Ugandan militia leader joseph kony: not a needle in a haystack

Units from the U.S. and Africa are searching for militia leader Kony. They know: He is in Sudan. But because they can’t go there, they are hunting elsewhere.

He’s not only making himself sweat: Joseph Kony, here in 2006 in South Sudan. Picture: dpa

They creep through the undergrowth in small groups, zigzagging back and forth in a vast, densely forested and almost uninhabited area between Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The search for Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel movement remains an outsized cat-and-mouse game six years after internationally wanted LRA leader Joseph Kony abandoned his headquarters in Congo’s Garamba National Park in the face of Ugandan airstrikes. An app for smartphones even allows users to follow the Kony hunt online – like a video game, only for real.

Currently, some 200 U.S. soldiers with all sorts of high-tech equipment and special aircraft are stationed in the region to find Kony. The African Union (AU) established a Regional Response Force two years ago with a mandate to search for Kony across national borders. The plan was for 5,000 troops from the armies of Uganda, South Sudan, Central Africa and Congo. But the armies of Central Africa and South Sudan are embroiled in their own civil wars, and Uganda and Congo also temporarily withdrew their troops for more urgent missions.

The absurdity: People know where Kony is. U.S. commander Colonel Kevin Lehay declared in Uganda in February that they knew where Kony was. The UN published evidence and satellite images: Kafia Kingi in the tri-border area between Sudan, South Sudan and the Central African Republic is said to serve as Kony’s hideout. A desert-like spot as big as Puerto Rico – but inaccessible to the Kony hunters.

That’s because Kafia Kingi is in Sudan. Sudan is not part of the AU regional force. There is an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for both Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir and LRA leader Kony. Because of this, the U.S. is not cooperating with Sudan. The AU, in turn, is siding with Bashir in the dispute with the Criminal Court and is demanding that the arrest warrant be lifted. Some can’t pick up Kony, others won’t.

Activists document LRA crimes

So U.S. and African troops prefer to hunt the LRA elsewhere – where they suspect small subgroups operating almost autonomously from Kony. The LRA was once considered one of the most brutal militias on the continent. It once kidnapped thousands of children and women in northern Uganda, trained them as fighters, and cut off the lips of some of them so that they would not betray any secrets.

African Union (AU) heads of state and government will gather June 26-27 for their 23rd summit. Summit of States meeting. The official theme is agriculture. In reality, it will be about current conflicts.

Also cooperation against radical Islamists will be discussed. Because next up is a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington on August 5 and 6, which this topic is likely to dominate.

The host country is Equatorial Guinea. The small central African state has risen to become a major oil producer in the last ten years and is considered one of the most authoritarian on the continent.

One of the star guests will be Egypt’s new President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is scheduled to deliver a speech after the AU lifts the suspension of Egypt’s membership. (dj)

It has not been active in Uganda since 2006; it fled to South Sudan, then Congo, then toward Central Africa. The U.S. activist group Resolve meticulously documents every LRA incursion on its website. Since 2008, it says, the LRA has killed 2,332 people and kidnapped about 5,000, of whom 2,400 have been released. But while there were 1,400 abductions and 272 killings in 2010, the number was reduced to 467 abductions and 76 deaths last year. Only two deaths were recorded last month.

U.S. Col. Lehay is counting on exploiting the LRA’s weaknesses in his Operation Moon Soon. Contact between combat units and Kony is rare, he says. The fighters, now estimated at only about 150, raid villages for food. If they do not receive orders for a long time, they usually surrender voluntarily.

The tactic, according to Lehay, is therefore to herd the fighters like fair game so that they have no contact with the leadership. At least there have been successes: In April, AU troops in Central Africa captured LRA leader Charles Okello. In February, LRA deserters reported that Kony’s deputy, Okot Odhiambo, was dead. Another top leader, Dominic Ongwen, had defected, they said.

But close ties between Kony and Bashir are almost as old as the LRA itself. Sudan is a perfect hiding place for the 53-year-old Ugandan to spend his twilight years.

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