Negotiator Betty Bigombe on Kony’s 15 minutes

Negotiator Betty Bigombe on Kony’s 15 minutes

Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with Betty Bigombe about this week’s explosion of interest in Joseph Kony.  For over two decades, as State Minister for Northern Uganda and as an independent negotiator while taking a leave of absence from a job at the World Bank, Bigombe served as point person for talks with the LRA. She met numerous times with Kony throughout the ’90s and 2000’s as part of a mediation effort that set the stage for the 2006-2008 Juba talks, which collapsed after Kony refused to sign a peace agreement. Bigombe today serves as Uganda’s state minister for water resources and spoke to FP by phone from France: 

FP: Do you think it’s helpful to have this amount of international attention focused the Joseph Kony?

BB: It’s coming rather late, and I’m not quite able to understand the objective. Is it fundraising? Is it awareness creation? This kind of thing — Twitter, YouTube, video production — it’s not something new. It’s been there for quite some time. And Invisible Children could have used it at a time when we needed more attention.

I remember back when I really was trying to make all the effort to negotiate with Kony — I could have been killed, I could have been held hostage, I could have been blown by landmines — that’s when the call to pursue him would have been very, very meaningful. Right now, it’s coming a little late. Kony has been very, very much weakened. But also, I must say, we must keep it on the screen of everybody.

My problem with all this is that it’s being portrayed as “This is us; it’s all we Americans, we can do it; we, the world, can do it; we don’t need them; we don’t need the Ugandans; we don’t need the countries that are actually going through this.”

We [Africans ] are not going back to the days where decisions were made for us, and things done for us without our participating as partners.

FP: So having interacted with Joseph Kony before and having spoken with him, do you think he’s aware of the international attention he’s getting? Does he follow his international press? Does he know his global reputation?

BB: Oh yes, he does. He once told me, “One day you’ll just discover that I’m dead. I’m going to die like Hitler. Nobody will know the circumstances. Nobody will know how it happened or where my body is.” He definitely knows [how he’s seen]. I discussed with him the option of going to The Hague as a better option than being pursued and followed by everybody, and he said, “I know my options. I know I’m going to be either dead, or prison.”

FP: How aware do you think his followers are of how he is viewed?

BB: Having interacted with him for all these years,  this is really just a spell, this belief that he’s got supernatural power. You know, and I believe strongly that his followers totally believe in him, as somebody with vision, who knows what’s going to happen, that has predicted so many things that have all come to pass. Now, they’re broken up into very small groups. He moves, at the most, with around 5 to 10 people. In a vast area, sparsely populated. It’s like looking for a pin in a haystack.

He no longer has big gathering, and by the way, only a few senior commanders are allowed radio communication. They can listen to ordinary radios, tune in, but the majority are not allowed to have a radio or know what is going on. So majority do not know [how he is portrayed]. It’s up to him to make it known to them.

FP: So you think there’s still hope for negotiated settlement or a negotiated surrender, or is the only way this ends is him being killed?

BB: The Obama order that sent hundred American advisers – that has already had some impact, in the sense that LRA commanders have been losing wives and children. They know that the Americans are coming, so those who cannot run fast, they release them. Now some of them are Sudanese, Congolese, or from Central African Republic. Now, this is a positive development. All these years, we, I, have been asking Joseph Kony to release these children and women, and one time he told me, “you know, if we release them, it will confirm the accusation that we are abducting women and children, so we won’t.” Another time he told me “I need the women, especially the young ones. I am gifted. I have the power to cure many ailments, including HIV/ADIS.”

Now for the first time, voluntarily, they’re telling these women, “go”. Now, I talked to some less than two weeks ago that just returned to their country, and they say he no longer holds long meeting, he no longer carries satellite phones, neither does he carry the radio to communicate with a different groups. He believes that the Americans will monitor his movement and pick him up.

So with this kind of campaign, [Kony 2012], I do not know whether it makes any difference as far as taking him out is concerned. However, what is important is bringing this to the attention of policymakers. I hope that something innovative will come out of it.