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Uganda: Demystifying Kony

LRA chief looks more like a conventional rebel leader than a man described by former followers as a prophet who talked to angels.
Cloaked in an aura of mystery, Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, rebels in Uganda, has often been portrayed as a raving cult leader best known for his group's mass abduction of children, mutilations and massacres.

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.

Kony met western journalists, possibly for the first time ever, in the second week of June this year during talks with southern Sudanese vice-president Riek Machar in a clearing near Sudan's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, to discuss arrangements for peace negotiations with the Ugandan government.

Coupled with film of Kony attending a previous meeting with Machar on May 3, an image is emerging of a more conventional rebel leader than the man described by former followers as a prophet who talked to angels.

In contrast to the snapshot of a dread-locked guerrilla constantly recycled by Ugandan newspapers, Kony appeared in the video with short hair and a crisp military uniform, and said in English that he was "a human being" who wanted to talk peace.

Machar wants to broker an end to the uprising by the LRA, which has long staged attacks from bases in south Sudan. He wants both to neutralise the threat Kony poses to southern Sudanese civilians, and to enhance the international standing of the newly-formed southern Sudanese government, formed after the country’s long civil war ended last year.

The talks have yet to begin, but LRA delegates are already in the southern Sudanese capital, Juba, and Uganda's envoy in the town says Kampala will send representatives.

Despite his new public profile, Kony remains difficult to read. Appearing wary - some would say fearful - at his most recent meeting with Machar, he nevertheless agreed to be photographed and later interviewed - a major step for a man who had previously restricted his public statements to rare radio broadcasts and taped messages. The television interview he gave has not yet been aired, although it is likely to create even more interest in a man who has become a test case for the new International Criminal Court, ICC, in the Hague, set up to try perpetrators of the most heinous war crimes.

The ICC issued its first indictments last October, charging Kony and four of his commanders with counts including murder, rape and sexual enslavement, adding a new veneer of notoriety to man who started from the humblest of origins.

Now in his mid-forties, Kony was born in a village in the Odek area, some 50 kilometres east of the main northern Ugandan town of Gulu, into a typical family of peasant farmers from the north's Acholi tribe.

Locals remember how as a boy he would tend his father's cattle by a stream, and later, as a teenager, he was an enthusiastic participant in traditional Acholi dances.

He never excelled academically, and dropped out of the village school before completing his primary education. Some said this was because he was possessed by spirits, others because his family could not pay the fees. Instead, he became a traditional healer.

Contemporaries recall the turning point in 1987, when Kony climbed a nearby hill to pray and fast for days before announcing he would overthrow Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and then leading a small group of followers into the bush in 1987.

While it is commonly asserted that the LRA has no clear political agenda, and many in northern Uganda are at a loss to explain why Kony is still fighting, his rebellion can be better understood in the context of the turmoil then gripping northern Uganda.

When Museveni seized power by overthrowing the regime run by northern army officers in 1986, many of the defeated soldiers from the ousted government fled to their homes, fearing reprisals for their part in years of civil war. After a period of relative calm, the brutal treatment meted out against northerners by Museveni's newly victorious troops sparked both a conventional uprising and a series of spiritually-inspired rebellions.

The most famous of these rebels was Alice Lakwena, a prophetess from the Acholi ethnic group who led thousands of followers to within several dozen km of the Ugandan capital Kampala before being defeated towards the end of 1987.

Echoing Lakwena's use of a spiritual message to mobilise followers, Kony launched a separate rebellion, joining up with remnants of more conventional rebel forces active in northern Uganda at the time.

Like the other armed groups that sprang up to oppose Museveni, Kony initially enjoyed a degree of support among the Acholi people, who feared that Uganda's new government planned a campaign of persecution against them.

It was only later, when his fighters began cutting the lips and ears off villagers suspected of collaborating with the army and resorted to mass abductions of children for use as fighters and "wives", that Kony earned the contempt of his own people.

Despite the LRA's abuses, some former abductees report that Kony himself displayed a personal fondness for children, especially those produced by the numerous abducted women he took as wives, and would admonish commanders for treating them harshly.

That said, young stragglers in the LRA ranks were routinely beaten to death, while abducted conscripts who failed to follow orders were flogged or executed.

Some former rebels describe Kony as having something close to a split personality – his persona as a fiery preacher relaying orders from a “holy spirit” in sharp contrast to the more relaxed man who enjoyed Acholi traditional music and chatting to his commanders.

After peace talks between the LRA and the government collapsed at the end of 1993, the Sudanese government in Khartoum embraced Kony's band as a proxy force, prompting him to add a smattering of Islam to his mysticism to please his new allies.

The Sudanese used him to fight their own southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, SPLA - who have since formed the government of south Sudan after making peace with Khartoum - and to also destabilise Uganda itself, whose army fought alongside the SPLA.

Equipped by Sudan with Soviet-made anti-tank weapons, machine-guns and mines, Kony's fighters engaged both the south Sudanese rebels and the Ugandan army. But it was civilians in northern Uganda who bore the brunt of their attacks.

Far from being simply acts of random violence, the killings and mutilations were often conducted as what Kony termed "reprisals" for perceived support among villagers for the government, even though these raids served only to deepen his estrangement from his community.

Kampala has often blamed its failure to defeat Kony militarily on Khartoum's support for the LRA, which many observers believe continued covertly after Uganda and Sudan signed a pact to stop backing each other's rebels in 1999. But while Uganda's army has not been able to defeat Kony on the battlefield, it has equally failed to win the cooperation from the peasantry necessary to defeat his rebellion.

Almost two million people have been forced into squalid camps as part of the army's counter-insurgency strategy, fuelling disease, deprivation and despair that have only increased northern Ugandans' antipathy to the government in Kampala.

Kony is often portrayed as fighting purely for his survival, but there is evidence that he has sought to express his Acholi people's grievances, despite the revulsion that his atrocities cause among these same people.

Swedish academic Sverker Finnstrom, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in northern Uganda, argues that the LRA has consistently made demands that include a negotiated solution to the conflict, an end to Acholi marginalisation, and reparations for cattle rustled with the help of the army shortly after Museveni took power.

In the weeks before Uganda's presidential elections last February, women who ventured into the bush for firewood encountered rebels who told them to vote for challenger Kizza Besigye, reflecting a clear political goal - removing Museveni.

Museveni won the polls, but a map of voting patterns showed that Uganda north of the Nile had overwhelmingly rejected him, reflecting resentment among Acholis who feel persecuted by both government and rebels.

While Kony’s exotic, mystical side has often overshadowed the LRA's attempts to articulate conventional grievances, they have also allowed him to exert a powerful hold over followers drawn from a culture with a rich spiritual tradition. Claiming to take orders from a range of spirits, Kony succeeded in convincing many of his officers and soldiers that he had clairvoyant powers that allowed him to predict attacks, or detect attempts by abductees to escape.

Former fighters describe how in the past he would appear in a blue cassock or white robe to conduct nocturnal rituals by the light of flickering charcoal fires, or speak in tongues in a special yard reserved for communion with the spirits.

Calling into a radio programme, Kony's deputy, Vincent Otti, said Kony was a prophet sent by God. "He's really a prophet, I'm telling you he is and you will even come to agree that he's a prophet," Otti told the talk show.

Although Uganda's army has never managed to grab Kony, it has seriously weakened his movement since it launched its Iron Fist Offensive in southern Sudan in 2002, conducted with the agreement of the Khartoum government. Increasingly deprived of close allies, who either surrendered or were killed or captured, Kony has been looking more and more vulnerable.

In September last year, Otti led many of the fighters into DRC’s Garamba National Park, introducing a new regional dimension to the conflict, and prompting increased international scrutiny of the LRA’s activities. The rebels appeared to be seeking a new haven after Khartoum's army began withdrawing from positions in southern Sudan which they had previously used to supply Kony, conforming to a peace deal signed with the SPLA in January, 2005.

Far from the swaggering living god of media myth, Kony comes across on the video of his May 3 meeting with Machar as a supplicant as much as a belligerent figure. Despite numerous failed attempts at negotiations in the past, the LRA chief may yet find that his best hope lies in talking, not fighting.

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