An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review- Ghosts of Kanungu (African Affairs)

The latest edition of African Affairs (Vol. 111, No. 445: 673-675) carries a review of my book Ghosts of Kanungu: Fertility, secrecy and exchange in the Great Lakes of East Africa (James Currey, 2009). The review is written by Professor Richard Fardon from SOAS, University of London:

Richard Vokes has written a compelling account of the tragic events that hindsight suggests were to culminate in 2000 with the deaths of some hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandmants of God (MRTC) in the south-west of Uganda.

Ethnographic monographs on Africa, whatever their other virtues, can rarely be described as riveting from first to last, but this one is. Its achievement is to explain the concatenation of events around the demise of the MRTC without foreclosing every doubt about the exact nature of those events. We shall never know with certainty what happened in March 2000, but Vokes has worked tirelessly to derive a plausible narrative by placing the documented events in the context of the various forces – of the past and the present, the relatively local and global –working upon them.

The book opens with the scenario as it appeared to a newcomer – as Vokes then was – and closes by revisiting the same scenes in the light of eight years of investigation. A fire in a building at the headquarters of the MRTC in Kanungu immolates many of its surviving members. As well as the remains of a last meal, a wall calendar is found that laconically records for 16 March 2000 ‘world’s end’, and for 17 March ‘bye’. Vokes, who had arrived earlier that month intending research in south-west Uganda, caught the news item on CNN in Kampala. From the outset, media, police, politicians, and so forth began to apply different glosses to what had taken place. Initially in Kanungu, then in the following days at other MRTC properties, investigators discovered mass graves, some of them simply bodies tipped into pit latrines. What mixture of murder or cult suicide might explain this? The answer involves our retracing the history of this ‘African-Initiated Church’ (AIC) to learn about its antecedents, expansion, teaching, and demise.

Historical reinterpretation is needed for one set of antecedents to become apparent. The Nyabingi cult appears in records of the colonial period primarily as a movement of resistance. Vokes argues that this was only one guise adopted by a network of relations, exchanges, and initiatory knowledge that sought to redress misfortunes, particularly infertility in narrow and broad senses. The MRTC took part of its template from Nyabingi, one reason for the MRTC being unusually secretive for an AIC. Between Nyabingi and the MRTC stood a historical mediator in the shape of Roman Catholicism. The White Fathers were distinctive and successful, at least vis-à-vis the Church Missionary Society, for reasons that included both their practical attempts to improve the lives of their parishioners, and their advocacy of the protective role of the Virgin Mary, particularly in women’s affairs. Nyabingi, as one informant put it, became a Catholic, and in the process also became anthropomorphized. With the retirement of the last overseas missionaries, the Church passed into local hands, and Africanizing initiatives were encouraged after Vatican II.

The central figure of the drama, Ceredonia Mwerinde, was visited by the Virgin Mary at a site particularly associated with Nyabingi in its guise of anti-colonial struggle. Over time these visions began to specify a whole style of life and of worship. Adherents set up their own sites of worship and residence, the MRTC being eventually expelled from the Catholic Church, taking some clerics with it. Growth of MRTC as an AIC correlated with the worst onset of AIDS, and its adherents were largely drawn from those most marginalized, particularly young AIDS widows in polygamous households, possibly descendants of migrants, as well as other women at risk economically. What property they retained was made over to the MRTC in expectation of security. Meanwhile, under the influence of international Marian contacts, the leadership of the MRTC turned increasingly to preoccupation with the doctrines of the final days. Illness, particularly malaria, broke out in the cramped collective dwellings; drought led to hunger approaching starvation; and, as they died, increasingly the group cut themselves off. The end was mostly likely suicide by poison, the dead engulfed by a fire set by the last to die.

What is so compelling about Vokes’s account is the sense of forces and events conspiring together towards tragedy. Along the way, Richard Vokes generalizes theoretically and methodologically for his anthropological readers likely to be interested in such things, but these passages are neither extended nor obtrusive (whether or not they are necessary) and readers of this journal will not find they obscure the narrative thrust. This is amongst the outstanding Africanist ethnographies of recent years: a splendid combination of ethnographic investigation with the evaluation of texts and images, and a significant addition to the literature on African-initiated Churches.

For more on the book, visit the Kanungu project website, which is available here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Publication- Photography in Africa: Ethnographic Perspectives

I have just published my latest edited collection, called 'Photography in Africa: Ethnographic Perspectives' (James Currey, 2012). Full details of the publication can be viewed at the publisher's website here, and the book can also be purchased at here (or here).

The collection includes a series of empirically rich historical and ethnographic case studies, which examine the variety of ways in which photographs are produced, circulated, and engaged with across a range of social contexts. The volume includes examples drawn from across the continent, and from each of Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa. In this way, it elucidates the distinctive characteristics of all African photographic practices and cultures, vis-à-vis those of other types of 'vernacular photography' worldwide. In addition, the studies included here also develop a reflexive turn, by examining the history of academic engagement with these African photographic cultures, and by reflecting on the distinctive qualities of the ethnographic method as a means for studying such phenomena.

The volume critically engages current debates in African photography and visual anthropology. First, it extends our understanding of the variety of ways in which both colonial and post-colonial states in Africa have used photography as a means for establishing, and projecting, their authority. Second, it moves discussion of African photography away from an exclusive focus on the role of the 'the studio' and looks at the circulations through which the studios' products - the photographs themselves - later pass as artefacts of material culture. Last, it makes an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between photography and ethnographic research methods, as these have been employed in Africa.

In addition, the book pay particular attention to the fast changing nature of African photographic cultures, especially since the arrival of widespread digital imaging technologies. For example, to take my own field site of South-western Uganda, it is interesting to note that although digital technologies have only become available in significant numbers since around 2009, they have already begun to generate keen discussion, across a wide variety of social contexts. Thus, even in settings in which people are not yet entirely familiar with digital imaging technologies, people are already beginning to debate, for example, what impact pre-natal scan images will have upon concepts of personhood (in a context in which practically any reference to an unborn child is regarded as strictly taboo), what effect digital portraits will have upon exchange relations (in a context in which photographic image-objects play a significant part in many types of exchange relationships), and what impact the advent of Facebook, and other social networking sites, will have upon relations between people ‘back home’ and those now living in the Diaspora.

I recently conducted an interview about the new collection with the editor of African Griot. The interview provides further information about the volume, and some background on the genesis of the project. The full text of the interview can be viewed here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

LRA Update

During last Friday's whistle-stop visit to Uganda, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to be drawn on any questions relating to the hunt for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Nevertheless, over recent months, a number of details have begun to emerge about both the pattern, and the progress, of the operation. In particular, in late May, the US Army's Special Operations Command in Africa (SOCAFRICA) provided the first update on its own deployment of 100 Green Berets to the region (who having arrived in the field in November last year, are acting as military advisers to various regional armies). The update confirmed a number of important details, including the fact that the US Special Forces, despite being primarily based in Entebbe, Uganda, have established a number of forward operating bases ('Combined Operations Fusion Centres') in areas of LRA activity: the borderlands between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. The SOCAFRICA statement also claimed some initial successes for the US deployment, arguing that it has already assisted regional armies to improve their tracking and pursuit of LRA elements, and has thus enabled them to increase the pressure on Kony’s men. Indeed, the US statement even went as far as to say that as a result of the new joint operations, the LRA has now been reduced to ‘survival mode’ only. 

When President Obama first announced the Green Berets’ deployment in mid-October, many commentators initially dismissed the move as largely symbolic, and as aimed primarily at assuaging US-based anti-LRA lobby groups. In particular, the operation was criticized for being based out of Entebbe - which is several hundred miles away from the DRC-CAR-South Sudan border zone - for the somewhat passive role in which it cast the US troops (at the time, US Assistant Secretary of Defence Alexander Vershbow was keen to stress that the Green Berets would not directly engage the LRA, but would instead act only as trainers and advisors to regional militaries), and for its ‘time-limited’ mandate. In addition, the deployment looked unlikely to achieve much in a context in which the Ugandan Army (UPDF) – who had been the primary trackers of Kony’s men in recent years – were beginning to draw down their own anti-LRA operation, in light of growing fatigue and indiscipline amongst its expeditionary force, and due to the UPDF’s growing commitments elsewhere.

However, in recent months both the US deployment, and the regional military efforts that this is designed to assist, have received a major fillip from the enormous public and NGO response to Invisible Children’s ‘KONY 2012’ campaign video. Specifically, the huge amount of interest that the video has generated – which following its uploading to YouTube in early March, has been viewed over 92 million times – has done much to galvanize US policy-makers, in particular, into developing a more robust response to the LRA crisis. Moreover, these efforts have fared well with a White House administration keen to demonstrate its own tough stance on foreign policy matters in the run-up to November’s presidential election. It is in this context, then, that in late April President Obama made a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington DC, in which he indicated that the Green Berets’ mission was to be both expanded, and extended (and in relation to the latter, he explicitly removed the former ‘time-limit’ on the operation). Since then, the US force, although continuing to avoid any direct engagements with the LRA, has also become more active in the field, especially in the area of intelligence gathering (and SOCAFRICA's recent statement also stated that the US are now planning to increase its surveillance overflights of the LRA-effected areas as well). The public response to KONY 2012 has also helped to galvanize Kampala into renewed action against the rebel group. Thus, in late March, President Museveni announced that the UPDF would be contributing the lion’s share of troops to a new 5,000 strong African Union (AU) force to take on the LRA. Although details of the AU mission have yet to be finalized, this will likely involve both a reallocation of the 1,500 or so Uganda soldiers currently based in the LRA-affected areas, and a further UPDF deployment to the zone. For its part, the Congolese Army (FARDC) had already deployed their elite, and US-trained, 391st Battalion to the LRA-affected areas in order to bolster their own efforts against Kony’s men. At the time of their deployment, in April 2011, the 391st Battalion replaced former units of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) who although formerly integrated into the FARDC, largely operate outside of its command and control structures. But since early March, these troops have become much more active in their anti-LRA activities, and have received additional anti-insurgency training from the Green Beret trainers (at a UN Stabilization Mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, Operations Centre in Dungu Town, in Haut-Uele District). In all of these ways, then, it is worth noting that Invisible Children’s campaign, whatever its other shortcomings, has been highly successful in achieving its primary objective, of achieving an expanded US operation in Central Africa, in support of regional militaries’ own anti-LRA efforts.

Moreover, over recent months, all of this reinvigorated military activity has resulted in a number of significant successes. For example, when on 10th March, a detachment of LRA fighters tried to attack a village along the road between Dungu and Faradje Town, they were repelled by an FARDC patrol (who also killed 2 LRA cadres in the process, and recovered a number of weapons). However, even better was to come in on 12th May, when another group of 30 LRA fighters was ambushed by a UPDF patrol on the banks of the River Mbou (on the CAR side of the border with the DRC). In the ensuing exchanges, the Ugandans captured 3 of the rebel fighters – among them one of the LRA’s most senior commanders, and one of Kony’s most trusted aides, Maj.-Gen. Caesar Achellam Otto. Subsequent accounts of Achellam’s arrest were somewhat confused on the question of whether the ambush and capture had been a chance event, or whether it was the result of an intelligence-led operation. In addition, at least one commentator, Angelo Izama, of the Kampala-based NGO Fanaka Kwawote, suggested that Achellam may have even handed himself in – having been seen as a potential defector for several years now (and the relatively comfortable conditions in which the Maj.-Gen. has been held since his arrest may be further evidence that such a deal had indeed been done). Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances of Achellam’s capture, there is little doubt the arrest has done much to further the impression that the net is indeed now closing on Joseph Kony himself.

Yet whether all of this means that the LRA really has indeed now been reduced to ‘survival mode’ remains unclear. Certainly, recent months have also seen the group narrow its area of operations. Thus, although Kony himself may now be in Darfur, and at least some of his men remain in the CAR, since the turn of the year most of his group’s 200 or so remaining fighters have been concentrated in a relatively narrow corridor running roughly west-east from Bangadi Town, through Dungu, to Faradje, in North-eastern DRC. Moreover, although these fighters (who now operate in cells of between 3-30 men) have continued to carry out large numbers of attacks against civilian populations, recent predations have involved much lower levels of violence that has become the norm in recent years. For example, in 33 LRA attacks carried out in North-eastern DRC between Jan-March 2012, 3 civilian deaths were recorded. Most of the attacks appear to have been orientated towards the looting of supplies, rather than to the abduction of additional fighters (as would have been the case until just a few months ago). However, whether this narrowing of territory, and reduction in levels of LRA violence, can be seen as a result of external pressure being brought to bear on the rebel group – through more effective patrolling of surrounding areas, and a stifling of supply lines – remains unclear. Certainly, this is the story that both SOCAFRICA and the UPDF are keen to promulgate to the world’s media. Yet it is just as likely that these developments are instead an outcome of tactical decisions made by Joseph Kony himself – perhaps made in the context of last September’s ‘council of war’ of senior LRA commanders (held in the CAR) – both to concentrate his remaining force in the dense forests around Dungu, and to try to gain the support of surrounding populations there (which will become more important over time, especially if the LRA remain in Haut-Uele for an extended period of time).

As US intelligence gathering gains pace, and as regional military efforts become more coordinated, both as a result of US training, and in line with the AU’s new plan, pressure on the LRA will certainly increase. However, with the possibility of further material support from Khartoum – who continue to view the LRA as a useful proxy against the South Sudanese Army (SPLA) and the UPDF – Kony may decide to ‘bide his time’, by simply ‘bedding down’ his force in the least accessible parts of Haut-Uele until the current challenges have passed. Certainly, this sort of tactic has worked very well for him in the past. However, whilst this development might bode well for local civilian populations in the short term, it will also do little to diminish the LRA’s overall, and ongoing, capacity for violence.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Museveni's latest woes

Recent weeks have again highlighted that President Yoweri Museveni faces steadily rising criticism of his leadership both from within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), and from outside it. In late April, a group of 20 Ugandan MPs (including NRM members) announced plans to launch a private member’s bill aimed at re-introducing presidential term limits in Uganda. This was followed, a week later, by Captain Francis Babu, a member of the NRM's National Executive Committee (NEC), trying to place the same issue on the agenda of a high-level party meeting in Kampala. Although both moves ultimately proved unsuccessful – government whips effectively quashed the proposed new bill even before it was tabled, and Babu’s agenda item was eventually ruled ‘out of order’ – the moves have once again highlight just how vulnerable the president has now become. Then, earlier this month, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi once again came under pressure to step down as Secretary-General of the NRM - in a move which can also be seen as an indirect attack on the president. Moreover, this internal pressure on Museveni is being compounded by a stubborn opposition, and by their long-running public demonstration movement.

For several years now, Museveni has faced a growing challenge from a body of younger NRM MPs who, distrustful both of him and his party executive, have sought to check the president’s powers. During 2011, these ‘young turks’ dealt Museveni a number of setbacks, especially in relation to the country’s nascent oil sector. For example, in October 2011, the group supported the tabling in parliament of documents which purported to show that the then Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa had received a US$16.5 million bribe from Ireland’s Tullow Oil. Although the documents were proved to be fake, they nevertheless became a catalyst for Kutesa’s subsequent resignation. In recent months, the young rebels have continued to keep up their pressure on the president and his inner-circle.

For example, in early February, the group organized a petition calling for the resignation of Minister of Gender Syda Bbumba and Minister for General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister Khiddu Makubya, over the role that the two had played in the payment of compensation, of around US$70 million, to NEC member Hassan Basajjabalaba over the loss of his public contracts for the redevelopment of several markets, and other public spaces, in central Kampala (at the time the payments were made, Bbumba and Makubya had been Finance Minister, and Auditor-General, respectively). Further pressure was then brought to bear on the two through the Public Accounts Committee, who on 16th February, formally censured the pair – following which both ministers did resign. Also in February, another of the younger NRM MPs, David Bahati, re-introduced his controversial Anti-homosexuality Bill (albeit with its former provision for the death penalty – for acts of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ – now removed). President Museveni remains opposed to the bill, having issued an executive order against it in late 2009. Nevertheless, on the day that Bahati tabled the revised version in the house, he received widespread applause from the NRM members present. Then, in mid-April, members of the young turks, this time working through Parliamentary Appointments Committee, were again involved in trying to force the resignation of Minister of Internal Affairs Hilary Onek. Onek had been previously implicated in the same corruption scandal that led to Kutesa’s resignation – although on that occasion, he managed to hold on to his position. However, the latest controversy relates to a claim that he had lied about his academic qualifications when first joining parliament, by inventing both Masters and PhD degrees from Uganda’s Makerere University. If upheld, this claim will almost certainly force Onek to step down. 

As a result of these developments, President Museveni is today more politically isolated than he has been for many years, and he is increasingly reliant on his loyalist Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi. However, Mbabazi has also been the subject of a corruption scandal in recent months - and he is anyway never far from controversy - and this has further deepened the president’s current political predicament. Thus, were Mbabazi himself to also fall foul of one of the rebel MPs’ parliamentary manoeuvres in the months ahead, then this would leave Museveni very dangerously exposed.

For its part, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which is now part of the umbrella-organization Activists for Change (A4C), have done their best to exploit the president’s current weakness. Following his relaunch of the ‘Walk to Work’ (W2W) campaign in mid-January, in recent months opposition leader Kizza Besigye has held an ever greater number of A4C rallies, especially in and around Kampala. However, with the authorities remaining hostile to the group, many of these rallies have become increasingly violent in nature. 

For example, on 21st February, riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd at an A4C rally in Katwe Market, Central Kampala. In the confusion that followed, Besigye’s bodyguard, Francis Mwijukye, was hit with a rubber bullet, whilst Besigye himself was hit in the leg by a tear gas canister (he was later hospitalized). In the same incident, FDC Women’s League Chairperson Ingrid Turinawe was sprayed in the face with pepper spray. Four days later, police again fired tear gas at an A4C rally held in Kasangati Town (which lies 9 miles north of the capital). That action resulted in widespread rioting, during which several buildings in the town were torched, and at least 8 people, including a 7-month old baby, were injured. However, worse was to follow on 21st March, when another A4C rally in central Kampala again descended into chaos. In the resulting melee, rocks were thrown at police, resulting in the death of a senior officer, Assistant Inspector of Police John Michael Ariong. 12 senior FDC officials, including Besigye himself, were arrested at the scene, along with several dozen of the group’s supporters. The opposition leader was later released on bail (although with restrictions on his movement), whilst at least 10 people were later charged with the policeman’s death, and with various public order offences relating to the incident. A week later, on 31st March, Besigye was again arrested, this time for breaching his bail conditions, as he attempted to reach another A4C rally in Kasangati. During the arrest, an NBS TV journalist who was covering the incident was hit by a police vehicle, and sustained serious injuries.

In response to the growing unrest, on 4th April, Attorney-General Peter Nyombi invoked Section 56 of the Penal Code Act to ban A4C as an ‘unlawful society’. The move was seen by many as unusual, given that in recent years Section 56 (which is an old colonial law) has only been invoked in relation to religious cults, and not in reference to large-scale political organizations. In this sense, Besigye himself was probably correct in his later assessment that the Attorney-General’s move demonstrated just how seriously the authorities are now taking the opposition threat. 

However, the formal banning of A4C seems unlikely to lead to a decline in the opposition’s protests, at least in the short term. Just one day after the ban came into effect, Besigye held another rally at the Kololo Independence Grounds, in Kampala. On 18th April, the opposition leader – along with Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago (who is another senior figure within the A4C organization) – then attempted another protest at Nakasero Market. Although Besigye and Lukwago claimed that they were only trying to have lunch at the market, the authorities barred the pair’s entry into the site, and this once again resulting in violence. In the ensuing fracas, a number of people, including a 12-year old girl, were injured. Finally, on 20th April, Ingrid Turinawe was arrested as she attempted to reach an opposition rally just outside the capital. In a strange twist, TV footage of the arrest clearly showed a male riot policeman gripping Turinawe’s right breast as she was pulled out of her vehicle. The footage resulted in complaints from human- and women’s- rights organizations, and subsequently led to female FDC supporters protesting topless in central Kampala (for which they were also arrested). The policeman involved was eventually suspended for his actions.

Footage of Turinawe's arrest can be seen here...

...whilst footage of the subsequent protests can be viewed here:

However, the ability of the opposition to move beyond these isolated incidents of unrest, and to develop a coherent opposition platform from which to challenge Museveni, has been significantly restricted in recent months by the emergence of a major leadership battle within the FDC. Following Besigye’s announcement that he would step down at party leader in June, intense jockeying has been taking place within the organization over who will succeed him. To date, at least three major contenders have emerged, including leader of the opposition in parliament Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, FDC heavyweight MP Abdu Katuntu, and long-time Besigye challenger Major-General Mugisha Muntu. In recent times, competition between these three figures has served only to deepen divisions within the FDC. However, it is also intriguing to note that both Nandala-Mafabi and Katuntu have also spent recent months developing their alliances among the NRM young turks: Nandala-Mafabi, by drawing on links made during his former Chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee (the same committee which recently forced the resignations of Ministers Bbumba and Makubya), Katuntu, through his own attempts to check the executive’s powers in relation to oil (for example, in December, Katuntu curried favour with many NRM rebels by taking the Attorney-General to the constitutional court over confidentiality clauses contained in several of the oil Production Sharing Agreements, PSAs). The growth of these alliances is intriguing, because it suggests that in the event of either Nandala-Mafabi or Katuntu taking over in June, an entirely new sort of opposition configuration might begin to emerge in parliament – one that would surely be powerful enough to signficantly restrict the president’s powers.

Museveni remains safe for now, and will probably continue to be so for as long as his political fixer-in-chief, Amama Mbabazi, remains in place. However, with Uganda’s economy performing badly (inflation is currently running at just over 20%, and in April the IMF lowered its growth forecast for 2012 from 5.5% to 4.2%) discontent will continue to grow throughout the country. In consequence, groups such as A4C – who recently tried to bypass the ban by relaunching themselves as For God and My Country (4GC) – will continue to draw big crowds at their rallies. However, whether such anger can be converted into a sustained drive for political change in the country remains to be seen.

Friday, March 9, 2012

'KONY 2012', and a military solution to the LRA crisis

On 2nd March, the US advocacy group Invisible Children posted a 30 min campaign video for their new campaign 'KONY 2012', on the video sharing website Vimeo. Following its transfer to YouTube as well, the film quickly became an internet phenomenon. As a result of its circulation on social networking sites such as Facebook, between Tuesday 6th March and Thursday 8th, the video had been viewed over 21 million times. As of the time of writing, the film's YouTube page records more than 46 million hits (for anyone who hasn't yet seen the film, there is a link to it at the end of this post).

The film focuses on Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and implores its imagined US audience to lobby for a military response to Kony's crimes (i.e. to pressure the US government to expand its current military deployment in LRA-affected areas, with a view to arresting Kony). Although it is terribly self-indulgent (on the part of Invisible Children founder Jason Russell), the film is a very slick polemic, more in the style of a Michael Moore documentary rather than a traditional piece of investigative journalism. As such, it relies more on an appeal to emotion - the shock and anger that any rational viewer will feel when confronted with images of Kony's crimes - rather than on a balanced assessment of facts, in its attempt to persuade viewers to join the campaign. As a result, detail goes out of the window, with the entire history of the LRA being reduced to only the actions and intentions of Kony himself, and with the only issue emerging from the 25-year long insurgency being that of child soldiers - both gross over-simplifications (to say the least). In addition, the complexities of the USA's relations with the International Criminal Court (ICC) - in which an arrested Kony would presumably be tried - are never referred to, of course. Nevertheless, the film has been an enormous internet hit.

In the short period of time since KONY 2012 'went viral' a great deal has already been written about the film, both in traditional media outlets, and in the 'blogsphere' (for an example of the former, see the coverage in the Guardian, for an entry point into the latter, see this digest, published on Whilst much of what has been written so far has responded positively to the film, a large number of sources have also been highly critical of the documentary, and of Invisible Children's motives for making it. For example, across the acres of text that have already been generated in response to the video, very many commentators have already raised concerns over everything from the charity's very style of 'celebrity humanitarianism', to its financial accounts (Invisible Children's own response to these charges can be found here). However, by far the greatest criticism of KONY 2012 has been of its central thesis; that the best way to deal with Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is through military intervention, and that this will have the greatest chance of success if carried out in partnership with the Ugandan Army (UPDF). On the one hand, both journalists and bloggers appear to be quite shocked by the very notion that an humanitarian advocacy group such as Invisible Children should be pushing for any form of military engagement at all - given that all forms of violence are apparently at odds with the very ideals of humanitarianism (and this certainly wasn't helped by the subsequent emergence on a number of websites of a rather goofy photograph of Jason Russell and some of his co-founders posing with weapons and soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, SPLA; see here). On the other hand, commentators are also appalled by the idea that international forces should work alongside the UPDF, given that army's own poor human rights record. 

So what then should we make of KONY 2012, and of these criticisms of the film? Perhaps the first point to make is that there is in fact nothing particularly new in what Invisible Children are advocating for here. Thus, over recent months a growing consensus has emerged - among both advocacy groups and (more importantly) policy makers - around the necessity for renewed military action against the LRA. For example, as the film describes, following the signing into law of the US Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act (in May 2010), in October President Obama authorized the deployment of 100 combat-ready Army Special Forces (Green Berets) to the Great Lakes region, to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony and his men. This was followed, in early November, by an announcement from the German Ambassador to Uganda, Klaus Duxmann, that the EU was ready commit both troops and money to a renewed fight. A few weeks later, the African Union (AU) then officially launched its own 'authorized mission’ against Kony, which aims to eventually coordinate all military action against the rebel group. Finally, in early December, an 11-country UN Committee on security in Central Africa met in Bangui, in the Central African Republic (CAR), with a view to also expanding the UN's involvement in future anti-LRA operations. 

Moreover, it is clear that if any of these initiatives are to be successful, they will require the involvement of the UPDF. Certainly, the Green Berets may have the capacity to not arrest, but to actually kill, Joseph Kony himself. Following Obama’s announcement of the Special Forces operation, a number of commentators initially dismissed the operation as largely symbolic (an impression that was apparently then confirmed by a statement from Assistant Secretary of Defence Alexander Vershbow, that a majority of the Special Forces would in fact be based in Kampala, and would act primarily as advisors to other regional armies). However, the deployment is more than a token gesture, not least because the troops involved are under the Special Operations Command in Africa (SOCAFRICA). In recent years, SOCAFRICA have proved highly successful in tracking down remote targets in the Horn of Africa (a region over which they took responsibility in 2008). In addition, they have access to a wide array of high-tech assets, many of which are specifically designed to target mobile subjects (and it is already being reported from Haut-Uele in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC – where a majority of LRA fighters are currently based – that the number of surveillance overflights in the region have increased dramatically in recent months). Thus, the plan will presumably be to try to get a 'fix' on Kony - using either an insider source, or some sort of electronic tag - and to then hit him with a drone. Indeed, it is probably with this in mind that from mid-November onwards, members of the Green Berets deployment have been making regular trips to the DRC-Central African Republic (CAR) border area on various ‘fact-finding’ missions.

Nevertheless, if the US deployment is going to contribute to any wider success - in terms reducing the overall size of the LRA force, and in diminishing the threat that they pose (with or without Kony at their head) - it is going to have to work through regional armies, and (like it or not) this really means the UPDF. This is because other national armies in the region are currently over-engaged elsewhere. For example, the Congolese Army (FARDC) are currently tied up with post-election difficulties in other parts of their vast country, following the contested general elections of December last year. Similarly, the army of South Sudan (SPLA) are engaged in serious conflicts of their own, whilst the national army of the CAR also has its focus elsewhere. The other only significant military actor in the region, the UN's Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) simply doesn't have the capacity to mount sustained operations against Kony and his men. For these, and other, reasons, the UPDF have been the primary trackers of the LRA throughout Eastern DRC, and beyond, ever since the start of ‘Operation Lightening Thunder’ (later renamed ‘Rudia II’) in December 2008 – an operation to which the US also provided over US$38 million in logistical support - and this situation is unlikely to change any time soon. 

However, one major problem here is that following a series of difficulties with Lightening Thunder/Rudia II, in mid-2010 the Ugandans began to significantly draw-down the numbers of soldiers they had engaged in  LRA-affected areas. Today, less than half their original 4,000 troops who started Lightening Thunder still remain. In addition, recent reports have pointed to a growing sense of fatigue, and increased indiscipline, amongst those who are still there. For example, in late 2010, President Bozize expelled the UPDF from Sam Ouandja, in North-eastern CAR, following accusations of illegal diamond mining in the area. Throughout 2011, FARDC officers have made similar allegations against Ugandan forces in Haut-Uele – although to date, they have not produced any evidence to substantiate their claims. But in mid-June, concrete evidence did emerge of UPDF troops in South Sudan engaging in illegal transportation practices.  

Moreover, the Ugandan Army currently has its own burgeoning commitments elsewhere. In particular, Uganda remains in command of, and continues to provide the largest share of the troops for, the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Indeed, the UPDF’s existing deployment of 5210 soldiers in Somalia is set to rise by a further 50% in 2012, in line with a commitment President Museveni made following the al-Shabaab bombings in Kampala in July 2010. In addition, much of Uganda’s own elite Special Forces Group – which is under the command of Museveni’s son Lt. Col. Kainerugaba Muhoozi – is now engaged in securitization work in and around Uganda’s new oil fields in the Albertine Rift Valley (which, despite the impression given in some of the coverage that has followed the release of KONY 2012, is in fact quite some distance away from the LRA's current areas of operation). Finally, during last year’s Ugandan general election campaign, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni promised an additional deployment of troops to Karamoja, in Northeast Uganda – in line with his long standing policy of using the army as a primary means for improving security in that region as well. In this context, then, the LRA may in fact be a lessening priority for the UPDF at this time. 

However, perhaps the key issue here, and the one that critics of KONY 2012 are really driving at, is what sort of 'moral hazard' any renewed military operations - be they attempts to 'decapitate' the LRA, or wider operations against the group - might generate, in the form of reprisals against surrounding civilian populations. At present, the LRA continue to attack all sorts of civilian targets more or less with impunity, across a broad swathe of territory adjacent to the DRC’s North-eastern border with the CAR and South Sudan. Partly as a result of pressure brought to bear by Lightening Thunder (especially during the second half of 2009), the size of Kony’s force is today greatly reduced from its peak of around 3000 fighters, in 2005. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, the group probably now has no more than 400 cadres remaining. One recent UPDF estimate put the number even lower, at around 200 fighters, whilst the FARDC claim that the LRA is now down to just 30 men (however, both of these figures are almost certainly underestimates). Yet even with such a small number of fighters, the LRA remains a potent threat, organized as it now is into small mobile bands (some of which number just 5-10 people), which operate across a mostly forested area which is the size of France. 

Indeed, history suggests that the LRA would pose an increased risk to civilians as they themselves come under greater pressure. Thus, during 2011, these mobile LRA bands carried out many dozens of small-scale attacks, most of them against civilian targets, resulting in at least 152 deaths, and 531 abductions. In one week alone, in early June, LRA cadres carried out no less than 22 separate attacks – most of them in Haut-Uele – including one (on 7th June) near Bangadi Town in which a woman was abducted from her fields, another (8th June) near Dungu in a which a 50-year old woman was killed, and a third (11th June) also near Dungu, in which 5 people died. All such incidents are now tracked in real time on, a website that was set up by Invisible Children and another advocacy organization called Resolve, and which uses a network of radios that the two organizations have distributed across the LRA-affected regions (the network is mentioned briefly in KONY 2012). Moreover, at the present time Kony appears to be, if anything, growing in confidence, as for example evidenced by his recent decision to hold a ‘council-of-war’ for his senior commanders at his current base in the CAR. This was the first time that the LRA leadership has gathered in one place since the start of Lightening Thunder, and was no doubt called in response to the US deployment. In addition, there are growing indications that the LRA leader may be planning for his own ‘offensive’ – along the lines of the wave of attacks that the LRA carried out around Christmas 2008 – in the months ahead. 

In conclusion, KONY 2012 is a well meaning campaign video, whose central message is not as surprising as some commentators have suggested. Nevertheless, there is a great danger inherent in its thesis; if viewers do indeed advocate for increased military action, yet that military action turns out to be inadequate, it may result in worse LRA predations against civilian populations in the Congolese-CAR borderlands.

Invisible Children's film constantly implores its viewers that 'we are all in this together' (or words to that effect). What we are actually all in together is a politically complicated world.