Sometime in the late 1970s, a poor Ugandan teenager contracted a fever that gave him hallucinations. He ran to the hills, where he stayed for days without contact with his family or fellow villagers.
When he finally trekked the few kilometres back home, everybody wanted to know where he had been for all those cold nights, but the fellow remained elusive, preferring instead to keep to himself.
Then one day, he called young village girls around his hut and asked them to predict what was going to happen to him. Out of the blues, two girls told him that he was going to be a powerful leader of his people and that he would also have powers to heal.
That lad was Joseph Kony, and he believed every word the two girls told him.
Inspired by the words and drawn by the gripping charm of his cousin, Alice Auma Lakwena, a spirit-medium-turned-prophet, Kony established the Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA), a ragtag force high on a warped blend of apocalyptic Christianity and nationalism.
In the 20 years that it has been in existence, that brutish group has killed more than 30,000 people in Northern Uganda and displaced two million others.
In recent years, their leader Kony has extended his hand across the border to several parts of Central Africa, causing chaos in his wake.
That is why last week, US President Barack Obama decided enough was enough; he would send about 100 American “combat-ready” special forces to Uganda to help battle the notorious outfit.
The Americans will consist of two combat units, armed with the typical advanced array of weapons beloved of the US military, and a small logistical support team. They will only, officially, use force in self defence.
Whereas dictators and warlords all over the world have fallen in the past few decades, Joseph Kony has survived every attack against him. He remains a hard target.
Listed as a global terrorist by the American government, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for 12 crimes against humanity and 21 counts of war crimes, Joseph Kony is the most wanted man in Uganda and one of the most hunted men in the world.
Just type his name on a search engine and you will not only come across several pictures of a stylish, dread-locked man with a cowboy hat and mirror shades, but also a profile of a merciless African warlord.
It is these contrasting images that have helped turn him into a near-mystery, and the legend has been boosted by years of brutal attacks and international peace talks that have consistently failed to deliver his head.
For instance, negotiations in 1994 and 2002 ended in failure, and subsequent talks in 2008 were futile despite the United Nations passing a resolution pushing for a quick end to the conflict and Museveni sending Kony’s own mother to convince him to surrender.
Kony refused to sign a peace deal in 2008 after the Ugandan government failed to guarantee the withdraw of ICC warrants against him and his close aides.
Since then, the Ugandan army and other military forces have been hunting Kony around Acholiland, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic in vain. And it is against this backdrop that the fancied American troops are joining the party.
This is not the first time Uganda is enlisting international help in the search for its most spoilt son. In 2006, Kony embarrassed a UN covert operation comprising of elite Guatemalan operatives that had been set up to capture or kill him.
The LRA slaughtered all the Guatemalans, beheaded the commander, and took all their weapons, including heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. Only five LRA soldiers died in the operation.
Some reports indicate that “the Guatemalan disaster” resulted in the deaths of about 40 counterinsurgency troops, while others put the UN death toll at eight.
“It was demoralising to the United Nations, and it was a tremendous boost to the aura of Joseph Kony,” the US Ambassador to Uganda at the time told the Daily Beast magazine.
In 2009, the US supported a joint Ugandan-Congolese military operation against Kony with cash and technology in what was termed as Operation Lightning Thunder. Some 16 men and one woman, all celebrated American specialists in intelligence and logistical support, scoured forest after forest in a bid to take out the Beast of Acholiland.
The operation was led by a squad of US-trained Guatemalan Special Ops soldiers with an untainted record of capturing or killing people of Kony’s breed.
The special forces had trained in jungle warfare, were equipped with M-16 rifles, carried the latest in special-operations technology, and were accustomed to surviving in the bush for long hours, but they still failed to capture Kony and his child warriors, who were buried deep in Congo’s Garamba National Park.
After the failed attempt on his life, Kony butchered more than 800 civilians in revenge attacks, beating them to death with clubs and burning entire villages to the ground.
A few months later, Britain’s Special Air Service joined in the fray. Reports indicate that the British at one time came so close to Kony that they would have taken him out with a single shot, but they failed to kill him.
Now the Ugandan intelligence service is so tired of trying to assassinate the man that it is ready to farm out the job to mercenaries.
The desperation is understandable: Kony is no ordinary murderer. He operates in some of the most remote and inhospitable areas of the African jungle. He is not much of a techie and rarely talks to the media, and that means it is difficult for intelligence services to pinpoint his location. He has also enjoyed support from governments around the region, among them, it is rumoured, the Khartoum administration.
Born in 1962 in a small village called Odek, Kony loved dancing as a child and was so calm and collected that he became an altar boy at the local Catholic parish.
Matthew Green, in The Wizard of the Nile, records Kony telling a friend: “I just don’t see the point of fighting.” His friends, the biography notes, nicknamed him “Black Monkey” because of his deep-set eyes.
His friends remember him as an amiable boy. He was not bright in class and so he dropped out early. But it was the fever that sent him to the hills — and Cousin Alice Lakwena — that introduced him to the world.
Lakwena had the villagers at her beck and call. They respected her word and believed that the “holy oil” she handed out to them would keep bullets away, that the war songs they chanted would dismantle the enemy, that rocks would turn into grenades, and sticks would become swords on the battlefield.
And so the Lord’s Resistance Army set out for the bush, intoxicated with a primitive version of militancy that was as dangerous as it was laughable.
Lakwena’s fix-it-in-any-way Holy Spirit Movement won a few wars... until a forest stand-off with the gun-loving Yoweri Museveni ended in a shower of bullets.
Her followers did not live to ask her what had happened to her charms, but she was lucky to survive the battle. She crossed into Kenya, where she died after a long illness in 2007.
In death, the spirit abandoned her, vamoosing temporarily into her brutal father Severino before decamping completely into one of her followers, Kony.
Those who have been close to Kony share a divided opinion on whether he is a true seer or a psychopath. Some blame the supernatural for his powers. Kony considers himself a very good Christian who aims to make Uganda a state based on the Ten Commandments, never mind that he regularly breaks those rules.
Possessed by spirits
In a profile piece, The New York Times describes Kony as “a former altar boy who became possessed by spirits”.
And Jane Bushman, in The Worst Date Ever, a book about her experiences as she sought to interview Kony, writes that the rebel leader made annual trips to the Ato Hills in Uganda, where he lay down in the hot sun for days.
He would be covered by a blanket of red termites that cut deeply into his skin. To heal him, oil from the yao plant was spread all over his body before he went into seclusion in a cave for weeks.
The champion of Ten Commandments says: “Yes, we are fighting for Ten Commandments. It is not against human rights. And that commandment was not given by Joseph. It was not given by LRA. No, those commandments were given by God.”
When Bushman asked him how he would communicate with Museveni from the forest, Kony answered: “I will communicate with Museveni through the holy spirits and not through the telephone.”
The man instructs his child soldiers to make the sign of the cross before going to war. “He told us that when you go to fight, you make the sign of the cross first. If you fail to do this, you will be killed,” a former LRA soldier told Human Rights Watch.
Bushman writes that Kony gets strategic advice from his eight “angels” — three Americans, two Sudanese, two Chinese, and one Congolese.
The two Americans are King Bruce, who is rumoured to turn rocks into bombs, and a scary toughie called Jim Brickley. There is also an experienced old Italian war veteran called Lakwena (the one whose spirit believers say possessed Alice), and a Chinese man known as Ing Chu, who is said to beseech ghosts.