On the trail of Joseph Kony

Map of the LRA's area of operations

By Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst

Can the #StopKony campaign really bring a reviled warlord to justice this year? The 30-minute Kony 2012 video posted on YouTube last week about the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its abuse of children has been viewed more than 75 million times – and subsequently criticised and defended in the media. But few people have set eyes on LRA leader Kony himself since late 2006, when he met with United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland in southern Sudan just across the border from his hideout in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

LRA fighters are still in north-eastern DRC, where according to the IISS Armed Conflict Database they were responsible for at least 12 attacks in the first two weeks of February this year. These raids took place in or around the group’s old bases in the densely forested Garamba National Park. However, testimonies from those who recently escaped the LRA say Kony and other top commanders are in the Central African Republic (CAR).

And therein lies a couple of immediate problems with the Kony 2012 campaign by the charity Invisible Children. While all of the attention in its film focuses on LRA activity inside Uganda (outraging many Ugandans), the group left that country more than six years ago. Now the LRA roams from the DRC to South Sudan and Sudan to CAR (see map, above; Ri-Kwangba is where he met Egeland). In this 800,000 sq km of difficult terrain, the 100 US military advisers that the charity is demanding stay in the region may have difficulties tracking down one particular individual.

Those advisers were only sent to Central Africa by President Barack Obama in late 2011, but other armed efforts to trap Kony have failed before now, and no LRA commanders have been killed or captured since 2009. In 2008, Operation Lightning Thunder, a joint offensive by the Ugandan, Congolese and southern Sudanese armies against Kony’s forces in DRC, simply unleashed a wave of retaliatory LRA attacks on civilians. The considerable UN peacekeeping force in the DRC has been criticised for its inability to protect civilians.

The LRA is now a small but ruthless terrorist organisation. After it was formed in northern Uganda in 1987 – a rogue spin-off from the ethnic Acholi resistance in the provinces of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader against the ‘discriminatory’ central government in Kampala – it was responsible for widespread human-rights violations. Some 30,000 children may have been abducted to serve as child soldiers or sex slaves, while whole communities were displaced as they fled the murder, kidnapping and mutilation that were all par for the course under Kony’s self-styled mixture of Acholi nationalism, mysticism and Christianity.

Today, however, the LRA is estimated to have no more than 400-500 fighters.

The Sudanese government was accused of militarily supporting LRA for more than a decade, but withdrew any support after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Kony and his top deputies in 2005. Kony agreed to a ceasefire in 2006 and sent his negotiators to subsequent peace talks, but twice failed to show when required to sign a final peace deal in 2008.

It is unclear what would happen if Kony or his aides were actually apprehended. Kampala has assured the LRA that its fighters will be tried by Ugandan courts, rather than the ICC. But the government of Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan president for the past 25 years, has itself often been accused of corruption and human-rights abuses. In its first war-crimes trial in September 2011, the Ugandan constitutional court granted ex-LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo amnesty, although he had been charged with 53 counts of murder.

Undefended and indefensible, representing no legitimate constituency and with no apparent redeeming features, Joseph Kony is the perfect bogeyman. With 75 million hits and counting, the Kony 2012 campaign is an exemplar of viral marketing. However, it remains to be seen whether one can lead to the arrest of the other in a complex geopolitical landscape. Will viewers heed the call to cover their cities with protest leaflets and posters on 20 April? Will ‘making Kony famous’ in the West have an impact in Central Africa – where he is already infamous?

2 Comments on “On the trail of Joseph Kony”

  1. […] and criticisms citing the hubris of the campaign, messy financials, strategic short-sightedness, geographic misrepresentation, and oversimplification have spurred a vigorous global debate as well as important clarification […]

  2. […] Bensouda, the new ICC Chief Prosecutor, has put Ntaganda and Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony top of her ‘wanted’ list. Meanwhile, Rwanda has promised to refute the UN evidence of its […]


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