By Haggai Matsiko
Could he be conning the world again?
Recent claims that rebel war-leader Joseph Kony is in surrender talks with his handlers in the Central African Republic (CAR) have sparked optimism, pessimism, and deja vu. The claims erupted after CAR’s interim-President, Michel Djotodia, announced that Kony, who has led his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in over 20 years of brutal banditry, is ready to surrender.
Almost immediately, Uganda’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Okello Oryem told The Independent that Kampala was not sure that CAR was talking to Kony.
They are not talking to Kony face to face,” Oryem said, “we cannot be sure it is him they are talking to. It might be any one or any group. Our intelligence is trying to establish the truth.”
Minister Oryem’s pessimism is echoed by others, like the U.S. government and the NGO, Invisible Children, which insists this might be another distraction that Kony seeks to use to get a break, vanish from the watchful eye of his hunters, only for him to re-emerge and strike again.
Invisible Children, with their viral video “Kony 2012” that was watched by over 100 million people, helped turn Kony into the world’s most renowned and vilified war lord.
Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey says: “…any report that Kony may want to negotiate a surrender should automatically be met with caution.
“None of our local sources have substantiated the claims that there is a direct communication with Kony. Additionally, Kony has used and abused the call for peace talks many times… usually at moments when his power is the weakest.”
Although still thin on details, most reports say there has not been direct contact between Kony and the CAR administration. Reports indicate that only a small group of Kony’s rebels reached out to CAR for supplies giving an impression that the warlord is under pressure.
Scepticism about Kony’s moves is as understandable as it is healthy. Over the years, the LRA leader has proved elusive and established a reputation for taking advantage of any situation to re-group, re-arm and strike again.
The climax of this was in 2008, when he quit talks with Kampala and vanished to renew his war claiming it was because the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague had failed to heed to his condition of dropping war crimes and crimes against humanity against him.
Almost ten years after he was driven out of northern Uganda, the region still bears depressing marks of his horrors. Villages are yet to recover but most horrifying is the sight of victims—people whose noses and lips Kony chopped off.
When he fled Uganda and turned the eastern part of the DR Congo, CAR, and Sudan into his new sanctuary, Kony gained even more notoriety. With the vast thick forests of DR Congo, he routinely pounces on his victims and metes out terror.
Kony’s LRA also reportedly run errands as mercenaries for among others Sudan and CAR armed groups and poach elephants for meat and ivory.
He has built alliances with other bandit forces to the extent that when the African Union forces hunting him were closing in on him in CAR, the Seleka rebels who had just captured power there in March shut their gates forcing the Ugandan forces to pull out of CAR.
Today, Djotodia’s government, which has been in power for barely seven months, is in no position to deliver Kony to international justice. Djotodia presides over a motley bunch of armed factions group under the Seleka banner that has made the country ungovernable.
CAR’s Prime Minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, has even said publicly that his country is in a state of “anarchy, a non-state”.
For Kony, with his forces down to a little over a hundred and reported to lack key supplies after he was cut off from most of his bases, an opportunity to dupe his hunters cannot be more urgent. The rebel leader who is at 52 years is advancing in age, is also reported to be battling an illness.
Wanted by the ICC on 32 charges, Kony is not any ordinary warlord; he is one of the world’s most wanted criminals thanks to his nearly three-decade war, dotted with gruesome terror attacks across the Great Lakes region.
The U.S. government, which has offered up to $5 million for clues leading to Kony’s arrest, also has deployed 100 Special Forces advisors, currently based in CAR and advising the 3000-strong counter-LRA African Union Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) led by Ugandan forces.
Attempts to end Kony’s notoriety have attracted international billionaires like Howard Buffet, activists like Shannon Davis, and armies of American youth fundraisers.
Some of these hunters have welcomed the news around his possible surrender as a sign that Kony’s long armed banditry might be coming to an end.
ICC or Uganda courts?
But news of Kony’s willingness to surrender has sparked debate on Kampala’s position in the event.
Kony is wanted by the ICC on 33 counts that include crimes against humanity, enslavement, sexual enslavement, rape, inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering, war crimes, treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape and forced enlistment of children.
He was indicted together with four of his most senior commanders, Vincent Otti, the former Vice-Chair and Second in Command of LRA, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen and Raska Lukwiya. Most of these are dead.
But President Yoweri Museveni, who handed Kony’s case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and made the rebel leader one of the court’s biggest suspects, has morphed into the most ardent critic of the court.
While observers say that Museveni’s U-turn has a lot to do with his personal fears about the court (some opposition politicians have attempted to take him to the court), his criticism has crystallised around the ICC’s insistence on trying Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto.
The two leaders face charges over their alleged role in the 2008 Kenyan post-election violence that claimed over 1000 locals and displaced several thousands.
Museveni accuses the ICC of double standards and has been at the forefront of the campaign to have Africa pull out of the court. Trying Kony at the ICC would cement the court’s credentials instead.
As such, observers say, Kampala would be keen to have Kony tried in Kampala and set up a court specifically for the job.
When asked, Minister Oryem told The Independent that Kony does not have to be tried at the ICC.
“Not necessarily,” Oryem said, “we established a court (the ICD) as you know, we have trained our judges and lawyers and these institutions were put in place to try Kony.”
Oryem was referring to the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court.
Already, Thomas Kwoyelo, one of Kony’s top commanders has appeared before the ICD. But Kwoyelo’s case was never concluded and Museveni’s government continues to detain him.
Still, Kampala’s chances of trying Kony locally, if he is caught alive, appear quite slim.
Although Kony emerged as the most persistent of spin-offs from a string of armed rebellions in northern Uganda that following the capture of power by President Yoweri Museveni’s rebel army in 1986, the brutality and terror have marked his path have stamped his credentials as the terror of the Great Lakes.
Rooted in the same mysticism as the Holy Spirit Movement of the priestess Alice Lakwena from which it sprung, Kony’s LRA has been more brutal and enduring. Like Lakwena, Kony continues to keep his rag-tag fighting force by claiming he is carrying out a spiritual war guided by mystic powers.
What have drawn most attention to Kony’s evils are his abductions of thousands of children who he indoctrinates, and turns the boys into foot soldiers, while girls work either as labourers or sex slaves for him and his commanders.
Almost these atrocities straddling several borders have turned Kony into the most hunted war lord in the Great Lakes region.
Kony has committed most of his crimes across Uganda’s borders, in DR Congo, CAR, and Sudan. Although Kony is Ugandan, all these countries and players have a stake in determining his fate – if they can catch him.
So far nabbing him still appears a far off dream. The closest Kony’s hunters have got to him recently, is through a satellite image of him in a camp in CAR. An earlier raid on his base in Sudan in March this year, failed.
It was conducted by a special group of Ugandan fighters trained with funding from Texan lawyer and C.E.O. of the Bridgeway Foundation, Shannon Davis, and trained by Eeben Barlow’s Executive Outcomes. Barlow’s group has built a reputation as guns for hire to end civil wars in countries like Angola in exchange for cash and minerals.
They missed Kony by a week and found only a few personal effects in an evacuated camp; recently harvested cassava, remains in Kony’s personal latrine, a spear that belonged to Kony, as well as the diary of Salim Saleh, his most trusted son.
It was just like in 2008 when the Uganda army swooped on Kony’s camp in the DR Congo’s Garamba national Park in the ambitiously code-named “operation lightening thunder”.
After several months of planning, the Garamba operation also ended terribly with the UPDF only finding Kony’s saucepans and other minor effects. On top of escaping with all his commanders apart from one, Kony turned the anger on local Congolese with the harshest of reprisals.
Early in May this year, three American organisations noted that Kony keeps shifting from CAR to Sudan.
Citing LRA defectors, the three NGOs; Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, Invisible Children, and Enough compiled a report titled, `Hidden In Plain Sight: Sudan’s Harboring of the LRA in the Kafia Kingi Enclave, 2009-2013’.
They noted that Kony and the LRA between 2009 and 2013 kept coming and operating at a place called Kafia Kingi a strategically located intersection of the borders of CAR, South Sudan and the southwestern tip of Sudan. Kony, according to the report, first came to Kafia Kingi in 2010, and returned in 2011 and through parts of 2012.
“Along with other senior LRA commanders,” the report noted, “he [Kony] found safe harbor in a series of semipermanent encampments on the banks of the Umbelasha River near the SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] barracks in Dafak.”
What makes Kony’s Kafia Kingi presence deadly is it serves the LRA as a periodic safe haven from Ugandan forces authorised by the African Union Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army (RCI-LRA), the report notes.
At the time, the report added that some of the former LRA combatants even testified that Kony seeks to establish a more permanent presence in Kafia Kingi where LRA forces can seek asylum and even cultivate crops. This would ensure he gets food supplies all the time and revitalises his force.
Optimism has been growing, showing that Kony and his LRA are in their evenings. The rebel group’s lifeline—abductions and attacks—have plummeted terribly reports show. According to the Invisible Children’s LRA tracker, the last major abduction of the rebel group took place in CAR and even then the numbers were low.
The same tracker shows that Kony has been suffering big losses on the battlefield, even as those hunting him inch ever closer to nailing him.
The rebel group has lost so many of its captives including Kony’s six year old son since the year begun. One of his Uganda lieutenants escaped and another seasoned commander, Vincent Okumu Binansio, the head of all LRA operations in the Congo was killed in a clash with security forces near the CAR-South Sudan border.
A November report, Blind Spots: Gaining Access to Areas Where the LRA Operates, by Enough Project’s researcher, Kasper Agger notes that the LRA, has grown weaker in the past two years due to the onslaught of Ugandan-led and U.S.-supported counter- AU-RTF.
But it adds that the regional force has been frustrated by lack of the logistical capacity and authorisation to access key areas where LRA groups operate in remote parts of three countries: the DR Congo, CAR and the Kafia Kingi enclave in South Darfur, Sudan.
“These areas are largely off-limits to the AU-RTF forces for the specific political and logistical reasons described below,” the report notes, “The AU-RTF has made progress in eliminating some of the LRA’s safe havens over the past six months through recent South Sudanese cross-border missions into the LRA’s long time stronghold in Garamba National Park in the DRC, a raid by Ugandan armed forces on an LRA camp in Kafia Kingi, and a Congolese army attack on at least one LRA camp in the Bas Uélé district in the DRC.”
It adds that low-cost, high-impact diplomatic investments by the European Union, the United Nations, the U.S. government, and the African Union to forge a regional agreement providing access to all areas with LRA activity could eliminate this impasse and allow the mission to make a major breakthrough.
To date, the Enough Project, an organisation that has been tracking Kony notes that access to Kony’s stronghold, is his hunters’ biggest nightmare.
Many hope and believe that Kony is on his last legs but it remains unclear how when and whether the man that has terrorised the Great Lakes for decades can be brought to justice.