From an altar boy to the ultimate diabolical genius: The Kony nightmare

Saturday March 31 2012

Photo/File LRA fighters at Ri-Kwangba on South Sudan’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in this September 2006 photo. Museveni upset the delicate balance by giving teeth to the SPLA. In revenge for Uganda’s backing for the SPLA, Khartoum reached out and adopted Kony.

The north-south divide in Uganda provides only a small explanation of the raw political passions that led to war in northern Uganda, and the rise of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The real devil is in the details of what happened in the bush during the Museveni rebellion, and some aspects of that campaign about which progressives in the ruling National Resistance Movement in Uganda today remain deeply embarrassed.

Museveni based his war in the heartland of the south, in Buganda region, in what became known as the Luwero “Triangle”.

It was not a random choice of battlefield. After Uganda’s titular president and Buganda king Mutesa was deposed in 1966, the Luwero Triangle and surrounding areas established an intricate network spiriting hunted loyalists out of Uganda, and funnelling support into the country from Buganda exiles.

Second, as noted before, because of the depth of resentment bred by what the people there saw as mistreatment by rulers from the north, Buganda was ready to pay a high price to fight Obote.

After the rebellion started, a divide developed in the NRA as to how it should be prosecuted.


There were the leftist purists, who favoured fighting a high-minded war against Obote (and later the military junta of the Okello generals), and the conservatives who favoured exploiting southern tribal hatred of northerners.

The tribalists were more successful, and indeed, in the chaotic first weeks of victory in Kampala, there were summary executions and lynching of suspected soldiers and political activists from the north.

It became common, even in otherwise respectable newspapers like the now-defunct Star, to refer to people from the north as “ensolo” (animals), and “Anyanyas,” after the secessionist South Sudanese rebel movements.

The idea being to suggest that people from the north were not Ugandans.

For most of the north, the Museveni triumph became an existential threat.

The defeat of a northern-dominated junta by a supposed weakling from the south, who was expected to die from mosquito bites in the jungle, was a psychological blow to the militarists about their worth and who they were.

To add insult to injury, the loss of power was also an economic blow, because they lost jobs and government business.

When the Museveni regime then sent to the north soldiers, many of whom had been drawn from an allied southern bigoted force called the Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM), to pacify a frightened and suspicious region, it was a disaster brewed in Hell.

There will probably never be agreement as to what led to what, but a common view is that rogue NRA units took to arresting and even killing ex-military men from the region, and persecuting old regime supporters.

The north rose in arms, first through the Uganda People’s Democratic Movement/Army – which eventually cut a peace deal with Kampala in 1988.

Then, most famously, there arose the Holy Spirit movement, led by a former prostitute turned spirit medium, Alice Auma. Because the spirit she channelled was called Lakwena, she became known as Alice Lakwena.

Lakwena’s Holy Spirit was a millennial movement whose rise is traceable many decades back before Lakwena led it to take up arms against the new Museveni government.

But the immediate spark was the threat and harassment by the new victors, and Lakwena’s understanding that northerners, especially the Acholi, were in a deep crisis and demoralised.

Lakwena figured that having been failed by mortals, she could only mobilise the north by appealing to heavenly forces.

She came up with the idea that the people who joined her struggle would be the Holy Spirit’s soldiers, and He would protect them with greater powers.

Thus if they smeared “miracle” shea butter oil on their bodies, the bullets of Museveni’s soldiers would not kill them. Many believed it.

In fact, Prof Isaac Newton Ojok, who was minister of education in the Obote government that was overthrown in 1985, was one of several highly educated people who threw away their designer shirts and followed Lakwena, barefoot, on her spectacular but ultimately tragic march on Kampala.

The Museveni rebels had succeeded by clever and asymmetrical guerrilla warfare.

Therefore little in their five-year war, where preserving their numbers were critical, prepared them for an adversary who didn’t fear death or take cover in the face of heavy fire.

The fact that Lakwena was able to raise a large highly motivated army that was not afraid of bullets, and because the slaughter of Holy Spirit fighters unnerved the NRA, allowed her to make the greatest advances ever against the Museveni regime of all his many enemies.

By November of 1987, Lakwena was massing in the sugarcane plantations outside the industrial town of Jinja, less than 90 kilometres from Kampala.

In the capital, some Museveni regime supporters panicked. A few hightailed it out of Uganda back to Europe and North America, while some took the milder precaution of shipping their families out.

That threat galvanised the Museveni government, and in a ruthless fightback, obliterated the Holy Spirit movement in the sugar plantations of Kakira.

In November 1987, Lakwena fled to exile in Kenya, where she died in a refugee camp in 2007.

We shall never know how many “oil protected” Holy Spirit Movement fighters were killed, but in some battles as many as 700 were slaughtered.

Joseph Kony, a former altar boy subscribing to the same mchuzi mix of traditional-cum-fundamentalist Catholicism as Lakwena, and who also dabbled in the occult, had been lurking in the shadows in the last days of the Holy Spirit movement, recruiting former soldiers to his cause.

Like Lakwena, Kony appreciated that the Museveni victory had created a yearning among the people, especially of Acholi, to rediscover their sense of greatness, and they were therefore ripe for a messiah.

So he named his group the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose manifesto would be to implement the 10 Commandments of God.

He also understood the opportunities Lakwena had wasted. Having raised the large army she did, she squandered its possibilities with her belief in witchcraft and by shunning good military science.

Still, after Lakwena, the LRA was not going to be oversubscribed. Kony resolved that small problem by choosing to abduct his soldiers, including children.

Among other advantages, children could be more easily brainwashed and managed.

And Kony or his advisers, must have understood that having to fight and kill child soldiers would eventually become an international diplomatic nightmare for the Museveni regime — as it eventually did.

The business of child soldiers in Uganda is very murky. Museveni’s NRA rebel group had many child soldiers (called kadogos) in its ranks, and when it became the national army, it continued the practice of using children in the war in the north.

But most of the children were forcibly recruited into the LRA. In all, anything between 100,000 and 150,000 had been conscripted by the time Kony was finally pushed out of Uganda.

Having done away with Lakwena’s shea oil, it seems Kony figured that the 10 Commandments would not be enough to keep loyalty.

To deal with this complication, he came up with one of his most macabre solutions: He would keep his men served with an endless supply of women.

Since there were no women who would volunteer, again Kony abducted them.

Then, to remove the easy option of his abducted recruits escaping and running back to their homes, they were made to kill – often relatives and village mates.

That made them unwanted in their homes, removing the easy option of them going back. Kony is the ultimate diabolical genius.

With enemies like these Kony doesn’t need any friends.

Unlike the priestess-witchdoctor-warrior Lakwena, Kony was a predator on the Acholi society he sought to save.

To resolve this contradiction, Kony argued that Acholi society had become “impure.”

Its failures, including by extension defeat by a southern-dominated army, were evidence of that. So the brutalities he meted out were part of purification and a deserved punishment.

In military terms, though, the terror served a greater strategic purpose. It gave the Lord’s Resistance Army greater efficiency.

It enabled it to hold large populations in north-eastern, northern, and West Nile regions of Uganda in fear of joining the government campaign against it, or informing on it, because the reprisal would be unthinkable — you could be cooked alive.

The chopping off of lips, hands, and legs — the latter being punishment for being caught riding a bicycle on the wrong day — all had the same purpose.

They spread terror as a control mechanism. There was a cynical method to Kony’s madness.

Very soon though, Kony was swept up in events that were not of his making.

First, Uganda’s support for John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) was to change drastically.

Museveni and Garang were part of the University of Dar es Salaam club of radicals and supported the same internationalist causes. And they were friends.

When Museveni took power, there were nearly 200,000 Ugandans from Amin’s West Nile region living as refugees in Sudan.

There were some senior elements from West Nile in the NRA and NRM, most notably Dr Ronald Bata.

Museveni wanted to have West Nile as a friendly flank in the north, because with northern regions of Acholi and bits of Lango in rebellion, he didn’t want them to confluence in South Sudan as a destabilising force.

So the NRM government went into discussions with the UNHRC to repatriate the refugees.

The UN did a dance about mobilising resources, counting the refugees, and mapping a safe return route, all of which would take months, if not years.

In Museveni’s view, that was ridiculous. According to his own account, he asked, “How did our people end up as refugees in Sudan, did they go on lorries?”

No, he was told, they walked there. And so Museveni called his old friend Garang.

The Ugandan refugees wanted to return home, but were complacent and had been corrupted into waiting for a goodies-filled return home by the UN, so he wanted the SPLA to “encourage” them to return sooner.

The SPLA did as only it could in those days. It attacked a few Ugandan refugee camps and killed a dozen or so people — and promised to return.

There were few people who had encounters with the SPLA those days, who looked forward to a second one.

The Ugandans all upped and scampered back to West Nile overnight. The massive UN transport operation to return the refugees was never to happen.

Museveni got sucked deeper into the South Sudan conflict, becoming the main military backer of the SPLA, stepping in to halt Khartoum’s counter-attacks whenever the Sudanese rebels seemed to be on the back foot.

Museveni, though, was not the first Ugandan leader to support South Sudan insurgents.

All Ugandan presidents, from Obote in the 1960s and Amin in the 1970s, did so as part of their Luo/Sudanic obligation to their cousins.

However, to preserve harmony at their common cultural border, the support was mostly moral and social (education etc) plus a few handguns to discourage whimsical attacks by the North — not to fight a war.

In fact, while Amin overthrew Obote and was very close, as the first Muslim president of Uganda, to Sudan’s dictator Jaafar Numeiry (he ruled from 1969 to 1985), the largest single camp for pro-Obote fighters was not in Tanzania but South Sudan, at a place called Owiny Kibul.

Because he was from the south and not emotionally involved in the Luo-Sudanic tango, Museveni upset the delicate balance by giving teeth to the SPLA.

In revenge for Uganda’s backing for SPLA, Khartoum reached out and adopted Kony.

The LRA, a group that had elected to use terror methods, now found only encouragement to stay on that bloody course from a Khartoum eager to disrupt Museveni and show that the northern part of his country was ungovernable.

Kony just happened to come along at the right time.

Museveni was not one to change course either. Apart from the fear that they faced an existential threat, the Acholi are a famously proud people.

The key to defeating them lay in taking away their pride. In one meeting on the Kony war, a source who was present tells me that someone remarked to President Museveni that the Acholi people would persist in the rebellion because they felt they were humiliated and were a very proud people.

Museveni retorted, “Proud people? What is it in their history they have to be proud about? Show me their ruins.”

Removal from their land to the IDP camps disoriented the people of the north.

But what finally did it were the conditions in the camps. Once fairly well-to-do farmers, cattle owners, business people, school teachers, were reduced to begging for hand-outs; sharing the same huts with their children (and having sex stealthily); and watching the camps degenerate into drunken fights and waste.

You would speak to some of the elders, and they would just break down in a torrent of tears.

There have been allegations that Ugandan troops later went into the lands abandoned by the people who were huddled in the IDP camps, cleared away spiritually important trees, emotional landmarks, and altered the landscape.

That when the people began returning to their lands after Kony was beaten and driven into South Sudan, and later DR Congo, they found no “history” or links to the past. The camps were what finally broke the Acholi.

Kony too had an interest in the camps, but for entirely different reasons than Kampala.

In the camps, there was a more regular supply of dry food and medicines, supplied by the UN, the Red Cross, and other aid agencies.

To this day, northern Uganda still has more signposts pointing to some activity or the other by an aid group, than any other place in East Africa.

The rebels infiltrated the IDP camps, and established networks that smuggled food and medicines to the LRA.

Corrupt soldiers and aid workers were on the take, and turned a blind eye.

Thus, while the IDP camps were important for Kampala’s subjugation of the north, they were equally critical to the LRA’s survival in its last years in Uganda.

The unpleasant truth is Museveni fed off Kony, as much as Kony fed off Museveni.

Thus because the mere mention of Kony taking over and chopping off millions of ears and lips was enough to galvanise the rest of the country around the Museveni regime, it gave rise to suspicions that it did not do enough to end the war because the pay-off was higher than ending the war early.

Kony was the glue that held together southern and eastern Uganda solidly united behind Museveni.

Then, when Khartoum intensified its attacks on the SPLA, the SPLA also began to play Kony against the Uganda government.

LRA fighters eventually became less afraid of the NRA (later renamed Uganda People’s Defence Forces, or UPDF).

The joke in Gulu was the LRA considered a fight against the UPDF to be a picnic. The force that they were terrified of was the SPLA.

However, SPLA/M did not want to destroy the LRA, a kindred Luo force with whom they shared a long history, in service to a southern Uganda leader.

What they did for Museveni was contain Kony — enough to keep the Uganda president engaged on their side against Khartoum.

To this day, that policy toward the LRA has not changed, and is one of the many reasons that explains why Kony’s force still survives.

Today, years later, with South Sudan an independent state, the SPLM turns a blind eye and allows a rump of the LRA to live in the south of the country, because it could come in handy in years to come.

Right now, there is a simmering border dispute between South Sudan and Uganda, and recently the former arrested Ugandan MPs for “trespassing” on land that, until now, was considered Uganda’s.

A few years ago, there were rumblings, which have now quieted down a little, about northern Uganda seceding to join South Sudan in a greater (Luo/Sudanic) Ledu Republic, because they were “unwanted by the southern regime in Kampala.”

In the years to come, if the border dispute grew and secessionist sentiment returned to the region, the LRA could play a useful role in the fight over the issue.

Other factors that favour the LRA, at least according to Uganda government security officials, is that Khartoum still patronises it, using it as a mercenary force whenever it needs to cause mayhem in the South.

While Kony and several of his top leaders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, neither South Sudan, Uganda, or any other government in the region is now keen to hand him over.

This is the environment in which Kony 2012 broke on the scene, and why for the powerful people in the Great Lakes region, the biggest sin Invisible Children committed in producing the video is the fact that it produced it all.

Now if you had asked me in 2000 whether a video about Kony would make history as the fastest become the most successful viral video of all time; or that the war in northern Uganda and its portrayal would be the most debated subject in the world, I would have said no, and offered to eat my shoe – no, shoes – in a bet.

Given the murky history of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, in which he either cohabited or was in bed (directly or indirectly) with his enemies, the reality is that the “Capture Kony And Take Him To The Hague” industry had closed shop — until Invisible Children came along with their Kony 2012 and opened it up.

Any trial of Kony risks bringing out too many details about his gruesome campaign and why it survived as long as it did, details that could also damage some governments in the region — and embarrass their Western allies.

For example, six years ago official inquiries into corruption in the army shocked even the most hardened observers in Uganda.

The inquiries found that were whole ghost brigades and battalions of soldiers in the north who were being paid, but of course the money was winding up in the corruption networks in the military.

One of the most brilliant and admirable officers to wear a UPDF uniform, Maj Sabiiti Mutengesa, was the first to blow the whistle on these transgressions in the army at the close of the 2000s.

He was ahead of his time. He had to flee into exile. It was only after the official probes into ghost soldiers vindicated him nearly six years later that his name was cleared in 2008.

An eccentric and volatile army officer, Maj Kakooza Mutale, who was a special adviser to Museveni, was one time involved in a bizarre standoff with the army in Gulu, where the anti-Kony operation was headquartered.

He was eventually expelled from the area, and camped at the municipal border of Gulu making a scene.

I interviewed him shortly after his return, and he alleged there was high-level collusion between Kony and some elements in the army.

He told me that before he was expelled from Gulu, he had gone to an LRA camp that had just been overrun by the UPDF.

There was a stack of boxes of medicine that Kony’s soldiers left behind when they fled.

The surprise was that the boxes were part of a consignment that had been delivered to the Mbuya [Military] General Hospital just five days before.

He told me about a bunch of marked notes worth several millions of Uganda shillings that had been sent to the LRA through various associates in a sting operation.

Most of the money was traced back to an account in a leading Kampala bank! And, as local northern Uganda politicians and several military officers have said over the years, the real estate boom in the north has been fuelled by LRA money — and also from proceeds from the sale of diverted humanitarian food and other supplies.

It is a fascinating story, but the rich details of it only Kony and his lieutenants can tell — if they ever take the stand at The Hague.

Because no one wants them to, the killing of Kony, rather than his capture, I suspect, is now the priority.

The Invisible Children’s Kony 2012, has been criticised for a million failings. Some of these criticisms may be justified. Too many to list here.

Among these is that it is part of an American conspiracy to justify the killing of Kony.

Actually American intelligence and logistics were deployed in December 2008 to attack Kony’s camp in Garamba.

The operation was a flop, because by the time the camp was bombed, Kony was long gone.

The grass had even started to grow back in the gardens of food the LRA had harvested and carried away with them.

It is believed that many people were only too happy to leak details of the operation to Kony, from the few SPLA officials who were in the know, to Ugandan military officers.

Indeed, many LRA fighters who surrendered or were captured have not been tried.

They have been absorbed into the UPDF, and some of them were the foot soldiers used in the Garamba operation.

Obviously their loyalties to their former boss have not fully withered, and it is likely they tipped him off.

In northern Uganda, to this day some believe Kony doesn’t exist, that he is a composite fictional character created by the government in Kampala.

Why now?

There are many who have asked “Why now?” After all, Kony left Uganda seven years ago and is now in Central African Republic and DRC.

What is he doing there? He has not retired to raise goats and grow yams peacefully on a farm.

He has continued to kill, abduct and rape. Why would it be wrong for him to kill and abduct Ugandan children, but fine for him to do so to CAR and Congolese children?

The one criticism that interests me most is that Kony 2012 is the typical work of patronising white Westerners, who think Africans are too idiotic to save themselves, and therefore in Kony 2012 they appoint themselves as saviours.

That Invisible Children should leave this capturing Kony business to Ugandans.

There is nothing new in all this. I heard all these arguments more than 15 years ago.

The plight of the children and the people in the north was something that for many years, the rest of Uganda didn’t want to hear about.

The argument was framed in exactly the same terms as today. Kony was a “northern,” not a Ugandan issue.

Protests in support and seminars in Kampala were broken up. Chauvinists in the south argued that it was “the turn of the northerners to suffer.”

The human-rights community, journalists and intellectuals exhausted themselves demanding that the rebellion become the concern of all well-meaning Ugandans.

Some of the critics of Kony 2012 today had a different view then. They were pleading for the international community to pay attention, or else the Acholi would be “exterminated.”

In the end it was the courage of outsiders, mainly Catholic nuns and priests, and northern Uganda bishops, that started to open the lid on the details of the Kony rebellion and the government counter-insurgency to the rest of Uganda and the world.

A few of the foreign church people were expelled for their pains.

Then the European and American diplomats, who couldn’t be thrown in jail, or expelled from the country, started travelling to the north with journalists.

A casual reading of newspapers from that period will quickly reveal the sharp attacks the government hurled at the “meddling” diplomats.

One lesson the Kony war taught Ugandans who pay attention, was that sometimes, international solidarity makes a difference.

Ugandans bore the brunt of the war, yes, but most of us also turned our backs on what Kony was doing.

If it had been left to us, we would have been content to go in years later, and snap up the empty lands (the fear that this was the ultimate aim of the letting the Kony war go on so long, still informs some of the most frighteningly angry local nationalism over land in the north).

Most of all, Kony never really left Uganda. Northern Uganda is still his prisoner.

The infrastructure that enabled him to survive, the networks that benefited from doing business with him and the war, and the dark secrets around his campaign will never be confronted until he is put away.

The people, who endured so much for 20 years, will never really comfortably settle back on their lands as long as Kony is free, because they fear that he could be back. To use the cliché: This is Africa. Stranger things have happened.

I would not have made Kony 2012 the way Invisible Children did. But I am sure as hell paying attention — because children are paying attention.

Our daughters are extreme digital children. Computers, the Internet are their lives. Like many urban young people their age, nearly all the news they get is from Facebook and online.

I was travelling for most of the first week when Kony 2012 broke, so I only caught glimpses of the story from the few times I got on to Twitter, my Facebook page, and read online news as I hopped from place to place.

On March 8, I was in the UK and visited briefly with our oldest daughter. We went out for a Chinese dinner, and she spoke about Kony 2012 and the reactions to it for about 10 minutes.

Later that night, our younger daughter, who had emailed me YouTube links to the video twice, sent me a rather exasperated Short Message when I texted her to inform her that I had not yet watched it.

Immediately I returned to Nairobi, she sat me down and made me watch Kony 2012.

On the Monday morning, I drove her to school. She and most of her cousins have formed a group on WhatsUp where family news, gossip, and the affairs that interest young people are traded.

She told me that between the time she went to bed and when she woke up, her young cousins had posted 97 comments all debating the merits and demerits of Kony 2012.

For another 20 minutes, she spoke mostly about Jacob, the young former LRA soldier in the video, and even asked me if I knew him! I said no. Then more questions about Kony.

We discussed more current affairs and politics in those 20 minutes, than we had done for all the first 15 years of her life combined. I was delighted to no end.

Clearly, Kony 2012 had touched a chord. Perhaps its appeal comes from its “superficiality,” because that way it is able to serve up emotion.

Maybe young people connect more to the emotion of stories, than to their complexity.

And, contrary to what we grown ups think, the kids need something more than Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto — they would like to help capture a war criminal who abducts, kills, and rapes children too.

That is a good place for children’s hearts to be.

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