The Wizard of the Nile

In 2005 the International
Criminal issued a warrant for the arrest of the head of Uganda’s Lord’s
Resistance Army (LRA) leader, 46-year-old Joseph Kony. He is wanted for 12
counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, sexual
enslavement, rape,  inhumane acts of inflicting
serious bodily injury and suffering and 21 counts of war crimes, including
murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against
a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape and forced enlisting of
children. He is one of the world’s most dangerous and ruthless men.

Former Reuter
reporter Matthew Green, now West Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, has published his account of the LRA insurgency and its
enigmatic, charismatic leader in his book The
Wizard of the Nile

description of the complex historical and political background is succinct and
incisive. He traces the roots of this war to the north-south divide fostered
under colonial rule and worsened by the cycles of post-Independence bloodshed.
Kony was a convenient excuse to make it easier for Museveni’s supporters in the
West to ignore his failure to deal with the conflict.

For years,
Ugandans have been told the rebels are about to be crushed for good, but since
Museveni is a useful ally of the West, sandwiched between war and plunder
zones, eastern Congo
and oil-rich, Islamic Sudan, few questions were asked. The conflict is 22 years
old now. But even though the US and Britain are permanent members of the United
Nations Security Council, 20 years had passed before the conflict was discussed
in any detail.

Blame must be laid,
too, on the Ugandan government for forcibly confining almost two million people
of the region in displacement camps “for their own protection” and to ensure
they didn’t collaborate with the rebels. The result has been hundreds of camps of
indescribable squalor and misery, the traumatisation of a huge population, and
the transformation of a formerly fertile region into wasteland. For northern
Ugandans the war continues until Kony is captured, killed or signs a peace
agreement. Meanwhile, millions have suffered and thousands been killed, largely
unreported by the international media.

The book is more
than a factual account or a political analysis; it is an odyssey in search of
the arch-villain, to speak with him and shake his hand. To track down his
quarry, the author gets on a bus from Kampala and travels 350 km north to Gulu,
the base of Kony’s people, the Acholi. There he stays for some weeks,
interviewing people associated with Kony, and his descriptions of the ambiance
of the town are just right.

He follows a lead
to Juba, southern Sudan, but misses his man. Third
time lucky, on the Sudan-Congo border, together with a select scattering of
journalists, he finds his man. In an interview he asks why he originally began
fighting. Kony answers that Museveni’s men had killed his family members and
destroyed his and others’ property. After the interview he dashes back and
shake the “great man’s” hand before being whisked away.

What kind of
person is Joseph Kony, a man who claims to want to overthrow the government,
restore the culture of his people, and rule Uganda according to the Ten
Commandments – all of which he and his men have broken thousands of times?

In northern
Uganda, immediately one gains even a little confidence with people, they will
start talking about the character of Kony, and the insurgency, which has
dominated their lives and led them in and out of displacement camps for over 20

Kony is a witchdoctor,
who mixes his beliefs with what he learned as a child from a catechist. He is a
psychopath, a schizophrenic, whose gentle face, sad eyes and shy smile disguise
a man who can order brutal executions on the spot. Some think he is possessed.

Deserters from his
rebel army speak of atrocities which were used to bind them together and to
their superiors in a kind of perverse loyalty. New recruits are forced to carry
huge loads, walk long distances on an empty stomach, and not to complain or
steal food on pain of death -- death at the hands of one of their own. It is kill
or be killed.

One escaped
recruit told me they use machetes to kill, because gunshots would alert the
enemy; it’s also cheaper. Boys and girls as young as 10 and 11 are abducted and
initiated quickly into brutality, so they become inured to violence and
dispassionate towards life. The callousness of those brutalized by a spell in
the LRA ranks is one of the biggest sorrows of their parents’ generation, for
whom life holds the greatest value.

Where Green’s
account comes unstuck is in almost overlooking the relations of the Acholi with
the transcendent. To define Acholi beliefs, he relies almost exclusively on the
explanation of the Acholi poet and anthropologist, the late Okot p’Bitek, who,
despite his brilliance, saw everything in terms of spirits and diviners, and had
little sympathy for the deep Christian beliefs and faith of the Acholi.

He also makes
little of the sexual immorality and alcoholism in the camps. On a recent visit
to Gulu and Lira, towns worst affected by the insurgency, the people I spoke
with made special mention of these. Despite Kony’s intention of “restoring” the
traditional culture and values of the Acholi, he has, in effect, together with
Museveni, his sworn enemy, damaged their moral fabric, indirectly, by simply bringing
about conditions in which families of 12 people or more live in and do
everything inside a tiny mud-floored, one-roomed thatched hut.

He also fails to
mention that the Christian clergy were forced to stay in the towns in the first
years of the insurgency – for their protection, but, more likely, under
suspicion of being collaborators with the rebels -- and removed from their
mission stations, which were left for the catechists to administer.

Nevertheless The Wizard of the Nile is an essential
book for understanding this tragic and forgotten war. Green’s lively,
suspenseful, almost chatty style, which gives a sense of immediacy, is an extra
plus. It is the first of the serious books on Kony. Hopefully more will follow,
to stir a few consciences, on the international scene, and closer to home.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.


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