A viral internet and street art campaign, launched by the charity Invisible Children, gathered an enormous amount of support across the world on 7 March, with its denunciation of Joseph Kony, leader of a militia which has committed many atrocities in Uganda and in Congo.
The denunciation is thoroughly justified, but there are problems with the Invisible Children operation and its slant on the issue. In our view, people who want to take action against militias like Kony’s - his, sadly, is by no means the only one in the region - are right to want to do that, but would do better to help build support for forces like the still weak, and very imperfect, but real trade-union movements and other movements for social justice in Uganda and across the region.
Who is Joseph Kony?
Joseph Kony is a wanted war criminal and the leader of a militia which has operated in Central Africa – Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda. From the late 80s to the early 90s it was called the Ugandan Democratic Christian Army. In the early 90s the UDCA was disbanded and in 1992 Kony re-founded the group as the Lord’s Resistance Army. It is not clear how strong the LRA is now, though the balance of evidence is that it is much weaker than it has been.
Who are the Lord’s Resistance Army?
The LRA – and the UDCA before it – were founded with the stated aim of overthrowing the government of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and replacing it with a Christian theocracy. Until 2002, the Sudanese government, though Islamic, funded the LRA as a counterweight to the Ugandan government which supported the south-Sudanese movement for independence. About 80% of its soldiers are children abducted from schools, villages and orphanages and trained as soldiers. They have killed, maimed and enslaved non-Christian Acholi in Northern Uganda.
What is Invisible Children?
Invisible Children is a charity set up in 2005 by Ben Keesey, Jason Russell, and Laren Poole to bring to light the abduction of tens of thousands children by Joseph Kony and the LRA. It was based on the experiences of Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, who went to Africa in 2003 to create a film about Darfur, and the film they made about Kony after learning of his crimes.
The charity has been organising a campaign called Kony2012 to “make Kony famous” in order to bring international attention to his crimes. As well as running an awareness campaign, which includes screening their films and producing street art in a fashion not too dissimilar to the “zeitgeist movement”, they have been lobbying for direct American military intervention in Uganda.
In 2010, the US government sent troops to Uganda to help Museveni track down Kony, a move lobbied for and supported by Invisible Children. Invisible Children were invited to the Oval Office to watch the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 signed into law. The act pledges $10,000,000 a year to the Museveni government for “justice initiatives”. (See here and here.)
The charity has also been paying CEO Ben Keesey, and co-founders Jason Russell and Laren Poole $90,000 a year salaries on top of their expenses. The charity has a net worth of almost $6,500,000 according to their accounts on charity navigator. (See here.)
According to Invisible Children’s own reply to criticism of their finances, over $1.4 million a year of the money donated to them goes into “management and administration”, on top of the money spent producing films and so on. Compared to other charities which focus on aid to relieve suffering in Africa, Invisible Children puts a relatively small amount of the net cash-flow from its publicity activities into helping people on the ground.
Who is Yoweri Museveni?
Yoweri Museveni has been the President of Uganda since 1986. Under the leadership of Museveni the Ugana army (UPDF) was actively involved in the Second Congolese War – the deadliest conflict in modern African history – in which an estimated 4 to 8 million people were killed. During the conflict Museveni recruited child soldiers himself. He aided the Tutsi against the Hutu in the brutal and sanguinary Rwandan civil war that killed almost a million people. More recently Museveni supported the 2009 anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda that would see members of the LGBT community imprisoned for life for the crime of “homosexuality” and killed for “aggravated homosexuality”. He spouted homophobic bile on Ugandan national television until the West threatened to withdraw aid from Uganda over the bill.
The “Invisible Children” campaign has attracted hundreds of thousands of socially conscious and caring people who want to end horrible suffering. But it has done this by presenting a simplified, incomplete and ahistorical narrative. The campaign educated people about the horrors of Joseph Kony, but nudged them into unwittingly taking sides with a man who is little better than Joseph Kony. And it also nudged them into taking sides in a wider, regional sectarian conflict rooted in the legacy of colonialism.
In the mid-19th century European powers established colonial rule in Africa to exploit Africa’s natural resources – though they had been terrorising Africa with the slave trade long before this. In central Africa this was done primarily by Belgium, Britain, and Germany.
In Rwanda, in the period before it was colonised, there were two groupings, the Hutu, who were cultivators, and the Tutsi, who were pastoralists. The Tutsi and the Hutu shared the same language, food, religion and culture. When Germany, and later Belgium, colonised Rwanda they artificially separated the two groups, permitting only the Tutsi to be educated and hold positions in the colonial government, creating massive tension between the two groups.
After the Second World War, Rwanda became a UN Trust under Belgian administration. The Belgians switched sides and started supporting the Hutu. In 1959 the Rwandan Revolution began when Tutsi assaulted a Hutu politician. The revolution killed tens of thousands of Tutsi and drove hundreds of thousands more into exile in Uganda. They were kept in appalling conditions in refugee camps operated by Milton Obote, who was the Prime Minister of Uganda at the time. Obote tried to conduct a census of all refugees in Uganda and classify them as a new ethnic group to prevent them from ever holding office.
This census was interrupted in 1971 by the coup of Idi Amin. Some Tutsi joined Idi Amin’s security forces, while others joined Museveni and the FNS, to overthrow Amin. This culminated in the Tanzania-Ugandan war in the late 70s that overthrew Amin and returned Obote to power. Then, still backed by the Tutsi, Museveni formed the NRA and took part in the Ugandan Bush War against Obote and the UNLA. Museveni won and was made president in 1986. The war killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Back in Rwanda, a Hutu called Juvenal Habyarimana, had become president in 1973. In the 1980s, the price of coffee and tin – Rwanda’s primary exports – fell dramatically on the world market, causing the collapse of the Rwandan tin industry and threw the country into economic crisis. The IMF imposed austerity on the country between 1990 and 1992, slashing the public spending budget by 40% and devaluing the Rwandan Franc twice. This caused the education and healthcare system to collapse, pushed the price of fuel and food through the roof, caused severe malnutrition, and caused farmers to uproot 300,000 coffee trees to plant food crops. The initial crisis in the late 1980s had caused many Tutsi and Hutu to unite for the first time since the colonial period to fight the government, the IMF, and the conditions that capitalism and colonialism had created.
But this all changed when, in 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF) abandoned their posts in Uganda and moved into Rwanda. The Hutu government responded by whipping up ethnic tensions and calling for the massacre of the Tutsi. In 1992, after two and a half years of fighting, Habyarimana bowed to international pressure and signed the Arusha Accords, declaring a ceasefire and agreeing to a Tutsi and Hutu power-sharing government.
Then in 1993 Habyarimana died when his plane was shot down. This triggered an outright massacre of Tutsi, amounting to genocide. Almost a million people were killed. The Hutu forces were effectively supported by the French, and the Tutsi RPF by Museveni and Uganda.
After the genocide, millions of Hutu fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo – then Zaire – to escape retaliation from the Tutsi. They formed the Rassemblement Républicain pour la Démocratie au Rwanda (RDR) and began attacking Rwanda from Zaire. In retaliation the RPF, led by Tutsi Paul Kagame, supported the Ugandan Army and the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, to overthrow the corrupt, brutal, nationalist dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, renowned for torturing and murdering hundreds of thousands of people and embezzling $5 billion from Zaire, and started the First Congolese War. The AFDL and the RPF were successful in overthrowing Mobutu, and Kabila became President of Zaire in 1997, renaming it the Democratic Republic of Congo, and appointing some of his Rwandan-Tutsi allies as ministers in his government.
Many of the Congolese opposed Rwandan involvement in government, so Kabila replaced them with native Congolese and expelled the Ugandans and Rwandas from the DRC. The Tutsi RPF then agitated the remaining Tutsi and anti-Kabila forces in the DRC in 1998 in order to defeat the Hutu RDR which was still conducting raids on Rwanda from the DRC. The uprising started the Second Congolese War. The Ugandan Army, commanded by Museveni, invaded the DRC along with six other African countries, and the war lasted until 2003, killing an estimated eight million people.
The DRC is still plagued by militia conflict. Kony’s LRA is one of a number of militias in the area, and often the official armies act not very differently from militias.
What’s wrong with the Kony2012 Campaign?
Invisible Children are right in wanting to stop Joseph Kony. But they propose to do that by taking sides with Museveni and successfully lobbying for $10 million a year in US aid for “justice initiatives”. They are helping to arm and fund one side in a regional conflict. But the evidence is that, in this conflict, those with the best interests of the local people at heart would do best to avoid taking sides and instead to seek to help the building of peace and a workable civil society.
The US government also, for its own reasons, wants stability in Africa, especially in mineral-rich Congo, and has in the past sent troops to try to hunt down Kony. We would surely not have mourned Kony if the US troops had found him; but equally we should not congratulate the US government for steps which it took in its own narrow interests and in its own way, and which it took well before Invisible Children gained its huge internet success.
The US military found it difficult to track down Kony, as they also found it difficult to track down Osama bin Laden. It is very unlikely now that the US, or any other country, will mount a bigger military intervention. The US government reckons that the LRA is much weaker than in previous years. The US government does not want an intervention that will give it another “Afghanistan” in Africa, or another "Somalia", and we should be glad of that rather than regretting it.
The Kony2012 campaign assume that change can only come from above - by US military intervention, or US military aid to the Ugandan government - and ignores the possibilities of social change and justice driven by movements “from below” of the people in the area.
All too often – from the Belgian commandos in the Congo crisis to the French involvement in the Rwandan genocide, or the USA's intervention in Somalia – big-power intervention has been shaped by the narrow interests of the big powers, and worsened or played on local conflicts rather than resolving them.
How do we organise to change the world?
Briefly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Hutu and Tutsi workers and farmers came together because they realised that they shared more in common with each other than they did with the sectarian militias, or Museveni, or the US, or the IMF. In that brief moment, the sectarian conflict nurtured by colonialism and perpetuated by armed militias in a struggle for power was forgotten to defend working people against the devastation and barbarism of a capitalist crisis, of the IMF, and of leaders who lined their own pockets through cronyism and corruption.
We should look to and seek to help the working class of Uganda and central Africa as the agency to subdue and stop sectarian conflict, rather than taking sides with factions in that sectarian conflict.
Uganda has a labour movement. The Central Organisation of Free Trade Unions in Uganda (COFTU) estimates that one million of the thirteen million workers are unionised, and the National Organisation of Trade Unions in Uganda (NOTU) places this figure at several million.
As we saw in the early 1990s in Rwanda and more recently with the general strike in Nigeria it is possible to mobilise workers in the most precarious working conditions and against the odds of an economic crisis.
It is only though solidarity with the workers of central Africa, and the world, that we will change the conditions of poverty, ruthless exploitation by multinational corporations, and looting by local crony-capitalists, which create the basis for militias like Kony’s.
See also visiblechildren.tumblr.com and links from that site.