The ongoing war in northern Uganda is one of the worst conflicts one rarely hears about. Jan Egeland, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, describes Northern Uganda as “the world’s terrorism epicentre. Nowhere in the world do we have large areas where between 80 and 90 percent of the population are terrorised into camps by violence.”
This violence is perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that hasn’t blown up US office towers or bombed Jordanian hotels, but has still “killed more people than Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbullah combined.” Their horrific tactics – which include abducting children to rape and enslave – have forced 1.6 million Ugandans from their homes and spawned the phenomenon of “night commuters“, children who walk miles from their homes in villages to sleep in the comparative safety of cities like Gulu.
(The LRA is not the only group terrorizing the children of Northern Uganda. Girls living in camps for internally displaced people report being raped by the Ugandan government soldiers charged with protecting them. The soldiers’ behavior and their failure to control the LRA are two main reasons why Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni received almost no support in recent presidential elections from people in Northern Uganda.)
Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, is one of the strangest rebel leaders to appear on the global stage. A primary school dropout, Kony became a traditional healer in an Acholi village as a young man. When Museveni seized power in 1986 and began cracking down on former soldiers who’d returned to their homes in Acholiland, Kony emerged as the leader of one of several resistance movements against the Ugandan government. Kony’s movement is notable for its religious fervor – LRA’s stated goal is a Ugandan nation run in accordance with the Ten Commandments… but Kony, a polygamist, may interpret this document in some interesting ways. Since receiving weaponry and support from Khartoum, Kony’s rhetoric has expanded to include adherance to some aspects of Muslim doctrine, prohibiting his followers from eating pork and demanding they observe Ramadan. Oh, and he’s a spirit medium, channeling the spirit of a former Ugandan minister and a Chinese general.
He’s also a wanted international war criminal, indicted by the ICC last year for crimes including murder, rape and sexual enslavement.
Kony’s brutality, eccentricity and reluctance to speak to the media – he (claims he) hasn’t given an interview in his long career – mean that his recent interview with journalist Sam Farvar at his camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo is big news indeed. Kony used his interview to make it clear that Ugandan president Museveni was responsible for the atrocities in Acholi, not him:
“Let me tell you clearly what happened in Uganda. Museveni went into the villages and cut off the ears of the people, telling the people that it was the work of the LRA. I cannot cut the ear of my brother; I cannot kill the eye of my brother.”
Needless to say, very few people are buying this story. The Ugandan government dismissed the story as “ridiculous”, and was echoed by Human Rights Watch, who called Kony’s protests of innocence “amazing”. Betty Bigombe, an African peacemaker celebrated for her work negotiating between the LRA and the Ugandan government, reports witnessing the aftermath of massacres where LRA soldiers led entire villages to a riverbank and executed them. And accounts of survivors of the LRA – like Ochola John – are very difficult to forget. (The above link is to a BBC story, but it’s a very disturbing one and one more sensitive readers might want to skip.)
But Mathew Green, a Reuters journalist who has been writing a book on Kony, has an interesting take on the situation. Kony, Green argues, may not be nearly as crazy as people thinK; “The stereotype obscures the real man whose movement is rooted in a history of political alienation, and whose mysticism masks a raw instinct for survival that has confounded his many adversaries.” His article in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting argues that Kony is best understood as yet another rebel leader, used as a pawn by a powerful government and discarded when Sudan’s concerns shifted from rebels in the south to those in the west. It’s an interesting part of the story of a complex figure, but it’s hard for me to be too interested in the formative years of such a brutal and murderous man.
Why is Kony stepping into the public eye now? In part, it’s because he’s trying to negotiate a peace treaty with Uganda – he’s got a negotiating team in the southern Sudan city of Juba. But his reasons for seeking a treaty are likely less than pure – there’s widespread speculation that the Sudanese government either demanded Kony decamp for the DRC or paid him to do so. His wife (one of his wives?) has been arrested when she tried to leave Uganda for DRC, probably to join Kony. Kony’s decision to break his silence might well be the precursor to hearing a great deal more for him, as a tightening net might force his arrest and prosecution at the ICC. One can hope…
I have to admit – Farvar’s story on Kony makes me a little uneasy. I understand the value of an interview with a critical figure in Africa, and understand that there’s no way Farvar would have gotten the interview if he was able to lead the authorities back to Kony camp… but what are the ethics on giving a platform for someone like Kony to explain his motives and beliefs? And does Farvar have an obligation to assist those people trying to arrest Kony now that he’s met with him and conducted this interview? How does this parallel situations like interviews journalists have conducted with Bin Ladn?