Earlier this week, I wrote an essay outlining what I viewed as some of the problems with the "Kony 2012" campaign spearheaded by the American NGO Invisible Children.
The campaign and accompanying film advocate -- via technological assistance, training and the presence of United States military personnel throughout Central Africa -- for military support of the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, ostensibly to facilitate the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group and an accused war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court.
To anyone who has spent time in Central Africa in general and Uganda in particular, this appears to be a road fraught with peril. In response to several requests that I elaborate further on the problems of this approach and a possibly more constructive approach, I offer the following.
There are several instances of blatant dishonesty in the film that immediately catch one's eye and trouble one's conscience.
The first is the inference that in the Uganda of today thousands of children are continuing their grim sojourns as night commuters to escape the violence of the LRA. With the LRA's presence in Northern Uganda having essentially evaporated by the end of 2006, the use of images of the bodies of thousands of sleeping children -- who may or may not have consented to be filmed -- attempts to convince the viewer that the crisis of overt violence in Northern Uganda is ongoing, and thus necessitating direct military action. As the organization spent $1,859,617 on travel and filmmaking last year (out of total expenses of $8,894,630) one would think Invisible Children could have shown a more current (and accurate) picture of Northern Uganda and the organizations there working to improve it.
Also troubling is the film's depiction of Lieutenant Okot Santo Lapolo. A Museveni loyalist who serves as a Resident District Commissioner (RDC) in the Acholi region, Santo Lapolo is perhaps better known for harassing and threatening government critics in the press in the region than opining on human rights. When Invisible Children interview him, however, Santo Lapolo is described simply as a "politician," with no mention of his role as an éminence gris for the regime.
This is alas part and parcel of the film's and the organization's whitewashing of the highly tortured history and legacy of the Museveni government in Central Africa, a government that has done some good things for the country but which also, through reckless military adventurism and a hunger to retain power, has routinely trampled on the values of human rights that Invisible Children claims to champion.
The Museveni government has been undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy since at least 2001, when the Supreme Court of Uganda, while upholding the vote in presidential elections that year, also found that "the principle of free and fair election was compromised." The situation deteriorated further in 2006 when elections were marked by what observers called "serious irregularities and significant shortcomings." In 2011 elections, the National Resistance Movement -- Museveni's political party -- handed out money and gifts, intimidated political opponents and in general behaved in a way that seriously called into question the validity of the final results.
Over the last year, large scale protests against alleged political corruption and economic mismanagement have occurred in Uganda's capital, Kampala, many aligned with the Forum for Democratic Change led by Kizza Besigye, a doctor and former soldier as well as a former Museveni ally-turned-critic. Government security forces have treated the protests brutally, with at least 10 people dying and several hundred disappearing into jail during the demonstrations last year.
Beyond Congo's borders, in addition to its military actions in Somalia (where Uganda's army is essentially fighting a proxy war for Western powers against Islamist militias in that country,) Uganda's army also still has yet to answer for its actions following its late 1990s invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) alongside Rwanda and a hastily-cobbled together Congolese rebel movement.
In the wars that followed, the Museveni government was the key military backer of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), a Congolese rebel movement led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague -- the same body that indicted Kony -- for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In addition to the MLC, the Museveni government also actively supported a faction of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) and the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), both of whom were implicated in the grossest human rights abuses. One former UPC chieftain, Thomas Lubanga, is currently on trial at the Hague, charged with using child soldiers, while another former leader of the group, Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed The Terminator and also an indicted war criminal, is now a power broker in the eastern Congolese province of North Kivu and a lynchpin of the regional détente between Congolese President Joseph Kabila (himself re-elected in a controversial ballot last year) and Museveni's erstwhile ally-turned-rival, Rwanda President Paul Kagame.
Then there is the history of high-level attempts to crush the LRA itself.
In December 2008, seventeen U.S. military advisers provided logistics, communications, and intelligence support for the Ugandan and Congolese army's Operation Lightning Thunder, an attempt to nab Kony which failed. In the weeks that followed, the LRA descended on several Congolese villages, killing hundreds of people and kidnapping over 100 children from communities left defenseless against the LRA's desire for vengeance.
What is the system of protection that Invisible Children advocates for communities such as these put in the line of fire by the military operations the group advocates? Invisible Children is silent on this score.
This, then, is the context that Invisible Children advocates further militarizing.
Complicating matters still further, the push for an increased military presence in Central Africa comes after the discovery of one billion barrels of potential oil reserves in the country, with an estimated 1 to 1.5 billion barrels yet to be located.
Last month, London-based Tullow Oil signed two $2.9 billion production sharing agreements with the Museveni government, despite the fact that Uganda's parliament had concluded that there should be a complete moratorium on oil-related activity until new laws were put in place (Uganda's Petroleum Exploration and Production Act dates from 1985). Security for the installations is being provided by a military unit closely linked to the president.
Reactions to the Invisible Children campaign from Uganda itself have been telling.
Writing in the newspaper The Independent, Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga suggested that Invisible Children should have let their viewers know that "when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it. "
On the Project Diaspora site, one writer accused Invisible Children of being "a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant....selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. "
How Invisible Children can push for the measures it has and remain eligible for tax-exempt status as an organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code -- which states that such an organization may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates -- would seem to remain something a mystery.
A refrain that is often repeated by Invisible Children's supporters is that the organization's goal is not to "get bogged down by history" but rather to "raise awareness" thus leading to "action." But what kind of action can come in Central Africa if one ignores the region's history?
So then, the line of reasoning goes, what is to be done? If not by supporting Invisible Children's campaign -- intentional or not -- to reinforce the Museveni government's hold on power, then how can those who have been inspired and moved by the plight of those suffering in Central Africa ameliorate the situation of those in greatest need?
Despite living under a rapidly ossifying authoritarianism, Uganda still has a vibrant civil society made up of and working for the empowerment of Ugandans, with a number of organizations that are worthy of any support we can give them.
In Northern Uganda itself, the group Human Rights Focus has labored for years and produced detailed reports on the the conflict there far more nuanced and accurate than anything Invisible Children has ever put out.
Elsewhere, as government officials and foreign investors lick their lips at the promise of an oil boom, groups such as the Africa Institute for Energy Governance and the Water Governance Institute are doing important work to hold both Uganda's politicians and their foreign partners accountable to the Ugandan people.
Further afield, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, groups such as the Goma-based Pole Institute and the late, heroic Floribert Chebeya's Voix des Sans-Voix work to defend the rights of the Congolese under the most difficult of conditions.
These are organizations led by people who risk their lives every day standing up to the Musevenis, the Kagames and the Kabilas of the world.
Likewise, by working with local organizations to strengthen the government of South Sudan, a region that the LRA long used as a redoubt and whose rapid disintegration the group is no doubt praying for to give it another refuge closer to home, would also be an extremely productive use of the time of those outside of the region who wish to help.
If the people who have been moved by the Kony 2012 campaign truly want to help Africa, they must start by learning about and supporting the struggles of the Africans themselves. This is their fight, this is their history, these are their countries. Not ours. The citizens of Africa must write their own future from within their own borders. We cannot do it for them.
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