KAMPALA, Uganda — Can you crowd-fund the hunt for a war criminal on the run deep in Africa’s jungles? A Canadian adventurer with experiences in Afghanistan and Somalia wants to do just that: raise funds and take a small band of former soldiers to find Joseph Kony.
Robert Young Pelton, whose plan has already drawn criticism from a pair of Africa experts, is the latest to join a line of private individuals and aid groups who are trying to corner the alleged mass murderer and members of his Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony remains elusive despite the deployment by President Barack Obama in late 2011 of 100 U.S. special forces to aid the hunt — which is mostly carried out by Ugandan troops — and the efforts by myriad private groups.
Among those efforts:
— Invisible Children, an American aid group, created a web video seen by more than 100 million people last year that made Kony a family dinner topic and “introduce new audiences to the conflict, and inspire global action.”
— The Bridgeway Foundation, a Houston-based charity, hired a private company two years ago that specializes in military and law enforcement training to teach child hostage rescue techniques to the Ugandan troops tracking Kony. With support from the deep-pocketed Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Bridgeway pays an aviation company to fly a Cessna Caravan airplane and a Bell helicopter that are used to extract LRA defectors, transport injured people and broadcast anti-Kony messages from loudspeakers.
— Invisible Children and Resolve, another aid group, operate a website called the LRA Crisis Tracker that collects information on LRA attacks — often radioed in by villagers — in Central African Republic, Congo, South Sudan and Sudan. The site allows U.S. military officials or aid workers to see where the LRA is concentrating its attacks.
The U.S. State Department said non-governmental groups and foundations “have played a critical role in bringing the LRA’s atrocities to the world’s attention and continue to play an important role … to end those atrocities.”
But while the U.S. military’s Africa Command and the State Department both said they “appreciate the passion and commitment of Americans and citizens around the world to help the communities terrorized by the LRA,” neither would comment on Pelton’s effort.
Pelton, the author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places,” says he has done work for U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, and that he excels at finding people who don’t want to be found. If his plan is funded, he would start looking for Kony, who is likely in the Central African Republic, early next year, he said.
“I am actually walking through the jungle myself with a stalwart band of like-minded people with all the right skills,” Pelton said by telephone, adding that his group won’t be looking to kill anyone and intends to comply with local laws.
“I’m not Wyatt Earp,” he insisted. “I’m not gathering a posse to chase down Kony for the money. I’m trying to see if I can create a system that works.”
By “works” Pelton means a system that can finally get Kony, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 on crimes against humanity charges including sexual slavery, rape and murder.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, said: “One really does not know whether this scheme merits ridicule or reproach. … The notion of asking the public to contribute to sending a self-promoting adventurer and two filmmakers off to find an elusive warlord whom the militaries of several African countries assisted by U.S. Special Operations Forces have not managed to catch is risible, to say the least.”
Pelton’s $500,000 crowd-funding bid via indiegogo — a platform like Kickstarter — has raised only about $7,500 in two weeks.
The Ugandan military spokesman, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, said he had not heard of Pelton’s mission, though he sounded incredulous when it was described to him.
“We wish him good luck. That’s all I can say,” Ankunda said.
The U.S. Africa Command says the LRA has “murdered, raped and kidnapped tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children” and that more than 380,000 people across three African countries have been displaced while fleeing the violence. The U.S. State Department is offering a $5 million reward — up to $15 million total — for help in the arrest of Kony and two of his lieutenants.
Ugandan Brig. Sam Kavuma, who took over earlier this year as the top commander of African Union troops searching for Kony in a wild, sparely inhabited region of dense jungle covering Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic, spoke well of Bridgeway’s contribution, saying it made the mission more agile.
Others though, including those who are generally pleased with the group’s role, say that disputes arise between U.S. troops, the Ugandan military and Bridgeway’s private contractors.
Simon Mulongo, a lawmaker who sits on the defense and internal affairs committee of Uganda’s parliament, said Bridgeway’s private contractors are essentially “a mercenary force, and mercenaries have limitations.” He said there were concerns about the chain of command and possible infighting.
The contractors carry light weapons and tracking devices, Mulongo said. Kavuma disputed this account, saying the contractors are not armed and that only one of them is still active on the ground in central Africa.
Besides its other assistance, Bridgeway is also financing a canine unit to find children abducted by Kony’s army.
“What was happening was you just could never find the children in that vast of a jungle, in that thick of a jungle, and so these sniffer dogs would come in and they could smell where the children had bed down and help find them,” said Shannon Sedgwick Davis, Bridgeway’s chief executive.
Davis said she discussed Bridgeway’s involvement with the U.S. government and United Nations officials and focused on filling gaps in the official anti-Kony mission. The U.S. State Department said it has no objections to Bridgeway’s escalated role and that it seeks to coordinate with all such groups where possible.
Maj. Fred Harrel, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said the African-led, U.S.-supported mission has reduced Kony’s operating space and influence.
“There has been an overall reduction in attacks, abductions, and civilians killed, along with increased defections from the LRA,” he said.
But despite all the efforts, Kony remains on the loose.