Why the Capture of a Kony Lieutenant Isn’t a Big Deal

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James Akena / Reuters

Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commander Caesar Achellam gestures as he speaks to the media in Djema May 13, 2012, after he was captured by Ugandan soldiers tracking down LRA fugitive leaders at a forest bordering the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For a journalist, Special Operations are problematic. They work in secret and tend to consider the press, at best, an annoyance and, at worst, a hindrance and a danger. In January, TIME photographer Dominic Nahr and I visited Obo, the town in southeastern Central African Republic (CAR) where 30 U.S. special forces soldiers hunting Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony have built a grass-walled base. The Americans made their disdain clear. One peered over the base fence, told us we weren’t welcome and to contact a press officer in Uganda. When we tried to interview staff at an Italian NGO working in Obo, and then the Ugandan army, it became clear the U.S. soldiers had requested they also tell us nothing. Then a former British diplomat to CAR who was living and working with the Americans as a local liaison tried to sneak photographs of us by pretending to take memento snapshots of his employers next to a large tree and shooting pictures of us over their shoulders. It was galling, but it was also routine. In 11 years of covering war, the only time I’ve had a conversation of substance with a U.S. Special Forces soldier was in northern Afghanistan in 2001 when I accidentally found myself hiding on a rooftop with a group of US and British Special Operations bomb spotters calling in air strikes 100 yards away and my immediate neighbor discovered I lived in Hong Kong. The guy really knew a lot about Wanchai’s strip clubs.

(PHOTOS: On the ground, safe from #Kony?)

So, call me a cynic and a spoiler, but I can’t help wonder about the sudden access the press are getting to the manhunt for Kony. Could it be that U.S. Special Operations and their Ugandan counterparts are wondering whether, six months into an operation in which barely a shot has been fired, they need to head off some awkward questions about results with the kind of positive press that a rare, on-the-ground look at a Special Operation in action might be expected to generate?

Last month, the US Africa command, Africom, arranged a well-attended press trip to South Sudan for journalists to meet the Special Forces and their Ugandan counterparts. My colleagues relished the remote adventure of the assignment in their copy, as any decent journalist would. But they retained a sense of skepticism. Several wrote about the difficulties of a manhunt in a vast area of jungle that has few roads. Some reported a rising frustration at the operation’s lack of results among residents who live in fear of the LRA’s murderous record of massacres and pillage, and the group’s habit of abducting children as fighters or sex slaves.

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Over the weekend, however, when more reporters were invited to CAR to see a captured LRA officer, Caesar Acellam, that skepticism evaporated. Caesar Acellam was a big deal, the journalists said. Kony’s detention would likely soon follow. A conflict that has lasted more than two decades, killed tens of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more, would soon be over. And the source for this stirring analysis? Caesar Acellam. “My coming out will have a big impact for the people still in the bush to come out and end this war soon,” Acellam told reporters. Almost all the reporters also quoted, without challenge, the charming and ebullient Ugandan army spokesman, Col. Felix Kulayigye, who described Acellam as a “big fish” and his capture as “a major step for us toward ending the rebellion.” In this breathless copy, Acellam was said to be — with just a hint of desperation — the “fourth most important” commander of the LRA. In its headline, the Sydney Morning Herald concluded: “Endgame Nears for Kony.”

One can only hope. But if the finale really is approaching for Kony, it seems unlikely to have much to do with Acellam’s capture. Acellam is not one of the four LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Also, according to a Western intelligence report dated last October and seen by TIME, “Major General” Caesar Acellam was commander of a group of perhaps 20 LRA soldiers, making his group merely the ninth largest inside the LRA, which is itself just 200 fighters strong. Even that paltry numerical assessment of Acellam’s command, though, was apparently out of date. When he was apprehended, Acellam was being accompanied by a Ugandan woman, a teenage girl from CAR and her baby. He surrendered the moment the Ugandan soldiers tracking him fired a few warning shots. He had, so the reports said, just eight bullets on him.

In a group of just 200 fighters, one that is run by Kony as a murderous autocracy — and when Kony keeps 80 of those fighters for himself — there is, really, only one big fish. Kony’s rebellion ends with Kony.

(MORE: Why you should feel awkward about Kony2012.)

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