|Kony’s elusive LRA is dwindling in numbers, and an armed US special forces advisory group may
spell the end game for the former altar boy and internationally wanted warlord [EPA]
Elusive and motivated by a purported belief that he is a prophet, Joseph Kony has waged a guerrilla insurgency against Uganda’s government for more than two decades as the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Utilising central Africa’s dense bush for strategic advantage and occasionally expanding his fight to neighbouring countries, Kony has become an internationally wanted war criminal and the head of a dwindling band of fighters.
Though the LRA and the government of Uganda, led since 1986 by President Yoweri Museveni, signed a permanent ceasefire in 2008, Kony did not show up to the final signing agreement, and military action against the LRA by the governments of Uganda as well as the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan have continued.
The US maintained increasingly close relations with Museveni’s administration during the presidency of George W. Bush, and in November 2010, the Obama White House announced a policy entitled “Strategy to Support the Disarmament of the Lord’s Resistance Army”, of which one of the main objectives was to “apprehend and remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony”.
Kony was born in Odek, a village in a region of northern Uganda known as Acholiland, sometime in the early 1960s. Not much is known about his early years, though he reportedly served as an altar boy within the Catholic church and was heavily influenced by both Christian and spiritualist teachings.
Kony joined the Uganda People’s Democratic Army, a rebel alliance formed after Museveni’s nascent National Resistance Army came to power in 1986. He became a key ally to Alice Lakwena, an Acholi spiritual healer whose following, the Holy Spirit Movement, led the UPDA and who may have been related to Kony.
After Lakwena suffered a devastating defeat against the Ugandan government in a battle at Jinja, around 100km from the capital Kampala, she fled to Kenya and Kony emerged as the leader of the forces who remained. With Kony’s assumption of power came a shift in the rebels’ strategy and a new name: the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA took to Uganda’s north and began to operate almost exclusively against civilian targets, rather than the Ugandan military. Under Kony’s control, the LRA has waged a durable insurgency utilising brutal tactics, forcing 1.5 million people from their homes and abducting more than 20,000 boys and girls to become fighters or forced “wives” to LRA members.
Sponsored in part by the government of Sudan, the LRA conducted operations in both the DRC and South Sudan.
Kony has long said that his movement is aimed at liberating Ugandans from oppression and has made himself into a dogged enemy of Museveni, whose career as Uganda’s leader has run in parallel with Kony’s as an infamous warlord.
He has reportedly claimed to be a prophet, possessed by spirits and to believe in the power of the Christian cross and holy oil to protect him and his fighters from physical harm.
After Museveni consolidated power, Kony moved his fighters into Sudan, then the DRC, then the Central African Republic (CAR), typically seeking out spaces where weak governments were unable to reach.
In 2005, Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court for leading the LRA in a campaign of “murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements” since at least 1987 and for personally issuing broad orders to target and kill civilian populations.
The indictment was partly based on intercepted radio communications where Kony could be heard praising LRA forces for attacking camps of displaced persons and calling on them to find targets with “even more people”.
Though not fully endorsed by international observers, Uganda’s recent multi-party elections have delivered Museveni back into power, and Kony has become increasingly pursued, both by Ugandan troops – including ex-LRA fighters – and by a contingent of about 100 American “combat-ready” special forces.
In 2012, The African Union sent 5,000 troops to hunt down Kony. And men, called arrow boys, also took up arms in South Sudan in an effort to protect people from the LRA.
Uganda troops captured 19 LRA rebels in CAR in December 2013, which was considered to be a sizeable victory in the hunt for members of the group.
The US-led search for Kony is now moving from the jungle to the air. The Pentagon announced in March that it would send four aircraft, and the 150 troops needed to maintain them, to hunt for Kony in South Sudan, CAR, Uganda and the DRC.