Kony the unholy father, Achai the son, and Dominic Ongwen

Ugandan fugitive and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group leader Joseph Kony.

What you need to know:

  • The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) had by that point been on the trail of Kony since the LRA was driven out of northern Uganda at the start of the 2000s, following nearly 15 years of a bloody insurgency.

In October 2011, then US President Barack Obama surprised many when he announced that he was sending roughly 100 US troops to central Africa to help hunt down Joseph Kony (or JK in the shorthand of journalists)—leader of the brutal Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) had by that point been on the trail of Kony since the LRA was driven out of northern Uganda at the start of the 2000s, following nearly 15 years of a bloody insurgency.

The LRA had by 2004, when it decamped to South Sudan, abducted more than 20,000 children, and raped thousands of women and girls. Anything between 100,000 and 200,000 Ugandans was killed in the war, and 1.5 million civilians were displaced.

Kony proved as adaptable as he was brutal. Though weakened and his ranks diminished, he moved through the ungoverned areas of South Sudan, DR Congo, and into the Central African Republic (CAR), leaving a trail of destruction, and evading his Ugandan, and eventually, American hunters.

Attacks on his bases in eastern DRC by the UPDF left them to find only old jerrycans, Kony’s faded Kaunda suits, and unharvested vegetables.

Obama’s soldiers grabbed headlines, and it seemed the might and technological smarts of the US, combined with the “toughness” of the UPDF that seemed to impress the Americans, plus a $5 million (Shs18 billion) bounty on the rebel leader’s head, would finally bring Kony down. Despite many reports that he was killed in action, or died through a bout of malaria or some jungle disease, Kony always emerged alive.

In 2017, the US formally called off its hunt for Kony, the Ugandans having left their Central African Republic bases a little earlier. In all, 10 years of this massive effort had still left Kony alive to fight another day.

The biggest win for the anti-Kony campaign came in late 2014, with the capture of “Brigadier General” Dominic Ongwen, himself a former child soldier,  and former commander of one of the LRA brigades.

Handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, Ongwen, nicknamed “White Ant”, was convicted in 2021 of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, torture, and enslavement.

From Bangui, the stories of Kony and the fate of Ongwen, are as tortured as the grim methods of JK himself.

Sources in Bangui claim the Americans and Ugandans didn’t catch Kony because they didn’t try hard enough. The Americans built a camp and set up a gigantic tower near the famed Obo in the mineral-rich western CAR.

 The popular view is that they were scouring the region for uranium, and their main fear had been that the strategic resources in the region would fall into LRA’s hands. Keeping LRA away from the resources, rather than capturing Kony, is said to have been their goal.

The Ugandans, allegedly, pursued “commercial interests” relating to timber, which was tracked through a trade route back to South Sudan, to Tolit and into Uganda.

There is no confirmation that any of this happened, and the surprise would have been if these accusations hadn’t been made.

Either way, they point to a deep cynicism about the seriousness and motive of the Kony hunters.

Kony himself is believed to still be active at the border of CAR and DRC, along the stretch from Obo, Zemio, Bangassou.

How Ongwen met his fate

In Bangui, the story of how Ongwen met his fate, is clearer and less conspiracy-filled. Initially, it was reported that Ongwen escaped detention by JK for having disobeyed the “holy” leader’s orders and having refused to answer Kony’s radio messages.

Dominic Ongwen

Having escaped further to the middle of CAR, he came across nomadic cattle herders who took him to a Seleka rebel group near Sam Ouandja. Seleka contacted a merchant in Mboki, who in turn called an NGO worker in Obo. The latter reached out to the American Special Forces in Obo. An American helicopter picked up Ongwen and brought him to Obo, and eventually to Bangui, and onward to The Hague.

Sources in Bangui say Seleka were motivated by the $5m reward (which they never got), and the Islamist group only handed over Ongwen, because he wasn’t a Muslim. If he had been, they likely wouldn’t have given him up, a peacekeeper told me.

The next twist came in what the Americans did. When they brought him to Bangui, they took him to a MINUSCA base near the Bangui M’Poko Airport, which serves as the base of the Rwanda contingent. The Rwandans were reportedly surprised when the Ongwen package landed because inside the airport a short distance away is a French embassy.

However, the Americans are alleged to have said something like, “If we hand him to the French, next you will see him on French TV”, suggesting the French would steal their glory.

A few hectic days followed as the ICC scrambled to get to Bangui. A woman lawyer who spoke Acholi was also found and dispatched to Bangui by the ICC, to speak to him in a way that he would understand his rights.

The ICC asked that Ongwen be held in a self-contained room. The M’Poko base camp, a sprawling campus previously belonging to Socatel, the leading telecommunications and Internet service provider in CAR, has no such creature comforts. Very quickly, paint was procured, and a tiny office with a toilet next to it was converted to Ongwen’s use.

Ugali does the trick!

Being in the bush for long, Ongwen’s stomach wasn’t able to handle canned and other “modern” foods.

 A British guard, one of the ICC team who was keeping 24-hour watch over him, dashed to the Rwandans and, desperate, said Ongwen was starving, he wasn’t eating. The Rwandans figured out what the problem was, so they took for him some good old-fashioned ugali (or posho to Ugandans) and beans. Ongwen stuffed his face, and from then on it was posho and beans.

The ICC guards also requested that he be taken out for walks in the evening. So, every evening, Ongwen would be handcuffed, a cloth put over his handcuffs, and he would be walked around with one Rwandan soldier holding his right arm, another the left, and a senior officer following.

The room where Dominic Ongwen (inset), a  former LRA commander, was held in M’Poko, Bangui, CAR.  PHOTO / LUQMAN MAHORO

An East African rapport developed, as Ongwen spoke a smattering of Kiswahili. A young officer then, who has now risen through the ranks and returned as a big man to the peacekeeping mission, says Ongwen thought he was being brought to a Ugandan camp in Bangui. His knowledge of events in East Africa, and Rwanda, was more than 10 years behind.

From it and Ongwen’s fate, Kony’s peculiar and unique achievement became clear. Through the combination of his many children, abducted children who have grown into adults in the Kony orbit and had their many children, and the children born of rape, and isolation in the bush, JK has raised a mini nation created in his bizarre vision of the world, untouched by outside influences, knowledge, religion or consciousness.

Along with his brutality, Ongwen exhibited a certain rawness, and near-charming naivety shorn from the modern world, which typified this kind of Kony citizen.

The story he told was that Kony wanted to kill him to make way for his son, Gen Achai, who is now thought to be the effective leader of the LRA.

And therein, despite the isolation, is the thin thread that links Kony and the LRA to contemporary Uganda. This privileging of relatives, and leaders making their children army commanders is as quintessentially Ugandan as katogo, ajono, or the bwola dance. Kony is still one of ours, after all.

The author is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3