KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The wildly successful viral video campaign to raise global awareness of a brutal Central Africa rebel leader is attracting criticism from Ugandans, some who said Friday that the 30-minute video misrepresents the complicated history of Africa's longest-running conflict.
The campaign by the advocacy group Invisible Children to make militia leader Joseph Kony a household name has received enormous attention on YouTube and other Internet sites this week.
But critics here said the video glosses over a complicated history that made it possible for Kony to rise to the notoriety he has today. They also lamented that the video does not inform viewers that Kony originally was waging war against Uganda's army, whose human rights record has been condemned as brutal by independent observers.
"There is no historical context. It's more like a fashion thing," said Timothy Kalyegira, a well-known social critic in Uganda who once published a newsletter called The Uganda Record.
Kony's Lord's Resistance Army began its attacks in Uganda in the 1980s, when Kony sought to overthrow the government. Since being pushed out of Uganda several years ago, the LRA has terrorized villages in Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The group takes young women into sexual slavery and forces children to commit heinous attacks.
In the years when Kony's men roamed northern Uganda, the Ugandan government was often accused of failing to do enough to capture or kill Kony, with some government investigations showing that army officers profiteered from a protracted war.
Olara Otunnu, a former U.N. diplomat who worked on children and armed conflict, has long accused the Ugandan government of committing genocide in northern Uganda as it pursued Kony.
Invisible Children said in a statement posted on its website that it does not defend any of the human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan government.
But it said: "The only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments."
Ogenga Latigo, a politician from northern Uganda who previously led the opposition in Uganda's Parliament, said Invisible Children's perspective was too narrow to be allowed to define the popular understanding of an insurgency that displaced millions and in which thousands were killed or abducted.
"Theirs is a narrow perspective," he said of Invisible Children's work. "They just want the war to end so that children can go back home. That's all."
Latigo said that the Ugandan government, by failing to deploy enough soldiers to prevent the LRA from abducting children over the years, had been partly responsible for the rebel group's success as a recruiter of children.
"Our position was clear. We told the government, 'There are not enough soldiers,'" he said.
Invisible Children said that in its quest to garner wide support of a complicated issue, it tried to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format. It said that many nuances of a 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked in a half-hour film.
Not everyone is critical of Invisible Children's campaign. Maria Burnett, a researcher on Uganda for Human Rights Watch, said the video has helped draw attention to an issue the rights group has long been working on.
"We hope it will be helpful," she said. "What it leads to remains to be seen, but the goal to bring pressure on key leaders, to protect civilians and to apprehend LRA leadership is important, absolutely."
Burnett added that while the LRA issue is important, Uganda's military also needs to be accountable and professional — "and there's still a long way to go in that regard."
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, where Kony is wanted for war crimes, told The Associated Press this week he thinks the attention Invisible Children has raised is "incredible, exactly what we need."
Kony is now thought to be hiding in the Central African Republic, where he fled before an aerial assault on his forested base in Congo in 2008. Ugandan officials say the LRA — with some 200 core fighters at most — is weakened and is merely trying to survive.
Invisible Children's new campaign comes five months after President Barack Obama sent 100 U.S. forces to help regional governments eliminate Kony and his lieutenants. American troops are now stationed in Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Congo, and South Sudan, countries where Kony's men operate. Ugandan officials say that, with the help of U.S. troops, the hunt for LRA leaders has intensified in recent months.
Asked what the chances were of eliminating the LRA, Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, the top U.S. special operations commander for Africa, told journalists last month: "I don't see failure."
For some Ugandans, the timing of Invisible Children's campaign is suspicious. Nicholas Sengoba, a political analyst, said there was something "sinister" about Invisible Children's campaign.
"The issue has been around for ages," he said. "We have to ask ourselves why suddenly there is this uproar. I believe that these people have other motives that they are not putting out in the open."
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
On the Internet:
Self-proclaimed mystic Kony began one of a series of initially popular uprisings in northern Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986. But tactics of abducting recruits and killing civilians alienated supporters.
The LRA is infamous for kidnapping children for use as soldiers, porters and "wives". Although there are no universally accepted figures, the children are believed to number many thousands. Some are freed after days, others never escape. <br> <em>Trauma counselor Florence Lakor, right, listens to 16-year-old Julius, as he tells of the two years he was forced by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to live as a guerrilla fighter in Sudan and Uganda. (AP)</em>
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the 21-year war. A landmark truce was signed in August 2006 and was later renewed. But negotiations brokered by south Sudanese mediators have frequently stalled.
The cessation of hostilities has been largely respected, but the guerrilla group has said it will never sign a final peace deal unless the International Criminal Court drops indictments against its leaders for atrocities. <br> <em>Uganda's Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, right, and the head of the government peace talk delegation exchanges documents with the leader of the Lords Resistance Army peace talks delegation Martin Ojul, left, after signing a ceasefire agreement at State House in Kampala, Uganda, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007. (AP)</em>
Kony's force was once supported by the Khartoum government as a proxy militia, although Sudan says it has now cut ties with the LRA. Kony left his hideouts in south Sudan in 2005 for the Democratic Republic of Congo's remote Garamba forest. <br> <em>Map shows areas in Africa where the Lord's Resistance Army has had a known presence in the past year. (AP)</em>
Many northerners revile Kony for his group's atrocities, but also blame Museveni for setting up camps for nearly 2 million people as part of his counter-insurgency strategy, fuelling one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. <br> <em>Internally displaced people line up to receive food provided by the World Food Programe, Thursday, June 15, 2006 at the Pabbo camp outside Gulu, northern Uganda. (AP)</em>
Kony has said he is fighting to defend the Biblical Ten Commandments, although his group has also articulated a range of northern grievances, from the looting of cattle by Museveni's troops to demands for a greater share of political power. <br> <em>Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, second right, and his deputy Vincent Otti, right, are seen during a meeting with a delegation of Ugandan officials and lawmakers and representatives from non-governmental organizations, Monday, July 31, 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the Sudanese border. (AP)</em>