When Kony 2012 launched on March 5th, 2012, the 30-minute video denouncing Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) - viewed over 100 million timessince its release - sparked a lot of controversy in the weeks that followed.
Kony 2012 was the latest in a series of professionally-made videos produced by Invisible Children' in its campaign to stop Kony. It calls upon university students and youth-based movements to get involved in the issues, including by buying a kit comprising of posters and stickers and participate in a 'Cover the Night' campaign, scheduled for April 20, 2012. Using Kony as a focal point has allowed the movement to get its message across easily.
But Joseph Kony is but one of a myriad of complex challenges facing the region. While acknowledging that the video oversimplifies the issues, Invisible Children has defended this strategy and done little since to elaborate on the issues. **
The reality is that the story of Joseph Kony is intertwined with complex regional dynamics, which include the militarization of central Africa, state-sponsored violence, failed states, mineral and ethnic conflicts and chronic underdevelopment. Eliminating Kony will not solve these issues. This article explores some of the other sources of insecurity in the region, particularly those related to Uganda.
Emergence of the LRA
Tensions between the north and south in Uganda date back decades, and the LRA emerged in the mid-1980's after Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRA) defeated the rebel Uganda’s People Democratic Army (UPDA) and northern-based Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF). In response, militants from the two defeated groups joined forces and formed the LRA, while the NRA eventually became the official Ugandan army and was renamed the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF). Initially, the LRA continued a broader resistance movement comprising of Acholi-based rebels and other marginalized groups who fought against the Kampala-based government with the aim of governing Uganda using a combination of the 10 commandments and Acholi traditions. (For more information of the emergence of the LRA, click here).
However the motives of the LRA have changes over time, and the LRA - in part focused on survival - has fueled an autonomous and resilient campaign that has terrorized communities affecting four central African countries for over 25 years. Employing guerrilla warfare tactics, the LRA has abducted tens of thousands of men, women and children, who have been variously used as sex slaves, soldiers and human shields. For years, their campaign targeted the very people they purported to defend.
The conflict was largely contained to northern Uganda until 2006, when they fled in response to a UPDF campaign to eliminate the group. Since then, the LRA has operated variously out of north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and in the Central African Republic (CAR). In the Sudan, President al-Bashir - also the subject of an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for war crimes in Darfur - has been accused of supporting the LRA in order to fuel social turmoil in the south.
Today the Ugandan government claims that the LRA is a weakened group comprising of only a few hundred members. Though accurate numbers are difficult to confirm, the LRA still pose a threat and continue to terrorize communities and abduct civilians. And there is no reason to believe this will stop.
Uganda’s large neighbor, the DRC, has been hit hard by several waves of insecurity in the last 20 years, stemming primarily from the influx of refugees and militants from Rwanda following the 1994 genocide. These events utimately triggered the first and second Congo war, both of which included invasions by the Rwandan army to end the threat posed by genocidaires hiding in the DRC, and efforts oust first Presidents Mobutu and then President Kabila. Since then, smaller militias have been multiplying in parts of the country, vying for control of mineral resources such as coltan, which are exported via Rwanda and sold to technology companies for use in personal electronics. The proliferation of small arms across Africa has been another important factors fueling insecurity and enabling the threat of child soldiering.
Despite hosting the largest peacekeeping force in the history of the UN, the situation in the Kivus regions of the DRC has been catastrophic. It is the deadliest war since World War II, with over 5 million death since 1998 - most from preventable causes, including starvation and treatable illnesses. It is also commonly heard that it is more dangerous today to be woman than a soldier in the Congo because of the extraordinarily high incidents of rape, which is used as a weapon of war to shame communities and destroy the social fabric. Efforts to protect civilians - and particularly women - have categorically failed to translate into security in many areas.
The US in Central Africa
For some time now, the US has supported Uganda's Musevini and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to defeat and chase out the Interhamwe in 1994, ending the Rwandan genocide. Both have since become donor darlings of the US administration, arguably at the expense of regional democratization. The US is also not playing a role in building the military capacities the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in South Sudan.
In 2008, the Obama administration established AFRICOM as a means of developing strategic alliances and capacities throughout the African continent. AFRICOM aims to deliver and sustain effective security cooperation towards assisting African nations build their security and defense capacities.
Uganda is central to two key AFRICOM objectives. The first objective is fighting terrorist cells on the continent, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, where the US has not operated since the 1992 debacle of Operation Restore Freedom. Instead, the US has conducted operations via drone attacks and by supporting operations of the Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF) and the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has responded by attacking Kampala, and the UPDF has lost several hundred soldiers in the conflict.
Uganda is also central to a second key AFRICOM objective of securing viable flows of energy resources in the region, due to its strategic location. In 2006, the UK-based Tullow also discovered oil in the Lake Albertine region in northwest Congo-Uganda. This discovery has since resulted in a land grab by UPDF and forced more Acholi residents into displacement camps, among other consequences.
In the meantime, Sudan has become a centrepiece of China’s oil strategy in Africa, with China exchanging massive and relatively unrestricted flows of aid to Sudan in exchange for access to oil.
In 2008, the US intervened in Uganda with Operation Lighting Thunder to chase the LRA from the Northern Congo. The operation was a failure due in part due to communication issues within the UPDF, and in part due to the difficulty of penetrating this region.
Implications and Recommendations
Kony 2012 concludes by calling viewers to demand that the US continue and perhaps escalated its military support to help capture Joseph Kony. While ending Kony's reign of terror is a laudable goal, this solution is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, there is a risk that US interests may be prioritized above those of Ugandans, and that the region may become further militarized. Second, there is risk that strengthening the UPDF - already regarded as a highly corrupt force - may undermine democratization in Uganda, in part because these these forces have themselves been accused of committing war crimes and have yet to own up to their own record of human rights abuses, which include the recruitment of child soldiers. Another challenge is that this recommendation ignores important locally-developed and operated efforts to both conduct community surveillance, which have proved successful in many places, and are already playing an important compliment or alternative role to conventional military intervention alone.
Even if we assume that military intervention is the best option (which we do not), this policy alone is highly inadequate. For one, it ignores both the root causes of the conflict and the real issues affecting northern Uganda today (to be explored in Part 2 of this series), which emanate from both the LRA conflict and from chronic underdevelopment. It also prioritizes military options over support for local peacebuilders and peacebuilding initiatives (the subject of Part 3 of this series), which are helping to make a real impact for people affected by the LRA conflict.
Moreover, it ignores the role that the international community - including private interests - have played key roles in both the proliferation of small arms as well as mineral conflicts in the region, which have undeniably exacerbated the conflict over the past two decades. Greater transparency is needed to understand how our own leaders as well as multinationals have benefited from the fog of war in the pursuit of "national security".
The regional dynamics that encompass the current LRA conflict stretch from the Sudan to the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Central African Republic and the horn of Africa, involving dozens of armed groups and western countries and companies. The issues are complex, and hence less ‘empowering’ action than the Kony 2012 video would suggest. But where Kony 2012 has succeeded is in opening a space for dialogue and engagement on these issues, which have largely been ignored by the public.
Yet in considering the different ways to both discuss and respond to the issues in the region, prevention - above all - is surely the penultimate goal. Let us not forget that.
Stay tuned for an article by McGill's George Bauer on current issues in northern Uganda today, which will conclude Part 1 of our series on northern Uganda.
* This article is based in part on an article originally written by Hugo Martorell on The Political Bouillon
** The day after this article was published on the Peace Geeks website, Invisible Children released a second video which aims to respond to many of the criticisms raised over the first video.