Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign had already succeeded before it exploded over Twitter, Youtube and the blogosphere this week. Intense activism in the United States had already forced Congress to treat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a serious international security and humanitarian concern, passing a bill to that effect in May 2010.
This led to President Obama sending 100 American troops to fight the LRA last October.
They will be part of a mission in which the Ugandan military, supported by the US, is to lead 5,000 troops in an effort to defeat the LRA. This force will operate in the area the size of France in which the LRA roam: north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), southern Central African Republic (CAR), and south-west South Sudan.
This military intervention is the main tangible effect of years of activism by American activists, including Invisible Children, which supports the armed assault. And all those well-meaning tweets in support of #Kony2012 are supporting military intervention against the LRA by the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force (UPDF).
But social media supporters need to be aware of what they are advocating and of the historical, political and economic context in which Invisible Children’s moral imperatives to act are embedded.
It is not an insignificant fact, for example, that the LRA, whilst still carrying out sporadic horrific attacks, are thought to only number 200. On Tuesday, a spokesman from the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) called their recent attacks in the DRC the “last gasp of a dying organisation”.
And crucially, #Kony2012 supporters also need to know the record of the agent that Invisible Children support to stop LRA leader Joseph Kony – the UPDF.
The UPDF’s mission to hunt out Kony will not be the first time a joint assault on the LRA by Uganda, South Sudan and the DRC, backed up by American advisors and technical support, has been attempted.
In December 2008, this coalition launched Operation Lightning Thunder on a LRA camp in Garamba, DRC. The UPDF claimed victory but it was illusory. Due to bad weather, poor coordination between the three militaries, and Kony’s advance knowledge of the looming attacks, only 40 LRA fighters were killed and no leaders were captured. The next month, the LRA launched a string of reprisal attacks on civilians.
Julia Spiegel, a researcher for the Enough Project, told the New York Times that “the operation was poorly planned and poorly executed”. In March 2009, the UPDF withdrew from the DRC.
While many doubt the UPDF’s military efficacy, none can doubt some of its senior officers’ economic efficacy and uncanny ability to turn conflict into profit.
Between 1996 and 2003, the UPDF fought in two wars in the DRC. In the First Congolese War (1996-7), they supported Laurent Kabila’s successful struggle to remove President Mobutu. In the Second Congolese War (1998-2003), they attempted to remove Kabila from that office.
In both wars, senior Ugandan military officials engaged in “military commercialism”.
The second war began in retaliation to Kabila’s demand that Ugandan and Rwandan troops leave the DRC. Pierre Victor Mpoyo, DRC minister for the economy and oil, accused Uganda of smuggling gold, diamonds and timber out of the country.
He was supported by good evidence. In 1997, Ugandan gold exports doubled without a matching increase in domestic production. And in 1998, Uganda exported diamonds without mining any within its borders.
Six days after foreign troops were expelled, Ugandan and Rwandan forces re-entered the country, purportedly in support of the anti-Kabila Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), a rebel group which was hastily formed in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, after the invasion.
This war saw exploitation by UPDF forces on a much more systematic level than the first. Great Lakes academic Sandrine Perrot argues that in the Second Congolese War, military commercialism became “a large scale business of war, led by a military businessmen clique, whose very pillars were the government structures” of Uganda and Rwanda. And according to Perrot and fellow researcher Koen Vlassenroot in their chapter “Ugandan military entrepreneurialism on the Congo border” in African Conflicts and Informal Power, this was “a new type of warfare aimed at maximising profit through military control over resources”.
This commercial warfare was not carried out by rogue elements in the UPDF but by those at the top of Uganda’s military and political establishment. The UN Panel of Experts named James Kazini, head of the UPDF forces in the DRC, Salim Saleh, Uganda President Museveni’s brother, Jovia Akandwanaho, Saleh’s wife, and Kahinda Otafiire, Museveni’s adviser on the DRC, as an “elite network” illegally exploiting Congolese resources.
The same report called Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame “godfathers of illegal exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of conflict in the DRC”. Kazini was described as “the master in the field: the orchestrator, organiser and manager of most illegal activities related to UPDF presence in north and northern-eastern DRC”. To facilitate extraction in Ituri, north-eastern DRC, Kazini used a dangerous ethnic divide-and-rule strategy, favouring the Hema people over the Lendu, the effects of which are still felt today.
Illegal extraction and exporting to Uganda and subsequent re-exportation from Uganda was organised by a series of companies, several of which ran to the heart of Museveni’s inner circle. One such company, the Victoria Group, which has been described as “the most striking structure of exploitation”, counted Saleh, Akandwanaho, and Muhoozi Kainerugabe, the president’s son, as its major shareholders, according to Vlassenroot and Perrot. The Victoria Group’s illegal activities were sanctioned by Kazini.
Invisible Children may be right in calling Uganda's military “more organised and better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”. But if its track record of military commercialism is anything to go by, the UPDF is more likely to prove its organisational skills by extracting wealth from its areas of operation than in removing the LRA without causing greater casualties to surrounding civilians.
Sadly, Invisible Children and all those blessed with sufficient bandwidth to watch, share and support their film, are victims of a major feature in contemporary western ideology. Too often, in a supposedly “post-ideological age”, people in the West are bombarded with injunctions to not think but to act.
#Kony2012 is the latest high-profile example of this dangerous compunction. A sensible analysis would view both the LRA and an UPDF-led intervention as dangerous to the unfortunate people affect by the conflict, living in the border regions of the DRC, CAR and South Sudan. One force will sting like a bee, the other a hornet. Invisible Children and its supporters need to realise this and work out which is which.
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