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

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.