Why Kony Is Not The Main Game
By James Dhizaala and Stuart Rees
The frenzy of conversation about the reach and effect of the Kony 2012 video has covered a lot of ground. What hasn’t been addressed, however, is the Uganda government’s complicity in the oppression of the Acholi, Teso and Langi people — and the international community’s blind co-operation.
Discussing the video is no substitute for talking with Ugandans about the causes and consequences of the Lord’s Resistance Army, no substitute for considering the complexity and complicity involved in this long lasting catastrophe.
In 2005, the UN special envoy for children in armed conflict, the courageous Ugandan Olara Otunnu received the Sydney Peace Prize for his “courage in advocacy of universal human rights with reference to freeing child soldiers and fostering the UN’s programme for such children’s rehabilitation”. In the 1970s, as a student leader, Otunnu opposed the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and soon after Amin’s downfall, Otunnu became his country’s foreign minister for a short time.
But Otunnu is an Acholi leader. Ugandan governments following Amin, in particular the ones led by the West’s much-lauded President Museveni, herded an estimated 95 per cent of the Acholi and others into 200 refugee camps . Thousands of children died each week in what Otunnu called “the secret genocide”. It was secret in part because Koni and the LRA — as depicted in the Invisible Children film — gained attention and diverted focus from government atrocities to the LRA’s abduction of children. The message, “Get Kony and all will be well” was misleading then and it still is. As Otunnu wrote, “The truth is that reports of indisputable atrocities of the LRA are being employed to mask other serious crimes.”
The atrocities committed against the Acholi and their children were also secret because powerful governments, UN agencies, NGOs and human rights organisations stayed silent. Despite evidence of years of corruption and the plunder of resources from the Congo, they had decided, that Museveni, in Otunnu’s words, “was a new breed of African leader”.
We support Otunnu’s analysis. The Ugandan government still does not have the political will to see the war in northern Uganda come to an end and should not be trusted.
The government’s efforts to capture Kony, in association with US forces, and bring him to the ICC would appear to be in everyone’s interests — and money from social media campaigns might be useful.
But that’s not the issue for the people of northern Uganda. Capturing Kony might relieve them from fear of his return but such action is not their highest priority. The people need financial help for projects which would rehabilitate and rebuild the long neglected public infrastructures. There are thousands of orphans and widows, hundreds of thousands of traumatised people. That’s the health care and social welfare which people need. Capturing Kony is a diversionary political agenda.
Nine years ago, following the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Kony for crimes against humanity, the Ugandan government forced the Acholi and Langi residents of the camps back to their villages, albeit without compensation or other resources. Many had been in the camps for over 20 years, some did not know where they came from. Villages had been mined and they returned to locations with neither roads, schools nor health care. Museveni did not ask for international assistance. Healing and re-building lives after years of containment in camps remains a massive humanitarian challenge.
An even more damning appraisal of the Invisible Children film comes from Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at Uganda’s Makerere Institute of Social Research. He is also the author of Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda. Branch writes that the debate generated by the film is “not about Uganda, but about America.” He confirms accounts of the powerlessness of the millions returning to their homes but adds that the most significant problem is that Acholi land is being grabbed by “speculators and so called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military.” This is land “that the Acholi were forced from a decade ago, when the government herded them into internment camps.”
The reference to American involvement is more than an observation about the makers of the video. In 2009, in response to lobby groups in Congress, President Obama agreed to send 100 Navy SEALs to contribute to the hunt for Kony. Our Uganda sources claim that there are now 500 US SEALs in northern Uganda who make regular flights across the country to survey existing oil exploration sites and to search for other mineral deposits.
Rumours circulate about the Americans’ purpose. Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi doubts their claims about searching for Kony and is unhappy with their presence. Other commentators think the Americans want another foothold in Africa to contest Chinese influence and that pursuit of the ragtag LRA is just an excuse for further militarisation of the region. The call to arms in the Invisible Children video is another part of this process.
Publicity surrounding a video gone viral may raise public awareness and challenge the conscience of politicians but within a month is likely to be replaced by revelations about another massive injustice.
Instant publicity about the Joseph Kony atrocities may have been achieved but campaigns to attain human rights require careful organisation and the selfless commitment of activists sustained over a long period. In northern Uganda the immediate need to sustain the lives of millions of vulnerable people will take a minimum one to three years. The economic and social development required to re-build lives and create opportunities will take a generation.
Don’t let’s be fooled. One video might re-charge efforts to bring Kony before the ICC but ignores international commercial interests in that part of Africa — let alone the day to day predicament of Olara Otunnu’s people.
Professor Stuart Rees is the Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation
James Dhizaala is a Ugandan-born PhD candidate at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, the University of Sydney
This article was first published by New Matilda Online, 15/03/2012