Global Policy Forum

The Making of LRA's Joseph Kony: the Enigmatic Rebel Leader


By Frank Nyakaru

Sunday Monitor
January 6, 2008

The Juba Peace process is now into its second year with no end in sight. Uncertainty looms on the way forward after reports that the LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony had killed his second-in-command Vincent Otti, who was playing a key role in nudging the process forward. Below FRANK NYAKAIRU traces the story of Mr Kony and the search for peace.

From the corner where his wooden bench had rested 28 years ago, vivid memories of a jocular classmate come back afresh. He liked him for one thing: his exceptional skills in dancing the Acholi traditional dance, Larakaraka, despite having an irritating wound near his left ankle that never seemed to respond to treatment. But what Otto Ber Mario, 46, has never come to terms with is how a humble, polite and sometimes jocular fellow called Joseph Kony turned out to be one of the most wanted criminals in the world. "He would be drawing pictures as others made noise in class, he joked and many pupils liked him because of his dancing skills," said Otto, Kony's classmate.

Mr Otto is now a qualified plumber. But in the small trading centre of Odek, 70km west of Gulu Town, there is no plumbing work to do. Instead, Otto has been Camp Commandant for Odek Internally Displaced Persons camp that has housed close to 5,000 people displaced by Mr Kony's two decade long insurgency of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). To him, the war, initially seen as an attempt to liberate the Acholi people from suspected state-inspired marginalisation, has been nothing but a puzzle. The people wonder how a boy they widely knew as humble and polite could turn out this way.

Humble origins

Mr Kony was born in April 1963 in a strong Catholic family at a place located 300 metres from Odek. He was the second youngest of six children of village teacher and catechist Luigi Abol (RIP). His Mother Nora Oting, 81, was a house wife. "Mr Abol and his wife and family lived in a small settlement of three huts," said Labeja Genario a family friend and neighbour. At the time Uganda had just attained independence from the British colonialists. Many of the young and energetic Acholi men in the northern region had been recruited into the King's African Riffles (KAR). The KAR was a multi-battalion British colonial regiment in East Africa that was active between 1902 and 1962. In their little settlement surrounded by a thicket of bushes with only a mango tree standing between two long eucalyptus trees, Kony was growing into a boy. "He was quiet but liked joking very much and playing football," said Otto, who said he was also Kony's childhood friend. "I sat in the extreme right row of this class with Kony, say; on my left, he was neither the most intelligent pupil in class nor was he the noisiest," said Mr Otto. But Kony was prominent for one thing; he beat everyone at Larakaraka. "He was always encouraged by cheers and he would dance in the class circle longer and better than any one," he said.

Odek Primary School located on a gentle slope today lies in partial ruin. The block where Mr Otto and Mr Kony attended primary four in 1977, is now roofless and windowless with bullet riddled blackboards and walls. Near that classroom is a Catholic church where the latter had occasionally served as an altar boy while his father was the catechist. But in contrast to this apparent close family links to the church, Mr Kony's older brother, Okello Ginoni (RIP), chose a completely different spiritual life. About eight kilometres from Odek, he operated a shrine in Awer hills. "He was a village witch doctor and everyone knew him as the only person who was not religious in that family," Mr Otto recounts. Shortly, after Mr Kony and Mr Otto sat their Primary Living Examinations in 1981, "that was the last time I saw Joseph, I have only seen him in pictures," the gentleman told Sunday Monitor. But word had for a while been spreading in the village that Mr Kony had joined Ginoni and was assisting him in the shrine business. This may cast some light on the rebel leader's later close association with the mysticism and the occult that has characterised the LRA to-date.

Acholi cause

In 1985, Mr Kony had turned 21 years and Uganda was being led by an Acholi President, Tito Okello Lutwa (RIP). But Okello's government was besieged by rebels of the National Resistance Army (NRA). The rebel outfit mainly dominated by troops from western and southern Uganda was led by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. As Museveni's rebels advanced on Kampala, the already polarised national politics took on a decidedly tribal colour with the northern dominated Okello junta giving their people the impression that the rest of the country wanted to wrest power "from them." When Mr Museveni finally captured power in January 1986, the remnants of the government forces of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) withdrew northwards and in fact crossed into south Sudan. They later regrouped under what was called the Uganda People's Democratic Army (UPDA). Mr Kony joined the UPDA as a 'spiritual mobiliser' in one Maj. Benjamin Apia's 'Black battalion' at Awach in Gulu. But the abrupt departure of the UNLA from Kampala had left it in disarray, and the withdrawal was chaotic. The UPDA resistance in itself, therefore, did not last long and a peace settlement was reached with government in 1988.

Elusive peace

But lasting peace was still to elude northern Uganda because shortly after the UPDA rapprochement, Mr Kony's cousin called Alice Auma Lakwena (RIP) formed the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) and launched an anti-government campaign. Ms Lakwena, then a young Acholi woman, claimed to be possessed by a spirit known as 'Lakwena' (messenger). She led a rebellion that momentarily threatened President Museveni's grip on the whole country as young , desperate peasants and former soldiers joined in droves across the north - apparently attracted by the claims that she was possessed with supernatural powers and magic portions that would protect them in battle.

Lakwena claimed her campaign was to "cleanse Ugandan society and purge the government of evil." Having fought all the way to Busoga in eastern Uganda, Lakwena's advance was, however, finally ended in a humiliating defeat. She fled to exile in northern Kenya where she died in January 2007. It is instructive to note that even while the UPDA reached a peace deal with the government, Mr Kony had began to operate independently with a small group of followers. So when the HSMF was beaten, remnants who found life harsh under the government's army's perceived harassing approach to pacification soon found Mr Kony's group a good proposition. For some time, Mr Kony operated in the shadows under the group name of United Holy Salvation Army (UHSA) but later changed this to Uganda Christian Democratic Movement/Army, which subsequently became the Lord's Resistance Movement/Army in 1993 - an organisation that was to become synonymous with terror and unprecedented bloodletting.


Slowly by slowly, Mr Kony moulded his organisation into a pseudo-religious army with him as leader of the 'High Command'. "God can confirm that I am an embodiment and the personification of the Holy Spirit," he says. Elsewhere he wrote that the LRA was "cleansing his people so that only the pure ones would remain. And those pure ones were the children born in the camps in Sudan: A new and pure Acholi race that would one day become so numerous and powerful that it would overthrow the government of Uganda and rule the country according to the Ten Commandments."

For over 20 years, the LRA leader remained a mysterious quantity considering that he never ever gave any interviews or deigned to appear in public. It was only in May 2004 that he gave his first interview to a Southern Sudanese magazine, The Referendum. He was quoted then saying that: "God made me to dream for the application of Ten Commandments, I started to fight for his cause. When the dream came to me, I went to the forests of Talanga on the borderline between Sudan and Uganda and conducted several prayers. "I started the movement, it was in 1992, and dreams of the spirit came to me one night and asked me to launch a Lord's Resistance Movement. I spent 60 days praying and appealing to God to strengthen my faith so that I liberate the people of Uganda from corruption, sins and immoral thinking. I want the rule of the government to be based on the Ten Commandments prescribed by God." He says when he started recruiting; he was chased out of Uganda. "We ran to the top of the mountains in South Sudan. There, Sudanese lords led by Lord Nyuon helped us. We sent our fighters to Gong, Ludu and Palata for military training, and also I was involved in faith orientation in all training."

LRA army

The LRA was subsequently organised into a regular infantry army formation with five brigades: Control Altar (Kony's protection unit), Stockree, Sinia, Gilva and Shila. It is claimed that operational orders are issued directly by the 'Spirit' to 'Laor' (Holy Messenger) who is Joseph Kony a.k.a 'the Prophet', he then passes whatever orders to the 'Holy Chief' (army commander), who in turn passes the orders to the military high command. Once the order has reached the military high command, it is translated into operational orders, which are passed down to the divisions, brigades, and subordinate units.

All through the many years of conflict in the north, Mr Kony projected contrasting personalities; on the one hand he was a caring and loving leader. But on the other, he came across as a vicious and murderous psychopath whose troops found themselves trapped in the cycle of terror and mysticism with which he surrounded himself. They killed on his orders, fought battles whose outcome he reportedly predicted before hand and went about abducting young boys and girls. Mr Kony is reported to have taken up to 50 of these abductees as his 'wives' Some of these former 'wives' who were released from captivity have since enforced the image of rebel leader as a good husband. "I think Kony is a very good father; he bought me gifts and always apologised when he did wrong," said Cecilia Atuku who was Kony oldest wife for over 13 years. But Evelyn Among who was Kony's wife for seven years is torn between love and hate. "I actually think he is a good husband, he loved me really but when I escaped I found he had killed all my family members," she said. Unverifiable estimates place the number of children fathered by Mr Kony in the bush at one hundred or more.

There is one other strange thing about Kony: For instance, he named his first born with Cecilia, 'Kony Salim Saleh' after President Museveni's brother, Salim Saleh who commanded early government troop offensives against the LRA. He also named his one-year-old son, George Bush after the US president who declared the LRA a terrorist organisation. In that manner he has remained unpredictable even up to 1993 when the first opportunity for him to end the war through peaceful means presented itself.

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