Beyond #Kony2012, What Is Really Happening In Uganda?

Kony 2012 is the title of a campaign launched by the organization Invisible Children Inc., focused for now on the half hour video of the same name, which has had a viral diffusion on the internet reaching in a few days almost one hundred million views (it was published only on the 5th March). The campaign aims at supporting the arrest of Joseph Kony, an Ugandan guerrilla leader accused of “crimes against humanity” by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Daniele Scalea

The campaign’s stated purpose is to encourage international efforts to arrest Kony, by making his case as widely known as possible. Nothing original here, but it’s interesting that Invisible Children Inc. is trying to rally volunteers on the one hand to lobby dozens of famous people (politicians and show business personalities) to convince them to be spokespeople for the campaign, and on the other hand to buy a kit complete with posters, bracelets and other propaganda material.

In that sense something leaps immediately out. Kony’s story is told hastily and in a trenchant way as that of a brutal man without ideals and supporters, who kidnaps children to make them fight at his service. The reason why many people (who presumably would not have even been able to find Uganda on the map before having watched the video) should rally around the campaign occupies only a relatively short part of the video. A large part of it, on the contrary, is dedicated to extolling the potential of the internet and grassroots mobilization and to showing young photogenic activists spreading the cause and its gadgets, decorated with logos and symbols graphically very well crafted. The messages and images recall the happenings of the “Arabic Spring” and its interpretation – in my opinion strained as I’ve argued elsewhere – as the revolt of “Facebook and Twitter users”. And that of the so called “coloured revolts” orchestrated in different countries (Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine) during the last years by the widespread and professional network of US “NGOs”.

Another noteworthy element is that in Kony 2012 the sending of US troops by Obama to Uganda is supported. Indeed the continuation of military support to the Ugandan armed forces is the main goal of the whole campaign: a decision by Congress to disengage from the African country must be prevented. President Obama’s choice is portrayed as the result of grassroots pressure exerted by Invisible Children Inc. during the past years, and as a military mission decided upon “simply because it is the right thing to do”. This interpretation is simplistic just like the superficial and Manichean description of Ugandan situation. Before giving reason for these opinions, a digression on the inventors of Kony 2012 campaign must be made.

Invisible Children Inc. was founded in 2004 with the specific purpose of opposing Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army activity. Its founders, Jason Russel, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole, university students at that time, had been affected by what they had seen in Uganda during a journey in 2003. Today Invisible Children Inc. collects almost 14 million dollars a year, with a net profit of almost 5 millions. In 2011, 16.24% of expenditure went on “Management & General”. On the 30th June 2011 the organization declared assets amounting to a little less than 7 million dollars. Jason Russel, director and narrative voice of Kony 2012, receive a salary of 1% of all organization spending, that is 89,669 dollars a year. Similar wages are received also by the co-founder Laren Poole and the executive director Ben Kessey. But these numbers are meant to be outclassed this year. According to what Jason Russel has just declared, Invisible Children Inc. should have already sold 500,000 kits, each one costing $30, in only a week for a total income of 15 million dollars.

The organization, as it also boasts in the video, was one of the supporters of the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act signed by president Barack Obama in May 2010, with which one hundred US military advisers were sent to the African country to support the national army against LRA rebels. Nevertheless, the White House decision, as it’s easy to imagine and in contrast to what seems to be suggested in Kony 2012, was not solely or even principally dictated by humanitarian reasons. But to understand this a digression on the Ugandan situation must be made.

Like many African countries, whose borders were arbitrarily drawn by colonial European states, Uganda is strewn with ethnic conflicts. The most important is that between the Baganda (or Ganda), the inhabitants of the south and east of the country, and the Acholi who live in the north and also beyond the Ugandan border into southern Sudan. Uganda’s history after independence (1962) has been marked by coups d’état and civil wars often fought along ethnic fault lines. The first president of independent Uganda, Edward Mutesa, was also Mutesa II the Buganda’s king, even though the main powers were held by government chief Milton Obote (belonging to Lango ethnic group, similar to Acholi). In 1966 Obote became president with a coup d’état in response to the parliament’s attempt to incriminate him, but in 1979 he, in turn, was overthrown and replaced by his ex-ally, the army commander Idi Amin. In 1978 a war broke out with Tanzania and in 1979, supported with foreign arms, the exiles (mainly Lango and Acholi) succeeded in bringing Obote back to office. Obote’s comeback was legitimized by a popular vote, considered lacking in transparency by his opponents however. Yoweri Museveni from the southern Bantu region founded the National Resistance Army (NRA). In fact the conflict was between the NRA, supported by the Buganda, and the government’s National Liberation Army (UNLA) of Lango and Acholi. In 1985 Obote was overthrown by a new military coup d’état organized by the Acholi, but in January 1986, despite the intervention of Mubutu’s Zaire, the NRA won the war and Museveni became president. He still holds power in a regime where all political parties are banned, and so he has given a certain stability to the troubled country.

Nevertheless, Museveni’s long presidency was not all a bed of roses. His neoliberal agenda has inflicted heavy social costs in exchange for economic growth, which in addition has been concentrated mainly in the Bantu regions where its support is rooted, while the Nilotic north has been neglected.

Museveni has shown a certain aggressiveness towards neighbouring countries, culminating in Ugandan intervention in the Somali civil war; an intervention strongly wanted by the United States and that could make one think that the military aid ordered by Obama is granted more to help a military ally which in Somalia has already lost hundreds of soldiers, rather than for humanitarian reasons.

Since its installation, Musenevi’s government has faced a series of ethnic insurrections and resistance movements. In fact the northern region of the country has been subjected to military occupation by the NRA, noted (also by Amnesty International) for its commission of war crimes. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony, an Acholi Christian soldier, emerged in this atmosphere. The fight between LRA and NRA has been a no holds barred contest: government soldiers have been accused more or less of the same vileness blamed on the LRA, including the exploitation of children, the Kony 2012 Leitmotif. But in 2005 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants only for LRA leaders. It is worthwhile remembering that the ICC was established in 2002 and at the moment is recognized by 120 countries. Among those states which do not recognize its authority on themselves are the United States, China, India and Russia.

Uganda’s domestic struggle soon captured the non-disinterested attention of other countries. The LRA has been supported by Sudan, which wanted revenge for Musaveni’s support to the nationalists of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Thanks to the SPLA South Sudan has recently gained its independence but great tension with Khartoum remains. In the meantime the LRA has been strongly cut down, and moreover it moved towards South Sudan. The Ugandan government, on the contrary, as already said, has the support of the United States (while Sudan has been and still is close to China). Even before the already mentioned order from Obama, the United States had sent soldiers and weapons to support Musenevi in AFRICOM operations, NATO’s Africa command instituted a few years ago as a reaction to the political and trading penetration of China in Africa. In 2008-2009 the United States supported the so called Garamba Offensive in Congo, made by Ugandan and Congolese government armies and the Sudanese SPLA against Kony’s LRA. The LRA seems, in fact, to have almost disappeared from Uganda. In recent years it showed signs of activity only in neighbouring countries.

Kony 2012 has also been criticised. Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire has noticed the great simplification of events made in the video. This is what a source of undoubted prestige like Foreign Affairs, journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, unanimously considered the most influential think tank in the United States, has written about organizations like Invisible Children Inc. which supported the US participation in the Ugandan conflict: “In their campaigns these organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the extent of kidnappings and murders made by the LRA, emphasizing the use of innocent children as soldiers and portraying Kony – without any doubt a brutal man – as the unique personification of evil forces, a sort of Kurtz [main character of Heart of Darkness by Conrad].

They have rarely made reference to the atrocities perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (including attacks against civilians and plundering of homes and businesses) or the complex regional politics behind the conflict”. Michael Deibert, a famous journalist who studied in depth the Ugandan situation writing a book about it, has commented critically on the Kony 2012 campaign. Far from defending the LRA leader, Deibert has nevertheless noticed that “the Ugandan government now in office got to power using also kadogos (soldier children) and by fighting together with armies which use soldier children in the Democratic Republic of Congo; all these things seem to be deliberately ignored by Invisible Children”. The argument of a lack of impartiality from the organization seems to be confirmed also by a photo showing the three founders posing with weapons in a hostile stance, together with South Sudan rebels. Glenna Gordon, who took the photo, has declared that she thinks the three are “colonialists” and are proud of it.

Doubt about the good faith of promoters, activists and Invisible Children’s supporters is not to be raised. But reality is far more complex than how it is described in the half hour video Kony 2012.

Kony, who in the video (and on propaganda posters) is expressly portrayed as a new Hitler and a new Bin Laden, is without any doubt a censurable figure but he is the product of the struggle of a people, the Acholi, who feel oppressed by president Musenevi, who surely has not distinguished himself by his liberalism, respect for popular sovereignty or human rights.
The good faith presumption does not save Kony 2012 from criticism when it expressly supports US military intervention in Uganda. An intervention that only out of a certain ignorance of events in Africa and with great naivety could be considered motivated only by the desire “to do the right thing”, as is stated in the documentary.

The United States has intervened in Uganda within the framework of increased militarization in its relationship with the continent, made necessary by the political and trading penetration of China in Africa. The sending of military advisers to Museveni, possibly a prelude to military escalation (maybe what the Kony 2012 viral campaign wants to achieve?), is to be taken in conjunction with drone bombardments in Somalia, intervention in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi, French intervention in Ivory Coast to depose Gbagbo. Julien Teil’s documentary The Humanitarian War has shown the role, not too clear, of NGOs in preparing the ground for NATO intervention in Libya.

Invisible Children emphasizes the need to send US troops to Uganda at a time when the LRA seems weakened and, according to many people, Kony hasn’t been in the country for years. At this point it does not seem rash to include also Kony 2012 in the arsenal of US soft power that should support the spread – not necessarily in a peaceful way – of Washington’s influence in Africa.

Daniele Scalea is co-editor-in-chief of the Italian Geopolitica review and scientific secretary of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (IsAG) in Rome. He is author of two books: La sfida totale. Equilibri e strategie nel grande gioco delle potenze mondiali [“The Total Challenge: Balances and Strategies in the Great Game among World Powers”] (2010) and Capire le rivolte arabe. Alle origini del fenomeno rivoluzionario [“Understanding Arab Revolts. Origins of Revolutionary Phenomenon”] (2011). He is currently finishing a book on the life, works and thought of Halford John Mackinder.


One Comment

  1. Eva Green says:

    KONY2012 Opens Pandora’s Box: Uganda Government’s Own Role in “Dirty War” Now Exposed

    By Obote Odora

    Background To The Conflict
    Why is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has not stated, at least publicly, that the Ugandan army and its leadership are currently under investigation for crimes committed in Uganda as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?

    I am not the first person to call for such an investigation. Other scholars, including Dr. Sverker Finnström, the author of the award winning book, Living with Bad Surroundings (SF 2008)) have argued that all sides to the armed conflict must be investigated if only to give appearance of impartiality. Kony2012 provides an opportunity for the ICC to reconsider its decision and commence investigating alleged crimes committed by the Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) formerly the National Resistance Army (NRA) under the leadership of its commander-in-chief, and long time serving army general Yoweri K. Museveni.

    The armed conflict in northern Uganda took a “ethnic” dimension and fed on Uganda’s north-south historical divide. Organized and systemic violence based on ethnicity tend to result in genocide as witnessed in Rwanda. The NRM/NRA government failed to provide leadership in order to defuse the ethnic divide and usher in national unity. Instead, the NRM/NRA leader, Gen. Museveni continued to peddle allegations that the Acholi and Langi were the “enemies of Uganda” because they are responsible for killing civilians in the Luwero triangle and looting their properties; Luwero was a nexus area for the war between Museveni’s NRA and President Milton Obote’s government.

    Significantly, besides Museveni’s allegations, there are no reports from a judicial inquiry determining who, or which armed groups, are responsible for the Luwero tragedy. President Museveni has consistently refused calls to establish a judicial inquiry to all matters concerning the killings in Luwero yet he continues to hold the Langi and Acholi ethnic communities responsible.

    Overall, the purpose of the Museveni propaganda is not to identify those most responsible, but to mobilize Ugandans from central and western part of the country against people from the northern part of Uganda. Museveni justifies the use of ethnic chauvinism in his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed, (YKM 1997:177-178) as follows:

    “Under previous regimes, the soldiers, most of whom came from the north, had been free to loot civilian property. Whenever they looted such things, for example corrugated iron roofing sheets, they would take them to their homes, and their parents would not ask where they obtained them, in spite of the fact that one could easily tell the difference between a new iron sheet and one that had been previously nailed on someone else’ roof. In this way, the whole community in Acholi and Lango had become involved in the plundering of Uganda for themselves. In other words, the reason why those rebels in the north, organized on a tribal basis, were fighting for control of the national government, was that the NRM as a government had stopped them from looting.”

    As a mobilization tactic it was very effective. Over the years, Museveni has continued propagating his “tribal” views by asserting that people from northern Uganda bear collective criminal responsibility for “crimes committed by their sons and daughters” against the people of central and western Uganda. He further argues that the cause of armed conflict in northern Uganda is because Acholi and Langi have been stopped from looting government and private property (JKM 1997:178). Museveni’s ridiculous racist comments that Acholi and Langi went to war because they have been stopped from looting, while incorrect, has taken on a new life of its own as foreign and local press peddle the false statements and present the causes of armed conflict in northern Uganda is disagreement over looting. This false premise underpins the NRM policy on the dehumanization of Acholi and Langi.

    Connected At Hips: Museveni And Ocampo
    The referral for investigation of the Uganda conflict is a positive step and must be supported by all persons of good will. However, it is imperative that all parties to the armed conflict are investigated. The concern of many legal scholars and experts on the failure of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate all sides is justified. Some experts in international criminal law have suggested a number of reasons for the failure to investigate the Ugandan army, the UPDF.

    First, it is suggested that because the ICC has relied on Museveni for the referral of the situation in Uganda to the court, the Museveni regime effectively assisted the Prosecutor in circumventing a difficult process which would have required seeking referral through the unpredictable political process in the United Nations Security Council. Alternatively, the Prosecutor would have tried to, propio motu, initiate investigation, but with the approval of the pre-trial chamber. On the other hand, a pre-trial chamber approval is not necessarily a done deal as such application can easily be rejected. The Prosecutor therefore owes a debt of gratitude to Museveni for making his work easy, particularly at a time when the OTP had almost no cases to work on.

    Second, the Museveni regime provided, and continues to provide, security for the ICC investigators. The regime’s support for the ICC include providing assistance to the investigators in identifying prosecution witnesses, particularly witnesses who are more likely to corroborate government narrative and not implicate the UPDF in the commission of crimes under investigation.

    Further, the regime assists the ICC in gathering evidence including protection of witnesses within Uganda. Overall, if the ICC Prosecutor decides to investigate or indict members of the UPDF including members of its leadership, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) may have problems in getting continued cooperation, protection and support from President Museveni and the UPDF.

    However, the ICC justifies its working arrangement with the Uganda government on the ground that it does not have its own enforcement mechanism and must therefore rely on State cooperation, in this case, the Ugandan army and police. The Ugandan military escorts ICC investigators to “protected camps” and are present when witnesses are being interviewed.

    Sometimes UPDF men and officers double as translators for the ICC investigators. It would therefore be foolish and extremely risky for the witnesses to implicate members of the UPDF in the crimes under investigation. The ICC argument on State cooperation is valid but needs to balance its independence in the conduct of investigations by putting distance between its members and state officials.

    It is unfortunate when cooperation between Uganda army and the ICC in the course of investigations is used as a cover to protect members of the UPDF and its leadership from investigations. The Court’s bias in favor of the Ugandan army was particularly manifested in January 2004 when the ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo appeared side-by-side with Museveni – a potential suspect – in a London conference to announce the opening of the investigations in the Uganda situation. In a judicial setting, appearance is as important as substantive justice.
    “War On Terror:” Museveni Ingratiates Himself to U.S.
    Additionally, Gen. Museveni has also proved himself indispensable to the United States.
    For strategic reasons, Museveni fully embraced the idea of “war on terror”. He used it to gain favor with the United States, its western allies and simultaneously destroy his internal political opponents.

    To the United States, Gen. Museveni demonstrated his loyalty by sending troops to Somalia. The United States has appreciated Museveni’s contribution to the “war on terror” and, as a reward, deployed US military “advisors” to Uganda plus sending millions of US dollars to Uganda in support of the UPDF.

    Thus, the international community’s unquestioning cooperation with Uganda has allowed the NRM/NRA government to appear as agents of peace and security notwithstanding its role in the armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the fact that he continues to direct his soldiers and police force to commit crimes inside and outside Uganda.

    The ICC is silent on Museveni’s recruitment and use of child soldiers and his cooperation with convicted war criminal Thomas Lubanga of the DRC. Gen. Museveni has also supported Jean Pierre Bemba, also of the DRC, currently on trial before the ICC. The ICC Prosecutor Ocampo has demonstrated no interests in the UPDF who trained, financed and fought alongside Bemba’s soldiers.

    Within Uganda, the “war on terror” is directed against the internal political opposition and has nothing to do with terrorism. During the 2006 and 2011 national elections, the UPDF alongside the national police violently attacked members and supporters of the opposition parties, killing some and detaining their leaders. Other opposition members were later charged with treason, a crime that on conviction carries the death penalty. It is significant that the ICC was not concerned and issued no statement condemning the practice. Yet, the ICC was quick to act on the electoral disputes in Kenya and the Ivory Coast.

    The So-called “Protected” Camps
    The war against the LRA would have ended much earlier; the Museveni regime milked it for internal political reasons. At the start of the 1990s, the Museveni regime introduced a scorched earth policy in its war against the LRA. The NRM’s northern Uganda policy was to destroy food by burning food stores and crops ready for harvest. The objective for destroying food was purportedly to deny LRA sustenance. It was also to dehumanize and pauperize the local population.

    The Museveni regime made no arrangement to feed the civilian population after their food and food crops were destroyed, provided no sanitary facilities or adequate lodgings of the inmates. The government knowingly failed, neglected or willingly refused to protect its citizens as required by law.

    The second prong of the NRM northern policy was to destroy homes by burning the houses and to place the civilian population in “protected” camps. There were between 1.4 and 1.6 million civilians packed in squalid compounds with no sanitary facilities, clinics or schools. Due to, among other things, poor sanitary conditions, lack of medicine, food and proper shelter, and consistent with government policy of dehumanizing the civilian population, at least 1,000 people, mainly women and children were dying every week in the “protected” camps.

    The government knew or had reason to know about the mass murder of civilians in the “protected” camps. It did nothing, and even denied there were civilian deaths.

    The camps served the strategic interests of the UPDF, LRA and NGOs. This human zoo provided a unique opportunity for NGOs to conduct research on humans living under squalid conditions. Gulu district alone was host to close to 100 NGOs. In many respects, the assortment of NGOs assisted the NRM government in prolonging the war: focusing on ameliorating the catastrophe rather than exposing the policy of planned neglect. Overall, the concentration camps became cash cow– rolling out money to the NGOs, medical supply to the LRA and confining the civilian population while leaving the vast Acholi land to the UPDF.

    The land became war booty as the government parceled it out to its favorite soldiers and “investors”. Each of the three major players – the NGOs, LRA and UPDF – benefited from maintaining “protected” camps for as long as it lasted.

    The ICC’s Moral And Judicial Responsibility
    While some of the criminal acts committed by the UPDF fall outside the ICC temporal jurisdiction, the manner and methods of the commission of the crimes do provide evidence of a consistent pattern of conduct by the UPDF, a conduct that continued after July 1, 2002 when the Rome Treaty establishing the ICC became operational. To that extent, they provide background information on the conduct and behavior of the UPDF soldiers and its leadership during the 20-year war in northern Uganda.

    The death toll of civilians in “protected” camps, estimated at 1,000 persons per week, needs to be investigated by the ICC. Confining men, women, children, the old, sick and the infirm in camps without adequate food, sanitation or medical assistance is not only criminal but immoral and evil. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt would have described the “concentration camps” in northern Uganda as radical evil.

    Radical evil, according to Emmanuel Kant, is the type of evil that is rooted in an evil motivation, an intention to do evil, a person’s evil heart.

    Kant held radical evil to be rare and quite different from evil that is done out of ignorance or an intention to do well that has gone awry. Arendt, in The Life of the Mind (HA 1978), explains that an intention to establish “concentration camps” during the second world war could have come only from an intention to do evil, to achieve some end outside of commonsense reasoning.

    In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (HA 1968) what Arendt tried to capture with that phrase, banality of evil, was the kind of radical evil that results from a particular capacity to stop thinking inherent in people like Eichmann, whose thoughtlessness was fostered by the fact that everyone around him went along unquestioningly with Hitler’s extermination order and his vision of the glorious Thousand Year Reich.

    There are some people in the UPDF who think and behave like Eichmann. Their responsibility is to terrorize and torture inmates of the “protected” camps. In some cases, the victims are buried alive, and left to die, as was the case at Bucoro in Gulu District.

    It is in this context that the Kony’s indictment and the allegations therein, must be assessed. The Kony indictment is also interesting because allegations against kony are closely related to acts or omissions of the UPDF. It is not surprising that the UPDF prefer to have Kony dead. If he ever appears before the ICC, Kony’s testimony would probably disclose the Ugandan army’s close cooperation and collaboration with the UPDF and its leadership in the conduct of war in northern Uganda.

    Joseph Kony is charged with 33 counts. The public version of the Indictment is extensively redacted. Of the 33 counts, 28 relate to crimes allegedly committed within the IDP camps; camps that were guarded by the Ugandan army at the relevant times. The remaining five counts relate to crimes allegedly committed outside the premises of the IDP camps but within Uganda. The Uganda government has always insisted that the LRA has no control over any part of the territory of Uganda. The crimes allegedly committed by the LRA were in areas controlled by the Ugandan government.

    Uganda Army’s Complicity In Crimes?
    A careful reading of the Kony indictment leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What was, for example, the relationship between the LRA and the UPDF? How was it possible for a group of untrained fighters, barely literate, poorly organized as
    well as poorly armed could over-power the UPDF guards at not only one, but all “protected” camps in northern Uganda?

    The LRA did not only over-power the UPDF, but had time to loot food and medicine, rape and sexually assault many women and girls in the camp, and finally abduct as many children as they wanted without being confronted by the UPDF?

    The impression given is that the LRA was such a powerful military force, and far superior to the UPDF that it could enter and leave any camp and at a time as it pleases. This scenario is hard to fathom. On the other hand, what was the UPDF objective in protecting the civilians in the camps?

    The impression one gets is that either the UPDF are extremely incompetent; or they are complicit in the crimes. One may infer from the conduct of the UPDF that it aided and abetted the LRA in the commission of the alleged crimes.

    Alternatively, the UPDF leadership must bear criminal responsibility for omission in that, through its military and political structure, the NRM/NRA and its leadership failed to prevent the deaths of 1,000 civilians every week over several years; failed to protect women and girls in the camps from rape and sexual assault; and failed to prevent the abduction of civilians.

    It is these and other crimes committed in northern Uganda that the ICC Prosecutor has a duty and responsibility to investigate. Kony is the tip of the iceberg.

    Dr. Obote Odora, Consultant in International Criminal Law

Comments are closed.