On 5 March Invisible Children Inc. launched Kony 2012, a 30-minute YouTube video aimed at raising awareness about the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and the atrocities the LRA continues to commit against the children of Uganda. The creators of the video believe that one of the reasons nothing has been done about Kony and the LRA is because nobody knows who he is.
Thus the video signals the launch of a worldwide campaign to make Kony infamous. In one month, the video has already gone viral with over 80 million views on YouTube, reposting on Facebook, and multitudes of tweets about Kony on Twitter. The aim of the campaign is to get as many people as possible, primarily Americans, to put pressure on policy makers to take action against Kony. The campaign recognises that the United States (US) legislature is unlikely to take action in a foreign country when that is not in the US' national interests.
The video is a noble effort and has helped to bring attention to one of the most horrendous criminals still at large. However, it is over-simplistic in its portrayal of Kony and the LRA. The video fails to explain exactly who Kony and the LRA really are, and does not deal with the full magnitude of the problem he poses. The video deals with neither the regional nature of the problem, nor with the Ugandan and African efforts that have been employed in trying to counter the threat he poses to the central African region.
The LRA, originally named the Ugandan Christian Democratic Army, was founded in 1988 with the intention of seizing power in Uganda and reforming the Ugandan constitution in line with the Biblical Ten Commandments. It set up bases in then-southern Sudan and began a terrorist campaign in northern Uganda targeting government officials and installations.
Initially, the LRA enjoyed immense support in the north, primarily among the Acholi - Kony's ethnic group - and dissatisfied former Ugandan Army soldiers. Kony's supporters believed that he had magical powers, which allowed him to talk to spirits and God. But having just endured a civil war, people did not want any more conflict, thus Kony quickly lost support and any legitimate claims to power the LRA might have had.
The LRA began attacking villages and towns in the area, torturing and killing civilians, as well as kidnapping women and children. The LRA kidnapped young boys for use as child soldiers. Men were kidnapped for use as porters for stolen goods and then executed. Young girls and women were kidnapped and used as sex slaves or traded to arms dealers.
The LRA also continued its attacks against government officials and installations, over time expanding the scope of these attacks to include humanitarian convoys and non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers. While based in then-southern Sudan, LRA soldiers also operated as mercenaries for the government of Sudan in return for support and arms, which allowed the LRA to continue to terrorise northern Uganda for two decades.
The Ugandan government has been actively trying to deal with the LRA. In 2000 a general amnesty was offered to all LRA soldiers who defected and handed themselves over, with the exception of the LRA leadership. The amnesty offer was made in recognition of the fact that a vast majority of the LRA's combatants were victims themselves. Because the LRA was stationed outside Uganda, the government of Uganda was unable to pursue it and decided to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 16 December 2003. The ICC decided in 2005 to indict Kony, his second-in-command Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo (LRA commander) and Dominic Ongwen (LRA Brigade commander).
Earlier in 2005, the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) had signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which led to the handing over of power in then-southern Sudan to the SPLM. Consequently, the LRA was forced to leave Sudan. Unable to return to Uganda because of increased military action by the Ugandan army, the LRA fled into the border regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There the LRA continued to terrorise villages, kidnap young children, and maim and kill civilians.
With the ICC arrest warrants hanging over his head, coupled with the loss of the backing of the Sudanese government, Kony decided to negotiate a peace deal with the government of Uganda in July 2006. In September 2006, the two sides agreed on a ceasefire and negotiations began, but by 2008 an agreement was yet to be signed despite a peace agreement having been reached, and negotiations collapsed.
The Ugandan government decided to go on the offensive in 2008. It secured agreements with neighbouring countries and the Ugandan army began an all-out pursuit of the LRA in the region. First, the Ugandan army went into the then southern Sudan, targeting remaining factions there, then into the DRC. In December 2008, the Ugandan military, together with the forces of the DRC and then-southern Sudan, launched Operation Lightning Thunder, which was aimed at swiftly eliminating the LRA. Due to a combination of factors the operation was a failure. Bad weather and rough bush nullified the use of gunships and slowed the movement of advancing soldiers. Kony already knew about the operation and his forces scattered into the neighbouring Central African Republic. Since 2009, operations against the LRA have continued, with varying degrees of success. There have been some defections, captures and deaths of numerous LRA combatants and senior commanders.
Kony 2012 does not include any of this information. However, the documentary does point out that 100 US soldiers were deployed to Uganda in an advisory capacity and calls for more US action beyond the assistance the Obama administration has already pledged. While showing images of a Ugandan boy who managed to avoid getting kidnapped by the LRA, the documentary does not mention the number of former child soldiers who have been rescued and reintegrated into society. Most importantly, the video does not mention that the LRA has not been active in Uganda since 2005. In addition, it calls for increased American action, failing to take into account the effect that increased Western intervention could have on future African initiatives.
Kony 2012 has been effective in its goals to publicise Kony and get the attention of policy makers. Notably, two of the targeted policy makers (Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator John Kerry) have already made public statements damning the LRA and calling for more US action. That being said, Kony 2012 was aimed at the wrong audience. The reality is that Kony is already known in Africa. His victims may have been invisible to the Western world, but they have been visible to millions of people whose lives have been affected by the LRA over the last two decades. To make a real impact, Kony 2012 should have focused on getting Africans to put pressure on their own policy makers.
Luyolo Ngcuka is a research consultant in the International Crime in Africa Programme of the ISS.