Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kony Tells Acholi He's Sorry

LRA commander issues remarkable apology to northern Ugandans for crimes his forces committed against them.
By Matthew Green
Emerging from the Congolese forest in an immaculate white shirt and trousers, Joseph Kony last week gave the first news conference of his 20-year rebellion with a tense, wide-eyed look that spoke volumes more than his speech making.

Perhaps uncomfortable speaking English, and unused to so many strangers, the leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, rebels appeared as anxious to get the eight minute and forty second ordeal over with as journalists were to prolong it.

It was still a remarkable appearance for a man who has remained virtually invisible since he began his uprising after President Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda in 1986, Kony's longevity placing him among the ranks of Africa's hardiest rebels.

Even more remarkable was not what he said at the August 1 press conference, but what he told assembled northern Ugandan and southern Sudanese elders in closed sessions beforehand. He apologised for the many atrocities inflicted by the LRA on the Acholi people of northern Uganda in the course of his movement's 20-year war, which has forced some 1.5 million people to become internal refugees. And he said he wanted to work with these leaders to solve the conflict in northern Uganda.

Kony's address to his victims provided a rich insight into his mindset. "I am a man, I am a human being, I am Joseph Kony," he told reporters, seated in a plastic chair in a clearing on the Sudan-Congo border guarded by scores of LRA soldiers, some in their early teens, many with dreadlocks.

"Those words that people say to me - that is propaganda. They spoil my name like that so that people will not love me as a human being," he said in his fractured English.

Given the evidence documented by human rights groups who have researched the abductions, killings and mutilations conducted by his rebels, Kony's denials remain unconvincing, even if it is true that the Ugandan army has also committed abuses.

More interesting than the content of the press conference, where he reaffirmed the LRA's call for a ceasefire and said he would refuse to stand trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court, was the context in which it took place. Journalists tagged along as part of a peace team of almost 200 people ferried to the outpost of Nabanga on the Sudan-Congo border by Sudan's vice-president Riek Machar, who is leading efforts to mediate an end to Kony's rebellion.

Although there were several Ugandan government envoys on the trip, the vast majority of delegates were composed of elders, chiefs and religious leaders from south Sudan and northern Uganda, delivering a message of reconciliation to the LRA. Machar's willingness to organise the visit, which involved Antonov cargo planes from south Sudan's capital, Juba, and hours of driving in convoys of cars across pot-holed bush roads, underlines the importance of this part of his initiative. He is essentially running two parallel peace processes to try to end the war.

On the one hand, there are conventional-style peace talks between LRA representatives and the Ugandan government which opened in Juba on July 14, and are due to resume soon. These talks aim to tackle the standard fare of peace negotiations - from a ceasefire, to addressing the political roots of discontent, to accountability for crimes committed.

But the trip to the border encompassed a parallel process of reconciliation between the leadership of the LRA and the elders in their native northern Uganda, as well as leaders from communities in southern Sudan who have suffered LRA attacks. This was the process that the news conference hardly touched upon, but which will be essential to ending the conflict.

The day before Kony's press conference, the rebels had invited journalists to accompany the visiting delegation of representatives from Kony's own Acholi tribe and neighbouring communities affected by the war to an LRA position in the forest. The rebels had set up what they call a "parliament", a thatched meeting hall to receive delegates where reporters caught their first glimpse of the elusive and mysterious Kony.

Dressed in pressed green fatigues, black gumboots and cap, Kony looked far more at ease than he did at the news conference the following day. He shook hands with delegates, smiling broadly with his sunglasses tucked into the left breast pocket of his shirt.

Conscious that they would now be on display to the world, the rebels had set up thatched enclosures housing latrines, with the letters LRA woven into their sides, and equipped with toilet rolls - more sophisticated facilities than many of the region's armies, including the southern Sudanese, provide for visitors.

Journalists were then hustled outside, but, standing within earshot of the translation of a speech Kony made in Acholi, it was clear that resolving the war is as much about healing divisions within the north as it is about striking a deal with the Ugandan government based in the national capital, Kampala, in the south of the country.

Displaying the oratorical skills described by many of the abductees who have escaped rebel ranks, Kony emphasised his version of the conflict: that it was the elders in the north who gave their blessing to his uprising after President Museveni's own rebel guerrilla National Resistance Army - comprising southerners and hundreds of exiled Tutsis from Rwanda, who would eventually overthrow their own country's Hutu-dominated government – defeated then president Milton Obote and a national army, at the time dominated by northerners.

Despite encouraging him to stage a revolt against Museveni - who established a "no party system" and for a while became a cult figure for western leaders desperate for new styles of African development - Kony said these elders later abandoned him. This fostered a sense of betrayal that Kony used to justify his group's attacks on civilians whom he regarded as traitors for not supporting his "liberation" war against Museveni's southern rule.

It was now up to the elders, religious leaders and chiefs, he said, to join with the rebels to find a solution to the conflict that they - or rather their fathers - had helped to spawn.

None of this came across at the press conference, a point perhaps too subtle to grab headlines. But reaching an understanding with the leaders of northern Uganda will be essential if Kony and his commanders are to be convinced it is safe to come home.

Just as importantly, Kony had earlier apologised to a group of southern Sudanese elders, who gathered in a white tent in the clearing reserved for meetings with mediators, after they confronted him with a list of crimes they blame on the LRA. The rebels moved to bases in southern Sudan in 1994 at the invitation of the Khartoum government, who used them to fight its own southern rebels, unleashing them to loot food and prey on its enemies.

The LRA, fearing it would lose its traditional sources of supply, moved to Congo last year after Khartoum signed a peace deal with the south. South Sudanese elders have compiled a list of more than 3,000 killings they say were committed by the LRA in the past few years alone, along with allegations of cannibalism and hundreds of abductions.

Although Kony did not mention it to the press, asking forgiveness was a major step for the rebel leader, one that shows he may be more committed to traditional forms of reconciliation with his own community than cynics might expect.

Matthew Green is a Reuters correspondent currently working on a book on the LRA, to be published next year by Portobello Books.

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