On Sept. 23, Gawker reported that former U.S. Marine Jason Constantine, who calls himself “an independent freelance diplomat,” had corresponded with the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the notorious Joseph Kony. In the article, Constantine claimed that Kony – who has been in a nearly 30-year war with the Ugandan government that has taken a savage toll on civilians across Central Africa – now seeks peace and wants Constantine to convey this news to the U.S. government.
According to Constantine, the U.S. State Department has ignored these efforts. As proof of Constantine’s dialogue, Gawker published a handwritten letter, allegedly written by Kony, along with a photo of Kony in a jogging suit.
Constantine’s accusation is serious. President Obama has dedicated attention and financial support to ending the LRA war, declaring the capture or elimination of Kony a top priority of his Africa policy.
But the story as reported is almost certainly false. With better fact-checking, Gawker would likely have discovered that someone had played an elaborate con on Constantine.
Gawker’s editors appear to be unaware of the long history of LRA hoaxes over the last decade. Understanding these hoaxes’ history might have illuminated the real, ongoing problems faced by thousands of former LRA members and their families in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Here are some of the indications that the letter is a hoax.
1. Kony is too paranoid to write a letter.
Researchers familiar with the LRA and Kony’s normal mode of operations know that he would not write letters or personally handle anything originating in or destined for the world outside his increasingly shrinking LRA world. Kony’s long survival in some of the harshest terrain in the world while being pursued by several armies has depended heavily not only on his well-documented capacity for brutality but also on his superstitions and extreme paranoia, marked by a near-total distrust of anyone, including many of his own fighters.
2. Kony fears technology too much to propose a Skype call.
Kony’s well-known fear of technology makes clear that the letter’s proposal to have a conversation on Skype is absurd. Given the remoteness of Kony’s last known location as of May – west of Kafia Kingi, a Sudanese enclave bordered by South Sudan and Central African Republic – it’s hard to believe he can even access the Internet, let alone make Skype calls.
3. Kony never calls himself “JK.”
In the letter, “Kony” refers to himself as “JK.” That makes the letter’s authenticity quite dubious. There is no evidence of Kony ever referring to himself by his initials. Kony is known among the troops as Lapwony Madit (“Big Teacher”), Mr. Chairman (of the Lord’s Resistance Movement), General, Baba (“Father”) or Ladit (“Sir”). He has often referred to himself in the past as “General” or “Chairman.”
4. The letter incorrectly spells out the LRA.
The letter mistakenly says that the LRA stands for the Lord’s Resistant Army. That is not a mistake Kony himself would be likely to make.
5. The photo might be real, even if the letter is not.
Interestingly, the photo of an aged Kony in jogging suit and trademark gumboots, receding hair and all, could be genuine. However, the photo lacks a time stamp or geo tags, so it is impossible to determine when or where it was taken.
But the photo in and of itself is not necessarily proof that Kony is making authentic demands for peace. Some former combatants have defected with looted cameras, which they have used to take pictures of one another in the bush. For instance, former LRA commander Caesar Achellam surrendered to the Ugandan Army in Central African Republic in 2012. His camera contained a few interesting and genuine depictions of life inside the LRA, including pictures of Achellam posing with one of his bodyguards and digging for wild yams.
Who’s behind the Kony hoax?
So who might have engineered the hoax and why?
It could well have been the work of one of the people explicitly mentioned: Richard Odong, known in northern Uganda as Odong-kau. He is known primarily for a daring escape from the LRA camps in northeastern Congo’s Garamba Park in late 2007, having already escaped in 2004 and joined the LRA again two years later. Odong defected soon after Kony executed his longtime deputy, Vincent Otti. Kony accused Odong-kau of having conspired with Otti to have Kony killed, which would make Odong-kau highly unlikely to serve as a liaison between Constantine and Kony.
The Gawker story has many similarities with several previous hoaxes. In early 2009, a man claiming to be Okot Odhiambo – Kony’s deputy who replaced Otti and was also wanted on an International Criminal Court warrant – telephoned an international organization claiming he was in northeastern Congo and wanted to surrender. It turned out to be a former LRA fighter calling from a satellite phone just outside of Kampala, trying to make money in hopes of becoming a middleman or facilitator. That’s what Odong-kau may be trying to do here.
Or the Gawker letter could have been authored by someone like Okello Mission, a former LRA member who has often claimed to be Kony’s representative. Mission was part of the LRA between 2007 and 2010 when he was captured by the Ugandan army in South Sudan, and he has tried similar hoaxes before. Mission’s unreliability is unfortunate in that a peaceful conclusion to this conflict, which Mission seems to advocate, is much needed.
Another previous hoax emerged in November 2013 when the then-Central African Republic President Michel Djotodia reported Kony wanted to negotiate a peaceful surrender. Djotodia claimed he was in touch with Kony. In fact, he only had contact with a Seleka unit and a small LRA group in Nzako, eastern Central African Republic, that was under the command of a mid-level LRA commander. Kony never surrendered.
Gawker’s error could have real consequences.
Gawker’s error may present real dangers, from fueling cross-border conspiracies to affecting foreign policy. The accusation leveled in Gawker against the State Department prompts needless speculation and denigrates efforts of many dedicated people in the U.S. government who are tirelessly working to end this horrendous conflict.
And if and when Kony actually does come calling, observers may assume it’s yet another false alarm rather than a real surrender.
The real takeaway: Kony’s defectors are in dire straits.
And yet the Gawker story, inaccurate though it might be, may unwittingly have drawn attention to some important concerns. Most former LRA fighters were forced into the movement as children. When they abandon the LRA, they return home to abject poverty and stigma in northern Uganda.
Odong-kau has been one of the luckier ones. He has received support in the past from both the Ugandan government and international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). That’s not true of many thousands of former LRA fighters who have returned in the last decade. They’ve received little to nothing. International NGOs have largely left northern Uganda. The government’s response has been inadequate. Upon return, women and children born in LRA captivity are cast out and discriminated against, often called derogatory names such as “Konys” or “bush people.”
This discrimination makes many feel hopeless. In the more than 400 interviews with former combatants I have conducted since 2009, about half of the interviewees have told me that either they preferred being in the LRA to being civilian outcasts, or that they flat-out want to return to its ranks. During recent interviews in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo, I found the same sentiment among non-Ugandan former LRA members. These people deserve our attention and support, not fictitious stories about Kony.
“I have nothing here,” Hundo, a young Central African man abducted at age 10 who had just come out of the LRA, told me this past June in Obo, Central African Republic. “I don’t remember anything about this place, only that my mother was called Marie.” He added, “In the bush I had a gun, I had food and water. I could survive.”
Ledio Cakaj (@LedioCakaj) is a writer and researcher focusing on armed groups and reintegration of former combatants, and is author of the forthcoming “When the Walking Defeats You: A young man’s journey inside the Lord’s Resistance Army” (Zed Books).