April 17th, 2012
08:31 AM ET

Jeffrey Gettleman on Joseph Kony, "dirty wars" and more

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Six weeks ago, very few people outside of Africa had any idea who Joseph Kony was. Today at least 87 million people do. That's how many people have watched the viral vide on YouTube about this brutal Ugandan warlord.

My guest this past weekend was Jeffrey Gettleman.  Gettleman has known about Kony for years. In fact, he was embedded with the Ugandan Army on a hunt for Kony two years ago. Gettleman is the East Africa Bureau Chief of the New York Times and was was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. We chatted about Kony, "dirty wars" in Africa and Africa's prospects in general. Here's a transcript of our discussion:

Fareed Zakaria: So what was it like to be with the Ugandan Army while it was trying to find Joseph Kony?

Jeffrey Gettleman: It was a pretty amazing experience. The Ugandan Army has been pursuing Kony for years and now they're stretched more than 1,000 miles away from Uganda. They have gone into Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Congo and they invited me to go along with them on this manhunt.

And it was some of the roughest terrain I have ever experienced. I mean, impenetrable jungle that we were hacking our ways through, walking up to, you know, to our necks in this black water, these rivers that flow through the jungle.

There was this leaf that these Ugandan soldiers had warned me about. They said, "Whatever you do, don't touch this leaf as you're walking through the jungle." And I was wearing, you know, full clothes, of course and I brushed up against them once and my whole body itched and I'm convinced there are things in that Congolese jungle that science has yet to discover.

Fareed Zakaria: And you had a machete as well? You ...

Jeffrey Gettleman: I actually didn't. I was so incapacitated just trying to keep up with these guys. I mean, these Ugandan soldiers are as tough as steel and it got to the point they were carrying my gear, you know, I was just trying to survive out there.

But the bigger issue is, this guy Kony and the LRA has been brutalizing people for 25 years and they go to where States are weakest. When Uganda was having a lot of trouble in the 80's, the LRA was very powerful. And Uganda got its act together, the military drove the LRA out of Uganda. So they just gravitated to the next sort of, disaster zone, which was Congo.

Fareed Zakaria: And is Joseph Kony the worst of the worst? Because that's (sort of) the implication in the video. But is he?

Jeffrey Gettleman: I think he is. I think that video has taken a lot of criticism for over simplifying the issues, which maybe it did. But, I do think the core issue that the video raised is pretty valid which is, this guy Kony is a brutalizer. He has been terrorizing civilians in Central Africa for more than two decades. His group will continue to do that as long as he's around.

Fareed Zakaria: Why can they not find him?

Jeffrey Gettleman: Because it's an area the size of California with supposedly 250 militants in it and it is this thick, impenetrable jungle. When we were flying over, you couldn't see anything. So aerial surveillance doesn't work. It has to be this sort of old fashioned, on the ground manhunt and that's what I did with these guys.

Fareed Zakaria: You talk about, in a "New York Review Books" article; you talk about how this battle between Joseph Kony and the Ugandan Army is emblematic of the new kind of war in Africa.

Jeffrey Gettleman: Yes, to me it's very interesting. If you look back at Africa 20 or 30 years ago, there were many liberation wars. There were wars against apartheid; there were wars against colonialism still. And then there were wars against guestpits (ph). And many of the rebel leaders that lead these rebellions against guestpits (ph) like Paul Kagame of Rwanda, (INAUDIBLE) of Ethiopia, Uganda's President, Museveni. They were organized. They had ideologies. They had, these rebel leaders were very well educated and they put together these movements that sought to get territory, to liberate people, to introduce a new way of governing and still deliver palpable benefits to the population.

And we see that in these countries. There are criticisms, they're not democrative, but the quality of life has improved drastically in all of those countries I just mentioned. Today, it's a totally different landscape. Rebels are known for brutalizing civilians. They're not fighting for anybody. The LRA is the best case of this. Who do they fight for? Who do they represent? What's driving them? What's their ideology? What could you offer them to entice them to come out of the jungle? That's the problem.

So, in addition to this, sort of, fragmentation and increased violence, these wars go on and on and on because there's nothing you could offer Kony. He doesn't want a seat in the government. He's not standing up for the rights of the repressed people. He's not even motivated by any commercial enterprise like these groups in Congo that are seizing minerals.

Fareed Zakaria: You once wrote a piece, which I was very struck by years ago in Foreign Policy, in which you pointed out, that explains the phenomenon of child soldiers. Because with adults, you have to indoctrinate them with ideology, but you don't have an ideology, so you can't get adults to follow you.

Jeffrey Gettleman: That's exactly right. There's a connection of why we're seeing all of these child soldiers and the proliferation of that across Africa.

These new rebel groups don't stand for anything, so nobody wants to join them. And they're very brutal. Like the LRA, they cut off people's lips, they rape women, they burn down villages. Just gratuitously, there's no strategic purpose here. So nobody's going to volunteer to join them. So the only way they can sustain themselves is kidnapping children and then brainwashing them.

And the LRA, that's another reason why these guys are so brutal is, most of the soldiers in there were kids, you know 7, 8, 9-years- old, who were kidnapped from their families, swept away and then trained to kill. And that's part of their indoctrination. You know, they say to these kids, "You know, here's a club, you have to beat this person to death or we're going to kill you." And that, you know, that just breeds this almost psycopathy in these groups.

And that's why it's so hard to end these wars. Not really wars, I call them "unwars" or "mini wars" or "dirty wars." You know, there's no clear territory, there's no clear distinction between combatants and civilians and we see this across Africa, it's not just the LRA. We see this in Congo, we see this in Sudan, we see this in the Sahara. And some of it has to do with the Cold War. The Cold War imposed an order on Africa. There was a lot of manipulation, a lot of weapons that float in, a lot of bad things that happen. But there was more eyes on African, in a way then, because Africa was seen as strategically important.

And places like Central African Republic where Kony is now, nobody really cares about it and that's why he's able to do what he's doing there.

Fareed Zakaria: Are the "pirates" that we hear about, another version of this phenomenon? No ideology, but essentially criminal gangs?

Jeffrey Gettleman: Yes, I mean, the pirates, they just won't quit. It's amazing that the longevity and the ambition of these guys. There was just a hijacking where the pirates attacked a ship in the Maldives, something like 2,000 miles east of Somalia. And these are, you know, uneducated guys with rusty guns and flip flops, you know, setting out to sea and, you know, derelict boats. They use mother ships now, which is like a hijacked tanker that they've taken and that's their floating base.

And they go out as far as they can go and then they send out these little skips. But again, it's a symptom of a failed state. The pirates are successful in Somalia because they have a place to retreat to. There are still large parts of the country that are lawless and in the, you know, under the authority of various clan militias or criminal gangs.

Until Somalia stabilizes, you know, from end to end, the whole country, until there's a really strong government or a functioning government that can control territory, we're going to see, the piracy problem isn't going to go away. But it's getting harder for them. There's been a naval response that has made it harder to hijack ships. More pirates have been arrested. And I think, you know, these two things are happening at the same time.

As I wrote in this story about Mogadishu, with the advent of more business and more, sort of, normal life, there's going to be an alternative for young men to take a normal job. And I met guys that were trying to get out of the killing business. They were militia fighters and they had spent years carrying a gun and working for this warlord or that warlord. And they said, "You know, I just want to be a driver. I just want a normal job." And that wasn't really possible until recently.

Now, Mogadishu is just a piece of it. There's a big country and a lot of it is still very underdeveloped and poor. But, as the country gets more stable and there's more economic opportunity, you're going to see the appetite for piracy go down.

Because, you know, I've interviewed countless pirates and that's what these guys say. They say, "It's a really, you know, crappy lifestyle. We go out on sea for, you know, for weeks, we don't have enough food, we don't have enough water. Our comrades drown. You know, it's not an easy living. And if there was something else to do, we'd do it."

Jeffrey Gettleman: You know, there's a famous Harvard Professor, Sam Huntington who said that, "For most of the world," and Africa really falls into this category, "Americans never understand that the issue is not the kind of government, but the degree of government." That they just have a government that can actually control the territory or claims to control. Jeffrey Gettleman, pleasure to have you on as always.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Benedict

    As the speaker was saying, Africa has and continues to be the epicenter of militant wars fought by men who want one thing or the other. What remains to be seen is how do the governments of Africa respond to the challenges posed by these armed non-state actors who threaten the lives of innocent men,women and children

    April 17, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
  2. concerned american

    How come there was no mention of the arab-american Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from Pennsylvania? Biased CNN always comes across as anti-arab and pro-israel.

    April 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • I GO P ON GOP

      Probably because the article was about Joseph Kony's dirty wars in Central Africa and not the Pulitzers or Pennsylvania.

      April 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  3. Jesse Parent

    The disproportionate representation of non African issues remains in US media. There is focus on eastern development, but the US needs to respect and understand African geopolitical significance, beyond Kony or buzzwords like disease or revolution.

    The Huntington reference is an interesting one.

    April 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
    • J

      And what is Africa's geopolitical significance?
      Some minerals and some oil which can both be purchased from militias or corrup governments and what else?

      April 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Kony saw himself as a spirit medium and told the abductees he got his instructions from the Holy Spirit and created an aura of fear and mysticism around himself. His rebels had to follow strict rules and rituals or else they would be killed. In the last five years he and the LRA had stopped carrying out atrocities in northern Uganda. But fear still spread in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and occasionally South Sudan.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  5. UMAD

    Koney 2012

    April 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  6. T

    Pretty sure the word that the transcriber could not apparently understand was "despots", not "guestpits"

    April 17, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Reply
    • Ronnie Harper

      I was going to post the same thing, so /bump.

      April 18, 2012 at 1:43 am | Reply

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