Invisible Children’s StopKony video that has recently created a sudden storm on the web shows what might be done have been done at any time in the last 20 years. Unfortunately the video is inaccurate and wildly out of date. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army was formed in the late 1980s and was finally out of Uganda in 2006. It is now somewhere in the Central African Republic. There have been no major attacks for a while but occasional killings and abductions by its splinter groups continue in CAR and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kony is thought to be in the Zemongo National Park in the CAR.
The big question is why Uganda’s army, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), wasn’t able to catch him in 25 years. The UPDF was itself a very successful guerrilla army and is now professionally trained. It knows bush warfare well. It has helicopters, spotter planes and bombers – Wikileaks also revealed that the US provides it with satellite intelligence and other real time information. Ill–informed or incompetent the UPDF is not.
I went to Gulu, the regional capital, several times during the war and made a short film for Channel4 News about it. I have to say it was more accurate and informative than the simplistic comic strip version of events on the YouTube film. The man responsible for finding and defeating Kony was Brigadier Charles Otema Awany of the Uganda army. A large jovial man, always in military uniform, he inhabited the garden bar of the Acholi Inn in Gulu. He owns it and for a long time the hotel was the only decent one in town. Otema also acquired the land on which the university was built and owns several other pieces of valuable real estate in the area. As an Acholi working for the government – I will come back to that – he has done very well out of the war. The garden was also the haunt of spooks, mercenaries and others of dubious intent – as well as diplomats, journalists and aid workers.
On most days at 4 p.m. President Museveni would call him on his mobile for an update. The conversations were often overheard. Several people who were based long term in Gulu (and who I trust) say that Otema frequently gave Museveni false information. These sources spoke off the record so I cannot quote them but two said that Otema regularly failed to pass on important information to the President or delayed carry out orders from the President to the UPDF commanders. When there was an opportunity of closing in on Kony, Otema failed to act.
Was he incompetent? Or was it in Otema’s interest to let the war continue? He was making too much money. Or could it be that Museveni himself did not want Kony captured or the war to end either. Going back to his own bush war of 1981-86, he picked good intelligence officers and has a shrewd sharp political and military brain. (Paul Kagame, now President of Rwanda, was his head of intelligence for most of that period.) There is no suspicion that Museveni himself was making money out of the war, so what could be his motive for apparently relying on Otema to direct the tactics?
There are two possibilities. One is that Museveni needed to keep his army out of the capital and occupied. Uganda has a history of military coups. What better way to keep the soldiers busy than a small containable war in the north? For 20 years he soothed aid donors’ worries about the war by telling them he was about to win it. On the same principle, Museveni also sent Ugandan troops to serve in Mogadishu in the African Union Mission in Somalia, Amison. The LRA was so nasty there was no question of peace talks. So he could keep his army busy and put Western countries in debt to him. That is a crucial card to play when donors talk to him about aid or human rights abuses in Uganda.
The other theory is that Museveni wanted revenge on the Acholi people. The imperial British had decided that the Acholis were warriors and recruited them into Uganda’s army. The tradition continued after independence, and despite purges of Acholis by Idi Amin, they formed the core of the army under the second Presidency of Milton Obote in the early 1980s. Acholi officers overthrew him in 1985 and General Tito Okello took power. Britain accepted the new government and continued to train the Uganda army. But Museveni’s guerrilla war intensified and in August 1986 he took the capital, Kampala.
I and other journalists spent time with Museveni’s fighters in the bush and all were struck by their political and military skill. They really were liberators compared to the murderous Uganda army. As this British-trained remnant of the Uganda army fled north they murdered, raped and stole in every village they passed through. Following their tail Museveni’s child soldiers were disciplined, highly motivated and idealistic.
That was the case until they crossed over the Nile. The river divides the Bantu-speaking southerners from the Luo-speaking northerners. That is where I left them. No other journalists followed them across the Nile at first, but before long there were reports of atrocities by Museveni’s troops committed against Acholis. Depressingly it seemed that Museveni’s liberating guerrillas could only liberate their own people. Once they crossed the Nile they were seen as, and perhaps behaved as, a tribal militia.
One final thought. The LRA is known for its extraordinary rituals – spiritual rites and forcing children to murder their parents to ensure their total loyalty to the movement. It ensures they can never go home or be accepted back into society. But it is also an exceedingly effective fighting force. Of course it is. All that British training. A former British army officer who studied the LRA closely said their tactics and organisation were straight out of the British army training manual. That could also explain their survival.
Obasanjo on a one man peace mission to Boko Haram
In an extraordinary revalation at yesterday’s Times Africa Summit in London, former president Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria described how he had conducted his own fact finding mission and met Boko Haram’s leaders.
He said he had not paid “too much attention when they hit the police headquarters in Abuja. The police have been responsible for all sorts of atrocities in Nigeria. But when they hit the UN building I was extremely concerned… Who are these riff raffs killing themselves?”
So he went to Maiduguri, the town in the north east of Nigeria where Boko Haram started, on a fact finding mission and contacted them through their lawyer. He said their demand was for the implementation of Sharia in the north. He pointed out to them that this was already in the constitution. They complained that people, including their leader Mohamed Yusuf, had been murdered by the police in cold blood. No compensation had been paid so they took the law into their own hands.
Obasanjo questioned whether they were indigenous Nigerians or a foreign outfit and concluded that maybe 20 – 30 percent were foreigners and that it was likely that some of the bills were paid outside Nigeria. He thought that in essence the movement was an indigenous Nigerian one and could be settled within the context of Nigerian politics.
“I told them to hold their fire for 21 days. They did. But nothing happened. No compensation had been paid at the end of it.”
There was a hint from Obasanjo that President Goodluck Jonathan had failed to follow up on his one man mission. He said he saw Boko Haram as a local problem. Many of its leaders, he said, send their children to western schools. “It is just a reaction to how it sees the present situation” he said, “ a splinter group”, some people “who have taken it a bit far”. “Solving the problem is not a lost cause”.