“The LRA had punctured a hole in her upper and lower lips, then run a padlock through it—and walked away with the key. When they found the woman, she was emaciated, and had a rotting wound stuck around the padlock”
THIS IS THE STORY OF KONY, OR RATHER KONY 2012, that sensational and controversial video by the US charity Invisible Children campaigning for the arrest of Ugandan war criminal and warlord Joseph Kony, that has gone off the social media charts. I covered some of the worst phases of the Kony war, so let us go back 26 years ago, which is where this story must begin:
When some years ago I was editing The Monitor, the leading independent daily in Uganda, we got in so much trouble with President Yoweri Museveni’s government, it seemed it was the only thing we did. When Museveni was in a foul mood, he would refer to The Monitor as “Uganda’s Enemy Number One”. When he was more cheerful, he would call the MD Wafula Oguttu (now MP) or myself for a more amiable chat.
These exchanges were many, and one day we shall write about them. These on-off-on bittersweet confrontations continue – even with me away in Nairobi. So in November 2002, then Kenya president Daniel arap Moi, who was stepping down from office ahead of the December election that brought President Mwai Kibaki to power was doing his farewell rounds in East Africa.
On November 28, he was in Kampala meeting President Museveni when there was a terrorist attack on the Kikambala Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, a favourite of Israeli tourists that killed 15 people. There was also a missile attack on an Israeli charter plane carrying tourists on the same day nearby. Moi cut short his trip to Kampala and rushed back to Kenya.
Just over two months later in January I transferred to Nairobi to work for Nation Media Group, that had bought a controlling interest in The Monitor. If Moi had not left power, or if his party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) had not lost power, perhaps I would never have got my work permit. To get a work permit, the security chaps do a security clearance. Not surprisingly, when Kenyan security checked with Kampala, they got back one of the largest filings they had ever received from Uganda.
The Kenya immigration officers had been reading my column in The East African and, as it turned out, following my never-ending battles with the Museveni regime from both Daily Nation and The Monitor, that used to sell well in Nairobi (before the Internet ruined the party). When I went to fill in the paperwork for my work permit and get fingerprinted, a few immigration officers came to stare at me. Two of them later told me they could not reconcile Onyango-Obbo the journalist with what the personthey read about in the security files, so they wanted to see that I did not have some strange horns growing on my head and Spock ears. The Ugandan security files had apparently painted a very scary picture. Eventually we had a good laugh, and I got my work permit. To date some of my best friends in Nairobi work at the Immigration Department. They have even banned me from queuing whenever I go to renew my work permit.
In Kenya I eventually got to meet several people who were close to Moi, including some who were with him on his November 2002 farewell trip to Uganda. They told me that in a meeting before Museveni and Moi, before the Kenya leader had to rush back to Kenya, Museveni told him that things had been fine in Uganda the previous 16 years except for three horrible people.
One, was Dr Kizza Besigye (and his wife Winnie Byanyima). Besigye was Museveni’s doctor in the bush during the guerrilla war, and political confidant in his first few years in power. The two famously fell out after Besigye wrote a long critique in which he lambasted “undemocratic tendencies in the National Resistance Movement”. In 2001 Besigye ran against Museveni for the presidency, offering the Big Man his first real electoral challenge. That election was the turning point for Museveni’s rule, because it forced him to show a side of him Ugandans, especially in the south and west, had not seen. His campaign shamefully stole the election, and unleashed a level of violence that no one in these regions of Uganda had expected he ever would. The mystique started to unravel.
His second biggest headache, Museveni reportedly told Moi, was “Onyango-Obbo of this subversive paper The Monitor”.
Third, was Joseph Kony, the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
To be fair to Museveni, I have never sought to find out if he actually said these things (or included me in his ogre list). However, on more than 10 occasions he had publicly criticised The Monitor for allegedly giving comfort to Kony because we were the first to push for a deeply unpopular position; talks between the Uganda government and the LRA. Not just Museveni, but quite a few people, including many who were well disposed to The Monitor, thought we had lost our marbles.
Museveni had this view that a distinction always needed to made between “misleaders” and “the misled”. That the misleaders needed to be punished, but the misled deserved forgiveness. We took him up on that. We said Kony should be punished. But to save lives, and to stop the killing of child soldiers who had been abducted and forcefully recruited into the LRA, talks were necessary.
In 2006, The Monitor was vindicated. The Uganda government and the LRA started talks that ended in 2008 in failure. But an important victory was won. Thousands of abducted boys and girls returned home for a chance at normal life and a childhood that had been brutally ripped away from them. These children are partly represented by Jacob, the boy portrayed in the 30-minute document “Kony 2012” by the US charity Invisible Children that was posted on YouTube on March 5 and almost immediately went viral. As of writing this article, it had been viewed over 100 million times…and growing.
The documentary is the mainstay of and Internet campaign to bring the war criminal Kony to justice. And, my, it has attracted some very virulent criticisms too. It had to. Kony and LRA always do. I should know. You see Uganda is a country where because of its history; enmities and hatreds are not set in stone. They are always porous. If they weren’t, we would all have been killed in the nearly 30 years of war and conflict the country endured. Thus despite my troubles with the Museveni government, not only did he, as earlier indicated occasionally reach out, but some of my closest friends were and remain in his political and security system. They would come to arrest us, yes, but they would grant us the small concession of not leading us away in handcuffs.
The Monitor’s and my views on Kony and the LRA were a constant point of friction between us. One day a friend returned from the north where he had been commanding operations against the LRA. He called and came to the office for coffee. He was worked up and agitated. That was unusual for him. He had dropped out of university to go and join the Museveni war, and had fought in all the wars at home, in Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo against Mobutu Sese Seko in 1996/97. His body is covered in dozens of scars from bullet wounds. He had seen it all, and it was hard to rattle him. But something had.
He told me the story. He led soldiers to a village to rescue victims of the LRA. Kony had decided to punish the village for allegedly reporting on his troop’s movements to the government. The particular case that had done it for my friend was that of a young woman. The LRA had punctured a hole in her upper and lower lips, then run a padlock through it—and walked away with the key. When they found the woman, she was emaciated, and had a rotting wound stuck around the padlock.
“Tell me Charles, how can we negotiate with animals who do that?” For several minutes, I was dumb struck, and couldn’t answer. In that sense, then, the Museveni government truly clamped its nose in 2006 when it sat down to talk with the LRA. Yet, that is not all. The war against the LRA would have ended much earlier, but the Museveni regime, as I report in “ Part 2” needed to milk it for other internal political reasons.
•Part 2 0f 5 Tomorrow, March 14.
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