The Great Kony con

Kony is portrayed in this poster as the latest ogre on evil's evolutionary plane

CUE thousands of 13 to 21 year old Americans clad in t-shirts emblazoned with the image of notorious Ugandan terrorist Joseph Kony, modelled on Barack Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster from his 2008 election campaign. But Kony’s has two other figures in the background: Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden, clearly suggesting that Kony is the latest spawn on evil’s evolutionary plane. Their mission? To make the egregious Lord’s Resistance Army leader ‘famous’ and thus sustain public support of the US military’s deployment in central Africa ostensibly to help capture Kony and bring him to justice.

This is the footage from a newly released controversial 30-minute documentary produced by the American charity Invisible Children. It has since gone viral, accounting for more than 85 million views on the video sharing site Youtube. Unsurprisingly, many reviewers have roundly condemned it as a psychological operations piece for US military intervention in central Africa. Invisible Children is fronted by 33 year-old Jason Russell, whose work with children traumatised by LRA raids among the Acholi communities of northern Uganda inspired him to set up the charity.

Using slick production techniques and a simplistic narrative riding on good guy-bad guy binaries, the film invokes the default paternalism of some western humanitarian agencies towards ‘helpless’ Africa. Agency for the resolution of the identified crisis is exported to the west, and Africans appear only as victims and advocates offering plaintive calls for help. The heartrending story of its Ugandan child protagonist, Jacob Acaye, who was abducted into Kony’s army and forced to watch his brother killed, is the big stick with which the film clobbers the moral conscience of its youthful viewers. It then challenges them to assuage their assaulted sense of humanity by taking ‘social action to end the use of child soldiers […] and restore LRA-affected communities in central Africa to peace and prosperity’.

Russell, recently suffered a mental breakdown and had to be sectioned

There are other founded criticisms levelled against the film, which was both narrated and directed by Russell. The first is that it inaccurately lays all the blame for the atrocities committed against northern Ugandan civilians on Kony’s LRA alone and totally absolves President Yoweri Museveni’s government of any wrongdoing. Human rights campaigners have documented and highlighted the atrocities of Museveni’s government against the Acholi people, including his policy of forcibly herding them into ‘protective camps’, where many of them fell sick and died.

‘Young adults recall the time from the mid-90s when over 80 per cent of the total population of three Acholi districts was forcibly interned in camps – the government claimed it was to ‘protect’ them from the LRA,’ wrote world renowned Ugandan academic and Makerere University professor, Mahmood Mamdani. ‘But there were allegations of murder, bombing, and burning of entire villages, first to force people into the camps and then to force them to stay put.’

According to figures from Uganda’s own health ministry, the excess mortality rate in these camps was approximately 1000 persons per week, a staggering statistic comparable to those killed by the LRA in the worst year.

Secondly, the campaign to get Kony appears anachronistic given that conflict in northern Uganda has largely quietened and Kony himself is widely believed to have long since left Uganda. The country’s Prime Minister, smarting from the negative publicity generated around the image of his country, adopted the same social media techniques employed by Invisible Children to issue a rebuttal of their claims.

Jacob Acaye: the film looks at the plight of the children through his story
In a nine minute Youtube video, Amama Mbabazi said, ‘The Kony 2012 campaign fails to make one crucial point clear. Joseph Kony is not in Uganda.’ Proving as much a social media literate as Invisible Children itself, Mbabazi then took to Twitter to call out the same celebrities the charity had targeted in its campaign – the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Ryan Seacrest - and invited them to ‘visit our proud nation and see the peace that exists’. 

As if spurred by the Kony 2012 campaign, the African Union late last month announced the deployment of a 5000-strong force into central Africa to hunt for Kony and his LRA militants. The force, comprising troops from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, will be under Ugandan command. Francisco Madeira, the AU’s special envoy for the LRA, was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying that the force would be based in the South Sudan city of Yambio, close to the border with the DRC.

In response to questions about how long the mission would last, Madeira said: ‘When we capture Kony or he hands himself in or we neutralise him in some way; that will be the end. That’s the timeframe.’ But what is the LRA that it should merit such an open-ended military campaign akin to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, obviously at huge cost? Mamdani says the LRA is now no more than ‘a raggedy bunch of a few hundreds at most, poorly equipped, poorly armed, and poorly trained. Their ranks mainly comprise those kidnapped as children and then turned into tormentors. It is a story not very different from that of abused children who in time turn into abusive adults. In short, the LRA is no military power.’

He argues that addressing ‘the problem called the LRA does not call for a military operation’. Indeed, many observers have queried the basis of the proposed rapid military mobilisation in the central African region and feel strongly unconvinced that the LRA is the reason for it. President Barack Obama’s deployment late last year of 100 US special forces to the region to assist this would-be AU force in the hunt for Kony under the aegis of the United States Africa Command (Africom) casts a dark shadow over this Kony brouhaha.

It is in this context that Invisible Children’s role in the get-Kony-campaign becomes less a na├»ve and innocuous action than it is a deliberate call for military intervention on the pretext of humanitarianism. Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at Makerere, said because of the charity’s ‘irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money.’

And money does loom large in Invisible Children’s profile. The Guardian revealed the charity to be a ‘cash-rich operation’ whose annual income in 2011 tripled to nearly $9m from foundations as well as personal donations. A quarter of this was spent on travel and film-making, $1.7m went to US employee salaries, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in ‘professional services’, and $1.07 million in travel expenses.

Branch described Invisible Children as ‘useful idiots’ who are being used by ‘those in the US government who seek to militarise Africa, to send more weapons and military aid to the continent, and to build the power of states that are US allies’. ‘The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources?’

American writer F. William Engdahl wrote recently that the Joseph Kony crusade ‘appears to be a flank in a major Africom and US State Department campaign especially to undermine Chinese influence in central Africa -- now that they have successfully driven the Chinese oil companies out of Libya, and carved out a new “republic” of South Sudan containing much of the oil that fuels China’s economy.’

‘That splitting of South Sudan and its oil, for those who did not follow it closely, was a consequence of sending in US and NATO special forces to ‘stop genocide’ in Darfur,’ he claimed.

Branch said the most serious problems northern Ugandans face today have little to do with Kony. ‘The most pressing are over land. Land speculators and so-called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military, are grabbing the land of the Acholi people in northern Uganda, land that they were forced off a decade ago when the government herded them into internment camps,’ he said.

The US has reason to be impressed by the progress of its military and strategic objectives so far in central/east Africa. Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya have all been willingly conscripted into American proxies in its war on terror. All three countries have sent their armies into Somalia to battle Islamic extremists. Uganda in particular, has recently received $45m in military support from the US, with the promise of more. Africom is keen to move its headquarters from Germany to the continent where its strategic objectives include ensuring supply lines for energy and other materials from the continent, and to checkmate the rise of China in Africa. Africa is now a region of vital importance to national security in the US.