveni ran as a candidate for the left-leaning Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM). UPM lost, winning only one seat. It was a travesty.

In present-day Busia district on the Uganda side, one of the country’s most eloquent and educated public intellectuals, Prof Chango Machyo, stood on the UPM ticket.

But the UPC machine had taken over the election so much, that Machyo was declared illiterate and disqualified because he could not produce his high school certificate from more than 25 years back!

During the campaigns, Museveni warned that if Obote stole the vote, he would go back to the bush and fight another guerrilla war.

What happened next is very important in explaining the rise of Kony eight years later — and why the popular digital enthusiasm for Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video is uncomfortable for some people.

The divide-and-rule myth that colonialism had spun was that northerners were warrior tribes more suited to army and police duty, for labour in southern tea and sugar plantations, and for work on the Kenya-Uganda Railway.

That the southerners were frail, but a little more sophisticated, and so better suited for clerical, bureaucratic, and more intellectually demanding tasks like being medical officers and bankers.

The British colonialists didn’t figure that one day the northerners would use their domination of the military to take over government, educate their people, become “sophisticated,” and take over all the intellectual jobs too.

But something worse happened — it would seem deep down many Ugandans from the north who were in the army and politics believed they were actually martial ethnic groups, and southerners were milk-drinking, banana-eating weaklings who would never stand up to them in a fight.

UPC leaders and military officers scoffed at Museveni, with Obote saying famously in parliament shortly after he was sworn in that Museveni was free to go to the bush if he wished, as he “will be eaten by mosquitoes and insects and die there.”

I was a university student then, and working part-time as a trainer reporter at the radical Weekly Topic newspaper mainly to get my adrenalin fix, as those were terribly exciting days.

I ran into Museveni on the late afternoon of, if I remember accurately, February 4, 1981. He was wearing a short sleeve beige shirt untucked, and khaki trousers, and ambling along in his trademark wobbly walk.

He had a pistol in a holster to his right side, and another one stuck into his belt to the left.

Only months later did I figure that he was on his way to meet up with the small group of men, who launched a daring surprise attack on an army barracks on the morning of February 6, seized weapons, and started the guerrilla campaign that would eventually bring him victory on January 25, 1986.

The history of Uganda might have turned out differently, if the northern military officers and UPC political elite had not despised Museveni’s fighting will just because he was from the south-west.

Museveni’s war created cracks in Obote’s government about how to deal with the insurgency, with the UPC leader paralysed between the hawks who wanted to throw everything they had at the rebels, and the progressives and moderates who favoured a mix of political negotiation, and selected targeting.

Fed up, the military, led by two generals, Tito Okello and Basilio Okello, from the north, or specifically Gulu, the area from which Kony was to later launch his war, overthrew Obote for a second time in July 1985.

That ushered in some of the most nightmarish months in Ugandan politics.

The older and more accommodating Tito Okello, favoured talks with Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels.

In peace talks in Nairobi chaired by President Moi in Kenya, the two sides eventually agreed a power-sharing deal. But it unravelled quickly.

The Tito Okello faction was too weak to impose its will. The Military Commission, as the junta that took power from Obote in 1985 called itself, had brought in other fringe armed groups, including former Amin army forces that were hiding out in Sudan, into government to bolster itself.

The armies had divided Kampala into about five zones, with each getting a zone as its turf.

Murder, looting, and rape continued despite the agreement in Nairobi to stop them.

However, the NRA too, reading correctly that the Military Commission were too divided to be a formidable opponent, and having built up its ranks with recruits from western Uganda and parts of the central region that it had captured after the July 1985 coup, concluded that it could get the prize for itself alone.

Fighting resumed in December 1985, and by end of January 1986 it was done and dusted.

Museveni was sworn in on January 26, and 26 years later, he is still staying put.

The rise of Kony was now barely two years away, but it was the furthest possibility from anyone’s mind.

Continues next week
*This is part of the story that appears in five parts on, a blog by Charles Onyango-Obbo.
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