The recent U.S. legislation and Obama’s White House statement on the notorious Joseph Kony and his so-called Lord’s Resistance Army reflect an intensifying desire on the part of the U.S. government and the U.S.-based humanitarian community to either kill or capture Kony and end the threat of violence posed by him and his small band of armed followers. While Kony appears to no longer to possess the capacity for gruesome violence that he demonstrated five to ten to 15 years ago – kidnappings of many children in northern Uganda and brutal slayings of adults among his own ethnic group that seemed to further no political objective – he remains free and unpunished, despite an indictment from a UN tribunal for crimes against humanity and a failed effort by the Ugandan government, assisted by the U.S., to get Kony. Kony’s ability to both evade international law, and capture, remains unexplained and vaguely suspicious, given the capacity of the U.S. military to track rogue individuals and the professed desire of the Ugandan government to extinguish the Kony threat. No one really knows why Kony remains at large, still capable of doing harm, if not in northern Uganda, then in central Africa. But while getting Kony is desirable, wider forces are at play in the northern Uganda that suggest, even should Kony exit the scene, the contradictions and dysfunctions that contributed to the challenge of eradicating Kony and his forces in the first place, will persist, creating new conditions for instability. These forces include:
1. The grievances of the Acholi (Kony’s ethnic group and the dominant group in northern Uganda) haven’t been addressed by the government of Yoweri Museveni. Acholi grievance is linked to widespread disaffection in Uganda from Museveni, who has governed Uganda for more than 20 years and threatens to run for re-election (or put up his son or wife as candidate in the next presidential election). The political leader of the Acholi is Norbet Mao, an articulate and forceful advocate. Mao claims that fear of reprisals from Kony made him reluctant to condemn Kony; Mao also negotiated at various times terms of surrender with Kony (discussions proved fruitless). Mao views Acholi grievances as central to the problem of northern Uganda. He says Museveni purposely permitted Kony to run wild, terrorizing fellow Acholi as a means of punishing the Acholi for failing to support Museveni during his armed struggle to overthrow his predecessor Milton Obote. Getting Kony won’t end Acholi grievances but actually could expand them. A permanent peace could raise Acholi expectations for a greater share of Ugandan resources, or for more radical options. Mao, for instance, openly talks how the Acholi should consider the peaceful pursuit of secession from Uganda. Any open Acholi secession movement would possibly complicate the already fraught project of allowing the southern Sudanese to vote on independence next year. Since Acholiland borders southern Sudan, any new South Sudan government could easily absorb the sliver of Uganda on its southern border. And since Mao says that, for the Acholi, being part of southern Sudan would be preferable to staying in Uganda, US policymakers rightly worry about the scenario. It will be hard enough to get south Sudan free from Bashir in Khartoum without Museveni suddenly becoming a problem on the question too.
2. Acholi living in Britain and Canada, while never openly supporting Kony, have assisted him and his forces at various times (and may still be doing so). These Diaspora members served on a negotiating committee who discussed various failed deals, over many years, to bring an end to Kony’s violence. Western European donors even paid these Acholi to participate in the talks and in Uganda was widely believed that these British and Canadian Acholi passed on part of the money to Kony. Should Kony be killed or captured, some members of the Acholi Diaspora may assume a public role in advocating for the Acholi of northern Uganda (because Kony is deemed a terrorist by the US government and thus it is a federal crime for U.S. Acholi to assist him, and European Acholi have similar tried to keep a low-profile about their contacts with the LRA earlier in the 2000s). The point here is that isolating Kony hasn’t been the policy of Europeans: who can forget a few years ago with the Dutch national who ran UNHCR actually met Kony in the jungle and shook his hand – even while Kony was under an ICC indictment. Europeans conflate Acholi grievance with Kony’s mayhem. So does Ronald Atkinson, an historian at University of South Carolina who has written extensively on the “roots of Acholi ethnicity” and has extensively documented the Acholi sense of grievance. Atkinson views Kony as a creature (albeit a pathological one) of the repression of the Acholi by Museveni. Atkinson has lent an intellectual patina to the idea that, while Kony’s methods are reprehensible, he has done some good by drawing attention to the abuse of the Acholi under Museveni.
3. Museveni has been accused time again of not wanting to lose Kony because the LRA threat has enabled his government to maintain higher military spending than it might otherwise have. Andrew Mwenda, the leading political journalist in Uganda, reported in detail a few years ago about “ghost soldiers” in northern Uganda: essentially the government pretended to send soldiers into battle against the LRA, with commanders (later fired) who collected their pay. Museveni claimed no knowledge of the scam, but an account in Foreign Policy of the botched Dec 2008 Ugandan attack on Kony’s base – which the US helped to plan and carry out – suggests anew that the main problem in getting Kony may be that his “enemies” don’t want to. Interestingly, Museveni has for some years personally insured the well-being and safety of Kony’s mother, who lives peacefully in Uganda. Museveni needs Kony for two reasons: first, his capture or death could turn him into an Acholi martyr or, worse, pave the way for a more responsible leader like Norbert Mao to lead a peaceful and ethical secessionist movement (Mao maintains close links in Gulu, the capital of Acholiland, with Christian clergy). Second, Kony’s capture or death would rob Museveni of a major national-security justification for high levels of military spending by a country with no other internal threats.
4. The U.S. government relies on Uganda to assist in its Somali strategy and so is reluctant to do anything to alienate Museveni. Hence why the Obama administration never pushed the idea of getting Kony in the first place (and why the Enough people decided instead to force a bill through Congress). Between Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda, the Obama administration has assembled a troika of regional allies to assist in (a) the pacification of Somalia (obviously not going well) and (b) the hunt for home-grown terrorists (and joiners from the US) in East Africa. Museveni seems very invested in (a) not catching Kony and (b) not giving the Acholi more autonomy. Hence, the US treading lightly on the issue.
What’s the bottom line? Competing priorities by the “responsible adults” in this African neighborhood means bringing Kony to justice — rough or ready — remains very difficult. And getting rid of Kony — in whatever manner — may not end tensions in northern Uganda, or eliminate the LRA, which could persist under the leadership of crypto-Kony personalities, spawned by the awful past and sustained by the contradictions of the murky present.