Where did Kony come from?

March 22, 2012

David Whitehouse explains the historical background and contemporary political dynamics that the filmmakers left out of the "Kony 2012" video.

THE MESSAGE of the widely viewed "Kony 2012" video and social media campaign is simple: People should support continued U.S. military assistance to the Ugandan regime of Yoweri Museveni to hunt down the African warlord Joseph Kony.

Kony's crimes are definitely hateful. His Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been abducting children to serve as sex slaves and soldiers for more than 20 years. According to the maker of the video, Jason Russell of Invisible Children, Inc., these crimes put Kony in the same ranks as Hitler, so discussing the social and historical context that gave rise to his crimes can only be a distraction from the imperative to "act now."

But where did Kony come from? Is Kony "the problem" in East or Central Africa? The LRA is probably now in the Central African Republic, with 300 or fewer troops, less than one-tenth the force it had in 1994.

What if the conditions that produced Kony are the real problem? If those conditions are left unchanged--or even aggravated by a renewed war against the LRA--then why would the defeat of Kony provide any assurance that there won't be more warlords like him to come?

Ugandan troops on training exercises as U.S. "advisers" look on in the background
Ugandan troops on training exercises as U.S. "advisers" look on in the background (Master Sgt. Ruby Zarzyczny)

Russell, a cheery evangelical Christian who thinks that "fighting genocide" should be "a blast," also leaves out the history and motivation of the other players in his video's slickly produced drama.

Missing is any account of the Ugandan army's own abuses against the civilian population, or how U.S. support for the army fits into a strategy to reassert U.S. influence throughout Africa--and gain favored access to its resources--by cultivating client states like Uganda.

Indeed, the video claims that the eight-year campaign by Invisible Children is the reason that Barack Obama decided last October to send 100 "combat-equipped" forces, along with high-tech surveillance gear, to back up the Ugandan hunt for Kony. It's as if the CIA and the Pentagon didn't already have a policy of training African allies in counterinsurgency. Or as if U.S. interest doesn't apply doubly to states like Uganda that possess untapped oil reserves.

Maybe the most important of Russell's omissions is any suggestion of a positive role for Africans to play in solving their own problems. The only Ugandans portrayed in "Kony 2012" are the "bad guys," their victims or politicians who call for U.S. help. The premise of the video is that "nobody knows" who Kony is, a claim that can only be directed to people who don't live in East or Central Africa.

The people that Invisible Children addresses are, therefore, outside the region, and the only proposed solution to the region's problems is the importation of military equipment and counterinsurgency know-how from the U.S. government. As we look at the story's missing context, we'll see why millions in the region already see counterinsurgency as a bigger problem in their lives than Kony has been.

KONY COMES from the Acholi-speaking population, located mostly in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. He may be one of the strangest rebel leaders to come from the Acholis--believing that he has a direct link to God and is on a mission to extend the writ of the Ten Commandments--but he's not the first.

In the late 1980s, the Acholis started to resist military occupation of their land by the army of Yoweri Museveni, who first took over as president of Uganda in 1986 following years of struggle among the diverse forces that brought down the dictator Idi Amin in 1979.

The roots of this military occupation really go back to the way the British set up Uganda's power structure in the colonial period.

As Western powers were doing in other colonies, the British focused their attention on economic development, in locations that could serve as gateways for the export of Africa's wealth. In Uganda, this meant the southern part of the country and its capital Kampala were the center of power, a situation that continued when Uganda gained independence in 1962.

In the marginalized parts of the colonies, the British and others looked for tribes and chiefs--or invented these categories where they couldn't find them--as a means of imposing indirect rule in the hinterland. On top of local traditions, they superimposed a new system of chiefs, hired and paid to serve as local Black enforcers of colonial rule.

As Ugandan leftist scholar Mahmood Mamdani notes in the book Citizen and Subject, the new chiefs had much more absolute power over their subjects than any previous African tradition had allowed. In addition to collecting taxes for the colonial overlords, the chiefs helped themselves to the proceeds of forced labor among their own "tribesmen"--and, crucially, in northern Uganda, delivered conscripts to serve in the colonial army.

While some rural Acholis and other northerners were ground into poverty under the chiefs' exactions, the rest became a virtual occupational caste defined by their role as soldiers.

The tribalization of politics and the ethnic division of labor continued after decolonization, since the new independent state was built on the economic and political structures left behind by the British.

After the fall of dictator Idi Amin in 1979, the opposition was fractured, partly along tribal lines. The dominance of northerners in the army reached its peak in mid-1985, when Acholi Gen. Tito Okello took power in a coup. Just half a year later, the southern-based National Resistance Army (NRA) of Museveni defeated Okello and shattered his army, much of which fled in disarray into the north.

Museveni's troops pursued them and occupied the lands of the Acholis and Langos, who had also played a significant role in the army. The defeat was a devastating blow to northern populations, whose connection to military employment had provided some relief from rural misery and underdevelopment.

In 1986, some northern fighters regrouped in the Acholi-speaking region of South Sudan to form the Uganda People's Democratic Army (UPDA). In response, Museveni's NRA mounted a crushing counterinsurgency campaign that defeated the UPDA within two years and intensified repression of northern civilians.

It is in this context--the despair born of defeat and occupation--that the millenarian Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Auma arose.

Fired by Auma's religious visions of redemption, Acholi armed forces again regrouped and drove south to within 60 miles of Kampala in October 1987, according to Gérard Prunier's Africa's World War. The NRA's superior firepower drove them back, and Auma was wounded. When she fled to Kenya, the movement almost collapsed, until Kony started to claim that he had religious visions of his own.

His group, later known as the LRA, kept a small guerrilla war going in northern Acholi areas from 1988 to 1993, according to Prunier. At this point, it was widely acknowledged that the LRA and the NRA both made use of child soldiers, as Museveni had begun to put most of the Acholi population under conditions of lockdown. As recently as 2005, the United Nations reaffirmed that both forces used child soldiers.

THE LRA might have languished and collapsed with scant support near the Sudanese border except for regional political shifts brought on by the end of the Cold War.

For most of the 1980s, the U.S. backed the Sudanese government against a longstanding rebellion in the south of Sudan. Chevron discovered oil in South Sudan in 1978, and the USSR-backed Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Maryam was supporting rebels in the south, grouped into the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), in their bid for autonomy and a share of the oil wealth.

With their eyes on this oil and the "communist threat" posed by the rebels, the Reagan administration supported Sudanese counterinsurgency in the south, even when the regime used scorched-earth tactics against rebellious tribes and took slaves for sale in the north.

A coup in 1989, however, shifted the Sudanese regime in a more radical Islamist direction--culminating in Sudanese opposition to the 1991 U.S. war against Iraq. At the same time, the Soviet Union and its Ethiopian client were both in the process of collapse, so the U.S. no longer needed Sudan as a counterweight to Soviet regional influence.

The SPLA rebels lost their main source of support when Mengistu fell, and the southern movement splintered, allowing forces of the Sudanese government forces to drive south to the Ugandan border.

When they met up there with Kony in mid-1993, the LRA was down to about 300 poorly armed fighters. With the help of the Sudanese regime, Kony expanded his forces to 2,000 well-equipped troops by the following March, according to Prunier. Their mandate was to harass the Museveni regime, which had started to support the SPLA in southern Sudan.

With Mengistu gone and the U.S. alliance with Sudan ended, George H.W. Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, set out to cultivate a new network of client states in the region. One effort--a disastrous attempt to occupy Somalia and install a U.S.-friendly regime in 1993-94--came at the same time that Clinton began to bolster ties with Museveni, whose left nationalist anti-imperialist rhetoric had put off Reagan and Bush.

The fact that U.S. policymakers switched sides in Sudan's civil war and swung toward Museveni is an accident of Cold War history and regional power politics, and nothing to do with principles. Considering that the U.S. tolerated slave-raiding in the 1980s, it most likely would have joined the Sudanese regime in backing Kony against Museveni if the timing had been different.

In response to the revival of the LRA insurgency, Museveni intensified repressive measures against civilians. In the mid-1990s, the NRA forcibly relocated most rural Acholis to concentration camps amid allegations of summary executions and the destruction of entire villages, as Mahmood Mamdani noted in a recent article on Pambazuka.org.

In the same period, Museveni was imposing a "structural adjustment" program mandated by the International Monetary Fund. From 1988 to 1995, the Ugandan economy grew by 40 percent, but economic growth in rural areas, where most Acholis lived, was only 4 percent in the same period. What's more, the campaign for privatization allowed richer peasants to prosper "at the expense of the rural poor," as Mamdani noted in Citizen and Subject.

In 2003, when Jason Russell and the other founders of Invisible Children first visited Northern Uganda, nearly 1 million Acholis were interned in the camps. By 2005, 1.8 million Acholi and Langos were interned, according to Mamdani.

In the "Kony 2012" video, Russell notes that the LRA was still actively abducting child soldiers and committing murder and mutilation at the time of his 2003 visit. But he leaves out the rest of the picture: Government-imposed internment in the same area was killing 1,000 Acholis every week, a fact admitted by the Ugandan government's own ministry of health.

But not Russell. Exposing the crimes of the Museveni government would apparently have interfered with Invisible Children's portrayal of Ugandan troops as the "good guys" who are still in pursuit of the evil Kony.

Recently, the Social Science Research Council of New York accused these "good guys" of "atrocities against civilians in Central African Republic while on [their] mission to fight Joseph Kony in the LRA," as Mamdani wrote for Pambazuka. The charges--which include rape, promotion of prostitution and the looting of local resources--are an echo of similar charges about the behavior of the Ugandan army in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1997 to 2003.

FAR FROM being the result of lobbying pressure by Invisible Children, U.S. assistance to Museveni's 26-year regime is part of a broader effort to reassert U.S. influence in Africa, and to open access to its energy, mineral and ecological resources following a period of Western neglect.

At the end of the Cold War, many African states suffered a double blow. The first--already ongoing before the collapse of the USSR--was a Western-imposed program of structural adjustment that sent dozens of African economies plunging backwards. In the few places where the programs "worked" to boost economic growth, they widened the gap between rich and poor.

The second was the withdrawal of aid and attention from both the West and the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s. States that had depended on superpower patronage began to collapse, and regional insurgencies, which might have been crushed or bought off with superpower help in earlier years, began to tear sub-Saharan Africa apart.

Today, with the rise of new rivals to U.S. hegemony, China the most notable among them, U.S. policymakers are hatching plans for economic and military reinsertion into Africa--largely on a "humanitarian" pretext of shoring up weak states that they left in the lurch just two decades ago.

Islamist radicalism is one excuse for intervention, but the crimes of a warlord like Kony will do in other cases.

The new scheme for U.S. military action in Africa goes back at least to 2002, when George W. Bush helped reshape the pacifist Organization of African Unity into today's African Union (AU), a body that has pushed neoliberal economic reform and the creation of the continental police force.

In fact, the AU has functioned as a U.S. proxy force, because AU military troops are capable of deployment only with U.S. help. When AU peacekeepers from Rwanda were sent to Darfur, they got there in U.S. transport planes, and the whole AU contingent in Darfur lives in quarters provided by the CIA-connected U.S. contractor DynCorp.

The latest attempt to install a U.S.-friendly Somali government has followed the scheme of using African proxies--Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in late 2006, assisted by U.S. Special Forces on the ground and U.S. Navy ships offshore. Ethiopia was receiving $500 million of U.S. assistance yearly at the time of the invasion.

The first "neutral" AU forces to enter Somalia to protect the new government were 1,500 Ugandan troops under the AU flag, who had trained with the U.S. for a year before embarking on the mission. Last year, U.S. aid to Uganda was more than $600 million. Just last fall, another U.S. ally, Kenya, carried out its own invasion of southern Somalia.

U.S. assistance to the region's military machines is nothing new, and it certainly wasn't the brain child of Invisible Children, Inc. Like the colonial period before it, today's expanding neocolonial operations promise to create an ever-widening circle of African suffering.

People in the United States who wish to express solidary with ordinary Africans should do the opposite of what "Kony 2012" asks us to do. We need to reverse U.S. imperial policies of looting and repression, whether carried out firsthand or by local proxy forces. "Kony 2012" asks us to provide a humanitarian cover for intensifying these crimes.

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