From Twitter trending to the front page of The New York Times to public statements by the White House and the Pentagon, the Kony 2012 campaign has shown the power of social media to affect U.S. public debate. But it has also demonstrated the dangers posed by oversimplification in an age when policy is made in the 24-hour news cycle. This has proven especially so on issues concerning Africa where, lacking historical context, over-simplistic media framing can quickly take root and lead to problematic policy “solutions.”
Created by San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children, Kony 2012 was launched with a 28-minute video, website, and “action kit” on sale for $30. The video focuses on the story of the long-running conflict in northern Uganda through the frame of 30-something white American filmmaker-turned-activist Jason Russell explaining the issue to his young son.
It is a masterful media work—blending screen shots of Facebook with footage from Uganda shot a decade ago to explain the war to a U.S. teenage audience. And the explanation is clear: Joseph Kony, leader of northern Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, is a “bad guy” and has to be “stopped.” “But the problem,” narrates Russell, “is 99 percent of the planet doesn’t know who he is. If they knew, Kony would have been stopped long ago.”
Tens of millions of people have viewed the film on YouTube, and the project has drawn critics, including many Ugandans, who have pointed out various inaccuracies and omissions. Kony, for instance, is no longer in Uganda; although the LRA has committed horrific attacks, its membership now numbers only a few hundred, not the 30,000 mentioned in the film; and even though few Americans have heard of him, Joseph Kony is already infamous throughout East Africa—after a decade of intense attention, Kony is among the best known war criminals in the world.
Many have pointed out the timing of Kony 2012 is strange at best: With the LRA operating from sparsely populated regions and crisscrossing borders, and with President Obama already having sent 100 U.S. soldiers to the region as “advisors,” it is a bit late for mass attention to spark a bold new strategy. This has led one Ugandan observer to suggest, "The Kony 2012 campaign will primarily succeed in making Invisible Children, not Joseph Kony, more famous.”
But the biggest problem with the film and campaign is that, in framing the problem as simply a question of arresting an evil man, it makes an indefensible omission: the role of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and that of the United States in the region. In this omission, and in its ahistorical political analysis, Invisible Children offers its one solution: U.S. military intervention. And so it calls on millions of American youth to save the Africans by supporting the presence of U.S. soldiers in a region the movie actually says remarkably little about—a solution that is, at best, insufficient and most likely disastrous when understood in context.
Joseph Kony is an unquestionably appalling figure in the history of central Africa. But in leaving Museveni entirely out of the picture, Invisible Children omits both the past and present realities that would explain why blindly backing the Ugandan leader and expanding his military capacity is unlikely to lead to peace in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the Central African Republic.
Nor is it possible to understand the LRA without the Ugandan president. Joseph Kony is not a new figure in Uganda—he and the Lord’s Resistance Army emerged over 25 years ago as Museveni was coming to power after a violent internal war. In consolidating control, Museveni launched a vicious counterinsurgency effort in northern Uganda that swept up many ethnic Acholi communities in its wake. This sparked resistance in the north, including the Holy Spirit Movement that eventually morphed into the LRA under Kony’s leadership and shifted into the horrific attacks and kidnappings that are now well documented.
The history of the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF) in northern Uganda and neighboring Congo, however, is not a justice-oriented effort to “stop Joseph Kony.” Human Rights Watch has cited Museveni's military for committing serious abuses of human rights against the civilian population in the Ugandan north in the name of tracking down Kony. In 1996, using the conflict as an excuse, the government forced nearly 2 million northern Ugandans into refugee camps euphemistically called "protected villages" where, according to the World Health Organization, a thousand people a week died of neglect without sufficient medical care, food, and water.
Under cover of the Kony search in neighboring Central African Republic, the Social Science Research Council recently documented widespread rape, violence, and looting of timber and diamonds by the UPDF. The UPDF also invaded and occupied nearby parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, according to a leaked UN report, massacred and tortured civilians in several locations, resulting in an indictment by the UN World Court in 2005.
Professor Mahmood Mamdani, director of Uganda’s Makerere Institute for Social Research, points out that at least part of the reason there has been no political solution is that President Museveni has blocked all efforts to end the violence through granting amnesty to LRA members—blocking bills in parliament and instead demanding an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment and a military solution. Indeed, some Ugandan analysts suspect that the LRA is actually useful to the President’s political aims as a foil and distraction from the increasingly problematic actions of Museveni’s government for both the Ugandan and international communities.
Recently, Museveni has used the army to crack down on opposition in Uganda—silencing human rights activists in the name of “terrorism.” Last April, civil society leaders organized a series of “walk-to-work” demonstrations that opposition politicians joined to protest the spiraling price of food and fuel. But Museveni’s government met the peaceful, legal protests with a violent crackdown—using tear gas, water cannons, chemical sprays, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to disperse unarmed crowds. Leading opposition figures were jailed, including presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, who was beaten and pepper sprayed. By the time the protests were put down, at least nine people were dead, hundreds were injured, and hundreds more were in jail.
Only by ignoring this context—the history of human rights violations by the UPDF and Museveni’s problematic role—is it possible to conclude that the best and only solution to armed conflict in the region is a stronger Ugandan army.
Recipe for Increased Violence
Kony 2012, to the extent that it succeeds, is likely to push American politicians to focus singularly on the high-profile action of sending soldiers to Africa to find Joseph Kony. The video tells us, “In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him.” And so the solution is that U.S. soldiers must stay and “technology” (e.g. weapons and vehicles) must flow.
The history of U.S. intervention in the region, however, suggests this is likely to lead to greater violence rather than peace.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States pumped billions of dollars of weapons into Africa to fight proxy wars in many of the very same countries in which the Kony drama has played out—helping create the conditions of instability and violence that persist today in Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire).
In the DRC, for example, the United States propped up the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko long after the Cold War had ended—providing more than $300 million in weapons and $100 million in military training, which Mobutu used to repress his people while stealing the mineral wealth of the nation. When Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu in 1997, the United States quickly offered him weapons and military support. As conflict intensified in the country—and a half-dozen countries in the region got involved—it turned out that U.S. weapons and covert military training were fueling the conflict on multiple sides. Indeed, Uganda was among the active combatants in the war, supported by millions in U.S. weapons supplied for purportedly peaceful reasons.
U.S. arms and military training throughout the continent, provided in the name of stability and professionalism, have strengthened the military power of combatants involved in some of Africa’s most violent and intractable conflicts. In Liberia, Rwanda, Angola, and Sudan, to name just a few, U.S. support has fueled violence despite purportedly peaceful—and often humanitarian—goals.
There is ample reason to doubt even the simplistic idea that the Ugandan army will succeed in catching Kony with U.S. support. Since 2008, the United States has been giving military assistance to Uganda—providing Uganda and Burundi with about $45 million worth of American equipment, including four drones this summer. And three years ago, 17 U.S. military advisors helped plan, fund, and support an attack on the LRA. The result? Complete failure: the LRA escaped and launched a violent retaliatory campaign that killed thousands and displaced over 180,000 people.
Not Exactly a Children’s Health Agenda
Perhaps the area where Invisible Children fails most strongly is simply failing to recognize the bigger agenda at work in east and central Africa.
As Professor Mamdani puts it quite clearly:
The LRA is a raggedy bunch of a few hundred 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.
Addressing the problem called the LRA does not call for a military operation. And yet, the LRA is given as the reason why there must be a constant military mobilization, at first in northern Uganda, and now in the entire region, why the military budget must have priority and, now, why the US must send soldiers and weaponry, including drones, to the region. Rather than the reason for accelerated military mobilization in the region, the LRA is the excuse for it.
In recent years the United States has been dramatically ramping up its training, arming, and financing of African militaries—moving from $100 million in 2001 to approximately $600-800 million by the end of the Bush administration. U.S.-funded private military contractors are spreading across the continent, expanding to the tune of $1 billion between 2009 and 2013.
This is all in the context of a decade-long push to establish a U.S. military command base on the African continent, which every country except for Liberia has rejected. In 2007, President Bush established AFRICOM, but based it in Germany—an illustration of how wary African governments are of a U.S. military presence in their countries.
The public messaging about AFRICOM emphasizes its role in encouraging development, building infrastructure, and promoting democracy. But the purpose of the dramatically expanded military focus on Africa is clear in the mission statement that AFRICOM “protects and defends the national security interests of the United States.”
A piece of this interest lies in perceived threats from insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. But AFRICOM has also been involved in countering “violent extremist organizations” in Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, and Mauritania to name a few.
Meanwhile, a second important U.S. interest is maintaining and extending access to raw materials and energy supplies from the African continent—and competing with China and other powers for access to those resources. As The Washington Post noted, “Defense officials acknowledge that one reason they are paying more attention to Africa is because the continent provides an increasingly large share of the U.S. supply of imported oil and natural gas.” In 2008 AFRICOM’s Vice Admiral Robert Moeller explained that “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market” was one of AFRICOM's key priorities and cited “oil disruption” and the “growing influence” of China as major U.S. challenges.
U.S. military support to Uganda has to be understood as both based on and attempting to expand these much bigger strategic interests for both governments. Uganda is one of the few African nations willing to lead in AFRICOM's war in strategically important Somalia. In addition, Uganda and the Eastern Congo are both rich in important minerals, from uranium and diamonds to tungsten and tantalum for cell phones. Uganda is also preparing for a major oil boom.
In that sense, then, U.S. military support sent to a key strategic ally, despite a horrendous human rights record, simply follows a long history of U.S. intervention in the region. Nor is it likely that such support is driven by humanitarian ideals; Museveni wants and needs a strong military to maintain his grip on power and suppress dissent. The Obama administration stands ready to provide that support so long as Ugandan troops support U.S. priorities in hot spots like Somalia and serve as an ally in the scramble for the continent’s resources. It is especially important now to legitimize U.S. initiatives in Africa, as the international community and civil society groups are calling for African-based initiatives to solve African problems. Both the White House and the Museveni regime clearly find the LRA a convenient boogey man to justify this military build-up.
Missing the Point
If we look not to San Diego but instead to Kampala and Gulu for what civil society groups are focused on, we see another major downside of the Kony 2012 campaign—distraction from core issues. As Arthur Larok of Action Aid recently said, “Many NGOs and the government, especially the local government in the north, are about rebuilding and securing lives for children, in education, sanitation, health and livelihoods. International campaigning that doesn't support this agenda is not so useful at this point. We have moved beyond that.”
What are they focused on? Ugandan groups are deeply concerned about newly rising HIV rates and the millions who lack access to anti-AIDS drugs. They are challenging government inaction on maternal health as a violation of human rights through a constitutional court challenge. They are struggling with the barely known nodding disease. They are working to build new models of getting basic services to northern Ugandans in a post-conflict society. And many are working to get education and jobs for the many in northern Uganda whose communities were disrupted at the hands of the LRA and UPDF, who now stand unemployed or too often stuck in sex work without basic support.
There is an opportunity cost to what Invisible Children is demanding. If we focus all our energy on catching Kony, what will we achieve? Perhaps the “bad guy” will have been caught—but little will change for the Ugandan communities most damaged by war, and the fundamental conditions that plague the region will remain firmly in place.
And there will be no peace.
This is why, even since Kony dropped out of the peace negotiations 2008, religious and civil society groups have continued to argue against militarism and emphasized that the ICC investigation should take the back seat to peace-building and development.
With the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, activists and celebrities have a greater ability than ever to make U.S. foreign policy a public issue. But the danger of oversimplification and policy-by-Twitter is not just that it misses important details, but also that an incomplete analysis leads to damaging “solutions.” Demanding that politicians “do something” about the media-amplified micro-issue of the day encourages them to favor simplistic action over long-term peace-building and efforts to address fundamental inequities. In this case, Invisible Children appears to have mobilized tens of millions of people in support of a wide-ranging U.S. and Museveni strategy to militarize the region. But it is Ugandans, Congolese, Sudanese, and Central Africans who will face the consequences.
Matthew Kavanagh is an AIDS and human rights activist and Director of US Advocacy at Health GAP (Global Access Project). He was previously the director of Global Justice, a national human rights organization working on AIDS, trade, and child heath, and is an active member of the AIDS activist group DC Fights Back. He has worked with a wide variety of NGOs and social-movement organizations in the US, Latin America, and Southern Africa—recently on water rights and Apartheid reparations campaigns in Johannesburg. He has written articles and curricula on issues ranging from US family law to the economic roots of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.