A former Catholic altar boy who became one of Africa’s most brutal rebel commanders, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) chief Joseph Kony has sowed terror across four nations for almost three decades.
Combining religious mysticism with an astute guerilla mind and bloodthirsty ruthlessness, Kony has turned scores of young girls into his personal sex-slaves while claiming to be fighting to impose the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
While battling the Ugandan government, he and a dwindling band of expert guerilla fighters have earned a grim reputation for the abduction of children and mutilation of civilians.
Currently believed to be hiding out in a remote jungle area of Central African Republic (CAR), in recent years Kony has seen his forces dwindle to a few hundred as regional armies — backed by US special forces — have come together to hunt him down.
On Wednesday, it emerged Kony had tried to negotiate food and safe passage from CAR’s leader, amid indications he is seriously ill.
Forces of the self-proclaimed prophet, accused of overseeing the abduction of tens of thousands of children, roam border regions between the Democratic Republic of Congo, CAR, South Sudan and Sudan.
In 2005 he — along with four of his deputies — were the first people indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Two of the deputies were later killed.
A member of the Acholi ethnic group, Kony was born in April 1963 in northern Uganda, according to US advocacy group Enough.
After a basic primary school education, he took up arms in around 1987, following in the footsteps of another messianic rebel, Alice Auma Lakwena, a former prostitute who is believed to have been either his cousin or aunt.
Lakwena, who died in exile in Kenya in early 2007, believed she could channel the spirits of the dead, and also told her followers that holy oil she gave them could stop bullets.
Kony claims the Holy Spirit issues orders to him on everything from military tactics to personal hygiene, terrifying his subordinates into obedience.
Lakwena — and then Kony’s — rebellion claimed to be defending the Acholi people against President Yoweri Museveni, who seized power from northern military rulers at the head of a rebel army in 1986.
Despite widespread northern resentment against Museveni, Kony’s policy of abductions soon lost him the support of local groups, who suffered in the government’s brutal war against the LRA.
Hunted by multiple armies
Kony, 50, who speaks broken English and Acholi, has only rarely met outsiders but in an interview with a western journalist in 2006 he declared that he was “not a terrorist” and had not committed atrocities.
“We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy,” he said.
Despite that, ex-LRA abductees say they were forced to maim and kill friends, neighbours and relatives, sometimes by biting them to death, and participate in gruesome rites such as drinking their victims’ blood.
In the mid-nineties, the LRA conflict spilt into neighbouring countries after the Sudanese government in Khartoum began backing the group in retaliation for Uganda’s support of southern Sudanese rebels battling for independence.
When Sudan signed a peace deal with the southern rebels in 2005 support for the LRA dried up and, after being forced into neighbouring DR Congo by the Ugandan army, Kony agreed to peace talks.
But negotiations dragged on and, amid mutual distrust and anxiety over the ICC warrant, Kony repeatedly failed to turn up to sign a deal.
In December 2008, the Ugandan army — backed up by other regional armies and US financial support — launched airstrikes against the LRA’s bases in Garamba national park in northeast DR Congo.
The attack failed to capture or kill Kony and his top commanders and the LRA splintered into small groups, butchering and abducting its way across a vast area.
In late 2011, following pressure from US campaigners, President Barack Obama deployed around 100 US special forces troops to the area to help regional armies track down Kony.
Kony surged to unexpected worldwide prominence in March 2012 on the back of a hugely popular internet video that called for his capture.
Made by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children, the Kony2012 film became one of the most fastest-spreading internet videos in history after more than 100 million users across the globe clicked on to watch it in just a few days.
Despite the increased pressure, after more than 25 years in the bush Kony remains a master of evasion, ditching satellite telephones in favour of runners to communicate and living off wild roots and animals.