Joseph Kony, photographed in Southern Sudan in 2006. Photo: Stuart Price/AFP/Getty
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Africa’s forgotten scourge: Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army

In the past year, Joseph Kony is said to have been responsible for killing 76 civilians and abducting 467. Despite the lack of international coverage, an African operation to kill or capture him continues. Martin Plaut talks to its leader, Brigadier General Sam Kavuma.

Once they were at the top of the African crisis agenda, but ebola, civil war in South Sudan and the atrocities of Boko Haram have driven them out of the headlines. It is hard to find a single mention of Joseph Kony or his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the international media.

Yet they have not gone away. The charity Invisible Children, which tenaciously tracks the LRA says that it killed two people in the last month and abducted 26 more. In the past year Kony is said to have been responsible for killing 76 civilians and abducting 467. Behind these cold statistics is a trail of shattered lives: of villages living in terror and women too frightened to go to the fields to plant or harvest.

Kony, and his killers, are now hunted across a vast area of Central Africa. “There are probably no more than 100 fighters with Kony,” says Brigadier General Sam Kavuma, who is leading the African operation to kill or capture him. But the general is under no illusion about the scale of the problem. The LRA is dispersed over South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. It is an area approximately the size of western Europe and General Kavuma has only around 1,500 troops at his disposal.

Despite this, the general is optimistic. “Kony is no longer fighting – he’s hiding and trying to survive,” he told the New Statesman in a phone interview.

The General’s Regional Task Force should be far larger. The African Union mandate provides for a brigade-size operation of 5,000 troops, drawn from Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo (pdf).

But the civil war in the Central African Republic has meant it has provided General Kavuma with not a single soldier, while the fighting that erupted in South Sudan last December has also reduced its support. One of Uganda’s three battalions was also withdrawn to prop up South Sudanese President, Salva Kiir, in his dispute with his rival, Riek Machar (pdf).

Joseph Kony – once a Ugandan church choir boy – has been the scourge of central Africa for more than two decades. Drawn from the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the LRA has used abduction and murder to further its ends and maintain its operations. Kony himself is notoriously canny and wary – characteristics that have allowed him to survive all these years despite the international efforts to kill him.

President Obama established the elimination of Kony as one of his African goals and recently increased the support given to this operation. Several CV-22 Osprey long range, high speed helicopters, plus 150 Air Force Special Operations troops and airmen joined the search.

In the end, though, the problem of the LRA is likely to require a political solution. “We know that 80 per cent of LRA fighters have been abducted themselves,” says General Kavuma. Talks have been tried in the past, but are ruled out for the present. Kony has used previous negotiations and ceasefires to regroup and re-arm his forces. “The Acholi leaders have sent messages to their people to defect and come home,” the general says and this is paying dividends. “Two months ago we had over fifty defectors, including women and children.”

This strategy has American backing from the 7th Military Information Support Battalion. Radio stations have been established to broadcast appeals to the fighters; half a million leaflets have been dropped from the air. Even aerial loudspeakers have been deployed to try to persuade LRA fighters to lay down their weapons and come out of the bush.

This has been a long and a deadly war. Ugandan troops serve for up to two years before going home. General Kavuma has a good reputation and is said to have transformed the African troops into an effective fighting force. But divisions in South Sudan and the Central African Republic have sapped the operation. The LRA is said to be hiding in Kafia Kingi, one of the areas claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. Kony may still receive backing from Khartoum, although the General says he has no evidence of this.

The fighting is unlikely to end soon. It is simply too low on the international agenda to receive sufficient resources. As one well-informed observer put it: “The LRA is a forgotten force in a forgotten part of the world.”

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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