•Troops went into the lands abandoned by the people who were huddled in the IDP camps, cleared away spiritually important trees, emotional landmarks, and altered the landscape. When the people begun returning to their lands after Kony was beaten and driven into South Sudan, they found no “history” or links to the past. The camps, not the army, were what broke Acholi. Kony too had interest in the IDP camps. There was more regular supply of dry food, and medicine. The rebels infiltrated the IDP camps, and established networks that smuggled food and medicines to the LRA. Corrupt soldiers and aid workers were on the take, and turned a blind eye. Thus while the IDP camps were important for Kampala’s subjugation of the north, they were equally critical to the LRA’s survival in its last years in Uganda. The unpleasant truth is Museveni needed Kony, as much as Kony needed Museveni•
THIS IS the fourth part of NAKED CHIEFS’ story of the brutal war waged by Uganda rebel leader Joseph Kony, and how few evil men could be as lucky – and been aided by the cynicism of his enemies. This is hoping something in here will provide context for debating “KONY 2012”, the video by the US group Invisible Children, that has become the most successful viral video of all time:
Unlike the priestess-witchdoctor-warrior Lakwena, Kony was highly predatory on the (Acholi) society he sought to save.
To resolve this contradiction of the bitch eating its puppies, Kony argued that Acholi society had become “impure”. Its failures, including by extension defeat by a southern-dominated army, were evidence of that. So the brutalities he meted out, were part of purification and a deserved punishment.
In military terms, though, the terror served a strategic purpose. It gave the Lord’s Resistance greater efficiency. It enabled it to hold large populations in northeastern, northern, and West Nile regions of Uganda in fear of joining the government campaign against it, or informing on it, because the reprisal would be unthinkable—you could be cooked alive. The chopping of lips, hands, and legs – the latter being punishment for being caught riding a bicycle on the wrong day – all had the same purpose. They spread terror as a control mechanism. There was cynical method to Kony’s madness.
Very soon though, Kony was swept up by factors that were not of his making. First, Uganda’s support for John Garang’s South Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) was to change drastically. Museveni and Garang were part of the University of Dar es Salaam club of radicals and supported the same internationalist causes. And they were friends.
When Museveni took power, there were nearly 200,000 Ugandans from Amin’s West Nile region living as refugees in Sudan. There were some senior elements from West Nile in the NRA and NRM, most notably Dr Ronald Bata. Museveni wanted to have West Nile as a friendly flank in the north, because with northern regions of Acholi and bits of Lango in rebellion, he didn’t want them to confluence in South Sudan as a destabilising force.
So the NRM government went into discussions with the UNHRC to repatriate the refugees. The UN did a dance about mobilising resources, counting the refugees, and mapping a safe return route, all of which would take months, if not years.
In Museveni’s view, that was ridiculous. According to his own account, he asked; “How did our people end up as refugees in Sudan, did they go on lorries?”
No, he was told, they walked there. And so Museveni called his old friend Garang. The Ugandan refugees wanted to return home, but were complacent and had been corrupted into waiting for a goodies-filled return home by the UN, so he wanted the SPLA to “encourage” them to return sooner.
The SPLA did as it only could in those days. It attacked a few Ugandan refugee camps and killed a dozen or so people — and promised to return. There are few people who had encounters with the SPLA those days, and looked forward to a second one. The Ugandans all upped and scampered back to West Nile. It is a slight overstatement, but the story goes that when the UN woke up one morning, it was idle. The massive transport operation to return the refugees was never to happen.
Museveni got sucked deeper in the South Sudan conflict, becoming the main military backer of the SPLA, stepping in to halt Khartoum’s counter-attacks whenever the Sudanese rebels seemed on the back foot. One illustration from this is that when the Rwanda Patriotic Army attacked in October 1990 to begin their return-to-the-homeland war, several of its senior members missed out on the action because they were with the Uganda army (the NRA then) deep in Juba.
Museveni, though, was not the first Uganda leader to support South Sudan insurgents. All Ugandan presidents, from Obote in the 1960s and Amin in the 1970s did so, as part of their Luo/Sudanic obligation to their cousins. However, to preserve harmony at their common cultural border, the support was mostly moral and social (education etc.) plus a few hand guns to discourage whimsical attacks by the north—not to fight a war.
In fact, while Amin overthrew Obote and was very close, as the first Muslim president of Uganda, to Sudan’s dictator Jaafar Numeiry (he ruled from 1969 to 1985), the largest single camp for pro-Obote fighters was not in Tanzania but South Sudan, at a place called Owiny Kibul.
Because he was not from the south, and not emotionally entangled in the Luo-Sudanic tango, Museveni upset the delicate balance by giving teeth to the SPLA. In revenge for Uganda’s backing for SPLA, Khartoum reached out and adopted Kony.
The LRA, a group that had elected to use terror methods, now found only encouragement to stay on that bloody course from a Khartoum eager to disrupt Museveni and show that the northern part of his country was ungovernable. Kony just happened to come along at the right time.
Museveni was not one to change course either. Apart from the fear that they faced an existential threat, the Acholi are a famously proud people. The key to defeating them, lay in taking away their pride. In one meeting on the Kony war, a source that was present tells me that someone remarked to President Museveni that the Acholi people would persist in the rebellion because they felt they were humiliated and were a very proud people.
Museveni retorted; “Proud people? What is it in their history they have to be proud about? Show me their ruins.”
Removal from their land to the IDP camps disoriented the people in the north. But what finally did it were the conditions in the camps. Once fairly well to do farmers, cattle owners, business people, school teachers, were reduced to begging for hand-outs; sharing the same huts with their children (and having sex stealthily); and watching the camps degenerate into drunken fights and waste. You would speak to some of the elders, and they would just break down in a torrent of tears.
There have been allegations that Uganda troops went into the lands abandoned by the people who were huddled in the IDP camps, cleared away spiritually important trees, emotional landmarks, and altered the landscape. That hen the people begun returning to their lands after Kony was beaten and driven into South Sudan, and later DR Congo, they found no “history” or links to the past. The camps, not the army, were what finally broke Acholi.
Kony too had an interest in the camps, but for entirely different reasons than Kampala. In the camps, there was more regular supply of dry food, and medicines, supplied by the UN, the Red Cross, and other aid agencies. To this day, northern Uganda still has more signposts pointing to some activity or the other by an aid group, than in any other place in East Africa.
The rebels infiltrated the IDP camps, and established networks that smuggled food and medicines to the LRA. Corrupt soldiers and aid workers were on the take, and turned a blind eye. Thus while the IDP camps were important for Kampala subjugation of the north, they were equally critical to the LRA’s survival in its last years in Uganda. The unpleasant truth is Museveni needed Kony, as much as Kony needed Museveni.
There was more. Because the mere mention of Kony taking over and chopping off millions of ears and lips was enough to galvanise the rest of the country around the Museveni regime, giving rise to suspicion that it did not do enough to end the war because the benefit was high. Kony was the glue that held together southern and eastern Uganda solidly united behind Museveni.
Then, when Khartoum intensified attacks on the SPLA, the SPLA also begun to play Kony against the Uganda government. LRA fighters eventually became less afraid of the NRA (later renamed Uganda People’s Defence Forces, or UPDF). The joke in Gulu was the LRA considered a fight against the UPDF to be a picnic. The force that they were terrified of was SPLA.
However, SPLA/M did not want to destroy the LRA, a kindred Luo force, because they shared a long history, in service to a southern Uganda leader. What they did for Museveni was contain Kony – enough to keep the Uganda president engaged in their side against Khartoum. To this day, that policy toward the LRA has not changed, and is one of the reasons that explains why Kony’s force still survives.
Today, years later, with South Sudan an independent state, the SPLM turns a blind and allows a ramp of the LRA to live in the south of the country, because it could come in handy in the years to come. Right now there is a simmering border dispute between South Sudan and Uganda, and recently the former arrested Ugandan MPs for “trespassing” on land that, until now, was considered Uganda’s.
A few years ago there were rumblings, that have now quieted down a little, about northern Uganda seceding to join South Sudan in a greater (Luo/Sudanic) Ledu Republic, because they were “unwanted by the southern regime in Kampala”. In the years to come, if the border dispute grew and secessionist sentiment returned to the region, the LRA could play a useful role in the fight over the issue.
Other factors that favour the LRA, at least according to Uganda government security officials, is that Khartoum still patronises it, using it as a mercenary force whenever it needs to cause mayhem in the south. While Kony and several of his top leaders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, neither South Sudan, Uganda, or any other government in the region is now keen to hand him over.
This is the environment in which KONY 2012 broke on the scene, and why for the powerful people in the Great Lakes region, the biggest sin Invisible Children committed in producing the video is the fact that it produced it all.
•TO THAT, the last and final part tomorrow, March 17.
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