Joseph Kony’s rise from humble beginnings to becoming one of the world’s most infamous war criminals has spanned the tenures of five US presidents and taken him across a vast swath of east and central Africa. Despite being the subject of countless media reports he has remained an elusive figure, spurning the outside world and isolating himself in remote jungle hideouts. This has been especially true since 2008, when he had his last confirmed communication with anyone outside of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
This report maps and analyzes Kony’s movements since 2005, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) released indictments for him and four other LRA commanders, making him instantly infamous and even more cautious of contact with the outside world. The report provides the most comprehensive public record ever released of Kony’s movements since then, drawing on testimonies from defected LRA combatants and victims of violence, satellite imagery analysis, and dozens of reports from media, civil society, and military sources. It also chronicles LRA attacks on civilians associated with Kony’s group, many of which were conducted on his direct orders.
Since the release of the ICC's indictments in 2005, Kony has sought refuge from international pressure in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo), the Central African Republic (CAR), and the Sudanese-controlled Kafia Kingi enclave. His movements reveal a complex leader who is both extremely isolated yet well-informed about regional political dynamics and skilled at exploiting civil conflict and state rivalries to evade his pursuers. Though lacking a formal education or military training, Kony has also succeeded in maintaining a firm grip on the LRA's command structure, ruthlessly dispatching potential rivals and rewarding those most loyal to him. Since late 2012, Kony has operated primarily in Kafia Kingi and the remote areas of northeastern CAR that it borders, where he has received periodic support from elements of the Sudanese military.
Kony's track record of survival against long odds makes it difficult to predict his future. Ugandan and US military operations, as well as defection campaigns, have reduced the LRA's fighting force by 75% over the past six years. For now though, Kafia Kingi provides Kony with an ideal hiding location far from pursuing Ugandan troops and surrounded by ungoverned areas of the CAR and South Sudan awash in civil strife. He may try to outlast waning international attention on the LRA while slowly rebuilding his force by abducting children, promoting his sons and other loyalists within the LRA, and continuing to traffic illicit ivory and other natural resources.
SUMMARY Joseph Kony operated in South Sudan for over a decade, frequently receiving safe haven and material support from the Sudanese government. In 2006, Ugandan military pressure and the end of the South Sudan civil war prompted Kony to seek refuge in Congo.
Kony spent his childhood and early adulthood in northern Uganda, coming of age during a time of intense civil strife in the country. In the late 1980s he became involved in a series of rebel groups fighting the Ugandan government, culminating in his formation of the LRA. In 1994, Kony and the bulk of LRA forces moved into what is now South Sudan, where they found a benefactor in the Sudanese government, a regional rival of Uganda.
For the next ten years the Sudanese military (SAF) frequently provided the LRA with safe haven, including homes in the town of Juba, and trained them in ambush combat tactics. They also provided the group with food, medical supplies, ammunition, and weapons, including automatic rifles, anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and mortars. In return, the LRA destabilized northern Uganda and fought the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) rebel group on behalf of the Sudanese military.
Thawing relations between Sudan and Uganda and the signing of a peace agreement between Sudan and the SPLA in 2005 led to the gradual withdrawal of SAF forces from South Sudan. This, combined with the ICC’s announcement of indictments of LRA commanders in late 2005, heralded the end of Kony’s decade-long stay there.
Kony’s exit from South Sudan was difficult. In early 2005 he was based near the Juba-Torit road in Eastern Equatoria, north of his long-time hideouts in the Imatong Mountains. In August and September he held several large meetings with senior LRA commanders in which they planned their move to Congo. Vincent Otti, Kony’s senior deputy, travelled to Congo’s Garamba National Park in September 2005 to scout locations for new LRA bases. From October 2005 to January 2006 Kony operated around the South Sudanese capital of Juba, avoiding Ugandan military attacks and waiting for Otti to establish a presence near Garamba park. In February 2006, Kony finally began the long journey to Congo, crossing over the Nile River north of Kajo Keji and then walking west for several weeks towards the Congolese border.
SUMMARY Joseph Kony and the entire LRA force camped for over two years in Congo's remote Garamba National Park during peace talks with the Ugandan government. During this period, Kony also purged potential rivals in the LRA and ordered the abduction of hundreds of civilians.
Kony entered Congo for the first time on March 8, 2006. He crossed from South Sudan with 70 fighters near the town of Aba and then travelled west to Garamba National Park, where he met Otti. Once in Congo, he ordered LRA fighters to begin constructing a series of camps in and near Garamba park.
At the same time as he was settling into the remote Congolese forest, Kony made an unusual effort to reveal himself to the outside world. In May 2006, Kony was filmed meeting with South Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar, who gave Kony $20,000 as an incentive to stop attacking civilians and enter into peace talks with the Ugandan government. The next month Kony allowed BBC reporters unprecedented access to his camp to interview him. Peace negotiations between the LRA and Ugandan government began the following month, mediated by the South Sudanese government with support from UN LRA envoy Joaquim Chissano and several other international envoys. Though Kony did not participate directly in most of the ensuing negotiations, he did meet with mediators in the remote jungle on several occasions, including in November and December of 2006 and March and August of 2007.
At the same time that he was entertaining peace negotiations, Kony was also preparing contingency plans in case the talks failed. In January 2007, he ordered LRA officer Okot Odhiambo to cross into the CAR and identify a location where the LRA could move to avoid future attacks by military forces. After Odhiambo returned to Garamba park empty-handed, Kony ordered another LRA officer to head further south to establish contact with the PRA, another Ugandan rebel group reportedly operating in Congo.
After the mission to contact the PRA failed as well, Kony came under increasing internal pressure from Otti and other officers to seriously engage the peace talks. Still skeptical of the negotiations' credibility and fearing Otti’s growing popularity, Kony ordered his execution in October 2007. Three other LRA officers close to Otti were also executed, while others defected, fearing for their lives. Kony then reorganized the LRA’s hierarchy, transferring almost all power beneath him from senior officers who had joined the LRA in the late 1980s to young commanders who had been abducted and indoctrinated within LRA ranks.
Two months after Otti’s execution, Kony again sent Odhiambo into the CAR, this time with orders to abduct hundreds of new recruits. Odhiambo returned to Garamba park with new recruits in April 2008, just days before Kony failed to show up for the signing of the final peace agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Over the next eight months, Kony set up several new bases in and around Garamba park and isolated himself from mediators and even his own delegation to the peace talks.
Kony also ordered major attacks on Congolese communities for the first time, leading to the LRA's abduction of over 300 people – including dozens of children – between September and November 2008. In December 2008, following a final attempt to engage Kony by northern Ugandan civil society leaders, Ugandan troops attacked LRA bases in Garamba park. The assault was poorly planned and failed to capture Kony or any senior LRA commanders.
SUMMARY After a failed Ugandan military strike in December 2008, Kony fled to the CAR, narrowly escaping Ugandan military forces several times.
Following the Ugandan military assault on Garamba, Kony fled west towards the Congolese communities of Bitima and Duru. He then ordered what became known as the Christmas Massacres, a series of brutal attacks on Congolese and South Sudanese communities in late December and January in which LRA forces killed over 850 people and abducted at least 160 children. Kony operated west of Garamba park for several months, and may have even temporarily moved into neighboring Western Equatoria State in South Sudan.
In May 2009, Kony and a group of 250 people left Congo. They crossed north into the CAR where two senior LRA commanders, Odhiambo and Bok Abudema, were operating. Upon entering the CAR, Kony promised his followers that they would be safe from Ugandan military attacks, unaware that the Ugandan army was already preparing to extend their chase into the remote southeast corner of the country.
Kony’s group first entered the CAR in Haut Mbomou, the country’s far southeastern prefecture. From there the group moved north of Obo, the capital of Haut Mbomou, and established a camp. LRA violence near Obo in the following months was worse than it ever has been since, with LRA fighters abducting 133 people and killing 94 others in over 45 attacks. In one attack on the town of Maboussou led by Kony’s half-brother David Olanya, LRA forces killed three people and abducted as many as 14 others. The abductees were later brought before Kony, who allowed them to live.
In early September 2009, Ugandan troops attacked Kony’s camp north of Obo, forcing him and his group to flee. Kony was reportedly injured during the battle and later received medical treatment from a group of Arab traders his group encountered.
Weeks later, the Ugandan military suffered its third near-miss on Kony in less than a year. After fleeing the Obo area, Kony’s group moved towards the remote town of Djemah. LRA fighters attacked the village in the early morning hours of October 2, planning to secure the town for Kony’s arrival. However, the fighters were unaware that a Ugandan military contingent had arrived in Djemah just days before. The Ugandan troops attacked the LRA fighters and then pursued them back towards Kony’s hiding place, reportedly killing 25 LRA combatants and capturing two of Kony’s “wives” over the course of the next few days.
SUMMARY Joseph Kony first travelled to the Sudanese-controlled Kafia Kingi enclave in late 2010, where he sought to reestablish ties with his old patron, the Sudanese military.
Kony’s group fled south and then east from Djemah, attacking several villages while evading Ugandan troops before settling into the area east of Obo for several months. In early March 2010, Kony then moved back into northeastern Congo, spending at least several weeks there and meeting with top LRA commanders such as Binany Okumu and Dominic Ongwen.
Kony did not stay in Congo for long, and by mid-2010 he was moving north towards the Kafia Kingi enclave. Otto Agweng, a feared enforcer and one of Kony’s most trusted deputies, had made contact with Sudanese military forces at their garrison near Dafak in October 2009. Agweng reported to Kony after returning from Kafia Kingi, receiving a promotion from the LRA leader for his hard work.
Agweng's journey paved the way for Kony, who arrived in Kafia Kingi in October 2010 and established a camp near the Sudanese military garrison at Dafak. Kony never met with Sudanese military officials himself, but sent emissaries to make contact. He also ordered a series of raids on nearby communities in the CAR to gather supplies for his group. In December 2010, Kony decided to return to the CAR, leaving officer Otim Ferry in charge of a small LRA group that remained in Kafia Kingi.
SUMMARY Joseph Kony continued to evade pursuing Ugandan troops throughout 2011 and 2012, moving frequently between the CAR and Congo.
In January 2011, Kony crossed the Mbomou River from the CAR into northeastern Congo’s Bas Uele district. He then reportedly moved further east into Haut Uele district, though little is known of his exact whereabouts during much of early 2011. By August 2011 Kony’s group had crossed back into the CAR and was again operating near the towns of Obo and Djemah. In October 2011, Ugandan military officials claimed they nearly captured Kony, but that he had escaped while his bodyguards battled with Ugandan troops.
Kony remained in southeastern CAR for most of late 2011 and early 2012, which suffered from sustained LRA attacks during this period. In April 2012, Kony reportedly gathered several of his top commanders for a meeting at a large rock outcropping north of Obo. Like many other features of the landscape in the region, LRA forces gave the rock outcropping their own unique name: Mt. Foisha, named after one of Kony’s “wives.”
SUMMARY For the past two years, Kony has operated primarily in Kafia Kingi and neighboring areas of the CAR, escaping several Ugandan military strikes.
Little is known about Kony's whereabouts for much of mid–2012, but by December 2012 he had made his way from southeastern CAR back to Kafia Kingi. He established himself in a series of camps near the SAF garrison at Dafak, which lies near the Umbelasha River. There the LRA group led by Otim Ferry had established a system of survival that included trading with Sudanese troops and at local markets in Songo and other nearby towns. LRA groups also hunted wild game and grew crops.
In 2012, seeking new ways to secure supplies, Kony ordered LRA groups in Congo to poach elephants and collect ivory in Garamba National Park. In late 2012, Binany Okumu, one of Kony’s most trusted commanders, undertook a perilous journey from Congo to Kafia Kingi to deliver approximately 30 tusks to Kony. In January 2013, soon after he delivered the tusks to Kony, Ugandan troops killed Binany in an ambush as he returned to Congo. Weeks later, Kony ordered the execution of Otto Agweng, his long-time enforcer. Agweng had allegedly angered Kony by raping a female captive against his orders.
Following the successful ambush of Binany’s LRA group in January 2013, Ugandan and US military forces prepared to strike Kony’s camp in Kafia Kingi. They launched a raid in early March, only to find that the LRA leader had already fled his camp there and likely returned to the CAR.
Few details have surfaced publicly about Kony’s whereabouts since early 2013, but LRA defectors and military sources consistently indicate he remains either in Kafia Kingi or just across the border in the CAR. During this time LRA forces periodically attacked communities near Sam Ouandja, a Central African town near the border with Kafia Kingi. Though little is known about who ordered or led these attacks, it is possible the goods looted were used to sustain Kony's group.
Over the past nine years Kony has walked thousands of miles across four countries, successfully defying an ICC arrest warrant and evading some of the finest troops within the Ugandan and US military. His ability to continue doing so will depend on his ability to adapt to internal and external threats. He will likely continue to marginalize older commanders within the LRA whose allegiance is in question, replacing them with more loyal younger officers who were abducted as children and earned his trust by serving as his bodyguards. When necessary, Kony will discipline and even execute LRA fighters who anger him (as many as ten combatants have been executed at his command over the past two years). Kony is also grooming his sons Ali and Salim, born and raised in the LRA's alternate universe, for leadership roles. Ali is increasingly involved in operational planning and is seen as a gateway to Kony, while Kony has entrusted Salim with managing the LRA's financial and logistical networks.
Externally, Kony's chances for survival have been given a boost over the past year as both the CAR and South Sudan have spiraled into civil war, removing international attention from LRA atrocities and giving the group additional ungoverned space in which to operate. Congo, where a majority of LRA attacks and abductions have occurred in recent years, is marginally more stable than the CAR and South Sudan, but remains a safe haven for the LRA in part because it does not allow Ugandan counter-LRA troops into its territory. Both the Ugandan and US governments, which have led the hunt for Kony, have indicated they may not sustain their operations beyond mid-2015. If they withdraw without catching Kony, the group will have free reign to rebuild. Kony may also seek to deepen the LRA's ties to the Sudanese military, whose troops stationed in Kafia Kingi have given the LRA safe haven and periodic supplies in recent years.
Even so, Kony, now in his early 50s, will not be leaving a healthy organization to whoever tries to succeed him. His frequent reshuffling of officer ranks and marginalization of popular LRA officers has created an organization that is dependent on him and unlikely to survive long after his eventual demise. Ugandan troops have killed two of the LRA's most capable senior commanders, Okot Odhiambo and Binany Okumu, over the past two years. During that same period 28 combatants have defected from the LRA, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction within the lower and middle ranks of the group.
Kony has long since cemented his legacy as one of the most adaptable and indomitable rebel leaders in modern African history. Whether he is brought to justice in the coming months or is allowed to defy his ICC arrest warrant far into the future is impossible to predict with any certainty. Left to his own devices, it will surely be the latter. But if the international community and regional governments address gaps in efforts to pinpoint and apprehend Kony and encourage defections from his remaining ranks of fighters, they can bring Kony to justice and dismantle the rebel group.
The end of LRA atrocities marks only the beginning of a long road to recovery for affected communities in the CAR, Congo, and South Sudan. LRA attacks exacerbated the isolation, insecurity, and poverty many experienced long before Kony's forces arrived. Long after Kony is gone, these neglected communities will have to struggle to achieve representation in their governments, strengthen local livelihoods, heal from LRA atrocities, and reintegrate former LRA abductees.
Data reflected in this brief was collected as part of the Invisible Children + The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative LRA Crisis Tracker, a geospatial database and reporting project which aims to track incidents of violent conflict in areas of Central Africa affected by the Lord's Resistance Army. Through publication of regular reports and open-source sharing of collected data, the LRA Crisis Tracker aims to help overcome the current deficit of relevant and timely information related to the LRA crisis and to support improved policy and humanitarian responses.
In the interest of continually strengthening the LRA Crisis Tracker dataset, The Resolve and Invisible Children welcome new sources of current or historical reports of LRA activity. To contribute information to the LRA Crisis Tracker project, please contact The Resolve at [email protected]
For a real-time, geospatial look at LRA activity, or to download the data found within this brief please visit the LRA Crisis Tracker Map at: LRACrisisTracker.com.
The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative is a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization seeking to move US and international political leaders to take the actions needed to see a permanent end to the violence of the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa and justice to LRA-affected communities.
Invisible Children is an international NGO working to help permanently end LRA violence and assist affected communities in East and Central Africa by expanding community-based early warning systems, engaging potential LRA defectors and affected communities through FM radio, and supporting the rehabilitation of formerly-abducted persons.
Paul Ronan, Co-founder and Project Director [Author]
Kenneth Transier, Project Manager [Design and development]
Sean Poole, Counter-LRA Programs Manager
Saskia Rotshuizen, Central Africa Programs Team [Data analysis and English–French translation]
Camille Marie-Regnault, Central Africa Programs Team
Julian Elam, International Programs Coordinator[Data analysis]
Lisa Dougan, Director of Central Africa Programs & Policy Advisor
Resolve and Invisible Children would like to extend a special thank you to Betsy Emmons and Jon Marino of MapStory, who made invaluable data collection and analysis contributions to this report. MapStory is an online social cartographic platform developed by the MapStory Foundation since April 2012. Its goal is to empower the community of experts to crowd-source and peer review data within a geospatial and temporal framework.