Invisible Children, Kony 2012 Video, and Museveni's Army

Okot Nyormoi
Okot Nyormoi, studied at Indiana University at Bloomington in America, was active in student politics, returned to Africa to teach at the School of Medicine at Makerere, and now teaches Biology at North Carolina Central University. Okot is a long time advocate for peace in Africa




When the Kony 2012 video hit the internet in March, it triggered two significant responses.  One was the staggering number of people, 50-100 millions, who watched it within days.  To achieve this feat, the makers of the video employed a simple narrative told by children, one a victim who was pleading for help and the other was five year old son of the producer, who, in spite of his tender age was shown identifying the bad man. The message was simple, “if this small boy can identify evil, why can’t the rest of the world do so?”

Son: Identified evil

 The second response was the massive criticisms of the video including the exploitation of an underage child in the video, over-simplification of the problem, misinformation, irrelevant information, suspected inappropriate use of money raised on behalf of the victims, etc. All of these questions apparently drove Mr. Jason Russell of the Invisible Children (IC), the producer of the video, to engage in inappropriate behavior in the public. Expectedly, those who profited by the video defended it while those who saw it as a tool of exploitation of the war to serve interests other than those of the war victims decried it.

Victim requested help

Did the Kony 2012 video deserve all the criticisms it got? Of course, if looked at with tunnel vision, one would say no. For example, supporters of IC argue that the organization is doing a lot of good building and rehabilitating schools, and financing the education of students in the war affected areas. In fact, these claims are true and those who know it are not disputing that the IC is doing some humanitarian work. The concern is that of scale. As will be discussed later, what the IC has done for the victims of the war is miniscule compared to what the war has done for the IC.

In contrast, if looked at from a broader perspective, there is more to what the IC is doing than the small humanitarian activity. First of all, since 2004 when the IC released its first video on the commuting children in northern Uganda, it saw the tragedy in northern Uganda as a career opportunity and financial gold mind. While speaking at Convocation at the conservative Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, USA, Jason Russell, in late 2011, confessed that the IC is a business not a charity organization. In pursuit of its business vision, the IC took advantage of well meaning, but gullible college and High School students and raked in $13 million and more. Only about $3 million of the money was spent on humanitarian activities.

Efforts to understand and appreciate the complexity of the Kony-Museveni war were always hindered by the type of narrative represented by the Kony 2012 video. In the western media, the narrative of the war was always dominated by sensationalism of the macabre, the bizarre and the strange. The driving force was the need to sell newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and otherwise raise funds. The result was inevitable; the urge to conform to conventional negative ideas and image of Africa and Africans.

 Consumers of western media thrive on sound bites. They do not have the patience to read or follow complex in-depth analysis of events. Both of these factors add up to the failure to recognize and appreciate the dynamism and complexity of the LRA-Uganda Government war (a war in which ultimately both sides were fighting against the people). For example, the Kony 2012 video was caught using footage of events that took place almost 10 years earlier as if the war was frozen in time. The video was also caught using the simplistic dichotomy of evil versus good, which completely ignores the fact that in war, there are two sides. It is a fact that both sides of the conflict committed crimes against humanity. If the IC was interested in pursuing true justice, both sides must be held accountable for what they did.

The simplistic reduction of the LRA or the war to Kony as the evil man versus the rest of the world as the good guys also masked the evolution of the war. Every time a government is overthrown by armed force, the tendency is for the old regime to resist the new change as much as possible. How long the resistance lasts depends on what the new regime does. In this case, the NRM regime embarked on revenge killing, demonization, dehumanization and other forms of cultural terrorism at a critical point when the war would have come to an end. Given the experience of the Amin years where soldiers who surrendered were simply murdered in cold blood, the murder of innocent people and the sodomy of men in the presence of their wives and children were some of the factors that stiffened the resistance.

Joseph Kony: bad guy

Of course, a resistance war is not determined by a national vote or an act of parliament, but rather by those who feel strongly that they are wronged and that war is the last resort. While the resistance was justified at the beginning, the method by which it was conducted subsequently evolved into an anti-people war. This happened when both the incoming NRM regime and the rebels underestimated each other. When the NRM regime realized that it could not beat the rebels militarily, it decided to fight the war in the court of public opinion. It became an agent provocateur par excellence by making claims of having defeated the rebels. The rebels would then commit atrocities and dare the government stop them. Both rebels and government troops became adept at committing terrible atrocities to extract maximum publicity. To show the significance of the public relations war, the NRM regime hired CNN and the notorious New York-based public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, at the cost of millions of dollars to whitewash its image and to fight the war in the court of public opinion. So, when the Kony 2012 presents Kony as the sole and worst evil man in the world, it is not only factually wrong, but it also completely fails to recognize the dynamics of how the NRM regime carefully choreographed the violence to conceal its own role in the violence.

It is often quoted that 30,000-60,000 children were kidnapped by the LRA. It is most likely that the majority of the remaining estimated 200 LRA soldiers are themselves victims of the war, having been kidnapped and forced by their unenviable circumstance to commit violence. By calling for Kony to be killed or captured, the Kony 2012 video does not realize that the lives of the soldiers who are guarding Kony will be at risk. Although, the child soldiers might have and may still be committing atrocities, it is certain that their loved ones would prefer to have them return home alive and be rehabilitated than to be killed.

There is a staggering discrepancy between the present size of the LRA and the number of children rescued by the government. This raises serious questions as to what happened to the rest of the kidnapped children and who should be held responsible for what happened to them. Of course, these questions cry out for the need for documentation because killing or capturing Kony alone will not bring closure to those whose children are missing.

When the Kony 2012 video was screened in Lira and Gulu, it elicited some strong reactions from some of the viewers. In fact, one person was reported to have been killed in the fracas at Pece Stadium in Gulu. This left some people wondering why there was such strong opposition to the video in the region which suffered enormously from the war. To those familiar with the war, such a reaction is not at all surprising because the Kony 2012 video calling for people to make Kony famous was like rubbing salt on a raw wound.

Victims stunned & stung by Video

The video is also a prime example of how the war had been exploited to serve different interests. For example, internally, the NRM regime used the war to consolidate its power in the southern part of the country in the early days by presenting itself as the protector from the threat of being dominated by the phantom monsters from the north. More important, the war became a convenient tool to destroy the north by executing a concealed genocide. In the words of President Museveni, this was to teach the people of the north a lesson they would never forget. As a result of such a plan, 2 million people or more were incarcerated in concentration camps euphemistically known as protected villages where the World Health Organization survey found that many more people perished from preventable diseases than from direct war casualties.

President Museveni

The war also became a cash cow nationally as well as internationally. In the effort to serve the people incarcerated in the camps without any livelihood, a large number of non-governmental organizations (NGO) sprang up and humanitarian tourism became a lucrative business. Well placed people opened up businesses of supplying food and other nominal commodities to the nearly 200 camps. Humanitarian aid in effect allowed government officials to corruptly divert funds which would otherwise serve the people for private use. Furthermore, the war was used as a basis to solicit funds from western countries, particularly the US, under the pretext of fighting international terrorism. Besides, the war became a convenient diversion for keeping the many thousands of soldiers pre-occupied. Idle soldiers are dangerous in undemocratic governments. Thus, a combination of business, political and military interests provided a strong incentive to profiteers to maintain the war at a low level so long as it did not threaten the regime in power.

Concentration Camps: thousands died weekly for over 15 years

Externally, the war served many interests as well. First, within the region, the Khartoum regime used the LRA as a proxy to fight Uganda because of its support of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SPLA). In addition to the Khartoum regime, there were also some military elements within southern Sudan who allegedly collaborated with the LRA in case they needed additional forces in their struggle for power. Of course, the Ugandan government sought and got the US to declare the LRA an international terrorist organization. This allowed Uganda to ingratiate itself to the US that it, too, was fighting international terrorism. In return, the US has to pony up some money, intelligence, military training and military equipments.

Uganda ingratiating itself

In a broader context, the war became a good pretext for the USA to lure Uganda into fighting its proxy war in Somalia. Since the US was forced to withdraw from Somalia in 1993, it did not want to place its troops on the ground partly because of lack of American public support. Plus, since the US was being stretched thin while fighting two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it needed African allies to fight on its behalf. Furthermore, the US has major economic interests in Africa including the vast oil reserves in Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, etc. The US is also interested in such important minerals such as coltan to power its electronic industries, uranium, diamonds, gold etc. It definitely does not want the rising economic super power, China, to establish a foothold in Africa.

The US push into Africa began even before independence when it sought to replace European colonial influences under the pretext of siding with the people in their struggle for independence and democracy. To a large extent, it has succeeded in becoming competitive or better with all the former colonial powers in countries like Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, Angola and Mozambique. To consolidate its sphere of influence in Africa, the USA has been pushing for the establishment of a military presence in the form of the African Command (AFRICOM), which no African country has so far agreed to host. Although the US has quietly stationed troops on African soil for many years the so-called war on the LRA has become a useful pretext to allow the US to openly position its troops in Africa.

While fighters of the LRA have earned its right to stand in the circle of bad people, Kony is by no means the “badest dude” around the corner. Consider President Museveni who is alleged to be responsible for the death of 6 million people in Uganda, DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, CAR and now Somalia. If numbers are the yardstick, then President Museveni must be ahead of Kony. To a significant extent, the International Court of Justice agreed with such conclusion when in 2005, by sixteen votes to one, “Finds that the Republic of Uganda, by the conduct of its Swarmed forces, which committed acts of killing, torture and other forms of inhumane treatment of the Congolese civilian population, destroyed villages and civilian buildings, failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets and to protect the civilian population in fighting with other combatants, trained child soldiers, incited ethnic conflict and failed to take measures to put an end to such conflict”.

The Army

Regardless of the goal of the Kony 2012 video, the unintended consequence is that it generated a lot of discussions about the Kony-Museveni war. Gleaning from the discussions, it would appear that most people appear to agree that a negotiated peaceful solution is better than a military approach. Additionally, they also seem to agree that killing or capturing Kony alone will not solve the problem because so long as oppressive conditions that breed rebellion continue to exist in Uganda, new rebellions are likely to spring up in efforts to create a better country. Overall, the IC’s Kony 2012 video deserves a strong condemnation for exploiting the Kony-Museveni war victims to serve personal career and business interests, and for advocating for military solutions of a problem that requires a political solution.