Sept 25, 2005 (KAMPALA) — Somewhere in the rolling grasslands of southern Sudan, could time finally be running out for one of Africa’s most sinister guerrilla leaders?
- Ugandan army soldiers display weapons captured from the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Kipwayi hills, some 50 miles inside Sudan near the border with Uganda on April 7, 2005. (AFP)
Joseph Kony has led Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels for almost two decades through a mixture of terror and mysticism, using shrewd tactics to evade capture.
However, with an international war crimes investigation poised to issue arrest warrants, and his deputy having fled to Congo according to the Ugandan army, the elusive guerrilla chief is under more pressure than ever.
Many Ugandans wonder how he has lasted so long.
Nineteen years of war have devastated the north and uprooted more than 1.6 million people, causing one of the world’s worst and most neglected humanitarian crises.
More than 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the rebels and forced to become fighters, porters and sex slaves.
Thousands more trudge into the north’s small towns every night rather than risk abduction by sleeping in their homes.
Kony appears to be the perfect target for the first war crimes trial by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, if he can be captured.
After a year-long investigation, indictments for Kony and five of his top commanders have been passed to the court’s pre-trial chamber for approval, and diplomats say they expect arrest warrants to be issued soon.
That would mark Kony as one of the world’s most wanted men.
"Indictments would effectively end any chance he has to negotiate now, or move," said one Western diplomat. "No one wants to host an individual sought by the ICC."
Little is known about the political motives of the 44-year-old self-proclaimed prophet, who once served as an altar boy in his poor village in Uganda’s Gulu district.
A rare photo of him shows a tall man with long, braided hair wearing a "Born to be Wild" T-shirt. The only short video clip shows him in uniform carrying an automatic rifle, and ordering huts to be burnt in a Ugandan village.
Rescued children say Kony is a captivating speaker, prone to angry outbursts. He says he is possessed by the Holy Spirit.
Captives are indoctrinated with his blend of Christian, Muslim and traditional rites, and almost all are forced to kill, binding them to the group through guilt and fear.
From hideouts in southern Sudan’s wild Imatong Mountains, he sends these child soldiers back into Uganda to kill civilians, mutilate survivors and abduct more children.
For the first time in more than a year, Ugandan Defence Minister Amama Mbabazi said this week he knew where Kony was.
Under a 2002 deal with Khartoum, Uganda’s army is allowed to hunt the LRA about 100 km (60 miles) into Sudan.
In July 2004, it said it had killed at least 120 people there when helicopter gunships destroyed his alleged headquarters in Biriniang.
Mbabazi said Kony was now camping in the bush outside Liria, a government-controlled garrison town southeast of Juba.
"He has become the responsibility of the government of Sudan," Mbabazi said.
However, senior Ugandan army officers remain sceptical about Khartoum’s commitment to bring Kony to justice, saying an ICC trial would reveal years of Sudanese support for the LRA.
Sudan says it opposes the rebels’ presence in the south, and on Saturday the semi-official Sudanese Media Centre said the government had asked Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to negotiate with the LRA.
Museveni is unlikely to feel under much pressure to talk to Kony, who looks to be at his most vulnerable for years.
Amid mounting Ugandan military pressure and the impending ICC action, Kony’s deputy Vincent Otti fled west to the Democratic Republic of Congo last week and sought asylum, according to the Ugandan army.
However, as in last year’s raid on Biriniang, when the military said he fled the battlefield leaving four wives, 13 children and his radio behind, Kony has survived tough times before.
Perhaps best placed to catch him are the former rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), who now control most of the south following a January peace deal with Khartoum.
They want to crush the LRA but have been rocked by the death of their leader John Garang in a helicopter crash on July 30. They accuse elements in the Sudanese military of still supplying and protecting Kony.
In a report published this week, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch quoted an SPLA commander saying four deliveries had been made to the LRA this year at two locations south of Juba.
Analysts say delays setting up a new southern Sudanese army after the landmark peace agreement have led to confusion on the ground and let Kony slip away on several occasions.