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Richard Petraitis Spirit War

Joseph Kony’s Spirit War (2003)

Richard Petraitis


The year 2001 saw no cessation in the magic wars fought on the African Continent. The Twenty-First Century’s arrival witnessed yet another tribal revolt, fueled by magical belief, raging in Nigeria’s Oil Delta. In the Delta, members of the Egbesu Cult, (the war god of the Ijaw People), battled the Nigerian Army, with rebel fighters believing they had immunity to bullets.[1] The war god’s priests convinced Ijaw teenagers that all bullets fired at them would turn around in mid air and return to their origin–hapless government soldiers![2] Not surprisingly, hundreds of Ijaw men were soon killed by the military. However, despite the serious casualties inflicted on the Ijaw fighters by the army, Nigeria’s oil delta region still remains a bastion of magical thinking and the Egbesu Cult shows no signs of vanishing soon. The Ijaw revolt lasted four years, but it certainly wasn’t the longest running magic war in African history. That dubious honor goes to the rebellion of the LRA, (the Lord’s Resistance Army), being waged on the nation of Uganda, by a shadow figure dwelling among the Acholi People. This fifteen year old war, with its magic spells and kidnapped child soldiers, has as its architect a former illiterate altar boy named “Joseph Kony.”

No longer an Acholi boy but a man of forty years, Kony is the self-appointed successor to his aunt, Voodoo Priestess, “Alice Lakwena.” (Lakwena is “messenger”in the Acholi tongue.)[3] It was this charismatic woman, the reputed channeler of a deceased, World War I Italian army officer, who led thousands of Acholi fighters to their deaths in one-sided battles with President Yoweri Museveni’s military.[4] During the tribal revolt, from 1987 to 1988, Lakwena’s ill-fated Holy Spirit Army tried to storm Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, armed with sticks, stones, and voodoo toys. Alice promised her followers that stones thrown at the enemy would explode like grenades.[5] In the bloody battles that followed, with only a few rifles in their possession, the Holy Spirit Army was completely routed by heavy machine gun and artillery fire. Magical belief proved no substitute for the Acholi lack of military arms and training. Having suffered battlefield losses of several thousand dead, the survivors of the Holy Spirit Army scattered to the hills. The bloody losses sustained by Lakwena’s rebel army were the heaviest loss of African life, involving magical belief and warfare, since the Maji-Maji Revolt of 1904-05. However, the remaining Holy Spirit Army survivors rallied to form a new rebel army, the Lord’s Resistance Army–enter Joseph Kony center stage.

In 1989, the twenty-five year old Joseph Kony rose to the forefront of the Acholi People’s struggle against Museveni’s government. Kony’s rebels managed to curb atrocities committed against the Northerners by Uganda’s military, but soon the rebels began committing their own war crimes. Not surprisingly, Mr. Kony had been tutored by his aunt, the Acholi Priestess, Lakwena, who herself had engaged in brutal kidnappings (forced conscriptions) into her Holy Spirit Army.[6] From the start, Joseph Kony exhibited a ruthlessness in war noted for an arrogant flaunting of the 1949 Geneva Convention. In one decade alone, over 8,000 children were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Most of these unfortunate children are now presumed dead, killed either in combat or in the murderous crossfire of warring sides. Tragically, these prisoners of war are transported, tied in columns by rope as slaves, to LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) camps.[7] When shooting breaks out, the conscripts often are unable to escape. If the kidnapped children survive the long journey to the LRA camps, they are forcefully indoctrinated into the LRA’s grand vision of an Acholi nation based on the Ten Commandments–savage beatings are meted out to all nonbelievers. The child captives are taught the rebel leader’s belief in an apocalyptic arrival of “The Silent World.” Joseph Kony believes there will be a time in history when all guns worldwide will fall silent and only those knowing how to use crude weapons, like stones, spears, and machetes, will prevail against their enemies.[8] (LRA members are obsessed with the idea of supernatural intervention and battlefield odds favoring the use of primitive weapons.) LRA military indoctrination consists of beatings, rapes, and the severing of limbs by machete–all based on selected Biblical passages–no doubt some of the harshest found in the pages of the Old Testament. Joseph Kony subjects his child soldiers to an odd blend of Christianity, primarily the fundamentalist kind, mixed with African animistic beliefs which include the practice of witchcraft. Of course, the Biblical passages forbidding engagement in witchcraft are overlooked by Mr. Kony and his entire LRA command structure. Anyone who resists LRA indoctrination, or who attempts to escape, is executed–often savagely beaten to death by those newly abducted into Kony’s Spirit Army.

Just what motivates these young fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army? Mr. Joseph Kony, with his syncretism of religious beliefs, has thoroughly convinced many of his young warriors that the Holy Spirit can shield them in battle if the proper belief, the proper application of Holy Oil, the proper number of signs of the cross, and the proper recitation of prayer songs, are displayed in combat.[9] But that’s not all! LRA fighters are told to sew a stone into their clothing so a mountain may be projected in front of them as they advance toward enemy positions–all the better to shield them and absorb enemy fire.[10] Child soldiers are given a bottle of water for protection against Ugandan soldiers. LRA fighters must dip a stick inside the bottle and then empty the bottle’s contents to magically create a river that will drown any bullets fired in their direction.[11] And where is Joseph Kony during the battlefield melees? Safely in the rear area sitting out the firefights in a white robe! In the heat of battle, child soldiers are ordered not to take cover, but to stand tall when the shooting starts.[12] They have been told, by their officers, these are the orders of the Holy Spirit, as revealed personally to Mr. Kony. Why doesn’t the LRA commander exhibit the same belief in the Holy Spirit’s protection and expose himself to enemy fire? Perhaps he believes that malevolent spirits (called joks) will maliciously retaliate against him. Joseph Kony’s belief in “joks” is strong and because of his superstition the LRA has executed Ugandans, primarily women, believed to be in league with spirits.[13] Strangely, Mr. Kony’s own consultation of a spirit council, a disembodied panel of two Chinese, two Sudanese, three Americans, and one Congolese, aren’t grounds for the same LRA death penalty![14] I guess it pays to be the leader.

Currently, the Lord’s Resistance Army launches operations from the Sudan. Over the past few years, lorries full of weapons and ammunition arrive, from Sudan’s regular army, at Kony’s main encampment. Young teenagers engage in spiritualistic regimens at the training sites, but they are now given military training with automatic rifles and machine guns[15]–certainly a deviation from Alice Lakwena’s earlier military strategy. The decision toward heavier armaments seems to point to uncertainty about the imminent coming of the Silent World.[16] Perhaps Joseph Kony’s spiritual beliefs are changing, influenced by his Muslim protectors. Maybe the appeal of seventy-two virgins, in Allah’s heaven, feeding pomegranates to zealous warriors is a better vision of Paradise for Joseph Kony and his holy warriors. Sudanese support seems to have had a profound impact on the LRA’s main persona. He has now even incorporated tenets of the Islamic faith into his religious practices! According to eyewitness reports, LRA soldiers use rosaries to pray, yet also bow towards Mecca as Muslims.[17] While faithful Muslims turn a blind eye, Kony’s rebels observe the two Sabbaths they have created, on Friday and Sunday.[18] Restrictions of the Muslim faith are ignored; the traditional Acholi religion is still practiced by the LRA’s leader with a heavy dose of divination and magic ritual. (Divination is a dying offense in parts of the Muslim world.) It has been reported that Mr. Kony keeps an ample stock of snakes, turtles, and lizards, for just such mediumistic purposes.[19] Not having the benefit of being tutored at a military academy, Mr. Kony deduces a battle’s outcome by setting toy guns, and helicopters on fire to see how the models will burn; thereby foretelling victory or defeat in an upcoming battle. LRA casualties are simply predicted by placing a finger in a glass of water.[20] And if Joseph Kony’s spirit panel isn’t giving him good military advice, the LRA leader can always count on “angels” for divine guidance on campaign strategy. The LRA’s child soldiers are told that commands come from these angels, who commune regularly with Mr. Kony.[21] It must have been one of these heavenly messengers who provided Mr. Kony with the holy advice to expand the Ten Commandments to Eleven Commandments–the Eleventh Commandment being “Thou shall not ride a bicycle.” It is common practice for civilians in the Acholi heartland to be punished when caught riding a bicycle, the main form of transport in the remote rural areas of Uganda. (Automobiles are out of the price range for many Ugandans.) Hundreds have had their buttocks slashed with a machete by LRA rebels for disregard of the Eleventh commandment.[22] The offending bicycles are put to the ax, with extreme prejudice by the Spirit warriors. I hope Mr. Kony will remember when a bicycle was auntie Alice Lakwena’s only mode of escape from Uganda, after her military defeat of 1988. Perhaps, in one of his many spirit trances, he will see the wisdom of keeping this two wheeled escape device on hand in the event his bloody revolution some day comes to an inglorious end.

Tragically, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni can’t seem to deal a knockout blow to Kony’s rebels. Such a blow would mean an invasion of Southern Sudan, and that could lead to a war Uganda can’t presently afford. Mr. Museveni will need to find a remedy for this tribal rebellion, not with bullets, but by spending state treasure on social programs for Uganda’s Northerners, “The Acholi People.” Uganda’s President must win a war of hearts and minds. Heavy-handed tactics often fail to stop rebellions. The present political climate, which gives birth to self-proclaimed messiahs, must change to one conducive to peace. Presently, the LRA leader’s edicts are becoming more bizarre, perhaps an indication that Joseph Kony is himself becoming unhinged from reality. Recently, the LRA has declared war on the owners of white chickens and pigs, killing them where they are found. (His rebellion now shares a commonality with the magic-based Bambata Revolt of 1906. During that revolt, owners of white pigs and fowls were killed by rebels.)[23] Despite the failure of Joe Kony’s magic for his troops, the LRA rebel leader’s faithful fight on with several thousand fighters in the bush. Mr. Kony’s forces have killed more than five thousand civilians in Northern Uganda and the body count is still rising. I can only hope that one day this Acholi madman will be brought to justice for crimes against humanity.

In Africa, however, so many of those who have manipulated others for power escape justice. One has only to study the example of Liberia’s “General Butt Naked,” Joshua Milton Blahyi, who led hundreds of young men to their deaths in that West African nation’s bloody civil war. The infamous general, often sporting only his birthday suit and sneakers in battle, promised his loyal fighters supernatural protection in war.[24] He believed in magical protection from physical danger because of the ritual killings of children he conducted for himself and his forces. Despite the pain he brought to the Liberian people, Mr.Blahyi now lives peacefully in Monravia, Liberia, as a “born-again” Christian minister![25] If not brought to justice soon, perhaps we may soon witness Mr. Kony’s Traveling Salvation Show? In Africa almost anything is possible.

Works Cited:

[1] Hillary Andersson, (Akassa), “Nigerians Turn To Magic In Fight Against Oil Firms,” The Independent, Nov.06, 1998. Accessed on May 27th, 2001 at

[2] “Locals Want A Piece of Nigeria’s Oil Wealth: Squalor Amid the Flow Stations” Reuters, Oct. 07, 1998. Accessed on May 27th, 2001 at http//:more.abcnews.go.com/sections/business/Daily/oil_nigeria981007/

[3] “The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch/Africa/Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, New York, 1997. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[4] ibid.

[5] “Magic Gone For Jailed Priestess: Suicidal Crusade Against Uganda Appears At End” Chicago Tribune, Jan.02,1988. Accessed at

[6] “The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch/Africa/Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, New York, 1997. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[7] ibid.

[8] Ayebare Adonia, (Kampala) “Leaving It To Fate,” The World Paper Online, Sept. 1998. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[9] “The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch/Africa/Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, New York, 1997. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] Ayebare Adonia, (Kampala) “Leaving It To Fate,” The World Paper Online, Sept. 1998. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[15] “The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch/Africa/Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, New York, 1997. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid.

[20] Ayebare Adonia, (Kampala) “Leaving It To Fate,” The World Paper Online, Sept. 1998. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[21] “The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch/Africa/Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, New York, 1997. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at

[22] “Thou Shalt Not Ride A Bicycle” Weekly Mail & Guardian, Oct., 1997. Accessed on Nov. 30th, 2001 at http://www.worldpaper.com/Archivew…/adonia.htm

[23] K.G. Gillings, JCD “The Bambata Rebellion of 1906:Nkandla Operations And The Battle Of Mome Gorge, 10 June, 1906” Military History Journal Vol. 8 No. 1, published by The South African Military Society. Accessed on May 27th, 2001 at

[24] Tina Susman, “Out of Africa: Butt Naked Battalion” (Associated Press) Sun Tzu’s Newswire Release-9753, Aug. 18, 1997. Accessed on August 31st, 2000 at

[25] ibid.

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