KAMPALA (AFP) – Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of one of Africa’s most brutal rebel groups, Lord’s Resistance Army, has waged a more than two-decade long insurgency sowing terror across four countries.
Believed to be hiding in the jungle, he is one of the world’s most wanted men, and on Wednesday, the United States put a $5 million bounty on his head.
The reward for Kony came after Uganda announced it had suspended its hunt for him in the Central African Republic after Seleka rebels last month took control of the country.
Uganda, which had over a thousand troops operating under the auspices of the African Union (AU), said it could not continue the mission because the AU did not recognise the Seleka capture of power.
Combining religious mysticism with bloodthirsty ruthlessness, Kony claims to be fighting the Ugandan government to impose the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
The self-proclaimed prophet and his band of guerrilla fighters are accused of abducting tens of thousands of children, mutilating civilians and turning young girls into sex-slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan.
The United Nations says about 450,000 people have been displaced by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacks.
In 2005 Kony, and four of his deputies, were the first people indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two of the deputies were later killed.
A member of the Acholi ethnic group, Kony is believed to have been born some 50 years ago in Odek village, near the town of Gulu in northern Uganda.
After a basic primary school education, he took up arms around 1987, following in the footsteps of another messianic rebel, Alice Auma Lakwena, a former prostitute thought to have been either his cousin or aunt.
Lakwena, who died in exile in Kenya in 2007, believed she could channel the spirits of the dead and told her followers that holy oil could stop bullets.
Kony claims he receives dictates from the Holy Spirit on everything from military tactics to personal hygiene to terrify subordinates into obedience.
The rebellion claims to be defending the Acholi people against President Yoweri Museveni.
At the height of the conflict, the government had forced some two million people into camps.
Kony, who speaks broken English and Acholi, has only rarely met outsiders but in an interview with a Western journalist in 2006 he said he was “not a terrorist” and had not committed atrocities.
“We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy,” he said.
But ex-LRA abductees say they were forced to maim and kill friends, neighbours and relatives, sometimes by biting them to death, and participate in gruesome rites such as drinking their victims’ blood.
In the mid-1990s, the LRA conflict spilt into neighbouring countries after the Sudanese government in Khartoum began backing the group in retaliation for Uganda’s support of southern Sudanese rebels battling for independence.
When Sudan signed a peace deal with the southern rebels in 2005, support for the LRA dried up and, after being forced into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo by the Ugandan army, Kony agreed to peace talks.
But negotiations dragged on and, amid distrust and anxiety over the ICC warrant, Kony failed to turn up to sign a comprehensive peace agreement.
In December 2008, the Ugandan army — backed up by other regional armies and US financial support — launched airstrikes against the LRA’s bases in northeast DR Congo.
The attack failed to capture or kill Kony and his top commanders and the LRA splintered into small groups.
In late 2011, following pressure from US campaigners, President Barack Obama deployed around 100 US special forces troops to the area to help regional armies track down Kony.
Kony surged to unexpected worldwide prominence in March 2012 on the back of an Internet video calling for his capture.
Made by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children, the Kony2012 film became one of the fastest-spreading online videos in history after receiving more than 100 million clicks in just a few days.