Joseph Kony: Civil War in Northern Uganda

18 Mar

 www.politico.com/news/stories/0312/73949.html

I was recently informed that a video about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Liberation Army has gone viral on the internet. My question upon hearing this news was- why now? Haven’t we known for years about the Civil War in Uganda and the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and his rebels?  And why some six years later-after the civil war has finally petered out and the rebels have lost their support have we become interested? Where were we when the war raged on in the north and Kony unleashed unconscionable attacks upon his own people and took their children away to serve in his army as wives and soldiers? Where was the world then?

My next few blog posts will try to help the reader better understand the reason for the Civil War  in Northern Uganda beginning with the overthrow of Obello Lutwa. I assure you that like any war there are issues leading up to the conflict which must be understood first.  This entire event began in shades of opportunistic grey but quickly turned into a struggle between good and evil.

My post has been based on the testimonies of many individuals living in Kampala who were born and spent their formative years in Gulu or Kitgum, cities where the Ugandan Civil War took place. I have also included information divulged by professional drivers who brought journalists into the bush to speak with Kony at pre-arranged sites during the war. Although they shared a diverse range of personal experiences, their descriptions of the war and the actions of Kony were very similar. The picture I have posted along with this article is not one of mine. I have never met Joseph Kony but I have had the opportunity to listen to what many of his victims told me about their individual experiences during the war and how it changed their lives.

According to my files his real name is Joseph Kony and he is the founder and sole leader of the Lord’s Liberation Army, a band of Ugandan rebels who still remain in close contact with other groups of terrorists in the regions of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Central African Republic ( CAR). He began his civil war in the north to bring down the present Ugandan Government under the leadership of the current president Yoweri Museveni in order to create a new Uganda.

Kony is no longer young although many of the pictures of him on the internet show a much younger man and were probably were taken in the late 1980’s during the peak of the Ugandan Civil War. He is now fifty-one years old and has been living in the bush as a fugitive for a good six years. He was born in a village east of Gulu in 1961 into the Acholi tribe, one of the largest tribes and which is found in Northern Uganda close to the Sudan border and bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Joseph Koni is his real name and no one who knew him as a child described him as anything but ordinary. It is known that his father was a very religious man, a deacon in his local Catholic church and that Kony served as an altar boy. He spent a great deal of his youth inside a church. But he was also exposed to the local practice of voodoo and he and his brother willingly trained to become voodoo shamans. This is not an uncommon practice in East African villages. Although most villagers practice some type of organized religion, the belief in the power of voodoo remains- the first belief has never replaced the second. Voodoo rituals are commonly performed to ensure good luck or to stop something bad from happening to an individual or loved ones.  Spells and curses are cast and lifted by the village shamans and villagers pay them for these services. What was surprising though, was that at some point in Kony’s life as a young adult and no one is sure exactly when, he became convinced that he had been chosen by God and that God had charged him with creating a new Uganda. No one in the villages has ever claimed that this was a self-serving ruse on his part or that he did this only for political power. By all accounts he has never wavered in his belief that he is “the chosen one” and that his mission is to build a new Uganda. At the same time that he built an army of young men he established a new religion for the Acholi based on a combination of the Old Testament, voodoo rituals, mysticism, spiritualism, and the use of physical terror. He also included worship of the Ark of the Covenant which he borrowed from the Coptic Christians living in Ethiopia. Kony was not the only spiritual leader to come forward in the north at this point in time. Many villagers believed that he was deeply influenced by “The Holy Spirit Movement” and incorporated some of their rituals into his own to bind his troops to him.

Kony began to raise his army on the streets of Gulu and Kitgum. Some sources have compared his techniques to that of Adolf Hitler. He had the same ability to say just the right thing by which he endeared himself to his audiences and was very convincing. He was a passionate and eloquent speaker and many times he spoke the truth about Uganda’s troubles but always from his own perspective. People began to take notice of this young man and as he drew larger crowds of men and women to him many of them aligned themselves to his cause. He attracted young men for a multitude of reasons: some because they wanted to help build a new Uganda, others because they desired to live the life of an Acholi warrior, and a third type who just wanted something meaningful to do. Uganda like many East African countries has an astronomically high unemployment rate especially in the rural areas.  Men were expected to continue the age-old occupation of farming small plots of land located near their families’ compounds. Many members of the Acholi tribe continue to this day to live in round huts constructed from a clay-like mud reinforced with sticks and topped with grass-thatched roofs. Strong, vibrant young men stand around in groups all day long with nothing to do; forced to watch others manage their kiosks in the market place or move purposefully through the streets of Gulu.  It is not difficult to understand why so many of these bored young men were drawn to Kony and his cause just because he offered them something meaningful to do each day.

 Soon Kony sent word out to the all of the Acholi villages that he was “the one, true messenger blessed by God and charged with creating and populating a new Uganda.” He began his war in earnest in 1986 because he strongly objected to the overthrow of the Ugandan dictator Obello Lutwa by the general Yoweri Museveni in a military coup. Museveni is the current president of Uganda and the National Liberation Army remains in power to this day.  Kony was not the only one to oppose the new government. The Acholi tribes in general were wary and unsure whether this new government would retaliate against them for the part they played in the previous government. Some of Lutwa’s former officers urged the people to fight back before the army of the south came to kill them all. The deposed President Lutwa was an Acholi and many of the soldiers in his army as well as his personal staff came from the Acholi tribe. Many had fought for Lutwa against the National Liberation Army (NRA) led by Museveni. This left a large number of Acholi convinced that a new Acholi-led government was the only answer. There were already other rebel groups operating in the area. The strongest of these was the Uganda People’s Democratic Army. It is a well known fact that Kony and his troops received their first military training in guerilla tactics from members of the UPDA.

At first the elders of the Acholi tribe agreed with Kony’s vision of a new Uganda and he gained many sympathizers in the Acholi villages. But in time Kony needed supplies to fight his war so he began arriving in the middle of the night to raid Acholi store houses and take what he wanted then used the villagers to transport these supplies back to his camps. Many times these porters never returned back to their families. When criticized for his tactics, his public response was that he was fighting this war for all of the Acohli in order to ensure a better Uganda so the villagers were obligated to support him in this fight. The Acholi complied at first but then began to resent and finally openly oppose his actions. This infuriated Kony who considered them an ungrateful people but he also began to view them as a potential threat to himself and to the success of his mission for the Lord.

It is at this point that he began employing terror tactics to keep the villagers in line. Now when he entered a village the first thing he did was to mutilate one or two adult men or women in front of the rest of the village. He ordered his lieutenants to use their knives to cut off noses, ears, lips, arms, and legs. This so terrified the Acholi people that they instantly complied; believing that if they gave him what he wanted he would go away. But Kony’s aim was not just to punish them for their insolence; he continued to torture them in order to keep them terrified and submissive.

As the war progressed he found that he needed to replenish his army.  As his original troops died off he needed a way to enlist more men to his cause. So he used what was around him- the Acholi people. He could have selected adult males from the various villages but he risked the threat of insurrection if enough of them were armed with weapons and remained to opposed him so he took the young boys instead. He used a brutal form of psychological coercion to convince them to fight for him. He began kidnapping boys to serve in his army as young as 8 years old.  Kony considered these boys soldiers and they were equipped with knives, rifles, and bullets as well as single shot rifles and automatic weapons- “AK forty-sevens” supplied to him by Russian arms dealers. He also provided his child soldiers with invincibility charms that ensured they could not be killed in battle. In order to demonstrate their allegiance to him and his cause they were sometimes required to shoot and kill neighbors, friends, family, even their own mothers and fathers.  In response to his nightly raids, the people of Acholi began walking their children to shelters in the city where they would sleep together under armed guard every night in order to protect them from the rebels. Little by little the child soldiers and wives escaped; some ran all the way back to their village compounds only to find the huts empty and the clans living together in Internal Displacement Camps.

Psychological research has confirmed that young children make very effective killers. They are not able to empathize with their victims so do not hesitate to kill nor are they at the level of moral development to understand the finality of their actions. Many of these boys became dedicated soldiers who believed that Koni had been given special magical powers by God and that he could not be killed.  The young girls he brought to his camp he gave to his troops as wives with the plan that they would give birth to as many children as possible  in order to populate his new Uganda.

It has never been conclusively determined from whom Kony received the money he used to purchase the knives, guns, bullets, and an assortment of tactical gear he used to wage his civil war. It was widely known that Kony and his men operated as terrorists. He stopped and pillaged cars and trucks on the main roads into Gulu, extorted money from wealthy individuals, sold drugs, and fenced items such as precious gems and pieces of jewelry but  these actions alone did not account for the many expensive purchases he made at the beginning of the war. During the middle of the war Kony even had expensive new uniforms made for himself and his officers. Many of my sources still believe that the funds he needed to sustain the war came from the Khartoum Government in the Sudan. Others think that it was Muammar Gaddafi of Libya who supplied Kony with funds in order to disrupt the newly-formed government under Museveni. More still go on to blame the People’s Republic of China for channeling the money through the Sudanese government in order to support Kony’s endeavors to form a separate government in Northern Uganda that would eventually align itself with the government in Khartoum. China and the Sudan established diplomatic relations around the year 1959 and have gone on to become very close trade partners. Whatever the reason, as the war progressed it was evident that whoever had financed Kony’s war endeavors had stopped. Somehow and for some reason he had lost his major backer and by the end of the war Kony, his men, and his camp followers were scraping by on what they could find in the bush or steal from the villages around them. 

The Civil War in Northern Uganda raged on from 1987 until 2006- almost 20 long years. The last attack Kony made on a Ugandan Village occurred in 2006. Shortly after that Kony was forced by the Ugandan’s People Defense Force (UPDF) to leave Northern Uganda for good and has remained on the move between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo ( DAR) ever since. He is also known to travel through the Central African Republic (CAR) and it was most recently reported that he had camped out in this country during  most of 2011

My next post will explain the second part of Kony’s movements and the attempts to catch him up to the present day. 

Kat Nickerson      Kingston, RI, USA

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