Put yourself in Joseph Kony’s shoes: imagine you are a fugitive leader of a rebel band in the forests of central Africa, travelling on foot and avoiding encounter with any organized military force. You have spurned peace talks and bribes because the only existence you know is surviving off the land and its fearful people. Every high profile offensive by the armies of three neighboring countries, or international special forces, that fails to capture or kill you, adds to your mystique. Your army is run as a cult, using charisma and fear. For a quarter century your reputation has grown, even while your political agenda has dwindled. In fact, since the killing of Osama bin Laden, you are arguably the most wanted man on the planet.

Today, eight years after abandoning northern Uganda, the LRA’s depleted band of a couple of hundred barefoot fighters is somewhere in the borderlands between the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic. According to the “LRA Crisis Tracker” they have killed 98 civilians in the last 12 months and abducted 477. That’s an impressively high infamy-to-atrocity ratio, testament to the effectiveness of terrorist advertising. In earlier days, the LRA achieved spread terror throughout northern Uganda by its gruesome mutilations. Severed lips and noses spread the message better than a radio station.

Today, Kony’s supernatural powers are newly validated by his newest enemy, the earthly superpower, which is staking its power and prestige on catching or killing him. The LRA’s new echo chamber is an advocacy group, Invisible Children.

The armies of Uganda, South Sudan and Congo, backed by American advisers, may yet succeed in putting handcuffs on Kony and delivering him to The Hague. But are plenty of dismal precedents for failure. In 2002, following the U.S. declaration that the LRA was a terrorist organization, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force won the reluctant cooperation of Sudan and launched “Operation Iron Fist” on both sides of the Uganda-Sudan border. It didn’t succeed. In 2008, after the LRA had relocated to north-eastern Congo and the adjoining areas of southern Sudan, a joint offensive by the armies of Uganda, Congo and South Sudan also failed. Another episode was a 2006 operation by special forces attached to the UN mission in Congo. Experts in jungle warfare, Guatemalan commandos were dispatched to the Garamba national park with the objective of executing the recently-unveiled ICC arrest warrant against Joseph Kony and senior commanders. The operation ended in disaster with the UN soldiers fatally shooting each other.

The problem hasn’t been that Kony isn’t well-known. Compared to the host of other rebel groups and militia that have inflicted comparable or greater destruction on the region over the last quarter century, he enjoys by far the highest profile. The problem is that he is hard to catch, and that his adversaries have too often colluded in keeping the war going.

The Ugandan army had an incentive for keeping the LRA alive and kicking – it justified a high defence budget and gave the generals plenty of opportunities for getting rich. Principle and profit have also driven Ugandan military adventurism across its borders. Invisible Children’s solution to the LRA is for the Ugandan army to pursue them through the jungles of Congo. It doesn’t mention that fifteen years ago, Uganda and Rwanda invaded Congo (then called Zaire) to pursue Rwandese genocidaires and Ugandan rebels through those same forests. The world hadn’t cared enough to stop the Rwandese killers regrouping and rearming in Zairean refugee camps, so the leaders of the Uganda and Rwanda, with a nod from Washington DC, took unilateral action themselves. It didn’t work out so well for the Congolese people.  Let’s hope that this time Ugandan soldiers and their proxies kill fewer than 98 Congolese civilians.

Since peace and stability began returning to northern Uganda six years ago, the agenda has been reconstruction and reconciliation. There are programs of social healing to address the roots of the LRA rebellion, which lie in a complicated history of marginalization and the traumas of the war and massacres of the 1980s. Demystifying Kony – reducing him to a common criminal and a failed provincial politician – should be part of this effort to normalize life.

During these years, the LRA has survived in the frontierlands of central Africa because the reach of government doesn’t extend there, and because the inhabitants of these places have as much reason to distrust the depredations of officialdom as they have to fear the cruelties of the LRA. If Kony dies or is captured, the few hundred LRA fighters may disband, but the lawlessness that made possible his reign of fear, will not be so easily resolved.

In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military solution, the campaign isn’t just simplifying, it is irresponsibly naive. “Big man” style rulers – of which President Yoweri Museveni is one – prefer to dismiss their opponents as disturbed individuals, and like to short-cut civil politics by military action. The “let’s get the bad guy” script is a problem, not a solution.

Millions of young Americans are being told about a bizarre and murderous African cult. They are also being told that for 25 years Africa has been waiting for America to solve this problem, which can be done by capturing Africa’s crazed evildoer and handing him over to international justice. And they are led to believe that what has stopped this from happening is that American leaders don’t care enough. The apologists for Invisible Children call this “raising awareness.” I call it peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods.

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29 Responses to Don’t Elevate Kony

  1. […] Alex de Waal weighing in on how Invisible Children’s campaign is dangerous. […]

    • InFiDeL0020 says:

      The issue in East Africa has never been simple. De Waal simply pointed out this very obvious fact.

      You will not know the whole story about the turmoils and the troubled history just by watching a few movies like Hotel Rwanda or Kony 2012. Today, African experts from UN to the academia tried to sort out the relationship between different factions of militias and their relationship with global corporations and politicians, and they still have only a very rough idea on the whole issue. If they can’t figure out the whole story, you can’t either by just listening to the one-side, simplified version from Invisible Children Inc. or Save Darfur.

  2. Blurgtin says:

    “In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military solution, the campaign isn’t just simplifying, it is irresponsibly naive. ‘Big man’ style rulers – of which President Yoweri Museveni is one – prefer to dismiss their opponents as disturbed individuals, and like to short-cut civil politics by military action. The “let’s get the bad guy” script is a problem, not a solution.”

    Indeed. I’m sure if we just sit Kony down and have a nice civil chat with him, he’ll be more than willing to disband his army and return peacefully to village life.

  3. […] Don’t Elevate Kony (World Peace Foundation) […]

  4. NoOneSpecial says:

    This is one of the more thoughtful critiques I’ve read, but wish it also delved deeper into the solution the author supports: reducing Kony to a common criminal and a failed provincial politician.

    What most authors, including this one, don’t seem to appreciate is that they have a short momentary opportunity when many more people are interested in talking about and promoting solutions. It is sad most of the “experts” focus mainly on criticism. It makes them seem like sour grapes with no useful thoughts to contribute themselves.

    It seemed this author had the potential to transcend than trend, but he falls short buy not giving any weight to the solutions he proposed. It’d be wise to end the next essay exploring those ideas, rather than calling names.

    • Alex de Waal says:

      There are two main issues at stake here. One is the crisis in northern Uganda and the continuing problem of the LRA. The second is the extraordinary situation in which a video with a narrative designed for a five year old is being taken seriously as a contribution to solving a complicated problem.

      Concerning the first: I would suggest that the presence of the LRA in northern Uganda be minimized, that there be maximum effort to dissociate the LRA from the Acholi community at large, that reconciliation be promoted, that the displaced people be assisted to return home, that schools be opened, etc. Achieving these things would solve 90% of the problem.

      And, dare I point out, the people of northern Uganda, their government, international donors and NGOs, have actually done all of the above over the last six-to-eight years. (Ironically, Invisible Children is one of the NGOs that has been involved in running schools, and has made a practical contribution to this. So it ought to know better.) But you might not realise from the Kony2012 video that, in reality, most of the work has already been done.

      As to defeating the remnant LRA, for sure there has to be military action, and the planning and implementation of these operations are well advanced. The U.S. is committed to a contingent of military advisers and using various technologies to track the LRA. There are no plans to withdraw it. As the “LRA Crisis Tracker” (run by Invisible Children) these seem to have had some measurable success in reducing the impact of the LRA. It’s quite possible that killing or capturing Kony would lead to the demise of the LRA. (Which is why he is an attractive topic for the Invisible Children campaign. Though of course we should remember that the death of Alice Lakwena meant only that her movement morphed into something else, namely the LRA.)

      Scaling up these operations, setting artificial deadlines, and ignoring the wider context of security and governance, are where the main risks lie. There are many additional measures that would be important, especially in terms of improving the governance of the central African frontierlands, which I won’t dwell on here. My bigger concern is that the Kony2012 campaign is an avowedly liberal-humanitarian version of the neo-con agenda of fighting terrorism by eliminating “bad guys” one by one.

      As to the second issue. It is important not to succumb to the pressure to infantilize the debate on issues such as this. The message of the Kony2012 video is dishonest, and the implications of this type of messaging being regarded as “successful” are alarming, and we shouldn’t hesitate to say so.

      • Cintia says:

        e28098insisting on (the genocide chegras) at this stage is a political acte28099. Wasne28099t it rather, as he also says, a personal act more than anything? Moreno Ocampo set on proving he was righte28094not just about the e28098evidenciary burdene28099 required at this early stage, but over the whole genocide debate? The repercussions of course are political. There is no doubt that many Sudanese see the Appeals Chambere28099s decision as a political act. e28098The message is that Bashir will be changed unless he finds a solution,e28099 one told me yesterday, making a direct link between the ICCe28099s decision and the elections. e28098The ICC is giving Bashir a chance.e28099 So you think the Chambere28099s motivation was political, I said. e28098Yes,e28099 he replied. e28098Of course.e28099Such confusion. Look at the reporting of yesterdaye28099s decision, including the BBCe28099s initial online claim, to cite just one example, that e28098International Criminal Court judges have reversed a ruling that there is insufficient proof to charge Sudan’s president with genocide in Darfure28099. Surely most people would read into this that the judges had decided there is sufficient proof? All the Appeals Chamber did of course was give Moreno Ocampo another shot at proving his claim by reversing the Pre-Trial Chamber’s decisione28094not on the substance of the claim, but finding that it used the wrong standard of proof and must now decide the issue again using the correct standard. We are back to where we were in March last year. Almost 11 months of time, resources and energy spent on insisting on a hard-to-prove charge that will make no difference to Bashire28099s fate, if he is ever arrested. War crimes and crimes against humanity would do the job just as well.I know Darfurians want to see Bashir in the dock for genocide. Everything they have read on the internet and heard on the airwaves has led them to believe that only a conviction for genocide will make any sense of their suffering and go any way to compensating for it. But the real hurdle will come if ever Moreno Ocampo has to prove, in court, that Bashir personally masterminded genocide in Darfur. By then, of course, the problem will be someone elsee28099s. Moreno Ocampoe28099s term of office expires in 2012.The really sad thing, for me, is the crushing of the expectations of the e28098ordinarye28099 people of Darfur, who know nothing about the Court, its workings or the difficulties of proving genocide. The experience of the Former Yugoslavia trials, and even the Rwanda tribunal, are that obtaining a conviction for genocide is complex and time consuming, and success hinges on legal details that are obscure to the ordinary person. On my last visit, the question that arose in every discussion about the ICC was: e28098Why hasne28099t he (Moreno Ocampo) arrested Bashir yet?e28099 Moreno Ocampoe28099s greatest supporters risk becoming his greatest critics.

  5. […] of the World Peace Foundation, writes a post on the organization’s blog warning “Don’t Elevate Kony“—excerpt […]

  6. […] down the video. For more information, read this story on Alternet by another Bruce Wilson, and this story by Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation. The Kony2012 video removed by The Primal […]

  7. […] down the video. For more information, read this story on Alternet by another Bruce Wilson, andthis story by Alex Dewall of the World Peace Foundation. This entry was posted in Uncategorized by […]

  8. […] and other real and less costly solutions, in both human life and monetary terms. As Alex de Waal writes: “In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military […]

  9. […] old can do it better than his adult dad who is all hopped up on playing the savior. As Alex Dewaal points out, “The ‘let’s get the bad guy’ script is a problem, not a […]

  10. […] on, but I’ll leave it at that.  You can read more about the issues with the viral video campaign here, here, here, here, here, and […]

  11. Emma says:

    The question of what is truly successful messaging and what is merely the 21st century reproduction of the colonialist narrative is such an important one, and one that I grapple with daily.

    If you’ll allow me to wander a bit off topic, I am embarking on a trip to tour tea farms in India in order to produce video footage for a fair trade certified company that wishes to tell the story of small farmer owned and operated tea production. The team I am on has had an incredibly difficult time narrowing in on what narrative threads we should focus on in the limited time we have (just 10 days), and it is for precisely the reasons you have been discussing with NoOneSpecial.

    We wish so intently to actually engage our audience on these neo-colonialist issues- how is it that tea production became a feudal enterprise in the first place? Why has it continued in that form since Indian independence? Can the producer/consumer relationship be fundamentally re-imagined?- We like to think the footage we will collect will present alternative models. However, how do we put together what is essentially a marketing campaign for middle-class Americans that doesn’t fall back on, or rely on, these counter-productive tropes?

    I apologize that this reply is not directly related to your post, but ever since I saw Kony2012, I have been dreading the (unintentional) implications that my video may have.

  12. […] militarisation. I adhere to my criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign, and there have been others like Alex de Waal and Mahmood Mamdani who have been much more eloquent and precise in pointing out the real […]

    • Soraia says:

      This episode at the ICC is sohmewat bizarre. In March last year, the pre-trial chamber issued the arrest warrant that the Prosecutor had requested. This made Pres. Bashir into a fugitive from justice. The crimes for which he is charged are no less heinous than genocide. Any additional charges added subsequently make absolutely no difference to that reality. The Prosecutor’s decision to appeal against the exclusion of the genocide charges, while perfectly permissible in law, served only the purpose of satisfying the personal or political ambition of the Prosecutor. If the ICC ever succeeds in getting Pres. Bashir in Court, the Prosecutor can then add whatever charges he believes are warranted by the evidence. Insisting on them at this stage is a political act.The judges’ decision illuminates a structural weakness in the ICC. The level of evidence required for an arrest warrant, including on the charge of genocide, has been set extremely low. The evidence produced in the request for the arrest warrant may be enough to satisfy the minimum procedural requirement of an arrest warrant but it is far from enough to mount any credible prosecution, and may not be enough to satisfy the judges at the confirm of charges hearing, if such a hearing is ever held (which would occur if Pres. Bashir actually appears before the court). Around the world, governmental lawyers are likely to ask themselves, if this is the standard of proof required for an ICC arrest warrant against a sitting head of state on the charge of genocide, who is also at risk?The fact that the decision comes just as the election campaign is about to be launched is likely to be inflammatory. It will confirm Pres. Bashir’s conclusion, reached in 2008, that the only secure place for him is in the Republican Palace.

  13. […] solution to the LRA. Alex De Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, targeted the video for “peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” that it is up to the United States to help solve the problem of the […]

    • Siah says:

      I presume that the ICC is atnpmetitg to build relevance by taking a strictly procedural approach to the case of Sudan.Some will ask, Why here? Why now? I think that is not only reasonable, but valid. The ICC might reply, If not now, then when? The ICC can have impact only if it changes the way that the international community approaches crimes against humanity, including genocide. One aspect of such change would be bringing about the isolation or alienation of those suspected of, and charged with, such crimes. This can be achieved in part through public mobilization, and in part through building a legal case that may ultimately spur/permit action by an interested official willing to detain Bashir if ever he passes through their jurisdiction. That, of course, would establish some of the precedents which lies at the heart of what was envisioned for the ICC from the very outset.For the record, I believe that the ICC’s actions have only complicated the already difficult process of peace-making in Sudan. While I feel that Bashir is guilty of genocide, I don’t see how the actions taken by the ICC serve the victims of his atrocities. There is, in fact, tangible evidence that they make things worse. Consequently, I argue that the ICC’s attempts to win procedural victories and establish international norms are simply not worth the human cost.

  14. Diens says:

    (This is a purely fiicotnal reflection on the issue of the ICC. Please do not take seriously!)I have no illusions about the ICC acts and timing. The ICC is a highly selective and pure political tool that is directed entirely to serve the interests of those backseat drivers who are pulling its strings. Its technical jargon, arguments and actions do not seem to have any practical significance to me as a Sudanese.El-Beshir as president and commander in chief of the army is no doubt responsible in full or in part of the atrocities committed in Darfur. The question of whether or not the ICC will bring justice to Sudan and to Darfur people is quite a valid one, and personally I feel we should just leave the ICC to challenge its own claims and to do what it is geared to do, and should not bother ourselves by trying to find answers to its symptomatic behaviours.The other aspect of the ICC coin is that El-Beshir political positions did result in isolating U.S groups and others from their interests in Sudan and in the region. To a great extend, we cannot separate the feverish media campaign that rightfully or wrongfully tries to fit the genocide claim/shirt on the hardly matching case/body of Darfur, and it is the same media which is also directing its wrath against El-Beshir and originating, as Oscar rightfully concluded: from so many Americans (who live in a country that refuses to be subject to the ICC) and who are so passionate about having Bashir brought before that tribunal. No one can convince me that the media is innocent and neutral and the campaigns are all genuine and politics-agenda-free. One can easily find a link between political interests, Beshir, ICC, and Darfur campaigns and campaign orchestrators.I do strongly believe that a political deal could be struck at any time between Beshir and those who are behind the ICC, busy pulling the strings. And no doubt a deal with El-Beshir could definitely give the blessing for his next elections win and wash aside every trace for this so called ICC threats. Those behind the scene can easily make things, as big as the ICC case against El-Beshir, disappear in thin air. The timing of mounting the pressure could always be a signal of a deal under way, similar to the warring parties in a conflict who intensify their operations on the ground prior to the peace talks to gain stronger positions in the negotiations.Beshir definitely cannot afford to lose because of the ICC. The chances are quite high that he is destined to remain in power by H or C. Those who are aware of this fact are not ignorant of the opportunities that this situation could avail them in the political free market where there is a price for everything, position, or principle.Our world is simply not a perfect one. Although there are genuine causes and genuine people who seek justice, the majority of the stories that the media tries to sell us are staged and skilfully designed operations. The ICC is sadly not an exception.

  15. stufftokno says:

    […] ^ “Don’t Elevate Kony | Reinventing Peace”. Sites.tufts.edu. 2012-03-10. Retrieved 2012-04-22. […]

  16. […] support of the film. Noted researchers such as Mahmood Mamdani, Sverker Finnström, Paul Stoller, Alex de Waal, Richard Vokes, David Rieff, and David Rosen, in addition to countless others, have provided public […]

  17. […] of the World Peace Foundation, writes a post on the organization’s blog warning “Don’t Elevate Kony” (excerpt below). Millions of young Americans are being told about a bizarre and murderous […]

  18. […] of experienced researchers, and a surprising number of PhD students.6Because it is possible, and because it […]

  19. […] Things had become even more dangerous as the line between humanitarians and militarists disappeared. Aid workers, faced with rebels and dictators instead of famines and floods, presumed that Western military power was a convenient tool with which to solve crises. They soon realised, however, that it was impossible to control and liable to have an effect more comparable to a backhoe than a surgical instrument. The faith in the power of military intervention – which, I should admit, counted me among its believers for a short period years ago – persists in the celebrities whose eyes grow moist over Darfur and the teens who share indictments of Joseph Kony. […]

  20. […] campaign could not be a more perfect example.  Kony 2012 threw all of its eggs into the Ugandan military‘s basket, simply ignoring its long history of human rights violations and Musevini’s […]

  21. […] among the many problems it presents, the campaign oversimplied a complex issue, unnecessarily glorified evil, and did little to inspire its participants to take any real action beyond liking and […]

  22. Stephen Lawrence says:

    Many years later and I hope the situation has now progressed? I see that NYT as of April 2017 stated the LRA and Kony no longer posed a threat. Alex, I always remember you as being strong in history! Good to see you doing good things.

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