Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” Campaign Misses the Mark

by Michele Wehle

The viral web world is aflutter with the March 5th launch of a video advocating the capture of Joseph Kony, mastermind of the Ugandan Lords Resistance Army. The force behind the “Kony 2012” movement is Invisible Children, a San Diego-based NGO. Invisible Children’s mission is simple: find Kony so that Africa’s longest running war can finally come to an end. While there is no doubt that Joseph Kony deserves to be captured and brought to justice, the trendy campaign and its accoutrements fail to consider what justice means to the Ugandan people. Rather than advocating for Kony’s head, Invisible Children should concentrate its energy on advocating that the Obama administration apply diplomatic pressure on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the true enabler of the LRA’s reign of terror.

If President Museveni should thank anyone for helping him reach his 26th year in office, it’s Joseph Kony. Although the LRA was not the ragtag army some have claimed it to be, President Museveni has had the military and financial tools at his disposal to eradicate its presence. Because the conflict was largely contained to Northern Uganda, however, and did not present a true threat to Kampala, Museveni has only pursued half-hearted efforts to end the violence. If anything, Museveni has milked the conflict for everything it is worth, and has used the existence of the LRA as an excuse both to maintain power, claiming that his leadership is required to prevent Uganda from falling back into civil war, and as a mechanism to reap U.S. foreign aid.

The LRA came to prominence in 1988 largely to counter President Museveni’s National Resistance Army. Remnants of colonial legacies pitted Northern and Southern Uganda against one another since independence, and the Acholi people in the North perceived Museveni’s Southern-based NRA as a threat. Rather than protecting Acholiland, the LRA began forcibly abducting the Acholi people to fill its rank and file. Newly abducted members, many of whom were young children, were christened into the LRA via vicious beatings and a “kill or be killed” mentality.

A number of factors prolonged this war, all of which Invisible Children fails to consider. For starters, the LRA received ongoing support and funding from Khartoum in response to Museveni funding the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was fighting the Sudanese government. Although Khartoum has not bankrolled Kony for years, Invisible Children’s tendency to ignore the geopolitical nature of the conflict invites the adoption of shortsighted policy measures that will fail to address the conflict’s true cause – the continued marginalization of Northern Uganda by the South.

U.S. foreign aid has delayed peace as well, as high-ranking Ugandan government and military officials have profited immensely from the conflict and have not used that profit to end the conflict effectively. The Ugandan military hasexaggerated the number of soldiers in its ranks to inflate its budget, and has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into defense spending (around $340 million in 2009). U.S. assistance to Uganda surpassed $480 million for 2011, and almost $530 million was requested by the Obama administration for 2012.

It is clear that Museveni and his cronies have benefitted from the war. What is unclear is how Invisible Children’s campaign will provide the Ugandan people with justice when the organization’s leadership considers the Obama administration’s decision to send military advisers to Central Africa to stop Kony a cause for celebration. President George W. Bush implemented a similar strategy in 2008, in which counterterrorism experts trained Ugandan troops and provided millions of dollars of aid. The LRA avoided capture, and even retaliated by massacring scores of civilians in neighboring countries.

While the Invisible Children campaign performs a disservice to its followers in failing to adequately educate them on the roots of the conflict, it performs a bigger disservice to the Ugandan people. The sole portrayal of Ugandans as victims of Kony’s terror and of the West as their savior denies them their agency, while labeling Kony as the sole “bad” guy denies them their justice. What the Acholi people want is to bring Kony to justice on their own terms, and in accordance with their own culture, rather than in accordance with Western norms and the International Criminal Court.

If Invisible Children were truly serious about ending Africa’s longest war, it would pressure the Obama administration to drastically cut assistance to Museveni’s government, and make aid conditional on the LRA’s capture. Moreover, holding Museveni accountable for his hand in the war would go a long way in ensuring that another Kony doesn’t emerge in the future.

We must remember the Ugandan people’s right and ability to determine their own justice — and the responsibility of the Ugandan government in stopping Kony. The Invisible Children campaign unfortunately forgets both.

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