Western governments and NGOs have spent billions chasing Africa’s most wanted warlord. Joseph Kony has slipped away, and now the West is packing up its six-shooters. Were they just playing cowboys and Indians?
On Dec. 6, the International Criminal Court opened its prosecution of a longtime confidant and henchman of African warlord Joseph Kony. But as the curtain was pulled back on an expensive courtroom drama, it was hard not to be disappointed by the villain who entered the courtroom at The Hague. Dominic Ongwen, a 41-year-old former child soldier himself, wore a suit and tie and looked bemused as the charges were read against him: murder, sexual slavery, rape, torture, and conscripting child soldiers.
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a nightmarish cult. Formed in northern Uganda in the 1980s as a political rebellion with strains of Christian mysticism, the LRA has abducted 30,000 child soldiers and killed more than 100,000 civilians. For more than two decades, a diverse cast has chased LRA leader Joseph Kony, hoping to condemn him to prison, or death, or merely nab a handshake, including the International Criminal Court, a reporter for Glamour, US Special Forces, a Pennsylvania biker gang, a Texas hedge fund, and the Southern California filmmakers who made the viral video “Kony 2012.”
Now, that effort is spent. After the election, the Trump administration signaled its disinterest in the LRA issue, and this week, US Africa Command began pulling out the 250 Special Forces troops and airmen involved in the chase. Ugandan troops are withdrawing too, and most LRA-focused nonprofits have run out of money. The US military spent roughly $1 billion chasing Kony, and other Western armies, institutions, and NGOs each spent hundreds of millions more. The result? The warlord remains at large. A twisted path of collateral damage and ethical quandaries litter the wayside. Aid for populations devastated by his 30-year rampage dwindles, alleviating their suffering always having proved less thrilling than hunting a madman. The quest climaxes with a trial that even some of his victims greet with a shrug.
In August, I set out for central Africa, where the LRA has operated for the past decade across some of the most remote bush in the world. From Kampala, Uganda’s capital, I took a postal bus to the northern city of Gulu. Joseph Kony founded the Lord’s Resistance Army in the region in the mid-1980s to oppose the new central government, and Gulu was ground zero for the LRA atrocities for the next two decades. The city became a humanitarian hotspot, and displaced-person camps proliferated.
Gulu was then the entry point for most of the vigilantes and seekers who became obsessed with Joseph Kony—including the International Criminal Court, which made Kony and four of his lieutenants the first indictments it issued as a court in 2005.
Today the city is safe, with a robust economy fueled by trade with South Sudan. Storefronts are painted with advertisements for Coca Cola and mobile phone networks. When I visited the gym at an upscale hotel, bankrolled by NGO guests over the years, I found myself running on a treadmill next to a middle-aged man. It turned out he was the city’s mayor; he once ran a death squad but is now merely an election-rigging politico with a potbelly to lose.
Things are bleaker on the town’s outskirts. I hired a boda boda, or motorcycle taxi, to take me to Lukodi, the site of the LRA massacre at the heart of the ICC’s case against Dominic Ongwen. The town is a 45-minute ride on a rutted dirt road that cuts through maize fields. A rusted sign greets visitors to the village: “LUKODI MEMORIAL SITE” and lists the phone number for Vincent Oyet, a teacher who runs the informal memorial.
On the night of May 20, 2004, Dominic Ongwen allegedly led a brigade of LRA fighters into Lukodi, killing more than 60 people and abducting others. But the death toll was just the beginning. Years of conflict in the rural district meant lost cattle, displacement, and poverty.
Oyet says he supports Ongwen’s prosecution—but in same breath told me that if he is convicted, the residents of Lukodi will get reparations. The ICC does indeed run the Trust Fund for Victims, a modest effort that has spent roughly $1 million on physical psychological rehabilitation programs in northern Uganda since 2009. But large-scale reparations payments to victims are unlikely—and this myth underpins much of the local interest in the ICC prosecution.
“That’s something that bothers me,” says Ledio Cakaj, an LRA researcher and author of When The Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard. “People are signing up as prosecution witnesses with the exact idea that there will be money.”
The ICC’s prosecution is further muddled by the bizarre circumstances of the case: Ongwen is a former child soldier himself. He was abducted as a 14-year old, and he was once caned 200 times for disobeying orders. Ongwen surrendered in 2015 after falling out with Kony, apparently fearing that he would be murdered. His relief in escaping is clear in a photograph included in some flyers that the US military has airdropped over central Africa to encourage further LRA defections: in the photo, Ongwen is beaming after his arrest. Some former LRA abductees have argued that Ongwen should be pardoned.
“The Ongwen case is really weird in many, many ways,” Cakaj told me. “I just don’t see how this ends up well for anyone, be it Ongwen or the victims.”
David Ocitti is a former LRA abductee who runs Pathways to Peace, a nonprofit that catalogues the identities of remaining abductees in the LRA. He also records “come home” messages from family members that he then broadcasts into the bush. Every defector he encounters reports that Kony and his commanders use the threat of ICC prosecution to keep people from leaving, even low-level fighters who would never be prosecuted.
“Honestly,” he told me over a Nile Special beer, “if the ICC wasn’t there, this would be over already.”
* * *
Joseph Kony has been at large since 2006, when a round of peace talks failed and he disappeared back into the bush. Much of the West’s interest in his case is less about a war criminal and more about an adventure mystery in the tradition of El Dorado. Kony is everywhere, but more importantly, he is nowhere. The hunt is a performative space, a void into which his pursuers can insert themselves.
This search has drawn all types. Sam Childers, an American biker and former drug dealer, spent years searching for Kony with a self-funded militia. In a 2010 Vanity Fair feature profile, journalist Ian Urbina opens with Childers “behind the wheel of a chrome-tinted Mitsubishi truck. Christian rock blares on the speakers. He has a Bible on the dash and a shotgun that he calls his ‘widow-maker’ leaning against his left knee.” By the end of the story, it becomes clear that his contacts in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, who are ostensibly helping him hunt for Kony, are more interested in the rocket-propelled grenades and sniper scopes that he can supply. Gerard Butler later starred in a biopic about Childers called Machine Gun Preacher that flopped at the box office.
Journalists are not immune to the Kony bug either. Jane Bussman was a entertainment journalist in Los Angeles when she met John Prendergast, the dashing founder of the Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide nonprofit. She tailed him to Uganda, where she “discovers” a range of horrors and corruption, according to the Publisher’s Weekly review of her eventual memoir, A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil: Charities, Hollywood, Joseph Kony, and Other Abominations, which mixed some decent reporting with cringe-worthy throwaway one-liners: “And his father had just died in a helicopter crash with a rebel leader on board…No, you don’t DARE ask Frank if he’s single…”
In 2013, Robert Young Pelton, a self-described adventurer who, according to his personal website, “is often the sole surviving witness to history-shaping events,” tried to crowdfund half a million dollars to bankroll “Expedition Kony,” a manhunt about which he promised to update donors in real time on social media. “I’ve been with a number of psychotic African rebel groups so I have no problem with that,” he told The Daily Beast at the time. “I have a pretty good feel for how they think and how they work and stuff.” Pelton’s IndieGoGo campaign ended after raising just $10,000.
The most credible searcher remains Matthew Green, a former Reuters correspondent who wrote about his search in the 2008 book The Wizard of the Nile. Green crisscrossed Uganda and Sudan following leads before briefly meeting Kony during failed 2006 peace talks. Later, Green admitted that his obsession with Kony had blinded him from more important realities on the ground.
“There was something irresistible about the idea of Kony as darkness personified in the heart of Africa, enslaving women, summoning spirits, in the smoke,” Green wrote. “Voodoo, harems, barbarism, and magic—he was every primitive cliché rolled into one.”
Kony is a villain out of central casting. And so it is perhaps not surprising that the NGO community has been his most fervent adversary. A trio of young filmmakers founded the most famous of these organizations, Invisible Children, after accidentally stumbling upon the LRA issue in 2003. The San Diego-based advocacy group is best known for “Kony 2012,” a viral video that racked up 120 million views in five days.
After attracting fresh donors, the group spent $42.3 million from 2012 to 2014, mostly on staff, programming, and consultants. The nonprofit’s school-building programs in Gulu and other parts of northern Uganda were well regarded, but the group shuttered those efforts in order to focus on chasing Kony in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Since 2010, the group has spent more than $9 million setting up a radio network to track the LRA’s movements, becoming a veritable intelligence arm of the US and Ugandan militaries in the process. The Bridgeway Foundation, the charitable arm of a Texas hedge fund, helped finance the network—and also hired mercenaries to train Ugandan troops and private aircraft to fly them around the region.
Jolly Okot remains in Gulu. She is the former LRA abductee who first inspired the Invisible Children filmmakers. The group fired Okot in 2014, and she spun off her own, unaffiliated group called Invisible Children Uganda to continue funding school fees. Donations are minimal—search engines rank her far below the American charity, stunting her fundraising—and she mostly bankrolls her nonprofit by employing young mothers to sew backpacks and handbags for sale abroad.
“To me it wasn’t right,” Okot says of Invisible Children’s decision to end its programs in northern Uganda and join the military hunt for Kony. “I felt like I was a tool.”
Since its founding, Invisible Children has advocated American military intervention, and in that regard it was successful for years. Even before “Kony 2012” went viral, president Barack Obama pledged 100 Special Forces troops to aid in the hunt for Kony. Invisible Children’s advocacy, including videos, an online tracker that reports LRA attacks in real-time, and lobbying on Capitol Hill, kept pressure on lawmakers to continue their support for the counter-LRA mission.
Since 2010, the Pentagon has spent roughly $1 billion on this Special Forces effort, according to Laura Seay, an assistant professor of politics at Colby College who is writing a book about how advocacy groups like Invisible Children affect American conflict policy in Africa.
Much of that money has been spent across a swath of remote savannah in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic where the LRA now operates and American and Ugandan troops chase Kony’s fighters, who have dwindled in number to around 100, aided over the years by the intelligence network set up by Invisible Children.
To reach Dungu, the Congolese frontier town where Invisible Children runs its radio network and American military advisors are headquartered, I made the 250-mile journey from the Ugandan border. It took 10 hours as our sport utility vehicle slowed to a lurching, mud-splattered crawl after we left a mining highway and gained Congolese government roads. In Dungu, which hosts UN peacekeepers and a handful of NGOs, a crisis economy is well developed. On a Saturday night, I sat in the UN’s Inter-Agence compound picking at my chicken dinner and drinking a Skol beer. Anyone with money in town showed up for drinks and dancing: aid workers, South African peacekeepers, and, at exactly nine o’clock, a gaggle of prostitutes.
As the LRA threat has dissipated, most NGOs have left Dungu, but the town still hosts, at least for a few more days, American military advisors at a nearby airstrip, part of the $100-million-a-year counter-LRA effort. It is part of a larger push by US Special Forces in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade: last year, more than 17% of all US Special Operations forces deployed abroad were sent to Africa, up from just 1% in 2006. In Obo, Central African Republic, the US has for years maintained another airbase for counter-LRA missions. Children shout “American! American!” at visitors, the new local shorthand for “white person” and a small sign of the military footprint.
And yet for all the money spent, not much reaches the front lines. In Dungu, I met Robert Dakiti, a 41-year-old engineer who works part time for Saiped, a Congolese nonprofit that encourages LRA defections and is affiliated with Invisible Children. Dakiti had recently been traveling by motorbike from Dungu to Doruma, near the South Sudanese border. The road was bad, and he drove slowly. Two LRA gunmen emerged from the bush and took him, at gunpoint, to their commander. This LRA cell, it turned out, had a clutch of five widowed women and seven fatherless children that it wanted to get rid of, and Dakiti spent the next several hours ferrying them back and forth to the nearest military outpost of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).
Invisible Children’s Western employees were ecstatic when they heard Dakiti’s story. But when he and I spoke privately, he said he was frustrated. After delivering the first batch of returnees to the FARDC outpost, he asked soldiers to put on civilian clothes and return with him to help transport the rest back. They refused, saying they were too scared. Dakiti continued alone, ferrying women and children back and forth. When he finished, he was out of fuel. Dakiti asked a contingent of UN peacekeepers, whose stabilization mission in Congo has an annual budget of $1.2 billion, for a few liters of gasoline. They declined. Dakiti repeated his request to a FARDC colonel, but he refused too. Dakiti ended up borrowing $4 from his brother, who happened to live nearby, in order to get home.
“When I left the bush, I could have left the children and run away,” he said. “But no.” Instead, for his troubles, Dakiti was out half-a-day’s wages.
* * *
The trial of Kony’s former lieutenant, Dominic Ongwen, continues at The Hague. The cost is staggering. The ICC’s proposed budget for 2017 estimates that the trial will require 164 days of hearings, with 28 witnesses, real-time video translation into two local languages and more on-the-ground field support. ICC investigators have been to Lukodi repeatedly to gather evidence. Mementos of their visits are stored in a small shed: a plaque, presented by ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, and poetry, tucked in cheap frames, that was coaxed from survivors by court-dispatched counselors. In 2015, the court spent €2.48 million ($2.7 million) on the Ongwen case, a figure likely to skyrocket for 2017. The court’s budget, meanwhile, has grown from €53 million in 2004 to a projected €150 million for 2017.
Cost-benefit criticisms of the ICC are not new or novel. But the fact remains that the people of northern Uganda have many problems. Ensuring that Dominic Ongwen spends the rest of his life in a warm cell with cable television in the Netherlands—when Lukodi residents saw him on TV, they remarked how chubby he’d gotten—is not high on that list. Ditto for capturing Kony, who is reportedly holed up in the Kafia Kingi region of Sudan, some 700 miles away from Gulu, with his few remaining followers.
As I prepared to leave Lukodi, Vincent Oyet, the local teacher, asked me to pay for his boda boda ride home. It was a fair request—I had asked him to meet me—even though I knew he would likely pocket the cash and walk home. A motorcycle taxi cost about 1,500 shillings, but I had no change and gave him 5,000, the equivalent of about $1.40. He took the money and leaned back, his eyes focusing on some distant point between contentment and disbelief.
These people needed money. Billions of dollars had gone a lot of places. It had gone to Kampala and The Hague and San Diego. It had purchased plane tickets and assault rifles and espressos. In Lukodi, where the sun bakes the painted names of the dead on a crude memorial, it has purchased not very much at all.