Joseph Kony, a murderous warlord who famously chopped off the lips of those he regarded as traitors, worked well as a tool Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni, used to keep an increasingly restless nation in check. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI spent time in the East African country recently and reports that a new generation immune to the use of Kony as a bogeyman, is leaving Museveni with few tricks in his bag
Last April, American Special Forces and a multinational army of African soldiers officially ended an intensive six-year hunt for one of the world’s most wanted warlords.
Kony, the bloodthirsty secessionist who kidnapped young children turning them into soldiers and his wives, unleashed a campaign of terror in northern Uganda killing more than 100,000, remains at large.
From his ‘hey days’ in the 1990s and 2000s when he wiped out villages in Uganda and central Africa, abducting more than 60,000 children and setting up numerous jungle camps, Kony’s power has significantly waned.
Living on the run in the Central African Republic, resources drained, Kony by last year was seeing his most loyal lieutenants, wives and many of his 42 children abandon him and take up amnesty offers, as well as assistance by international relief agencies.
Sick from a range of chronic diseases and old injuries, the former altar boy, self-proclaimed prophet and ‘spokesperson of God’ is a shadow of his former self, hiding out in the bushes, launching increasingly infrequent raids for food and waiting to die.
In his homeland, another era appears close to an end.
Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s 74-year old long-term leader and self-professed strongman, is running out of tricks to hang onto his 32-year hold on power.
His biggest challenger, popular 36-year-old musician-turned politician, Bobi Wine is winning the hearts and minds of Uganda’s youth and presenting the stiffest challenge to the strongman’s decades in power.
Sir Jose Hotel, situated a stone’s throw from Lake Victoria in Kampala’s Ggaba district, is a scenic meeting spot for a diverse age of Ugandans where talk often quickly turns to politics and history.
I’m seated in the hotel’s lush garden, beneath the giant shades of the palm trees that appear to grow naturally the closer you get to the lake.
I have no idea just how sensitive Kony or Museveni are as topics to ordinary Ugandans and my plan is to casually engage in conversation and collate views from those willing to share their viewpoint.
Kony in particular, I expect to be a sore point given the numerous documented and undocumented atrocities he committed and the fact that he remains at large, technically capable of restarting his terror.
Curiously, however, ordinary Ugandans easily and freely talk about Kony, even at the slightest prompting. For many, the man who was once the stuff of nightmares, is a fleeting reminder of a long forgotten era, especially in the South, the region where Kampala is.
Anna, a former journalist, explains the Kony/Museveni symbiosis.
“Museveni defeated Kony. He drove the warlord out of Uganda into CAR and for all these decades he has been telling people that if you remove me, there’ll be no one who can stop Kony from returning.
“Museveni also defeated Al Shabaab, who were threatening to run over Uganda and had even killed government soldiers.
“Museveni loves to bring up these military victories and the older generation who lived in these conflicts adore him for it. They credit him with uniting the North and the South and protecting Ugandans.”
Museveni, or M7 as Ugandans call him, is indeed a military strategist, having seized power in 1986 by overthrowing Tito Okello in the five-year Ugandan Bush War.
The tactics used by Museveni’s forces in that war actually brought about the creation of Kony’s Lords Resistance Army.
When he formed a government in later years, Museveni moved to crush Kony, gaining a reputation as the defender of Uganda.
As the country grew more secure, Museveni focussed on domestic growth and many credit him with expansion over the years, including rising literacy rates, greater sophistication of the economy and infrastructural development.
His tenure has however been a dichotomy, with growth set
One of these personal liberties stuns me. Uganda does not have alcohol trading restrictions, or if it does, they are not enforced. From Sunday to Sunday around the clock, bars, nightclubs and other outlets are open, blasting music out onto the streets, with imbibers, vendors, taxis and others clearly making full use of the environment.
Coming from a country with a 55% alcohol levy and restrictive liquor trading hours, the freedom around beverages here seems criminal.
The trade-off is explained to me.
“M7 is our benevolent dictator,” Anna says.
“The growth has been there to an extent, although poverty and unemployment are serious issues. You can do most things in Uganda and the government will look the other way.
“The problem comes when you begin asking questions about democracy, freedom of expression, the rights of opposition parties. That’s when M7 shows you he still believes in bush conflict tactics.”
The benevolent dictator status belies Museveni’s own carefully curated image as a kindly, old father of the nation. On this particular day, he is meeting with Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame and engages Ugandan journalists with chuckles and teasing.
“You’ve received enough information now. We’re going to lunch. Please feed these ones too; they look hungry,” he says, pointing at the journalists, after the press conference.
Things are not always so light with Museveni. His police and military regularly attack and detain opposition leaders and supporters, as well as journalists over any number of slights they pick up from an antiquated Penal Code.
Bobi Wine and his supporters experienced Museveni’s bush tactics recently, when they were rounded about and brutally assaulted, before disappearing into remand.
Wine and his supporters are immune to Museveni’s go-to trick of invoking fear of Kony to keep the masses in line.
“I don’t even remember those stories,” says Kule, a 20-year-old student.
“Our parents might remember, but again in the South, we never had problems from him.
“I can’t even remember the last time he was on TV or the last time we heard about an attack anywhere.
“The people who might fear him are those in villages near where he was born, because he used to enjoy attacking his own people.
“Those people still have the scars, but here in the South, he was never an issue, especially for the youth.”
Where he waged the bush war against Okello and Kony, Museveni is struggling to tackle the social media-driven revolution Wine has inspired amongst the youth.
Rather than public rallies, which the police could break up easily and spread fear through, Wine’s popularity rides on WhatsApp and in fact, was initially spread by the sharing of his popular politic-laden songs.
Kule shares a video of Bobi Wine’s ‘Situka’ with me via WhatsApp and translates the lyrics as it plays.
“He’s talking about leaders becoming tormentors, freedom of expression. He’s talking about the state of our politics and that we should all stand up for Uganda.”
Last week, Wine returned from the US where he had gone to treat injuries sustained in the recent attack by Ugandan law enforcement.
His flight to the US, interviews he gave there and highly publicised return present another challenge for Museveni and his bag of tricks.
His major question is how to maintain the façade of ‘benevolence’ in the face of a stiff challenge by a foe immune to your tactics.
While Kony waits for the Grim Reaper in the jungles of CAR, Museveni must think of his old enemy and wince at the irony of how the warlord’s demise is bringing the curtain down on his own era.