When the National Resistance Army annihilated Alice Lakwena’s mystic Holy Spirit army, it appeared as though the end of the insurgency in northern Uganda was in sight.
The government had just handed out an olive branch to a few members of the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) like Charles Alai. He was the chairman of the NRA-UPDA talks and was later appointed a deputy minister for Public Service. But nobody knew that Joseph Kony, the son of a catechist, who claimed to be a medium of supernatural powers, would emerge to wage Uganda’s bloodiest rebellion since independence.
In this second part of our series, The Roots of War, Emma Mutaizibwa briefly explores: Alice Auma Lakwena’s rebellion; the emergence of Kony, who preached a potent mix of Catholicism and Acholi traditional beliefs to indoctrinate his fighters; his first commanders; why he conducted his military campaigns through field commanders and couriers; and why he has remained elusive.
The Holy Spirit Movement
Alice Auma Lakwena was the leader of the Holy Spirit Movement, which emerged from the shadows of the UPDA rebellion. Many former UNLA fighters had continued to resent the new regime, in spite of the significant steps the government was taking to bring the UPDA insurgency to an end. But a poor and un-educated woman became the new symbol of an insurrection against the regime.
Born into a poor family in Opit, a sprawling trading centre east of Gulu, Alice Auma Lakwena made a living selling flour and fish. Others say she was a prostitute. At one point, she became a practising Catholic. In 1985, she claimed that ‘Lakwena’, the spirit of a dead Italian soldier, possessed her and she went insane. Her father, Severino Lukoya, took her to various witches, but her condition worsened.
Another version is that Alice Auma later moved southwards and entered Murchison Falls National Park. She remained there for 40 days and during her isolation, a seeming clarity of mind and purpose – a sense of mission – came to her as she sat near the powerful rapids and waterfalls at Karuma dam. It was there that she claimed to have communicated with the spirits about how she could liberate her kinsmen from the new NRM regime that had purportedly come to wipe out the Acholi.
When she emerged from the national park, she had a new identity: a medium, a spirit healer, and a psychic. The spirit ordered her to stop healing people at a time of war and, instead, lead her Acholi people and wage a rebellion against the government. Alice Lakwena was now leader of the Holy Spirit Movement that would recruit up to 15,000 troops to wage a rebellion against the government.
She gave them a strict spiritual code, including: renouncing witchcraft, remaining chaste, prohibition from smoking, drinking, or quarreling; renouncing all sin in their lives; and dedicating themselves to the work of purifying the Acholi people and the nation of Uganda.
She promised that the bullets of the government soldiers would have no effect upon them if they lived a life of spiritual purity and anointed themselves with water and oil – that the stones they would use against the enemy would turn into grenades, and explode. She promised they would be victorious and cleanse Uganda of its sinful ways, and turn it to God.
Lakwena used a combination of myth, voodoo, and traditional beliefs, but often cited scriptures from the Bible. She often carried out audacious attacks against the NRA. One of the most famous battles took place in January 1987 at corner Kilak, where Lakwena’s fighters and the UPDA attacked the NRA. It is believed that at least 1,600 Lakwena and UPDA fighters were killed, alongside 200 NRA soldiers.
But it was her ambitious match towards Kampala city that became her Waterloo. Most of her fighters were killed under withering artillery fire at Magamaga in Jinja, an industrial town in eastern Uganda.
The diabolical Kony
According to various sources, Kony had a troubled childhood, often vanishing into the wilderness. But his true identity has often been shrouded in a veil of secrecy that even his living relatives might not willingly disclose. In January 1986, Joseph Kony, the son of a catechist and retired KAR soldier, Ocen Lunyi, left his home in Odek under a spell.
I visited Odek, Kony’s birthplace. His paternal uncle, S.J Okello, lives just next to Odek Primary School, in a grass-thatched house surrounded by lush greenery. He is a little reluctant to reveal what exactly happened to his nephew.
“When he was in Primary Seven, he ran mad. He then moved to Awere Hills where he stayed for four weeks,” said Okello, 74, a retired policeman.
Awere Hills is just a mile away from Kony’s home.
“He was then 18 years old and we looked for him in vain. He came back wearing white clothes. We asked where he had been, but he could not answer. [Later] he said he was with God.”
With a meek voice, perhaps regretting the mayhem his nephew sowed in the Acholi sub-region, Okello revealed that his nephew then told his father, “I am going, but I shall come back with 50 guns”.
“He went to Awach in Pader and returned with so many fighters, including Baganda, with more than 50 fighters,” Okello says.
When I asked why he thought his nephew chose to fight, Okello said: “He started this because he was led by God and was scared of the NRA troops.” But the interview was interspersed with the word Sitaani [Satan in Luo], perhaps alluding to the belief that Kony was possessed by an evil spirit. Okello said before Kony went to Awere Hills, there were alarm bells that the NRA had raided Gulu with the intention of killing the Acholi.
Although the rebel leader is often portrayed as the devil incarnate, his uncle has only good memories of him as a child.
“He was a very polite boy. He joked a lot and was the leader of the Lakaraka group (Acholi traditional dance). He could not even fight and was mentally sound, and liked praying at church.”
“We still ask why. We don’t have anything evil and there is no witchcraft amongst the Palaro clan,” said Okello.
There are two other accounts that suggest why Kony began the rebellion. One of the theories suggests that in January 1986, he began experiencing seizures and started wandering. He went to the Kilak hills where Lakwena’s father, Lukoya, was based. In March 1986, Kony started preaching and believed he had settled in Lakwena’s camp.
But his uncle, Okello, says Lakwena, who was his cousin, refused to work with Kony for reasons he does not reveal. Another account claims that Lakwena mocked Kony. She advised him to use his limited spiritual powers to become a traditional healer, but not to lead a rebellion. Kony reportedly left in silence, feeling deeply insulted.
According to this account, after Lakwena’s military misadventure in 1987, her father, Lukoya, attempted to resurrect the rebellion, but was also arrested. Kony found a vacuum.
“His first followers were people who came from far-flung areas to seek treatment for all sorts of ailments. Some of them had heard of Lakwena and her healing powers and the others were Lakwena’s remnants,” said a source.
It was here that Kony met Otti Lagony, a former soldier in the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), who was suffering from an ailment on his leg. By then many people believed in Kony’s spiritual powers. Lagony later became the second in command, but was later executed in Pader at the orders of Kony.
“Accounts show that after his [Lagony’s] service in the Obote II regime, he had been discharged from the UNLA suffering from an ailment,” a source revealed.
A splinter group of the UPDA fighters under Brig Odong Latek that did not approve of the peace talks also joined Kony. It is believed that Latek was the first commander of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) soldiers, then called the United Holy Salvation Army, until he was killed in 1989 in an ambush mounted by the NRA.
Some of the other first commanders were Caesar Achellam, Nixma Opuk Oryang, Obura, Okello Matata, George Omona, Otti Lagony, Tolbert Nyeko and Charles Tabuley. At the beginning of 1988, a prominent former UNLA soldier, Otunnu Lukonyomoi, joined the LRA. He was popular for his high moral standards and poured pillory against civilian abuses. This resulted in rivalry between him and Kony.
By this time, Kony’s fighters were known as the Uganda Peoples’ Democratic Christian Army (UDCA). In October 1988, the revered Lukonyomoi was killed in an NRA ambush, following which a number of rebels left to join the NRA. Some sources suggest he was a victim of a set up and was killed by Kony. Later, Maj Kenneth Kilama, who was a linchpin of the UPDA-NRA peace talks, was also killed under mysterious circumstances, although he had defected to the NRA.
In 1991 Kony announced that he had inherited the Lakwena spirit from Alice Auma. Kony continued to claim to have biblical revelations, visions that became increasingly apocalyptic and destructive over time. During the late 1980s, the LRA concentrated its attacks mainly on government troops, but from 1992 they began focusing on civilian targets.
The change in strategy is explained by Kony’s desire to take revenge on a civilian population that, in 1991-1992, fought against the LRA in the government-sponsored ‘Bow and Arrow’ civil defence units. Angered by their betrayal, Kony reportedly told one abductee, “If the Acholi don’t support us, they must be finished.”
He told LRA fighters in the bush: “God said in the Bible, ‘I will unleash my wrath upon you and you will suffer pain. And in the end, you will be killed by the sword. Your children will be taken into captivity and will be burnt to death’.”
“If you picked up an arrow against us and we ended up cutting off the hand you used, who is to blame? You report us with your mouth, and we cut off your lips. Who is to blame? It is you. The Bible says that if your hand, eye or mouth is at fault, it should be cut off.”
Kony tried to portray himself as a stern disciplinarian.
“Kony at one time insisted that any kind of brutality would tarnish the image of the LRA. But often, the extreme conditions of the young boys who were taking drugs [cannabis] could lead them into acts of cutting off people’s lips,” said a source.
Blurred lines of administration
But the character of the LRA command was unusual to ordinary military commands.
“It was a mixture or combination of spiritual and religious edifice engrained with components of militarism,” another source said.
Unlike the usual military commands where the chain of command starts with the commander-in-chief to the manageable departments, that was not the case with the LRA. What was known about the LRA’s command structure was born in the initial philosophy of the Movement that laid out a form of Christian purity that presented tacit or haste demands outlined in the Ten Commandments.
Kony’s military command is a closely-knit group, which had a supreme or military council that ordinarily operates like a quasi cabinet to discuss problems, solutions, policies, command and tactics. Kony, as the supreme leader, governed with the military council. But he was careful not to upset his field commanders. His trick was to portend that these were God’s orders.
“He could wake up in the middle of the night and say he was about to make a revelation. This message was carried across the battle-front through his couriers and scouts,” a source said.
Sometimes, the revelation would turn out to be an execution order. One of Kony’s tactics to avoid a palace coup was the field commanders never returned to serve in the Control Alter Brigade even if they had initially served there. Control Alter (sometimes referred to as Trinkle) is the equivalent of the UPDF’s Special Forces under the command of President Museveni’s son, Lt Col Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Just like the Special Forces, Control Alter’s primary duty is to provide protection and fend off any palace coup attacks against the respective LRA leaders.
“He would appoint the field commanders or couriers to head echelons and you would never report directly to him,” said a source, confirming a military structure where the chain of command was blurred.
Commenting further about how Kony managed to stave off coups, a source said: “Whenever Kony needed to communicate particular information in the field, an adhoc command structure was created within which communication would be relayed.”
Kony stands at the apex of the LRA structure, politically, militarily and spiritually. He is central not only to the organization and actions, but to its very purpose. The LRA appears to be organised in five brigades, namely Control Alter, Sinia, Stockree, Gilva and Shila. Dominic Ogwen, now the third in command, is the head of the Sinia Brigade.
Each brigade is estimated to have between 300 and 500 fighters, but Kony’s fighters have recently been depleted to significantly low numbers.
LRA becomes proxy
The first formation of Kony’s command structure was in 1992. There was a massacre at Acholi Pi, which targeted Sudanese refugees. Before the attacks, the LRA had lived freely with the SPLA. After that attack, it became quite clear that Khartoum had finalized a plan for a proxy war and found Kony a compatriot. They started training him.
According to a former LRA fighter who preferred not to be identified, Kony’s structure of administration began to take shape for the first time after Khartoum intervened. Before then, what was arguably known to the public was a semblance of a political wing. But after he made contact with Khartoum, Kony’s structure of command became more pronounced.
“After the Sudan incident, there was formal support and training,” said the source.
Some formal structures began to take root and the LRA put in place its first High Command. Most of the LRA commanders were identified by Kony himself. The LRA, from 1994, had a stable base in the heart of Juba, where Kony lived with his wives.
There was clear communication between him and the supply lines in Khartoum. It had become clear by 1995 that Kony was the leader of the LRA, deputised by Otti Lagony. Before then, not much was known on the military front, and on the political landscape, there were many names that often appeared in the media.
The LRA political wing had visible faces in the 1990s, like Dr James Obita, its publicist who was operating from London; Komakech in Norway; and later Dominic Wanyama, another LRA propagandist based in Nairobi. Before 1992, LRA enjoyed relative support in the Acholi sub-region because the war then had political appeal.
During the 1996 parliamentary probe, many elders who took oath at the hearings revealed that the cause of the war was partly attributed to the economic and social inequalities. They also mentioned the immediate causes such as witch-hunt by NRA, open provocation towards UNLA soldiers, brutal methods of arrest [kandoya], rape and sodomy.
Most of these accusations were levelled at the 67th battalion, which consisted of FEDEMU (Federal Democratic Movement in Uganda) fighters that had been integrated in the NRA. It was later disbanded. But a peace accord was signed and the chairman of the talks, Charles Alai, had been appointed a deputy minister of Public Service in 1993.
Therefore, the relationship previously enjoyed by the LRA with the locals began to wane and the NRA started a hot pursuit campaign to rid the north of the rebels.
At the same time, the NRA, now Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), entered a strong pact with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). From time to time, the SPLA sprung attacks on the LRA.
It was during this period that the rebel army started abducting people, and using brutal tactics of guerrilla war-fare.
“Initially, abductions were to help transport and carry supplies. Kony was even sympathetic to women, children and the elderly. And even in the extreme circumstances when they made off with children, they only took the energetic; but all this changed,” one source said.
The vicious policy of abduction and indoctrination was partly attributed to the inroads the NRA had made. The LRA had to find alternative routes to avoid SPLA ambushes and some abdcutees have revealed that they lived in Khartoum for sometime during the war.
Death of Lagony, rise of Vincent Otti
There are many theories that could explain the death of Lagony. One is that he was sent from Sudan to abduct and conscript fighters, but upon reaching Kony’s birthplace in Odek, he carried out abductions and killed many civilians, which annoyed Kony. Another view is that Lagony got entangled in the complex rivalries between the Acholi from the north and the east.
“There has always been a rift – it did not start in the bush – and the LRA was not spared of the north-east rivalry. Lagony was from the north, while Kony was from the east,” revealed a source.
Before his death, Lagony had become a powerful commander and enjoyed close relations with the Khartoum regime. He opened new communication channels with Khartoum and also attempted to link up with the remnants of the Uganda Peoples’ Army (UPA). When the LRA character gradually began changing, Vincent Otti became its new face of brutality.
It is believed that around 1985, Otti owned a shop in Wandegeya, a suburb of Kampala, selling merchandise to Makerere University students. Another source revealed that during the LRA war, “there was an attempt by the LRA to link up with Juma Oris of the West Nile Bank Front [WNBF, another rebel group operating in West Nile].”
This group was quite active in springing attacks from Sudan. It is arguable that WNBF attempted to cut off West Nile from the rest of Uganda. But Oris did not have the capacity to stretch his troops to Koboko, Arua and Yumbe. Upon linking up with the LRA, it was agreed the two rebel groups could work in harmony. LRA was assigned a role of controlling the western side of the River Nile bank.
Otti and his marauding Red Brigade were tasked with this assignment. To show his brutality, Otti burnt more than ten vehicles in a single incident.
“He practically ran the Karuma-Pakwach, Gulu-Adjumani axis, where he carried out numerous ambushes,” said a source.
Otti and his fighters found sanctuary in the Murchison Falls Park and the large forest cover between Amuru and Adjumani districts.
“He became quite handy because he hailed from Atiak [presently Amuru district] and knew the terrain well enough to execute a guerrilla war campaign.”
Apparently, what endeared Kony to Otti, the executioner of the infamous Atiak massacre, was his brutal tactics.
“Of course, loyalty and the firm show of brutality underpinned the rise of some LRA commanders like Otti,” said the source.
Otti, who was a junior commander, was later named Kony’s deputy after the execution of Lagony.
Kony and his commanders have often used pseudonyms to avoid tracking. In the late1990s, most of Kony’s commanders’ names were not known. LRA fighters also maximised the use of numerical numbers. “They referred to themselves as Acel, Ario, Adek . . . [one, two, three in the Luo dialect] and yet it also did not represent their hierarchal order,” said a former LRA fighter. For example, Okot Odhiambo is known as ‘Two Victor’, his radio call sign.
The rebels also commonly referred to themselves as Laponyi (teacher in Luo), and even Kony was Laponyi. It helped them in command and control. I interviewed a former journalist who covered the war extensively for New Vision and Daily Monitor about why Kony has managed to survive assassination or a palace coup.
Charles Tolit, who is now a human rights lawyer based in Gulu district, cites three reasons Kony remains elusive.
“Kony, as a child started manifesting mystic character. He would wander in forests even before he started a rebellion. In his formative years, he stayed in isolation. Perhaps his interaction with nature built his instinct for survival.”
Unlike other organized guerrilla movements that crisscrossed jungles and major capitals across the world to build alliances, Kony never did so.
“He got acquainted with the jungle and built an emotional instinct of survival,” Tolit said.
According to him, Kony found numerous weaknesses within the NRA.
“The first five years could have formed the most serious confrontation of the NRA to end the war. But after that, the rest was a bundle of misadventures.”
Tolit argues that at first it was a kind of punishment for the commanders deployed to fight in the north. Yet, later, NRA’s senior commanders began to benefit in social and economic spheres.
“Many were beginning to enjoy the dividends and spoils of the war. This gave Kony an advantage.”
There were a number of mistakes, including graft and ghost soldiers. Commanders in the north deliberately inflated the exact troop strength under their command by, among other things, keeping names of dead soldiers on the payroll so as to keep drawing their salaries.
Kony also enjoyed the sanctuary he had in South Sudan and the support he later obtained from Khartoum.
In the next series, we examine why the government ordered the Acholi community to abandon their homes and live in camps. We also discuss why the NRA failed to end the insurgency that outlived even its most accomplished commanders, including generals Salim Saleh, David Tinyefuza, Cheefe Ali and James Kazini.