A Guide to Joseph Kony and the Backlash Against Invisible Children


Joseph Kony is going viral.

The brutal leader of the eastern African Lord's Resistance Army (L.R.A.), Kony is the subject of a 30-min documentary created by Invisible Children, an advocacy group. Released on March 5, Kony 2012 has already topped over 52 million views on YouTube. A number of celebrities like Oprah, Justin Bieber and Rihanna, have tweeted support, while "Invisible Children," "Uganda," "#makekonyfamous," and "#stopkony" have been trending on Twitter over the past couple days.

According to Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisble Children who narrates the movie, Kony 2012

aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice. In this case, notoriety translates to public support. If people know about the crimes that Kony has been committing for 26 years, they will unite to stop him.

Since the late 1980s, the L.R.A. has abducted 30,000 children to form its militias. As a result of this violence, over 1.7 million people have been displaced.

But the video has sparked a firestorm of controversy. Invisible Children has been accused of lacking financial transparency. Allegedly, only one-third of its revenue funds direct services. Since the documentary emphasizes American involvement, several activists argue it perpetuates neo-colonialism and a 21st Century version of "the White Man's Burden." VICE also blasted the group for being "staffed by douchebags." Invisible Children has responded to many of these critiques.

Nevertheless, the video greatly simplifies what's going on in eastern Africa. It focuses far more on how to spread its message than actually informing viewers about the complex politics between the L.R.A. and the nations fighting against it.

"Kony 2012" contains surprisingly very little biographical information about Joseph Kony. For whatever reason, the movie barely delves into how delusional (and Christianist) Kony is. Fortunately, Christoper Hitchens covered him in much more depth in a 2006 article for Vanity Fair:

Kony grew up in a Gulu Province village called Odek. He appointed himself the Lord's anointed prophet for the Acholi people of northern Uganda in 1987, and by the mid-90s was receiving arms and cash from Sudan. He probably suffers from multiple-personality disorder, and he takes his dreams for prophecies. He goes into trances in which he speaks into a tape recorder and plays back the resulting words as commands. He has helped himself to about 50 captives as "wives," claiming Old Testament authority for this (King Solomon had 700 spouses), often insisting—partly for biblical reasons and partly for the more banal reason of AIDS dread—that they be virgins. He used to anoint his followers with a holy oil mashed from indigenous shea-butter nuts, and now uses "holy water," which he tells his little disciples will make them invulnerable to bullets. He has claimed to be able to turn stones into hand grenades, and many of his devotees say that they have seen him do it. He warns any child tempted to run away that the baptismal fluids are visible to him forever and thus they can always be found again.

According to Francis Ongom, a former L.R.A. officer who defected, Kony "has found Bible justifications for killing witches, for killing pigs because of the story of the Gadarene swine, and for killing people because god did the same with Noah's flood and Sodom and Gomorrah."

While precise numbers are hard to come by, the UN's Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) believes there are only 200 L.R.A. fighters left, based mostly in the neighboring Central African Republic. But despite these small numbers, the L.R.A. has killed more than 2,400 civilians and displaced 400,000 people since 2008.

Perhaps most galling, "Kony 2012" completely fails to mention the brutality of the nations who fight against the L.R.A. Recently elected to his fourth term, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for over 25 years. Human Rights Watch claims the Museveni administration engages in severe human rights abuses, like illegal detention, torture, even extrajudicial killings (like another president). Visiting northern Uganda, Museveni even vowed he would defeat the L.R.A. in "just one week." That was in 2003. Even more alarming, Museveni has been accused of kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers, using the same tactics as the L.R.A.

Meanwhile, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been labelled "beyond a failed state" by The Economist, and is plagued by rebellions, rampant kidnapping, and brutal counterinsurgency tactics. One former leader of CAR was even accused of cannibalism. In addition, over 5.4 million have been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996, even though Congo's war officially ended in 2003. Clearly, none of these nations can be considered a hero or the "good guys" against Kony.

Yet the United States has been coordinating with these nations. To stop the L.R.A., President Obama deployed 100 military personnel to the region in October 2011. Their main priorities are to advise and assist with intelligence gathering. While these soldiers are "combat-equipped," "they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self defense." Many media reports only mentioned they were dispatched to Uganda; in reality, they have been operating in four countries: Uganda, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

KONY 2012 praises the advisors (21:40) as essential to apprehend Kony, and thwart the L.R.A.:

We know what to do. Here it is, ready? 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 in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the U.S. government has to deploy them. They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe the people care about arresting Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere.

Yet in a letter written to President Obama on March 7, Invisible Children conceded, "…no serious gains have been made in reducing the LRA's threat to civilians in the months since the advisors were deployed." This statement was quickly qualified:

reports from LRA defectors – and data showing a marked decrease in LRA attacks in the second half of 2011 – indicate that heightened U.S. and international interest may nonetheless be deterring the group from committing large-scale attacks.

But according to a press statement by Karl Wycoff, a senior official with the State Department, "While these numbers represent an encouraging drop from previous years…they do not mean the group's capacity to wreak havoc has been diminished."

In addition, Mareike Schomerus, a researcher at the London School of Economics, argues:

It doesn't tell us anything because it's the same thing they have been doing for the last 25 years. They tend to attack more when they're under military pressure and military pressure has been increasing in the last few months, since October especially.

But this isn't the first time the U.S. has tried to stop Kony. Back in December 2008, the United States, along with Ugandan and Congolese soldiers, coordinated a mission to kill Kony, Operation Lightning Thunder. Writing in Foreign Policy, Michael Wilkerson, a journalist who's covered Uganda, described how the operation became a debacle:

At the last minute, helicopter gunships (which can be heard five minutes away) were substituted for quiet fighter jets, officially due to bad weather (though the revelation last week that Uganda is shopping for new jets suggests faulty equipment could have been the culprit). To make matters worse, the Ugandan ground forces that were supposed to catch escaping LRA members arrived a full 72 hours late, bizarrely underestimating the time it would take them to move on foot through dense jungle. And Congolese troops that were supposed to protect nearby villages never showed up. So while some rebels were captured or killed by the helicopter force, the escaping LRA fighters went on a vengeful spree, killing more than 800 civilians as they pillaged virtually every village on their way to the Central African Republic.

Placing ground forces on eastern African soil has already escalated the fight against the L.R.A. The movie shies away from Operation Lightning Thunder as well as the policy implications for Obama's deployment decision: if these 100 advisors fail to stop Kony, what's the next step for the United States? More advisors? Drone strikes? Selling weapons to Uganda et al.? And what happens if Kony is arrested, but the L.R.A. continues to fight on?

While Invisible Children has noble intentions to bring justice and closure for those victimized by the L.R.A., Kony 2012 could have a similar fate to another botched advocacy campaign in eastern Africa. In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act. Thanks to activists, the law included a provision that forces companies in the United States to disclose where they obtained their metals and minerals in the Congo. The Economist explains the motivation:

The intention behind the law was good. Congolese militias and rogue army units, whose members rape and murder with abandon, finance themselves through mining and extortion from miners. The law tries to shame big buyers, such as Apple and Motorola, who use Congolese coltan, into dealing only with bona fide suppliers. But the effect has been to frighten them away from Congo altogether.

As a result, the disclosure requirement became a de facto embargo on Congolese mining. This has been disastrous for that nation's already troubled economy. Some Congolese mines have seen output plummet by 95 percent, while anywhere from tens of thousands to upwards of two million Congolese miners have lost their jobs. Meanwhile, militia leaders have formed smuggling networks and bribed officials to bypass the disclosure requirement. In addition, since American demand has dropped, morally flexible Chinese firms have invested heavily in these mines, obtaining commodities at huge discounts.

Sometimes, doing nothing is better than doing something.

Reason contributors Gene Healy and Judge Andrew Napolitano on the L.R.A.