In the last five days, Invisible Children’s latest film, “Kony 2012,” has garnered more than 46 million views from around the world. Twitter, Facebook and media outlets are abuzz with praises and criticisms for this mega-campaign. As a scholar and transitional justice practitioner living and working in northern Uganda on issues related to victim-centered justice and reconciliation, I honestly feel a bit bombarded by the sudden interest in the conflict and the shock waves created by this video. In the last 72 hours, people who I never expected to be involved with peace efforts in eastern and central Africa are suddenly wide awake and incited to do something, anything to stop the LRA. They must #stopkony.
Yet, when I walk outside to the market, to town, to friend’s house in Gulu, life is the same today as yesterday and the day before and probably as tomorrow. (Don’t get me wrong, things are moving and changing here, but at a much slower pace than this overnight sensation sparked by IC.) Northern Uganda today is an ironic contrast to my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Thousands of miles away from where I am—the former epicenter of the conflict—the LRA has suddenly become news. Huge, front page news! But in northern Uganda, it’s a largely silent issue. Admittedly, I haven’t listened to local radio since the documentary dropped, so I don’t know the extent to which “Kony 2012” has been debated or discussed on regional airwaves, but from what I can tell, the movie (not issues of justice and reconciliation, which are very much alive) is largely a non-issue.
Why is that? Here are a few ideas I’ve developed about why much of northern Uganda is silent on “Kony 2012,” which are by no means are exhaustive. While millions in the West are hyped up on Joseph Kony, realities of recovery and peacebuilding play out much solemner and quieter in post-conflict northern Uganda.
1. Northern Ugandans haven’t seen the video. Today, the organization I work for received many requests for interviews and comments on the campaign. The problem was, many of us hadn’t seen the video. Yesterday was International Women’s Day and our departments were active in organizing for a group of women survivors to participate. More so, the video is nearly 30 minutes long and requires a pretty serious Internet connection to stream it. Many of the Internet connections aren’t strong enough to support such videos.
2. No one is asking for their views. In nearly all of the major news outlets covering this trend, the perspective of northern Ugandans and people from other LRA-affected regions is missing. I relate this to the flawed focusing of the video on one man, Joseph Kony. Because all of the attention is on him (well, and Jason Russell and his child), the people for whom the success of this campaign will most benefit, the victims and survivors, are seemingly forgotten. Unless their opinions are deliberately sought after, I predict this silencing will continue.
3. It’s irrelevant. So I imagine you’re thinking, “You were just lamenting about northern Ugandans being left out. Now you say it’s irrelevant?” By ‘it,’ I mean the campaign, the military solution, the sensationalized efforts of Invisible Children and other well-intentioned but misguided Western activists. With complete sincerity, solutions to problems facing communities in northern Uganda and other LRA-affected areas are not black and white like the video portrays. There is not one solution, one option for ending the war and bringing peace. It must not be portrayed that way. In fact, if you poll victims and survivors across northern Uganda on their top justice priority, I predict you will hear ‘arresting Kony’ as a response less than 1% of the time, if at all. Reparations (like compensation and public acknowledgment by the Government of Uganda) and truth recovery, that is the language most victims speak here. Not punitive justice, and especially not more war. The “Kony 2012” campaign is irrelevant for many because it can never deliver the kind of justice they desire.
If you are interested in learning more about the justice and reconciliation needs victims have expressed a desire for, check out the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), http://www.justiceandreconciliation.com. The content of this post contains solely my views and does not necessarily reflect those of JRP or my colleagues. But I can say, without reservation, that the many publications, statements, and policy briefs on the JRP website DO reflect the views of many of northern Uganda’s victims. And those are the views that need full consideration and integration before diving headfirst into “Kony 2012.
Now that you’ve heard my views, I’d love to hear yours. Criticism, comments, write them below. I do reserve the right to delete any posts which are abusive.
Note: In the time it took for me to write this, the number of views of “Kony 2012” have jumped to 52.5 MILLION! Also, the perspective of a formerly-abducted person has been featured in Think Africa Press. You can read his story here: http://thinkafricapress.com/uganda/kony2012-lra-survivors-tale. I couldn’t agree more.
(You can also check out this post on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150607834285488.)
On October 15th I posted this note on my Facebook page in response to the announcement that Obama was sending 100 US troops to combat the LRA.
This morning my news feed was full of posts by friends and colleagues about Obama’s announcement yesterday that the United States has sent 100 US troops to Uganda to eliminate the LRA threat. According to a US State Department press statement, the troops were there to “work with our regional partners and the African Union in the field to strengthen information-sharing, enhance coordination and planning, and improve the overall effectiveness of military operations and the protection of civilians” (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/10/175522.htm). I’ve decided to quote from this statement directly because there have been discrepancies in the media on whether or not these troops will be “combat equipped” and what their role are advisers will really entail.
Since the early drafts of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 (the US act which calls for the US to support efforts to stop the LRA), I have been in support of its good intentions- to put the plight of those in LRA-affected areas on the radar and to see an end to the conflict- but I’ve remained passionately against its methods to do so- largely through the support of heavy-handed military interventions.
According to the State Department, the LRA Act “includes efforts to help increase the protection of civilians, encourage and facilitate defections of lower-level LRA fighters, and provide continued humanitarian relief.” This sounds great on paper, but how much has the US intervention so far really invested in any of those efforts? Well, according to the press statement, “Since 2008, the United States has provided over $40 million in critical logistical support, equipment and training to enhance counter-LRA operations by regional militaries.” I see no mention of civilian protection, defections of LRA, or humanitarian relief there. Do you?
From the beginning, those of us who were critical of the strategy predicted this would be the case- that it would primarily focus on a military intervention at the expense of the humanitarian or redevelopment components of the act. It has been well-documented that these military interventions cause brutal retaliation on civilians by LRA forces, something the act supposedly hopes to reduce. Time will only tell whether the alluded upcoming military campaign will be any different. For those civilians in its path, I sincerely hope it will be.
Since the dissolution of the Juba peace process and the relocation of LRA to neighboring countries, the number of defections has been extremely low for a variety of reasons of which I don’t expect to exhaust here. However, the hostility of civilians and military forces (the very ones the US troops are supporting) means that those who escape the LRA, especially those who are from Uganda, face sexual assault and even brutal death at the hands of these actors. More so, developments in Uganda’s transitional justice framework, though welcomed, have raised many questions on the validity of amnesty and have not provided many incentives for LRA to defect.The ongoing trial of ex-LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo is one such example. A military campaign will further entrench the idea that it is not safe to leave LRA.
One must bear in mind that LRA factions are still primarily comprised of abducted persons. While some of them have risen in rank and now hold leadership positions, most of those who are there did not join the rebels at their own will but are forced to stay. Any military intervention, especially those led by regional forces, cannot avoid casualties of abducted persons. In my work in Uganda, I engage with many categories of victims. I would like to tell you two stories that will make their dilemmas more real and put a life to the innocent people who will be targeted through such military efforts.
First is a woman named Norah. Her son Nevil was abducted while on a bus traveling to his home so he could pick supplies to join the university in Kampala. Norah is of a group referred to as ‘parents of the missing.’ She has hope that her son is still alive and wants nothing more for him to be able to return home to Uganda. Such a military campaign greatly diminishes the probability that Nevil will survive to come back.
Second is a woman named Hope*. Hope was abducted when she was in secondary school and she spent nearly 10 years in captivity. When the government forces launched Operation Iron Fist in 2002 (a military campaign that pledged to eliminate the LRA threat), Hope was forced to be on the run with the LRA. Her story is one of incredible survival. When the LRA would run into ambushes laid by government soldiers or be detected by government aircraft carrying bombs, the government forces fired indiscriminately on LRA. They did not care whether they were shooting a culpable LRA commander or an innocent abducted child. Hope barely survived these attacks, and dodged bullets and bombs unarmed while carrying her infant daughter on her back. This is the reality of how these military missions play out in real life. I don’t think that any level of intelligence that US can provide will change this nature of blind confrontation. Worth noting, Hope also recounts during these times how the government soldiers would leave trails of condom wrappers in their wake. In the heat of battle, in close pursuit of LRA, UPDF soldiers hoped to sexually assault any female LRA combatants they could find. This is the character of regional forces that the US military is collaborating with.
It should come as no surprise then that most people I have talked to in northern Uganda are less than enthusiastic about more military interventions, whether they are US-backed or not. This is also why I am distraught by the enthusiasm of some of my peers in the United States. The US public would never condone a mission of US troops that posed such a high risk to hostages should they be US citizens. Why should we condone missions that endanger the lives of innocent Ugandans, Congolese, Sudanese, etc.? It’s irresponsible. I also am disturbed that the State Department press statement makes no mention of protection for those in LRA captivity. Instead, it alleges to focus on civilian protection. It’s as if those already in LRA are lost causes.
In closing, it’s not too late to reopen the doors of communication between the LRA and regional governments. While I agree wholeheartedly that the LRA must stop committing atrocities, a militarized attempt to stop them has proven ineffective for more than 20 years, and I have little hope to think that this time will be different. More so, stopping them at the expense of the life of civilians and those in captivity is unjust. You cannot fight violence with violence, and the end does not justify the means.
* Name changed to protect her identity.
Welcome to my new blog!
I hope to periodically use it to comment on TJ issues in Uganda and give updates on my work with the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) and local coordination of the Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program (GSSAP).
It’s worth noting that from 2007 to 2009 I maintained a field blog at lindsay.knoxjazzforjustice.org that chronicled my first experiences in Uganda and early research. I’ve tried in vain to transfer those posts here, and in the end decided to leave them there. I hope you won’t forget about the old blog (there are 59 posts on it!) and will take some time to read it.