This week, the international manhunt for Joseph Kony came to an undistinguished end. Both Uganda and the United States said they were withdrawing forces dedicated to catching the warlord, who remains on the run despite a multi-year, multimillion-dollar chase.
Just five years ago, Kony became one of the world’s most-feared monsters. More than 100 million people watched the viral 30-minute “Kony 2012” video, which detailed Kony’s brutality during the two-decade insurgency he and his Lord’s Resistance Army waged against the Ugandan government.
But it’s been a long time since Kony was the menace the video made him out to be.
The Lord’s Resistance Army is now a shadow of its former self, having dwindled from a force of roughly 2,000 to fewer than 100 men. The group hit its peak more than a decade ago, when it terrorized northern Uganda, killing more than 100,000 people and forcing another 2 million out of their homes.
By the time “Kony 2012” was released by the San Diego-based nonprofit organization Invisible Children, the LRA was already on the run. Kony had been pushed out of Uganda and chased across the wilds of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
The LRA continues to carry out intermittent attacks, but it has not been responsible for major atrocities since 2010. The group is believed to be operating from a remote and largely ungoverned region at the intersection of Sudan, South Sudan and the CAR known as Kafia Kingi.
Ben Shepherd, an analyst and consulting fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, says it’s now hard to tell the groups apart from other armed factions taking advantage of the instability in central Africa.
“There is no sense under which Kony and other senior leaders should be allowed to fade into obscurity because of what they did,” he said. “But as an immediate strategic calculation, can one differentiate between them and smugglers, armed herdsmen, bandits [or] random folks running around in bits of Kafia Kingi? Probably not at this point.”
But advocacy by Invisible Children and other U.S.-based groups continued to boost Kony’s profile – and make the case for American military intervention. The U.S. provided military support to Uganda beginning in 2008 and deployed 100 special operations troops to serve as advisers in the hunt for Kony in 2011.
“If you look at it from a regional perspective, it’s been a bit surprising that there was so much attention to that group, and it was mainly because of internal American reasons,” said Kristof Titeca, a lecturer at the University of Antwerp who studies rebel movements in East and Central Africa.
The group’s legacy of horrors made them seem particularly extreme, he added.
“At that time, you didn’t have many other actors which were committing these mass atrocities. There was no ISIS yet, there was no Boko Haram,” Titeca said. “If you look at the world stage of rebel groups or the world stage of terror, they were the ultimate evil.”
Only part of the LRA’s subsequent decline is because of the military mission against Kony.