The withdrawal of US and Ugandan forces pursuing rebel leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa raised the question of how the Lord’s Resistance Army leader has eluded capture for three decades. Based on almost a decade of experience researching the LRA here is a seven-part answer.
Kony is without doubt one of the most resilient human beings in the planet. There are few 60 year olds in the world who have spent most of their lives walking or running through dense vegetation, covering as many as 20 miles a day. His diet consists mostly of wild yams, green leaves, berries and occasional red meat from wild animals. Pursuing forces have struggled to keep up with his pace or ability to survive in the bush for days with little food or water. It is however not as difficult for Kony as for the people who serve him, carrying his clothes, mattress, food and water, and even his weapons, a couple of AK47s – Kony only carrying on him a rarely used Beretta 9 mm pistol.
2) Disregard for human life
A ruthless character, Kony has shown little regard for human lives, including those of people who have served him for years. Having ordered the abductions of an estimated 100,000 people, many of whom children, Kony has used LRA members for the singular purpose of prolonging his life and status as an undisputed leader. Young men have been conscripted as Kony’s personal bodyguards and errand boys while young women have been forced to be his servants and ‘wives.’
Many of the abductees have died trying to keep Kony alive. Others, especially commanders he has seen as threats to his position, Kony has had executed. They include at least two of his own deputies, Otti Lagony shot in 1999, and Vincent Otti killed by firing squad in 2007. Other LRA commanders Kony has seen as challenging his authority – whether disobeying him or sleeping with one of his many ‘wives’ – have also been brutally murdered, their remains left in the open to rot as warnings to others.
3) Close protection
Over the years Kony has perfected a series of self-protection protocols, which ensure his safety. In each of his resting places, whether for a few days or weeks, Kony’s tent is always located in the middle of camp. His top commanders, rings of loyal fighters and guards, surround Kony and his family at all times.
A former LRA member described the protection strategy as a giant spider web with Kony as the spider in the center. “When an enemy touches the web on one side, Kony is alerted,” he said, “ensuring he can run in the opposite direction.”
Close protection is also applied during his marches in the bush. Kony deploys advance and rear guards (at times carrying anti personnel mines planted on their trail), when walking single or double file, to avoid falling into an ambush or being attacked from behind. This system, which has saved Kony’s life on several occasions according to former fighters, has worked in part because pursuing (Ugandan) soldiers have been often unwilling to directly confront Kony – either due to fear of his security detail or Kony’s reported otherworldly powers.
4) Ideological conviction
Though the LRA has become a survival vehicle for Kony, it is undeniable that the rebel group was created on legitimate grievances. In 1987, Kony’s group, initially called the Holy Spirit Movement II, was one of many armed responses to violence committed by members of the National Resistance Army (NRA) in northern Uganda. The NRA leader was no other than Yoweri Museveni, the current President of Uganda. Kony has always maintained that he fought for the rights of the Acholi people of northern Uganda and that his ultimate aim was to unseat President Museveni. While such aim is clearly unattainable now, the ideology behind the movement remains strong even with LRA fighters who were abducted from a young age in the late 90s and early 2000s. In many instances, former abductees either experienced as children NRA abuses or learned from their parents and relatives.
The ideological conviction, brought about by a common historical background and amplified by Kony, has created a bonding of sorts for people the majority of whom were brought into the LRA against their will. It has also created some respect for Kony, who many former LRA members still regard as a freedom fighter.
Kony himself believes in the righteousness of his cause, which would explain his refusal over the years to accumulate wealth or other material benefits. A lack of interest in riches has been a key barrier to potential peaceful agreements, and likely contributed to Kony’s longevity.
5) Military nous
The disdain the Ugandan army has shown toward the LRA’s military ability over the years is without merit. Some of the founding members of the LRA were former Ugandan army officers with professional preparation. At least one was trained as an air force officer in the Soviet Union, earning him the nickname ‘Commander MiG,’ after the Soviet made aircraft. The professional soldiers were crucial in providing military advice to Kony – who at the time was primarily in charge of the spiritual aspect – as well as training the new recruits militarily.
Sudanese support in the shape of weapons as well as direct training of LRA fighters starting in the mid 1990s transformed the rebel groups into a lethal force. Former fighters talk of a regimented life in camps in Sudan complete with roll calls, military parades and understanding of military strategy. The training covered basic tactics such as attack and ambush strategies and handling of complex weapons such as the anti aircraft ground to air missile, the Russian made Strella (arrow), which the Sudanese army supplied. The military knowhow is another important reason why the LRA, and Kony, continue to survive.
Often described as ‘messianic’ or wedded to the notion of installing the Biblical Ten Commands in Uganda, Kony is instead a first class pragmatist. He has used ingredients from Acholi traditional beliefs, Christianity, Islam and even Marxism, to justify a particular action or to convince others. Kony used Acholi beliefs and Catholic psalms to cement support in the late 1980s. In the mid 1990s as the recipient of Sudanese government aid, Kony praised the virtues of Islam. He forbid the consumption of pork and ordered that women were no longer allowed to fight. And yet, in 2007 when the LRA was part of the Juba talks, Kony spoke to his fighters about the pernicious role of white Christian missionaries who divided Africans to steal their land. Recently Kony has continued to talk about pan-Africanism, a possible pitch aimed at non Ugandan LRA members abducted in CAR and DRC.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Kony is truly paranoid. He trusts no one and once remarked to a Ugandan official how he mistrusted the Arabs [referring to the Sudanese] even as he was receiving support daily from the Sudanese army. Former LRA combatants who have defected recently said that Kony refuses to meet with outsiders in Darfur, often instructing other LRA members to never disclose his whereabouts to anyone.
Kony’s paranoia however has also extended to people who have served him loyally for years. Seeing threats everywhere and afraid that people close to him make him vulnerable, Kony has ordered the beatings and even the executions of many LRA members. Such behavior has caused alienation among the ranks, causing the defection of many, including iconic LRA fighter Dominic Ongwen, who is now at the International Criminal Court, facing charges of war crimes.
Ongwen’s longtime friend, Achaye Doctor – brought into the LRA as a small child more than 20 years ago – abandoned Kony’s group and started his own rogue unit; unprecedented in the LRA’s history. In addition Kony’s decision to have commander Jon Bosco Kibwola executed for allegedly disobeying his orders caused the defection of George Okot. Both Kibwola and Okot were abducted as children and were considered Kony loyalists. Okot comes from Odek, Kony’s village, and was for a long time one of his most loyal bodyguards (he was often photographed near Kony during the Juba talks of 2006-2008).
Kony’s paranoia, while helpful to him for many years, might end up causing his demise. The erratic behavior was at its worst during periods of sustained military pressure, which caused Kony to move frequently, often isolated from other groups. It is hard to predict how will Kony behave now that the military pressure has been removed. It is possible his paranoid behavior will continue to internally erode the LRA. Whether it will be enough to completely destroy it remains to be seen.