Kony 2012

LRA leader Joseph Kony

**Note: This post was written a week ago, prior to the unfortunate mental breakdown of Jason Russell, the co-founder and producer of the Invisible Children organization who produced the 'Kony 2012' video. I hesitated in posting this because I didn't want to appear insensitive to his situation. Obviously, there has been an enormous amount of pressure on him since this video has received world-wide attention and critique from millions, including government officials right up to the presidents of countries. I have no reason to question his motives in producing this - from everything I've read he appears to be genuinely concerned about the people affected by the LRA and doing his best to help. However, in my opinion, it is fair to evaluate the methods he's using to try to help - just as we should be evaluating all relief and development efforts made by the West in the developing world given the long history of problems created by some of those efforts.

As you can imagine, a number of people have been asking us for our opinion on the new 'Kony 2012' campaign being launched by the California-based organization, Invisible Children. As of this post, it had been viewed by over 85 million people on YouTube. So last night, Alisha and I watched the 30-minute online video (watch it here) after reading dozens of opinions of the film from news outlets and friends of ours still in Uganda. Anyway, I thought I'd respond here so I could point people somewhere as more people ask.
We of course have read and heard all about Joseph Kony during our time living in Uganda (Jan '08 to Jun '10). We knew many Ugandans who were misplaced from their homes and now living in Kampala because of the wrath and destruction he spread. Though he sees himself as a messianic-style leader with purported direct access to God, a look at his resume reveals quite a different picture. He has devastated many lives in Northern Uganda over the past two decades and continues his reign of terror in other parts of Central Africa, albeit on a much smaller scale now due in part to the countries in the region finally standing up to him and his brutal activities. But upon even closer inspection, you will find that he has been closely tied to the greater geo-political situation in Uganda for a long time.
For years, it's suspected that the Ugandan government and military essentially ‘looked away’ from Kony's activities because they were receiving millions of dollars in aid to fight him. They would plan military intervention one after another that was promised to once and for all get rid of the brutal madman, only for Kony to be tipped off at the last minute and ‘barely escape’. (As a side note, the Ugandan military is actually pretty strong in the region -they have a few fighter jets, helicopters, and regularly send troops around the region to help in various conflicts. So, their inability to capture Kony for so many years is more than puzzling and has led to the suspicions that perhaps they didn’t want to capture him - presumably so they wouldn’t lose the millions of dollars in aid money to fight him.)

Well, while we were there in December of 2009, they finally felt the pressure from the people and other countries, so the militaries of Uganda, DRC and Sudan joined together on a mission to kill or capture Kony. In the raid, many leader's of the LRA (Kony’s group – the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’) were in fact killed. However, once again, one of the military generals tipped Kony off and he was able to escape with a small group of soldiers. (At the time, it was announced that the Uganda military general involved in the leak was to be brought up on charges, though I never heard if that actually happened or not.)
Since then, he has not returned to Uganda, spending most of his time in CAR (Central African Republic) but traveling around into Southern Sudan and the northern tip of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo – formerly Zaire). He’s still up to his brutal tricks, kidnapping children to turn the boys into soldiers and girls into sex slaves for his soldiers, though on a much smaller scale than before. It’s been suggested that he’s operating under the cover of the government of CAR, but that’s just one of many suspicions arising out of the fact that it is difficult to figure out what is happening in the remote jungles of East Africa.

Anyway, in October of 2011, the US sent 100 troops to Uganda to help with coordinating the effort to capture or kill Kony. They are not serving in a combat role, but rather operate in an advisory capacity from the major cities in the region (such as Kampala, where we lived) to the Ugandan military. There hasn't been any public updates since they were mobilized.

My initial impression of this new ‘Kony 2012’ movement by the Invisible Children (IC) people is definitely mixed. I have always felt that once their movement gained traction and notoriety, there were signs that the movement became as much about the movement itself rather than the situation they were trying to help. Of course, who am I to determine their motives, but looking at how the funds were being used made you wonder what the overall goal was and how the spending practices were justified if those goals were targeted to a solution to the problem.
While we were living in Uganda, we still heard stories of the IC people holding rallies back in the US to ‘raise awareness’ about the crisis in Northern Uganda, even though the crisis (in Uganda) had ended a few years before. Not to say that they didn’t still do some good, but I always felt that they were being a little disingenuous in raising money by reporting on a ‘crisis’ that had ended years earlier, even if the end goal was the noble effort of helping support the people in the aftermath. It's easy to do this in development work and even ministry - cherry-picking the extreme or 'sexy' aspects of a situation without telling the full story in order to garner attention and support. I think Christian ministries (or at least the ones I'm aware of) are typically good about maintaining integrity in such situations.

So fast forwarding to this new ‘Kony 2012’ movement, my first instinct was definitely peppered with plenty of skepticism. When I first heard of the video (it was just released on March 5th), I read a post written by a good friend of mine named Jeff who lives with his family in Uganda (read it here). Jeff is our age and has lived in Uganda for over 10 years now I believe. I do trust his insight and on the ground perspective, though I don’t know that I can whole-heartedly endorse everything he says in his post. However, I do think it’s a very worthwhile post on the subject to read and consider, and I have a lot of respect for Jeff as a person.

So, having said all of that, I do think that the issue of kidnapping and creating child soldiers is one of the great atrocities of our time. Having just traveled to Sierra Leone twice, I am keenly aware of the devastation it causes. In the past few months I've read a couple of books about the war in Sierra Leone of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and the rebel group there (the 'RUF') really popularized the idea of creating and using child soldiers to fight their war. They would kidnap them, beat and starve them, then train them in weaponry and finally force them to kill their own families to desensitize them to killing. They also kept them doped up high on cocaine and pot and speed, and showed them all kinds of violent and pornographic movies as they moved through the countryside terrorizing people. Kids as young as 8 and 9 committing rape, murder and all sorts of mutilations – it's just an unthinkable crime against humanity. So anything that can be done to stop it is worthwhile, whether or not it’s a ‘Christian’ organization (IC is not a Christian organization, though I have no idea of what their individual spiritual beliefs are).

So, in my mind, whether or not ‘Kony 2012’ is at least in part simply out to make themselves a continually viable organization is definitely an issue, but not necessarily 'the' issue. The real debate is (or should be) about whether or not this movement will help or hinder capturing Joseph Kony (my friend Jeff seems to indicate in his post that it will hinder it). In my mind, I really have no idea, but I do know that plenty of well-intentioned relief and development efforts of the past have oftentimes made things worse.
Here's one more perspective I pulled off another friend from Uganda's Facebook page. I don't know the person who wrote this personally, but I do know that she has lived and worked in East Africa for years. Again, I don't endorse everything that is said here, but I think it raises a number of difficult issues about this situation that must at least be considered. The author writes her reasons why she is concerned about IC and the new Kony video:
"...The current LRA (operating in South Sudan, CAR and DRC) is probably only a few hundred strong. Second, their (IC's) sabre-rattling is dangerous: it emphasises a military solution – and specifically a US-aided military solution – which both justifies US military presence in Uganda and fails to recognize that military solutions against the LRA (with or without US help) have not only failed dismally for almost three decades but have only led to increased suffering. Third, it is impossible to see what this is going to achieve other than raising awareness (and cash) for a self-indulgent group of possibly well-meaning Westerners. It compounds images of a squeaky clean West trying to save darkest Africa, which couldn’t be further from the truth: the West has wreaked havoc in Africa not only through colonialism but through its subsequent meddling and propping up of dictatorial regimes often under the guise of humanitarian aid.
Fourth, it massively overlooks the role played by the government of Uganda in the course of the conflict, which has yet to be investigated. Government forces are accused of having committed numerous crimes against the people of the north during the course of the war, including forcing
hundreds of thousands of Ugandans into so-called ‘protected villages’ where they were unable to support themselves or their families – and where they remained thoroughly unprotected. Fifth, it presents a hugely skewed picture of Uganda. The main issue facing the majority of Ugandans right now is an absence of good governance: Kony is a sideshow, a symptom (albeit a brutal one) of poor governance and the mismanagement of resources over the past decades in which the country has seen over 20 rebel groups operating since Museveni came to power.

The publicity around Kony 2012 might have helped 10 years ago when people on the ground were shouting themselves hoarse to get the world to listen, but it is very hard to see what all this is going to achieve other than to line a few pockets and make a few kids aware of a conflict – whether through awareness-raising or voyeurism I can’t say." (click here to read an article on this general subject by this same author.)

It's a bit harsh for my taste, but I do think the perspective she raises is important to keep in mind while watching the very emotionally-charged film.
So, I guess I should be more specific. Would I be opposed to hanging a poster up - no. Awareness is definitely a worthwhile cause and I think IC has had proven success with this in the past. Ultimately, if people across the globe support the cause of capturing Kony, I think it makes sense that their governments might support it too. But if it came down to whether or not I would give money to the organization, I personally would say no. Doing 'something' is noble even if only in intent, but the history of aid and development (and even mission work) has taught us that it sometimes is NOT better than doing nothing.
So many times Western nations have gone into Africa to help remove a horrible dictator, and in doing so placed an even more ruthless dictator in his place. I think this is the danger that exists in Egypt and Libya right now, but that's another topic for another post!
On the whole, the primary reason I wouldn't give money to IC is because I believe Christians aid and development organizations are the most worthy of supporting and equipping to act in such matters. I think stripping out the gospel (even if it’s just in motivation and not necessarily explicitly evangelistic) from aid work is like going to war without bullets. It’s fighting a battle without the proper tools for battle - or maybe it's better said that it's fighting the wrong battle.
Of course there are plenty of ‘bad’ Christian aid organizations who need to close up shop. But on the whole, my money would go (and does go) to the many solid Christian organizations out there who are not only trying to help the physical conditions of the poor, but also to support the emotional and spiritual needs that are so often integral to the core of the struggle. This bigger picture approach is what is needed in so many situations, and I think the Kony situation is no exception.
Of course, I don't have some brilliant plan of how to end this crisis - I honestly haven't thought much about it (the Kony situation). But at the end of the day, I feel like restoring the earth and its people to a reverent fear and love of God should be the core motivation of every development solution.
So, there you go. It’s a complicated issue. This is obviously just my opinion, which is no better than anyone else's and is by no means the gospel truth. The bottom line is, as the Ugandan government said in a statement released a couple of days ago, any effort to bring Kony to justice is worthwhile. However, it's important that such efforts be based on the full facts of the situation rather than trumped up emotion and Hollywood special effects. I would add that such efforts should also be well-grounded in a biblical worldview that respects all cultures equally, and supports and empowers Africans to resolve their own conflicts in a way that's appropriate and sustainable for Africa.


Ryan Williams said…
well said brother. My thoughts exactly. Good read!
Ryan Williams said…
Well said; My thoughts exactly. Good read!
Sull said…
Hey Brad, thank you for posting this. I started to write something about it too, since many of my friends also asked me about it, but I just never finished since there is always some new point, new "secret" coming out. Anyway, I'll be pointing out this post if you don't mind. I still have something to add, but you definitely think somehow like the way I think.
Once again, thank you.
Sarah said…
Thanks so much for including us on your mailing list. I really enjoy reading your posts.

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