A former U.S. Marine with extensive ties in Uganda says he made contact with brutal African warlord and international fugitive Joseph Kony this month, but was ignored by the U.S. State Department when he forwarded a letter Kony wrote expressing interest in a “peace process” with the U.S.
Jason Constantine, a former Marine who has traveled frequently to Uganda since 2010, told Gawker that he received a letter and recent photograph from Kony via a former senior member of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Kony’s band of kidnapped child soldiers. Constantine, who began developing contacts with former LRA members as a sort of independent freelance diplomat, says he twice tried to put the State Department in touch with Kony, but was rebuffed.
While Gawker could not independently verify the authenticity of the letter and photograph, Gawker has spoken with three independent sources who confirm that Constantine worked with a well-known former LRA commander named Richard Odong to establish a line of communication with Kony.
Kony came to power as leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1987, after claiming to be the messiah of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda. The International Criminal Court charged him with dozens of counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005, including murder, rape, sexual enslavement, and the forced enlistment of children into his army, but he has evaded capture. In 2008, peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government broke down when Kony refused to sign a deal that had been negotiated by leadership on each side. Three years ago, the American anti-LRA group Invisible Children found viral success with its propaganda film Kony 2012, which advocated for western military intervention in Uganda and attracted more than 100 million views on YouTube. (The campaign fizzled after its founder suffered a highly public masturbatory breakdown on a San Diego street.)
Since then, Kony has remained at large, though his power has waned considerably. The LRA, which claimed membership in the thousands at its peak, numbered just 150 to 300 followers in 2012, according to a Human Rights Watch report. An Associated Press report from July speculates that the warlord may be ill with AIDS or diabetes.
Frustrated by the State Department’s lack of interest, Constantine began tweeting about his contacts with Kony from the Twitter account @jkony03 on September 4. (The account has since been taken down.) The first tweet was an image of a handwritten letter in broken English, which Constantine claims was addressed to him from Kony himself.
“Jason am chairman JK from a very far land,” the letter begins. “I get your message from Odong that you want to help me. How? Peace process or what?” The letter goes on to acknowledge that the U.S. government is looking for Kony, and inquires whether Constantine would be involved in the aforementioned peace process. “I said peace process need step by step as it use to be,” it reads. “I Joseph Kony say if you have real peace process then am ready to meeting you Jason physically though Odong.”
On Friday, Constantine forwarded the scanned letter to Gawker, along with what he claims is a recent photograph of Kony. The photo, which does not appear to have been previously published (a reverse-image Google search turns up nothing), shows a man who resembles Kony wearing a baggy blue tracksuit and black boots standing on a patch of dirt, with trees behind him. Constantine also provided Gawker an email he sent to the State Department’s Rewards for Justice tipline nearly three weeks ago that included a copy of the letter, Richard Odong’s phone number, and information about Kony’s apparent desire to engage the U.S. and Ugandan governments in peace talks. The department ignored him, Constantine said.
“The U.S. government will neither confirm nor deny contact with individuals who provide information on designated fugitives,” a State Department official wrote in an email to Gawker, declining to verify or otherwise comment on Constantine’s claim.
According to Constantine and a former LRA commander Gawker has agreed not to name, Kony was hiding in Radom National Park in Darfur, a known LRA hideout, as recently as September 8. The United Nations described a region within the 3-million-acre park called Kafia Kingi, which sits on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, as a “safe haven” for Kony and the LRA in a 2014 report, and the AP reported that Kony is believed to be hiding in Kafia Kingi in July.
Odong acted as Constantine’s liaison with Kony, according to Constantine and the former LRA commander, and remains in contact with the rebel leader. He was abducted by the LRA as a child soldier in 1993 and escaped and obtained government amnesty in the mid-2000s. In 2012, Odong was the subject of an Al-Jazeera documentary about escaped LRA members reintegrating into their communities and seeking atonement for their crimes.
The former commander said that the January surrender of LRA general Dominic Ongwen to U.S. and Central African Republic forces, which was seen as a major blow to the already dwindling LRA, inspired Kony to consider peace talks with the U.S. and Uganda, and ultimately to contact Constantine.
Constantine, who is no longer on active duty in the Marines, is not an ordinary broker of international affairs: He undertook his involvement with the LRA as a kind of vigilante, unofficially and without any ties to the U.S. or any other government. He arrived in Uganda as an exchange student with the School for International Training in 2010, and has worked in the Central African nation sporadically since then. He claims that he played a role in orchestrating Ongwen’s surrender, which led to the LRA approaching him to contact the U.S. government on Kony’s behalf.
Constantine first became involved in reaching out to the LRA through Ryan Butyniec, a longtime LRA researcher and a lieutenant in the Canadian Army who befriended Constantine in Uganda after the men bonded over their shared military background. When Butyniec left Uganda in 2012, he passed his LRA contacts on to Constantine.
According to Butyniec, Constantine was genuinely interested in brokering a peace deal. “At first, I was a little bit suspect,” Butyniec told Gawker. “But fairly quickly, you can see if someone is genuinely intending to help. I definitely saw that in Jason, so working alongside him and handing it off to him wasn’t a real issue. He inherited a lot of the issues I was dealing with in Uganda for a number of years vis-a-vis the LRA conflict.”
Constantine says his first contact from the LRA regarding Kony came in June from Odong, who told Constantine that Kony was ready to make a deal with the Ugandan government, and asked whether Constantine would make contact with the U.S. State Department.
Later, Constantine says, Odong provided the letter from Kony, which is dated August 28, along with the information that the LRA leader was camped in Radom National Park. Constantine says Odong also sent him an image of his own visa as proof that he’d traveled from his home in Uganda through South Sudan to meet with Kony.
Constantine says that after he got no response to his initial tip to the State Department, he falsely told Odong that a U.S. government official had asked him for a recent photo of Kony to verify that the letter was genuine. Odong emailed him the aforementioned Kony photo, saying it was taken between September 8 and September 10, as well as two other photos of apparent LRA members.
It is difficult to ascertain the provenance of the photos. The images of the other LRA members, identified by Constantine as Alphonse Lamola and Colonel Too-Kema, appear to be digital photos of film prints. The former LRA commander who spoke to Gawker said he believes the photos are legitimate because they match up with what he saw on his own visits to the LRA camp. “I trust, because I went there twice,” he said.
After receiving the images earlier this month, Constantine began tweeting them at various State Department-affiliated Twitter accounts from his @jkony03 handle, which he hoped would attract attention. He also asked James Otaya, a Ugandan translator with whom he occasionally works, to call the U.S. embassy in Kampala on his behalf and inform the office about the photo and letter.
Otaya told Gawker that the embassy was initially receptive to the information, and that he was told that a representative would call him back. When he didn’t receive any contact, he called the embassy again and received a drastically different response. “I called them back and they told me ‘Don’t waste your time,’” he said.
Constantine told Gawker that he is going public—and putting his reputation among his LRA contacts at risk by doing so—in hopes of getting the U.S. government to act on the information he provided, whether it is to attempt to capture Kony or to engage him in talks.
“It would be ideal if they would actually talk to him, bring the people home, maybe build up the trust in the Northern Uganda area, where everybody distrusts the government,” he said. “On the other level, he’s a wanted terrorist, obviously. I know he’s done horrible things. A lot of these guys have done horrible things, and they should pay for it.”