Kony as Moses

Old Testament Texts and Motifs in the Early Years of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda

by Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 204 Pages
Series: Bible and Theology in Africa, Volume 31


This book discusses the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) use of Old Testament texts and motifs in their rhetoric to mobilise and sustain the rebellion in Northern Uganda, specifically in Gulu district, the area that has been particularly affected by the LRA’s actions throughout more than two decades. This book also delves into the much-ignored religious dimension of studies on the LRA, which forms the core of the LRA's ideology. The LRA uses biblical motifs to legitimize its ideology and practice and this is the first study which goes into a detailed empirical and hermeneutical analysis of the same. More importantly, this book proposes an ethical gender-sensitive model for reading and interpreting the Bible. The book can be used by students of political science, anthropology, religious studies, contemporary religions and new religious movements as well as by biblicists, theologians and general readers whose interests lie in understanding how issues have evolved.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Acronyms
  • 1 Introduction
  • The Case of Dona
  • Who Is the LRA and What Motivates Them?
  • Sketching the Sociocultural Context
  • The Acholi: Land, People and History
  • Rebellions in Acholi-Land
  • The Lord’s Resistance Army
  • The Research Situation
  • The LRA and Its Use of Old Testament Texts and Motifs
  • Mosaic Motifs in the African Context
  • Violence in Old Testament Texts
  • Theory and Method
  • The Research Process
  • The Research Design
  • The Research Population
  • Data Analysis
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Rhetorical Criticism and the Old Testament
  • Why Rhetorical Criticism?
  • Application
  • 2 Mosaic Texts and Motifs in the Rhetoric of the Lord’s Resistance Army
  • LRA and the Old Testament – Some General Motifs
  • The LRA’s Use of Mosaic Motifs
  • Kony the Liberator
  • Kony the Lawgiver
  • Kony the Prophet
  • Complexity of Identifying Kony with Moses of the Old Testament
  • Discussion within the LRA and Its Surroundings Concerning the Moses-Motif
  • Contemporary Theories to Understand the LRA’s Actions
  • Conclusion
  • 3 Interaction between Old Testament Texts and Motifs and the LRA Interpretation
  • Introduction
  • The Rhetoric of Exodus 3:1–22: Moses the Liberator
  • The Interpretative Context
  • The Literary Context of Exodus 3:1–22
  • The Structure of Exodus 3:1–22
  • Moses Encounters God, vv. 1–6
  • Motifs: Mountain and Angel of the Lord
  • Experience of Misery, vv. 7 and 9
  • Deliverance of Israelites from Misery, vv. 8 and 10
  • Motif: Land Flowing with Milk and Honey
  • Dialogue between Moses and God, vv. 11–15
  • The Commissioning of Moses, vv. 16–22
  • The Rhetoric of Moses the Liberator in Exodus 3:1–22 and the LRA Discourse
  • The Rhetoric of Exodus 20:1–21: Moses the Lawgiver
  • The Interpretative Context
  • The Literary Context of Exodus 20:1–21
  • The Structure of Exodus 20:1–21
  • The Prologue to the Ten Commandments, vv. 1–2
  • “You Shall Have No Other Gods before Me,’ v. 3
  • “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep It Holy,” vv. 8–11
  • “You Shall not Murder,” v. 13
  • “You Shall not Commit Adultery,” v. 14
  • The Experience of the Theophany, vv. 18–21
  • The Rhetoric of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1–22 and the LRA Discourse
  • The Rhetoric of Deuteronomy 34:1–12: Moses the Prophet
  • The Interpretative Context
  • The Literary Context of Deuteronomy 34:1–12
  • The Structure of Deuteronomy 34:1–12
  • Moses’ Act of Viewing the Land, vv. 1–4
  • The Death and Burial of Moses, vv. 5–7
  • Shift from Moses to Joshua, vv. 8–9
  • Moses the Prophet, vv. 10–12
  • The Rhetoric of Moses in Deuteronomy 34:1–12 and the LRA Discourse
  • Conclusion
  • 4 The LRA’s Contextual Use of Old Testament Texts and Motifs – An Evaluation
  • Consequences of the LRA’s Reading of Some Old Testament Texts
  • Evaluation of the LRA’s Contextual Use of Old Testament Texts and Motifs
  • The Way Forward for Old Testament Studies in Africa
  • An Ethical Model for African Biblical Hermeneutics
  • The Case of Dona: What Can Now Be Said to Her?
  • 5 Conclusions and Future Perspective
  • Bibliography

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In examining situations of violence, the ideologies that support them need to be addressed. This book discusses the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) use of Old Testament texts and motifs – and I will refer to it as a contextual1 interpretation – in their rhetoric to mobilise and sustain the rebellion in Northern Uganda, specifically in Gulu district, the area that has been particularly affected by the LRA’s actions throughout more than two decades.2 The field research for the book was conducted in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2014 in northern Uganda.

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The LRA is an armed group under the leadership of Joseph Kony, who claims that he was sent by God to liberate the people of northern Uganda from suffering at the vengeful hands of the then National Resistance Army (NRA), who had just taken over power in 1986 under the leadership of Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over power in Kampala in 1986, most of the former soldiers of the Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU) who had allied with the National Resistance Army (NRA) to fight Obote’s Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) were stationed in Acholi-land (Behrend 1999; Van Acker 2004, 342; Bøås 2004a, 289). They exploited their presence there as an opportunity for revenge upon their former opponents by plundering, murdering, torturing and raping (Behrend 1999, 24; 1998, 108). These atrocities that the Acholi were facing at the hands of the new ruling government soldiers as a form of revenge left many people in Acholi helpless and disadvantaged (Behrend 1999, 25). What started as a liberation drive, degenerated into war, leading to a complete overturn of the social and generational structures of the Acholi (Cheney 2005, 32). As a result of the war, scholars, politicians and other writers have coined various descriptions for the region. For example, Jan Egeland, the former UN President of Humanitarian Relief and Assistance, once described northern Uganda as a site of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, where over a million people lived in atrocious conditions in more than 200 displacement camps (Allen 2006, xiii; UJCC report of May 2007, ix).3 For Eichstaedt, “Northern Uganda is a world out of control, where right is wrong and wrong is right, where carnage and chaos are the normal state of affairs” (Eichstaedt 2009, 5).

The physical, spiritual and social damage caused by the insurgency of the LRA is difficult to grasp (Doom and Vlassenroot 1999, 5; Van Acker 2004, 335–336; Allen 2006, xiii; Singer 2006, 113; Uganda Joint Christian Council 2007; Eichstaedt 2009, 5; ). The actions of the LRA left many wounded, others widowed and orphaned, and many homesteads childless. Of specific importance in this picture is the LRA’s forceful recruitment of children, girls and boys (Larubi 2000, 21; McKay and Mazurana 2004, 29; Vinci 2005, 360; Singer 2006, 20; Dunn 2007, 131). The abducted children became child soldiers, porters who carried the loot, cooks, spies, and, in the worst cases, the girls were turned into sex slaves (De Temmerman 2001, 44–45; 69; UNICEF 2006, 43).4

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In the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, there are various theories surrounding the possible causes of the insurgency. Hitherto scholars seeking to understand the violence perpetrated by the LRA in Northern Uganda between 1987 and 2005 have generally focused on two broad sets of related factors. The first is the historic exclusion of the Northern Acholi people from political power by colonial and postcolonial regimes. There seems to be agreement among scholars that the roots for the LRA insurgency are to be traced back to the colonial period (Kasozi 1994, 6; Doom and Vlassenroot 1999, 8; Vinci 2005, 364). On the one hand, some writers think that the war in northern Uganda was influenced by ethnic issues. The British colonial rulers recruited the Acholi in northern Uganda for the military, while the people in the south enjoyed the civil service (Mazrui 1976; Kasozi 1994; Veale and Stavrou 2003; Allen 2006; Finnström 2008). The takeover in 1986 of the government by the National Resistance Army (NRA), now the National Resistance Movement (NRM), triggered the beginning of the war, while the grievances of the political past prepared the ground for the insurgency (Van Acker 2004, 342; Bøås 2004b, 289). In his article “The March of the Lord’s Resistance Army: Greed or Grievance in Northern Uganda?,” Paul Jackson argues that grievance is of limited significance in trying to understand this conflict (Jackson 2002).

The second analytical thrust looks at the coercive power of arms and mobilisation of the masses. The militarisation of Uganda’s politics and society is the root cause for the insurgency (Doom and Vlassenroot 1999, 7; Van Acker 2004, 338; Bøås 2004b, 287). The argument has been that the people mostly recruited into the army were lacking in skills and without discipline. So, after takeover in 1986, the NRA soldiers ended up misbehaving in northern Uganda, a situation which is said to be part of the reasons why the LRA rose up in defence of their people (Doom and Vlassenroot 1999, 15; Van Acker 2004, 339). So, in revenge for all the misconduct of the UNLA soldiers against the people in the north, the LRA was born. Also, this school of thought looks at the widespread perception of the Acholi (shared by themselves) as martial people with a strong military tradition who are more willing than others to resort to fighting to ameliorate their conditions.

This writer appreciates the validity of these approaches but because biblical texts were used to justify and support the rebellion, this book seeks to explore another set of factors associated with the conflict, namely religiously sanctioned actions that draw heavily upon the Old Testament for their content. Giving examples of the LRA war in northern Uganda, Kastfelt observes that, “… many African civil wars have religious dimensions which are sufficiently important to deserve to be studied in their own right …” (Kastfelt 2005, 1). According to Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, the LRA’s main intention – as argued by the interviewees from the LRA’s side – was to take over the government of Uganda and establish the rule of law based on the biblical Ten Commandments (interview with Steve, conducted on 10 February 2008 at Transarock, Gulu; Hackett 2004, 5; McDonnell and Akallo 2007, 31). This is confirmed by Farmar, who quotes Kony as saying: “I will use the Ten Commandments to liberate Uganda” (Farmar 2006).

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Unfortunately, even though the Bible played a key role in framing the ideology of the LRA, many writers tend not to take Kony’s religious claims seriously. Examples include: Green, who argues that “The rebels had massacred villagers, mutilated hundreds of people and abducted thousands of children all for the sake of one man’s ambition to rule according to his warped reading of the Bible” (Green 2009, 10, my italics). Others like Mæland and Dunson contend that the LRA’s use of the Bible is only for indoctrination (Dunson 2008, 33; Mæland 2010, 7). On the political platform, many have branded Kony as a madman (Vinci 2005, 360). At the same time, the President of Uganda, H.E. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, is quoted as referring to Kony as a common criminal, likening negotiations with him to “giving first aid to a snake” (Jackson 2002, 40). In my view, the fact that the LRA used a religiously based ideology and managed to sustain the rebellion for such a long time calls for an approach that takes this phenomenon seriously. Therefore, in contrast to previous writers, this book seeks to take seriously the LRA’s claims and reference to the Old Testament by showing how the LRA interpreted and used the Old Testament to support their violent actions and sustain their armed resistance in Northern Uganda. The writer is cognisant of the fact that the LRA’s actions are not unusual. Elsewhere, other groups have used religious texts to mobilise support. In the case of Uganda, the LRA is not the first group to make the claim of wanting to restore the Ten Commandments. On the 17th of March 2002, many followers of another group known as The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments were burnt to death by a fire said to have been started by their leaders, who had promised them that they were going to heaven. According to Atuhaire, before the inferno, one of the members was quoted as saying: “Ours is not a religion but a movement that endeavours to make the people aware of the fact that the commandments of God have been abandoned and it gives what should be done for their observance” (Atuhaire 2003, 34). He quotes Credonia, one of the founding members of the group, saying that: “The world had rejected the Ten Commandments and turned to Satan …” (Atuhaire 2003, 38). For more information on this sect, see Bagumisiriza, (2005).5 Thus, the LRA is but one of the latest in a long series of other groups with similar tactics. Again, an analogous movement would be the nineteenth-century Mahdist Movement of 1881–1889, which like the LRA fronts a charismatic religious leader, an African rebel and a Semitic messiah Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, who proclaimed himself as a Mahdi “chosen one” and led a millenarian revolt (Voll 1979). Furthermore, referring to the Old Testament Mosaic figure is not a new phenomenon in Africa. There is a trend to view those considered to be freedom fighters as Moses figures (Raboteau 1978, 8). Historically, there are legends of the greatness of Moses across all of Africa (Hurston 1995, 337). This is further affirmed by Mugambi, who narrates how freedom fighters were shaped by the Mosaic figure and how African leaders, after independence, were referred to as Moses (Mugambi 2001).

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In its methodological orientation, the research was exploratory in nature. The LRA’s rhetoric is analysed using tools from exegetical biblical hermeneutics, narrative and rhetorical criticism to establish Joseph Kony’s rationale for using them and to expose the implications of the LRA’s rhetoric for biblical hermeneutics and Old Testament studies in Africa. The exegetical analysis of the biblical texts is made to establish whether the texts do indeed lend themselves to the use to which Joseph Kony and the LRA members put them. The research, therefore, has an interdisciplinary profile. Chapter two draws on insights from social sciences research, and is based on qualitative methods, particularly participatory action research.6 This entailed listening to individual stories and experiences of former LRA soldiers and non-former LRA soldiers, interactive discussions, in-depth interviews, focus group discussions (FGDs), and participant observations. Chapters 3 and 4 draw on insights from exegetical and hermeneutical models from biblical studies. Rhetorical and narrative approaches to the biblical texts are employed in the analysis.7

The main questions addressed in this book are: How does the LRA use the Old Testament texts and motifs to support their actions? How does the LRA’s interpretation of the Old Testament compare to standard biblical hermeneutics/ interpretations? If the interpretations differ, what does this mean for former LRA members who have been reintegrated into society? What does this mean for Old Testament studies in Africa?


X, 204
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 204 pp., 1 b/w.

Biographical notes

Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala (Author)

Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala holds a PhD (VID, Stavanger), a M.Phil. Theology (Bergen), a Master of Arts in Peace and Reconciliation Studies (Coventry), a PGDE/ME in Educational Technologies (University of Cape Town) and a BA (Makerere). She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religion and Peace Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, at Makerere University.


Title: Kony as Moses