Joseph Kony

An interesting thing has been happening this past week.  A global, viral campaign initiated by the non-profit group Invisible Children has been spreading awareness of the crimes committed by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.  Now, high school kids in America –none of whom could probably find Uganda on a map– all know the name Kony, and properly associate that name with a list of heinous crimes.  The fact that Rush Limbaugh has supported the LRA tells us that it’s something we shouldn’t abide.

It is worth noting that the LRA ceased operation in Uganda in 2006, but is still active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Several of my students have asked me to comment on the campaign, and I’ve resisted doing so.  But, man, am I ever proud of them for recognizing that this is not a simple affair.  I still won’t really comment, since I’m still watching the drama unfold.  US troops are now thought to have been introduced into the efforts to capture Kony.

While the campaign is impressive in the manner in which young people have gathered together to express their anger in a mostly constructive format, there are several aspects of it that concern me.  Most notable is Invisible Children‘s reputation for problematic finances and, according to some, its penchant for exaggerating the acts of Kony unnecessarily.  Less known is the NGO’s support of armed militias (according to some online sources without citation), some of whom are known for doing some pretty awful things themselves, and its strong –and to some extent, naive– support for a solely military interventionist solution.  At least that’s my take, based upon what little I truly know about them.

Some wider thoughts that occur to me include:

  • Kony is a criminal, sure, but how he got there and the role he plays in his society is not as simplistic as the campaign makes it out to be
  • I believe that the pressure to bring in the US military can only end badly, gaining Kony followers from among US enemies who would otherwise ignore him
  • The campaign, which targets Westerners who are otherwise ignorant of Uganda, further paints Africa unfairly as a place mostly of thugs and dictators
  • The campaign misses all the nuances of Kony’s role and ascent to power, and the pole of opposition to the current President that Kony represents
  • Where is the rehabilitation plan for LRA followers? Who will fill the power vacuum when Kony is gone?
  • There have been many calls by many nations for Kony to be brought to the Hague on trial; these calls have failed for a variety of sensitive political reasons.  If Kony wished to negotiate stepping down in exchange for immunity from prosecution, such an option would no longer be in play in the face of the current global outrage
  • The campaign allows for only one option only: the forcible arrest of Kony; all other diplomatic solutions now gone

Mind you, all previous diplomatic solutions had also failed.  So what does that tell you?  What worries me is if a campaign like this results in the sudden removal of the major opposition to the Ugandan government without the parallel cultivation of less objectionable and violent, democratic opposition, what happens then in that recovering nation?  There is a reason Kony is so entrenched in his niche.  Those reasons need to be addressed if he is to be removed without trauma to the nation.  The ongoing war in that part of Africa is a lot more complicated than one man named Joseph Kony.

Those are some of my thoughts in the wee hours of a magnetic storm.  There’s a website that’s taken a lot of flack for criticizing the Invisible Children campaign.  It is Visiblechildren.tumblr.com.  You may want to check it out and make up your own mind.  I think this page, which lists African writers’ responses to the campaign, is particularly interesting.   Invisible Children has posted a response to their critics here.

On the whole, though, I think I’m pleased with this campaign, only to the extent that it brings wider awareness to the existence of the LRA.   The Invisible Children NGO seems dangerously naive and emotionally manipulative in all the ways that make professional aid workers cringe.  But for now, the efforts to bring attention to Kony and the LRA are reaping mostly positive outcomes and are spurring dialogue on the proper role of Western non-profits in the developing world.  I may regret that sentiment as events unfold, especially since good things rarely happen when a Western solution is imposed upon a non-Western scenario.

Kony graffiti on University of Ottawa campus