The government of the Central African Republic claims to be in talks with one of the world’s most enigmatic African guerrilla leaders, Joseph Kony. But Kony has entered talks before with no intention of backing down. This latest announcement follows all the same patterns and should be treated with scepticism.
This is the first official set of meetings with Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, since talks in Uganda were aborted in 2008. Those talks were ostensibly unsuccessful because Kony feared that he would be turned over to the International Criminal Court, which has a warrent out for his arrest. Since then, he has fled his homeland of Northern Uganda and has cut a bloody swathe across the Northern Democratic Republic of Congo, eventually settling in an area of dense forest straddling the DRC, Sudan and the CAR.
The current leader of the CAR, Michel Djotodia, himself the leader of a rebel group that seized power earlier this year, says Kony has asked for food supplies and support for his followers around the town of Nzako. The CAR itself is in no position to do anything about the hardened rebels of the LRA. The country has just 200 police officers for its population of around 4.6 million people. It is a relatively lawless country, which makes it a perfect sanctuary for a group that sets itself beyond the conventional rule of law.
The LRA is a semi-mystical group that grew out of the ruins of the Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda, which was led by Alice Lakwena, a reputed witch. Lakwena, who died in Kenya in 2007, was said to be possessed by several spirits, including various dead Italians. Her violent millennial movement came in reaction to the end of Acholi power in Uganda when Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986.
Kony claimed kinship to Lakwena and adopted several mystical devices to manage the LRA. This includes citing the Ten Commandments in its plans, spirit possession and the adoption of different spirits into a very specific cosmology, including both Allah and Jesus.
The emphasis on cosmology has been an integral part of the violence and brainwashing that has been the hallmark of the LRA itself. The group operates a regime of kidnapping of children and is reported to have taken up to 70,000 in its history. These children are then brutalised and become loyal followers.
The most common method of binding the children to the LRA cause is reportedly to wait until one child tries to escape and is captured. Former rebels report that the others are forced to kill the escapee, sometimes in extremely brutal ways, such as by biting them to death. These young children are then told that they cannot go back to their original homes and that the LRA is now their family.
Whilst the LRA itself was chased across the Nile in 2005 and effectively exiled from Uganda in 2008, they have continued to terrorise local communities in the DRC and Sudan and to poach elephants for ivory.
As well as being a somewhat bizarre entity itself, the LRA has also been subject to several unconventional attempts to end its existence. The hunt for Joseph Kony hit the mainstream last year as a result of a campaign by the NGO Invisible Children and the subsequent very public meltdown of its leader. The group used crowdsourcing to support its work and sought to recruit high-profile supporters for its cause.
But before the Kony 2012 campaign, a US millionaire funded a hunt for Kony organised by the former mercenary Eeben Barlow. More recently, African Union troops supported by around 100 US Special Forces have been flying over the jungle in helicopters broadcasting “go home” messages to the LRA rank and file.
Why we should be sceptical
The AU and US military intervention appears to have had a significant effect and Kony has been pushed into Nzako. And it is this success that casts doubt on the future of the latest peace talks.
Kony has form when it comes to using peace talks to buy time to regroup. The timing of these latest talks is very similar to the abortive talks in 2008 when the LRA had again been under military pressure. He is using the same tactics, notably greatly exaggerating the strength of the LRA, in order to increase supplies. Whilst the CAR estimates the strength of the LRA given by Kony as around 2,000, a more realistic estimate is a few hundred.
On top of the pressure from outside forces, the LRA has reportedly been subject to an internal purge by the increasingly unstable Kony. He has a history of executing leadership rivals and an internal purge has reportedly led him to demote several LRA commanders and murder others. This has clearly contributed to the high desertion rate amongst LRA troops as many seek to go home.
Finally, the purported peace offer comes from an approach from one of Kony’s commanders, Otto Ladeere, who commands an LRA satellite group, rather than from Kony himself. It is possible that Ladeere is using Kony’s name to give himself legitimacy, but even if Kony is involved, the history of the LRA and particularly of Kony would emphasise that extreme caution is required whenever he talks about peace.