‘Perhaps Kony 2012’s appeal comes from its “superficiality”, because that way it is able to serve up emotion. Maybe young people connect more to the emotion of stories, not their complexity. And, contrary to what we grown ups think, the kids sometimes need something more than Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto—they would like to help capture a war criminal who abducts, kills, and rapes children too. That is a good place for children’s hearts to be’
If you had asked me in 2000 whether a video about Kony would make history as the fastest become the most successful viral video of all time; or that the war in northern Uganda and its portrayal would be the most debated subject in the world, I would have said no, and offered to eat my shoe – no, shoes – in a bet.
Given the murky history of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, in which he either cohabited or was in bed (directly or indirectly) with his enemies, the reality is that the “Capture Kony And Take Him To The Hague” industry had closed shop—until Invisible Children came along with their KONY 2012 and opened it up.
Any trial of Kony risks bringing out too many details about his gruesome campaign and why it survived as long as it did, that could also damage some governments in the region — and embarrass their western allies.
For example, one of the largest chop shops in the region was at the Uganda-Sudan border. Not only did corrupt Uganda army officers allegedly divert lorries and buses imported for the military, cut them up there and re-export them as spare parts to DR Congo, Tanzania and Kenya, but all sort of criminal networks supplied vehicles to this chop shop. So even the diligent officers who wanted to fight Kony, had no means to ferry men and equipment in pursuit.
Indeed official inquiries into corruption in the army shocked even the most hardened observers in Uganda. There were whole ghost brigades and battalions of soldiers in the north who were being paid, but of course the money was winding up in the corruption networks in the military.
One of the most brilliant and admirable officers to wear a UPDF uniform, Maj. Sabiiti Mutengesa, was the first to blow the whistle on these transgressions in the army at the close of the 2000s. He was ahead of his time. He had to flee into exile. It was only after the official probes into ghost soldiers vindicated him nearly six years later that his name was cleared in 2008.
An eccentric and volatile Uganda army officer, Maj. Kakooza Mutale, who was a special adviser to Museveni, was one time involved in a bizarre standoff with the army in Gulu, where the anti-Kony operation was headquartered. He was eventually expelled from the area, and camped at the municipal border of Gulu making a scene.
I interviewed him shortly after his return, and he alleged there was high-level collusion between Kony and some elements in the army. He told me that before he was expelled, he had gone to an LRA camp that had just been overrun by the UPDF. There was a stack of boxes of medicine that Kony’s soldiers left behind when they fled. The surprise was that the boxes were part of a consignment that had been delivered to the Mbuya [Military] General Hospital just five days back.
He told me about a bunch of marked notes worth several millions of Uganda shilling were once to the LRA through various of its associates. Most of the money was traced back into an accounts in a leading Kampala bank! And, as local northern Uganda politicians and several military officers have said over the years, the real estate boom in the north has been fuelled by LRA money – and also from proceeds from the sale of diverted humanitarian food and other supplies.
It is a fascinating story, but the rich details of it only Kony and his lieutenants can tell – if they ever take the stand at The Hague. Because no one wants them to the killing of Kony, rather than his capture, I suspect, is now the priority.
The Invisible Children’s Kony 2012, has been criticised for a million failings.
Many of these criticisms might be justified.
Among these is that it is part of an American conspiracy to justify the killing of Kony. Actually American intelligence and logistics were deployed in December 2008 to attack Kony’s camp in Garamba. The operation was a flop, because by the time the camp was bombed, Kony was long gone. The grass had even started to grow back in the gardens of food the LRA had harvested and carried away with them.
It is believed that many people were too happy to leak details of the operation to Kony, beginning with the few SPLA officials who were n the know, to Ugandan miliary officers. Indeed many LRA fighters who surrendered or been captured have not been tried. They have been absorbed into the UPDF, and some of them were the foot soldiers used in the Garamba operation. Obviously their loyalties to their former boss have not fully withered, and it is likely they tipped him off. In Northern Uganda, to this day some believe Kony doesn’t exist, that he is a composite fictional character created by the government in Kampala.
So while it is true that most people who would capture Kony would rather have him dead, the Invisible Children’s viral video and international publicity makes killing him that more difficult politically, and his capture the optimal outcome.
There are many who have asked “why now”, after all Kony left Uganda seven years ago and is now in Central African Republic and DRC. What is he doing there? He has not retired into raising goats and growing yams peacefully on a farm. He has continued to kill, abduct and rape. Why would it be wrong for him to kill and abduct Ugandan children, but fine for him to do so to CAR and Congolese children?
The one criticism that interests me most is that KONY 2012 is the typical work of patronising white Western men and women, who think Africans are too idiotic to save themselves, and therefore in KONY 2012 they appoint themselves as saviours. That Invisible Children should leave this capturing Kony business to Ugandans.
One can appreciate the appeal of this argument. The easy answer to that would be that if Invisible Children should not do a documentary about Kony because they are Americans, then all the other Americans and Europeans who have blogged and tweeted thousands of denunciations of Kony 2012 should shut up too because they are not Africans. And the rest of Africans should mind their own business, because they are not Ugandans. And the rest of Ugandans should say nothing, because they are not from the north.
There is nothing new in all this. The irony in all this, however, is fascinating. I heard all these arguments more than 15 years ago.
The plight of the children and the people in the north was something that for many years, the rest of Uganda didn’t want to hear about. The argument was framed in exactly the same terms as today. Kony was a “northern”, not a Ugandan, issue.
Protests in support and seminars in Kampala were broken up. Chauvinists in the south argued that it was “the turn of the northerners to also suffer”.
The human rights community, journalists and intellectuals exhausted themselves demanding that the rebellion become the concern of all well-meaning Ugandans.
Also, the demands that KONY 2012 should be a more nuanced documentary, needs to understand against the fact that the Kony story was not always easy to get to. The earliest and most ambitious operation against the LRA was “Operation North” led by Gen. David Tinyefuza (well before he changed his name). The whole sub-region was shut down and put under martial law. Journalists were prevented from going there, and some of those who were there – including those working for government media (the case of Vivian Asedri being the most notable) – were detained. Thousands of people were arrested, and there were allegations of widespread torture and summary executions.
Some of the critics of KONY 2012 today had a different view then. They were pleading for the international community to pay attention, or else the Acholi would be “exterminated”. In the end it was the courage of outsiders, mainly Catholic nuns and priests, and northern Uganda bishops, that started to open the lid on the details of the Kony rebellion and the government counter-insurgency to the rest of Uganda and the world. A few of the foreign church people were expelled for their pains.
Then the European and American diplomats, who couldn’t be thrown in jail, or expelled from the country, started travelling to the north with journalists. A casual reading of newspapers from that period will quickly reveal the sharp attacks the government hurled at the “meddling” diplomats. One lesson the Kony war taught Ugandans who pay attention, was that sometimes, international solidarity makes a difference.
Ugandans bore the brunt of the war, yes, but most of us also turned our backs on what Kony was doing. If it had been left to us, we would have been content to go in years later, and snap up the empty lands (the fear that this was the ultimate aim of the letting the Kony war go on long, still fears some of the most frighteningly angry local nationalism over land in the north).
Most of all, Kony never really left Uganda. Northern Uganda is still his prisoner. The infrastructure that enabled him to survive, the networks that benefited from doing business with him and the war, and the dark secrets around his campaign will never be confronted until he is put away. The people, who endured so much for 20 years, will never really comfortably settle back on their lands as long as Kony is free, because they fear that he could be back. To use the cliché; this is Africa. Stranger things have happened.
Though I am a journalist and covered Kony’s works, our daughters have sworn they will never be journalists, but Kony is not something I could ever interest them in.
But they, especially our younger daughter, will not even touch a newspaper. She played with dolls more on the Internet than real life, and would sooner study her school subjects off a website or DVD than a book. Like many urban young people her age, nearly all the news she gets is from Facebook and online.
I had never discussed an item in the news with her for more than one minute.
I was travelling for most of the first week when KONY 2012 broke, so I only caught glimpses of the story from the few times I got on to Twitter, my Facebook page, and read online news as I hopped from place to place.
On March 8 I was in northern England to visit briefly with our oldest daughter, and we went out for a Chinese dinner. She spoke about Kony 2012 and the reactions to it for about 10 minutes.
Later that night, our younger daughter, who had emailed me YouTube links to the video twice, sent me a rather exasperated Short Message when I texted to inform her that I had not yet watched it. Immediately I returned to Nairobi, she sat me down and made me watch Kony 2012.
On the Monday morning I drove her to school. She and most of her cousins have formed a group on Wazzup where family news, gossip, and the affairs that interest young people are traded.
She came to the car clutching her cellphone, and was reading and chuckling in the back when we set out. She told me that between the times she went to bed and when she was reading, her young cousins had posted 97 comments all debating the merits and demerits of Kony 2012. For another 20 minutes, she spoke mostly about Jacob, the young former LRA soldier in the video, and even asked me if I knew him! I said no. Then more questions about Kony.
We discussed MORE current affairs and politics in those 20 minutes, than we had done for all the last 15 years of her life combined. Clearly Kony 2012 has touched a chord. Perhaps its appeal comes from its “superficiality”, because that way it is able to serve up emotion. Maybe young people connect more to the emotion of stories, than to their complexity. And, contrary to what we grown ups think the kids need something more than Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto—they would like to help capture a war criminal who abducts, kills, and rapes children too. That is a good place for children’s hearts to be.
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