In 1986, Yoweri Museveni gained the presidency of Uganda. Alice Lakwena, a woman from the Acholi tribe in northern Uganda started the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) in opposition. The group recruited followers and forged alliances with rebel militias with the intent of entering Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, and freeing the north from government oppression. The Holy Spirit Movement had regional support, but regional support only. When Alice Lakwena was exiled, there was no obvious person to take over leadership of the Holy Spirit Movement.
Joseph Kony claimed to be a distant cousin of Alice Lakwena’s and the natural successor to lead the Holy Spirit Movement. Soon after Joseph Kony assumed management of the group, he changed the name to the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. Joseph Kony wasn’t able to maintain the group’s numbers or regional support, so he started stealing food and abducting children to fill the ranks of his army. Subsequently, he lost any remaining regional support. What had started out as a rebel movement to end the oppression of the north became an oppression of the north in itself.
Joseph Kony’s tactics were—and remain—brutal. He often forced children to kill their parents or siblings with machetes or blunt tools. He abducted girls to be sex slaves for his officers. He brainwashed and indoctrinated the children with his lies and manipulated them with his claim of spiritual powers.
At the height of the conflict in Uganda, children “night commuted.” That is, every evening they would walk miles from their homes to the city centers. There, hundreds of children would sleep in school houses, churches, or bus depots to avoid abduction by the LRA.
Kony and the LRA abducted more than 30,000 children in northern Uganda.
Starting in 1996, the Ugandan government, unable to stop the LRA, required the people of northern Uganda to leave their villages and enter government-run camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). These camps were supposedly created for the safety of the people, but the camps were rife with disease and violence. At the height of the conflict, 1.7 million people lived in these camps across the region. The conditions were squalid and there was no way to make a living. Thus a generation of Acholi people was born and raised in these camps.
The International criminal court
In 2005 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders: Dominic Ongwen, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, and Vincent Otti. Of those, only Kony, Ongwen, and Odhiambo remain at large. Raska Lukwiya was killed in combat with the UPDF in August 2006 and Vincent Otti was killed on Kony’s command in November 2007—reportedly for wanting Kony to sign a peace agreement, a stance that Kony considered a betrayal.
Juba Peace Talks
In 2006 the LRA indicated an interest in peace negotiations. They were hosted by Juba, Sudan (now South Sudan), and dubbed the Juba Peace Talks. Meanwhile the LRA set up camp in Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo. In August of 2006 a Cessation of Hostilities agreement was signed by the LRA and the government of Uganda.
The talks took place over the course of two years. Joseph Kony sent a delegation to negotiate on his behalf, but when the Final Peace Agreement was ready to be signed, Joseph Kony repeatedly postponed the date of signing or failed to show up. Most notably, he failed to show up to sign the Final Peace Agreement with the Government of Uganda in April 2008 and November 2008.
Throughout the peace talks, and in retrospect, it is suspected that Joseph Kony never intended to sign the Final Peace Agreement. Instead, he possibly entered peace talks as a means of resting and regrouping. The entire time that the LRA was involved in peace talks they were provided with food, clothing, and medicine as a gesture of good faith. It now seems that the LRA was gathering its strength and stockpiling food.
There is also significant evidence that Kony ordered his fighters to attack villages and abduct children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the Peace Talks.
In December 2008, when it became clear that Kony wasn’t going to sign the agreement, Operation Lightning Thunder was launched. It was the coordinated effort of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States.
The operation failed. Joseph Kony somehow learned of the attack in the hours before the air-raid and so he was able to escape. In retribution for the attempted attack, the LRA, led by ICC-indictee Dominic Ongwen, attacked villages in the DR Congo on December 24, 2008, killing 865 civilians and abducting 160 more over the course of 2 weeks. The LRA fighters were reportedly instructed to target churches, where people would be gathered with their families for Christmas Eve services.
A year later the LRA reprised the Christmas massacres in the Makombo region in northeastern Congo as a reminder of its powers of destruction. These attacks took place over four days, from December 14-18, 2009. This time they killed 321 people and abducted 250.
Because of the remote location of the Makombo massacres in December 2009, the outside world knew nothing about the attacks until three months later. Human Rights Watch broke the news internationally on March 28, 2010.
The LRA today
The LRA left Uganda for good once the Juba Peace Talks began in 2006. Since 2008, they have carried out their attacks in the border regions of northeastern Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic.
In its current state, the LRA is composed of several bands of fighters that are spread across an area roughly the size of California. Some of these groups are nearly autonomous and have limited contact with one another but ultimately answer to Joseph Kony and the LRA command structure. Due to increased awareness and global efforts to stop him, the entire fighting force of the LRA has been reduced from approximately 1,000 at the end of the Juba peace talks in 2008 to an estimated 300 fighters in 2012, not counting the abducted women and children who are used as “wives” and porters. While their numbers have diminished over the years, their capacity for destruction continues to be disproportionately large.
On May 12, 2012, Caesar Achellam, the oldest member of the LRA and one of Kony’s top three commanders, was captured by the UPDF in the Central African Republic.