The image of Joseph Kony has spiked a lot of attention and controversy this week. On March 11th, a video denouncing the Ugandan guerilla leader and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) already had around 72 million views on Youtube (only 5.8% ‘dislikes’). The film was made professionally as part of the Invisible Children Inc. communication campaign and offers accessibility to university and youth-based movements through the direct ‘Cover the Night,’ a movement on April 20th consisting of covering local towns with Kony posters and stickers. Using Kony as a focal point for the campaign has allowed the movement to get its message across easily. Let me get my point straight: Joseph Kony is only the tip of the iceberg. The head of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, agreed that his viral video was an oversimplification, but was quick to add that the goal was to stop Kony. Complicated regional dynamics lie behind Kony’s image: heavy militarization, failed states, and tropical underdevelopment. If the international community is willing to target Kony, it also needs to respond to the insecurity in the region, and take a ‘population-centric’ approach.
According to New York Times blogger Lisa Shannon, “We owe them [the victims of the LRA] concrete steps toward capturing Kony.” I would like to expand this to all the victims of mineral and ethnic conflict as well as those suffering from the ill-effects of state oppression. From the Southern Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Sudan, civilian populations have found themselves trapped in a structure of systemic violence between mushrooming militias and state-sponsored coercion.
The LRA emerged in Northern Uganda, mainly the Acholi region, after the 1986-88 defeat of the Uganda’s People Democratic Army (UPDA) and Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF). After Musevini’s arrival to power and the crackdown by his National Resistance Movement (NRA), militiamen from both groups joined together to form the LRA. The NRA later became the official Ugandan army and was renamed the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF).
This warlord’s militia has fueled an autonomous and resilient terror in central Africa that has now lasted 25 years. They have been known for abducting young children for recruits and sex slaves in the tens of thousands, as well as causing immense suffering on an expansive territory. In 2006, the LRA fled Uganda and entered into peace negotiations, but resumed massacres in the DRC in late 2008. The Ugandan army was permitted to enter Congolese soil a few months later.
The LRA was also supported by al-Bashir’s brutal regime in Khartoum as a proxy to fuel social turmoil in South Sudan against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army (SPLA/M) and entered the Western Equatorial district in mid-2009. However, according to the government of Uganda on Friday, the LRA is now a “weakened group with numbers not exceeding 300.” This number is difficult to be certain of, however, as a great number of the forces are still hiding in grey zones –highly inaccessible and inhospitable areas that reach to the Central African Republic.
Uganda’s large neighbor, the DRC, has been hit hard by several waves of insecurity since 1994, most notably the spillover effects of massive refugee flows following the Rwandan genocide and two invasions by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). These incidents all involved neighboring states, the plundering of natural resources, and the drowning of the region by ready-to-use weaponry. Since then, smaller militias, with no easily-memorable acronyms, have been mushrooming in large parts of the country in order to take control of mineral resources. Social science theorists have named this phenomenon, the honey pot effect. Minerals like coltane have been exported via Rwanda, diversified, and can now be found in our personal computers and cell phones.
The Congolese army’s and the United Nations peacekeeping forces’ (UNAMIR) attempts to protect civilians from the LRA and other militia groups have been mostly inefficient. The UN has a weak mandate, and its main focus is currently Goma, a region next to the Rwandan border. The Congolese army (FARDC), much like the Ugandan one, is undisciplined and attracts mostly poor labor, who see the military as a way to strip the population of the little it has; as an institution, it is primarily a governmental tool to keep civil society at check. In Sudan, the ‘liberator’ SPLA has used its oil revenues to buy houses in Kenya, subsequently fueling conflict with other ethnic minorities.
American Involvement in the Region
The United States, as part of a self-serving strategy, are currently supporting Musevini and Kagame’s RPF and are training the SPLA.
Through the institution of the AFRICOM central command, signed into existence by President Obama in 2008,Washington has put forward strategic alliances throughout the African continent. The strategy’s two main goals are fighting al-Qaeda linked cells in the Sahel (AQIM) and Somalia (al-Shabaab), and securing viable flows of energy resources available in the region. Uganda has proven to serve both interests well in the past decade
Since the 1992 fiasco of Operation Restore Freedom, the United States has refused to send troops to Somalia Thus it has conducted its combat operations via drone attacks, the UPDF and the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF). Al-Shabaab has responded by attacking directly Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and the UPDF has subsequently lost several hundred soldiers in the war.
Furthermore, oil was discovered in 2006 in the Northern Acholi region. This has subsequently led to land grab by the UPDF and forced internal migration of Acholi residents into refugee camps. Milton Allimadi, the Ugandan American Black Star News Editor, calls this the “Second Acholi Genocide”. In the Albertine region (the Western region around the Lake Alberta), corruption issues have shaken the political landscape and have directed criticism towards the London-based Tullow Oil Company.
Moreover, the United States has been containing the Sudan (whose leader al-Bashir also has an arrest warrant against him from the International Criminal Court (ICC)) since the country took a radical Islamist stance and harbored Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s. The Sudan has also been at the forefront of China’s oil strategy in Africa, with China exchanging massive aid in exchange for access to the country’s abundant petroleum resources.
Finally, the U.S. intervened in the region in 2008-09 in Operation Lighting Thunder, which consisted of coordinating efforts to chase the LRA in the Congolese Garamba National Parc (Northern DRC). The operation was a failure partly due to communication problems within Uganda’s national army, and partly due to the difficulty of penetrating grey zones. Some call the entire operation payback for Uganda’s help with the AMISOM operations. However, these events were left mostly uncovered by Western media.
Uganda is in a strategic location between East and Central Africa, and the international community needs to incorporate all the complex regional dynamics into its intervention tactics in order to avoid dramatic spillover effects. Moreover, Western countries are guilty of fueling conflict in order to fulfill their hi-tech demand for minerals. The West has also exacerbated conflict through the direct involvement of multinationals and by supporting murderous regimes like Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwanda and Musevini’s Uganda.
Implications and Recommendations
Pushing for further US intervention is problematic because the US’s tactics in the region usually revolve around supporting its own interests. Since Uganda is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, strengthening the military institutions will most likely reduce any prospects of democratization, much like what happened in Rwanda since it used the “genocide-credit” to circumvent international criticism. Moreover, sending massive aid to Uganda will only serve to satisfy Western humanitarian guilt and may lead to a Haiti-like scenario of dependence.
Crushing the last remnants of Kony’s army before it regains its strength is important and can be done by using satellite surveillance, helicopters, and telecommunication to locate it and its arms trail. Moreover, community-based self-defense forces and other community initiatives appear to be the most legitimate forms of organization in the region and need to be assisted when they can with, for example, greater access to radios and telephones, as well as health and education facilities.
However, the international community needs to denounce once and for all the region’s arms and mineral industries, which have only acted to exacerbate the conflict in the past two decades. Greater transparency is needed for first-world citizens to understand how their own leaders and multinationals have benefitted from the fog of war.
Supporting autocratic governments to attack militias in the region is not an option due to the high price such a tactic would incur on already beleaguered citizens. . Such intervention would require a regional-wide agreement with the support of the African Union and United Nations and calls for far slower diplomatic and bureaucratic procedures than the more immediate actions the Invisible Children campaign is advocating for. However, these procedures would better take into account the actual context of the conflict, thus acting to better target the region’s true problems and produce better-tailored solutions. Finally, governments in the region need to stand accountable for their own human rights abuses.
One final analogy must be made regarding the way the ‘Kony 2012’ advocacy campaign was conducted. A decade ago, a human rights organization proclaimed Darfur a ‘genocide’ and isolated it from the rest of the Sudanese context. This simplification overshadowed Khartoum’s coercive measures on all of its peripheries, from the Kordofan to the Nuba Mountains and Upper Nile. All of these regions fought with the Southern Soudan against the center; however, all of these regions found themselves on the wrong side of the border when the CPA peace agreement was reached in 2005. As I write, they are being systematically bombed.
The regional dynamics that encompass the current LRA conflict stretch from the Sudan to the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and the horn of Africa, involving dozens of armed groups and Western countries. The issue is complex, and hence less ‘empowering’ action than the Kony 2012 video. The Kony 2012 has opened a window of opportunity, enabling broad masses to turn their attention to an issue that has been thus far internationally disregarded – but if the international community wants to help the Central and East African civilian populations, countries need to take an honest look at their own government’s role in the region before taking any critical actions.
Further research should be directed on how we can successfully communicate the issues of conflict and human rights abuse to western democracies, as well as how LRA-style militia groups emerge.
– Hugo Martorell