Saturday, November 26, 2011

Invisible Children, Joseph Kony and the Ugandan Dictatorship

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This term, I was among the students who helped organize for the screening of Invisible Children's Tony at my college. While I have never been comfortable with some aspects of Invisible Children's campaign, I've always recognized their positive contributions. In deed, they are unparalleled when it comes to raising awareness on the conflicts in the Great Lakes region, in particular, among the younger audiences. If high school students in the United States are aware of the murderous Joseph Kony and his gang of abducted child soldiers, it is largely because of Invisible Children's savvy grassroots and student-led movement.  They deserve recognition and in deed encouragement, but at the same time, we should also remind them that good intentions are not always enough.

The film Tony is about a young man in northern Uganda and the struggles of his country as seen through his life. It shows the negative effects of war on society's most vulnerable. Luckily, Tony is one of the rare exceptions that has a happy ending. He is a sophisticated chap, who defies what is otherwise a hopeless situation around him. He does so by creating an imaginary life, in which he is an American rap star, complete with a matching accent. This is how the founders of Invisible Children spot him. A friendship between Tony and this American young men quickly develops.

The film is an emotional roller-coaster. Even for someone like me, hardened by a fair share of wretchedness, I couldn't  control tears from escaping my eyes. Tony soon loses his mom due to AIDS and he is left with no one to take care of him. However, his American friends commit to educating him. This is a very powerful testimony of what is possible when people share in their difficulties. Such a gesture echoes the Rwandan proverb, " (The destiny) of two fingers is to live together". Many of us escaped the trappings of poverty and for that matter violence, because someone sponsored us through school. That is the journey of my life as well.

In 2007, I visited northern Uganda as part of a team that was helping provide counseling for traumatized children. It was an emotionally draining task. The conditions of life in which these people live in, were, to put it crudely, not conducive for human existence. At a camp for internally displaced persons in Lira, children roamed the streets with their naked protruding stomachs showing. Parents often sat outside their make-shift houses, and you could read the desperation written on their faces. Death was very palpable. At one point, group of older men took my team to a place where they buried kins. Just the previous day, they had buried five people, they said. All dead because of preventable hunger, they said.

There exists two world's in Uganda. The worlds are as far apart as it gets. Close to my school in a Ugandan suburb, the rich--mostly members of the president Museveni's ethnic group, live in coveted and splurging luxury. If you live in Beverly Hills, are blind-folded and put on a plane before being dropped in the wealth Ugandan suburbs, you might not notice any difference. These predators of the poor live in palatial mansions, complete with manicured lawn and excellently tarmacked path ways. This is the group that has, to a large extent, benefited from resources that would have been used to improve the security of people in northern Uganda. Sadly, their greed would not allow.

President Museveni has been in power for over 24 years. As East Africa's longest serving head of state, he is the dean of dictators, ruling with an iron fist. He has completely individualized the states, something that would make even Idi Amin jealous. His wife and brother are cabinet ministers, his son a high ranking military official, apparently being groomed to succeed him. His village mates run the army, the treasury, the customs...almost everything. To be sure, Museveni came into power at a time when Uganda was completely destabilized by pandemic violence. He rules partly by reminding those who are old enough how worse it used to be. In an interview conducted by a Kenyan journalist, he fumed with fury when compared to Idi Amin. Reminding the "unserious" journalist, how Idi Amin used to feed the bodies of his opponents to crocodiles.

Whether a man can rule by completely manipulating the past is a separate question. Let me return to my Invincible Children focus. The organization is not only trying to do good in Uganda--such as constructing schools, paying schools fees for students etc; they are also trying to influence US policy on Uganda. In particular,  they want the US to help apprehend Joseph Kony, a notorious war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court. Their efforts have largely succeeded. A few months ago, President Obama deployed a contingent of 100 military advisers to help fulfill this task.

Important to mention, the Ugandan dictator is a long time ally of the United States. Though, to be honest, except for recent geo-political developments, I am not sure why. Currently, he is very instrumental in the war on terror, and has deployed his own forces in Somalia to help oust Al Shabaab, an Islamic terror group with links to Al Qaeda. Basically, much like other despotic regimes in the region, the war on terror has helped maintain Museveni's international legitimacy. At home, he faces but continuously crushes, a growing rebellion.

If we are to believe that the 100 military advisers are in Uganda to help capture Kony, then we should ask even tougher questions. For this is not the first time that the United States is helping in such efforts. In most cases, the joint missions have had disastrous results.  The last of this kind, code- named "Operation Lightening Thunder", was an abject military failure. According to Human Rights Watch, Kony responded with slaughtering 620 people in what we know today as the "Christmas Massacres". And I am not arguing that the fear of "collateral damage" should prevent any type of military action. My argument goes much deeper.

I am convinced that the Ugandan strong man, Museveni, has no interest in securing the safety and welfare of people in northern Uganda. He views them as a collective of rebellious criminals. His interest is purely clinging on power and enriching his cronies. Otherwise, it would be hard to understand why he has not been able to defeat Kony for the last two decades. Now, you have to understand that Museveni has successfully sponsored a good number of foreign military interventions. He provided personnel, training and ammunition for the Rwanda Patriotic Front which removed the government of Juvenal Habyarimana. Two years later, he sent his forces to DRC then known as Zaire to oust President Mobutu. His forces would remain in the DRC for the next three years and have been accused of committing atrocities there. How could Kony, with a gang of 200 soldiers, manage to evade this "fighter"? (as he often refers to himself).

Kony is no doubt a dangerous man. I think most reasonable people would agree that, at some point that should be sooner than later, he has to be captured or killed. However, this is just the easier thing to do. Uganda is in need of a complete overhaul of its political system. My conversation with people from northern Uganda, have always revealed their mistrust for Museveni's government. In fact, one of the Ugandan survivors who came to my school to show the film confided to me that some of the massacres alluded to Kony were actually done by Museveni's thugs. Of course, this is not substantiated, but it is not hard for anyone familiar with the region to believe.Museveni is a criminal thug.

If Invisible Children wants to influence policy, which will inevitably affect the people they help; they must speak more in support for democratic change. Of course this is not an easy task. My understanding is that, if they did so, they would not be allowed to operate in Uganda. So they choose to zip their mouths, rather than risk being kicked out. This is a dangerous argument though, especially considering that they have already chosen to get involved in Uganda's internal politics. The risk here is that they end up telling a single story, whereby everyone assumes that everything will go into place once Kony is arrested. The reality, at the moment, is that Kony has little effect on what goes on in Uganda. He has not even attacked the country in a very long time.

I think the dilemma Invisible Children face is one that many NGOs have to deal with. From my conversations with western aid workers in Rwanda, they acknowledge that the dictatorship is oppressive but they are reluctant to say this openly. Doing so, they believe, would interfere with their work. This is understandable. However, if an NGO goes as far as trying to influence foreign policy, then they have to commit to doing it right and all the way. At this point, if Invisible Children keeps quiet about the abusive regime in Kampala, they are helping abet it. They are wrongly spreading (perhaps unintended message) that everything will be well in the absence of Kony. This is not helpful for Uganda's fragile future.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I had a few comments:

You are right that many northern Ugandans do not trust Museveni, but that goes beyond his bad governance. When Museveni was a rebel, Tito Okello overthrew Milton Obote and immediately called for peace talks with the rebels. As the NRM signed peace accords in Nairobi, Museveni's troops marched on Kampala and took over, earning widespread distrust in the north.

I think Invisible Children might still have cause to refrain from speaking out about Museveni. Their aim is to motivate grassroots organizing in America to end the war. I agree that they spin it as if Kony is the only one causing problems for the Acholi and Lango. However their goal - for now - is to stop the rebels from abducting more children (even if it's in the DRC).

That said, I am pretty sure that IC's "final cut" film (still in production) includes an interview with Museveni asking some tough questions about his treatment of northerners. Hopefully it will appear as IC shifts its focus to governance rather than rebellion.

Nkunda said...

Thanks for dropping by. I have a lot of (great) friends in the I.C camp, so I had to keep friendly tone in my critique. Generally, I believe there are all good people yearning to create some positive change.

However, I SERIOUSLY doubt that a military solution can succeed in what is essentially a political crisis. Eliminating Kony--though necessary--does not address the root problems. Even Museveni used child soldiers during his rebellion and hasn't hesitated to use them in the DRC.

So, I think, IC ought to transcend the limits of militarism and try to advocate for a less violent path. Despite the setbacks of the peace process, I still do think that such a process might yield more positive results.

Mahmood Mamdani was one of the most critical voices of the Save Darfur Coalition. While I do not always agree with his position, I think it is necessary to call into question this militarizing of activism!

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree! I also have IC roots. IC is the forerunner in the movement, but it's important to look at Resolve too. They led the lobbying push for a lot of US action, and they have a more nuanced approach when it comes to military solutions and protecting civilians. I think many think that Kony's history of misusing peace talks to regroup is too dubious to deal with again. If he offered to make a deal now, even if NGOs thought it was legitimate, I don't think Museveni would come.

On the subject of Museveni using child soldiers, the US continues to support DRC and South Sudan, both of which use child soldiers which should not receive military funding under US law. This whole situation is filled with inconsistencies. But overall I agree that more needs to happen to actually help the marginalized and oppressed groups in the region. The question is, who will do it?

Raimo said...

I am from Finland. I have read many things from internet sites only, of which TV and newspapers don't tell. Actually censorship in the mainstream media makes my country a dictatorship, ruled by the political and economic elite.

Finland is a corrupt country. Nobody can have a public post without being a member of a political party. In Finland all high-ranking officials, who earn 5000 euros a month or more, are members of political parties.

No one can criticize the elite in the mainstream media. Any one who criticizes leading politicians, will lose his or her job.

Finland as well as neighboring Sweden and Norway are dictatorship countries.

Anonymous said...

You're being really "nice" to Invisible Children, so they will love you for this article. There's a lot more fire where you see smoke. The founders were afraid of being exposed early on by people from Northern Uganda, but when you have the backing of the US State Department there's no need to care what the community you are "helping" thinks. Lots of problematic areas, but unfortunately people in the know with firsthand knowledge of how these kids even got to Uganda are focusing on other things besides exposing this group.

seamus macniel said...

On watching the Kony 2012 campaign’s film,a number of thoughts went through my mind. When they say that the criminal is Kony and that if if he is stopped “we solve all the problems”, is it really that simple? What about Laurent Nkunda, Bosco Ntaganda etc. and, yes, an array of Presidents including, Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic, Uganda’s Musevevni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame?
We can await the IC's "final cut" with bated breath because, while we all want to Kony, stopped, this video leaves too many questions open.
Ask Museveni some tough questions, yes, but ask ourselves the questions why is he doing Washinton's dirty work on the horn of Africa, why was AFRICOM established in 2007, and why are the 100 "advisors" now going to the region?

seamus macniel said...

My own blog as moved from to