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The Kony Campaign: A Harmful Simplification?

Graffiti from the #Kony2012 campaign. Source: JoelAnthonyValdez, Flickr
Graffiti from the #Kony2012 campaign. Source: JoelAnthonyValdez, Flickr

Joseph Kony, a guerrilla leader operating in northern Uganda, is known to the world as the devil incarnate. Kony’s acts include abducting and forcing children to become sex slaves or soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), mass rape and mutilation. A California based NGO called Invisible Children (IC) have worked in Uganda for over a decade, and have set out to make Kony famous in order to gather support to stop him. Their campaign focused particularly on informing U.S. citizens about the dreadful deeds surrounding this man. However, they only explained a small portion of a complex and volatile situation.

U.S. citizens were encouraged to write to their representatives in congress  to mobilize support for international intervention in the conflict. Meanwhile the effects of the campaign made IC grow as they received more donations. Professionals familiar with the conflict have spoken out against this campaign claiming that it is warmongering and protracts the conflict by seeking a military solution to a much more complex social problem. Moreover, critics note that Joseph Kony and the LRA were driven out of Uganda in 2006 and are estimated to only be a few hundred strong today, which was not made clear during the campaign.

Non-governmental Ugandan voices call for a peaceful resolution of the conflict rather than the military-based approach IC suggest, as they believe such an approach woud end the conflict sooner with fewer lives lost. By demonizing one party in the conflict, it reduces the opportunity to pursue a peaceful solution. Therefore, the NGO Invisible Children is not recognised as a peace–building organisation by northern Ugandans, even though IC claim to pursue international justice.

To complicate matters powerful Ugandan voices want the Ugandan president to be held personally accountable for the atrocities  committed by the Uganda People’s Defence Force. This has led the government to be accused of welcoming some atrocities committed by the LRA which caused displacement of entire villages. This shows the multifaceted nature of the conflict, which was left out of the IC campaign. The simplistic Western perception of the conflict focuses on the importance of immediate justice, in order to achieve peace. The idea is to cut the head of the LRA by bringing Kony to the International Criminal Court, allowing for peace to follow. The opposite assessment has been made by some major NGOs and the communities in northern Uganda, who believe in the power of reconciliation and rehabilitation to solve the crisis. The reconciliation versus justice debate is ongoing in Uganda. Should returnees from LRA be granted amnesty or be tried for war crimes? Should the West meddle in how to best solve the situation?

It was recently announced that the U.S. will increase their military personnel in the region to help the ongoing hunt for the LRA and Kony. This additional force is hoped to be the final straw in breaking the LRA. There are, however, other views on why the U.S. is increasing its presence in the region. In 2009 the first major petroleum strike in east Africa was announced. In order for the U.S. to gain easier access to the resources, a better relationship with the Ugandan government is believed to be sought. A common enemy could act as a bridge between the two governments, bringing them closer. Also, the LRA are operating in the areas close to the oil findings in northern Uganda and thus need to be kept in check if oil is to be extracted safely. U.S. officials claim the U.S. has a national interest in central Africa and as such have no intention to withdraw military personnel from the region any time soon. Concerns about the long term plans of the U.S. in central Africa have been voiced by Maria Burnett, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Due to these unclear plans and intentions the link between the U.S., oil and military intervention is an easy one to make and is done by a prominent Ugandan journalist. In such an analysis Kony and the LRA provide publicity and mobilization of domestic support justifying intervention and increased military presence in the region.

While the U.S. is reinforcing its presence in Uganda, the LRA is continuing to wreak havoc — with Kony still on the loose. Will #Kony2012 finally end with an arrest, justice and peace? Or will the perfect devil remain elusive, with the campaign mainly having served as justification for further military presence?

JONATHAN KANANEN

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