Ugandan newspaper the Observer reported on March 2 serious allegations against Ugandan troops in the Central African Republic (CAR), where they have been present since 2007, chasing the remnants of the Ugandan militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The allegations include rape, child prostitution, arms dealing and the plunder of CAR’s timber and diamonds.
Similar allegations have been made concerning the Ugandan army’s (the Uganda Peoples Defence Force, UPDF) 1997-2003 intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Observer said.
The UPDF and its predecessor, the National Resistance Army (NRA), have also been accused of human rights abuses in Uganda including the use of child soldiers.
A few days later US “charity” Invisible Children (IC) released the video KONY 2012, which instantly became an internet sensation. IC was established in 2006 by three US filmmakers who had released a documentary the previous year about the atrocities of the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony.
The video demands its viewers “do something” to bring Kony to the International Criminal Court, which indicted him for war crimes in 2005.
The film says its aim is to support the Ugandan military by supporting US military advisers in the country ― justified by the need to capture Kony, who has not been in Uganda since 2006.
Millions have responded, forwarding and retweeting the video and IC’s campaign.
Despite its phenomenal success, the film has received criticism. This includes the narcissism of the film-makers and the exclusion of African voices beyond a few stereotypical victims ― promoting the colonial myth of noble and competent Westerners saving Black African victims from Black African ogres.
The blatant commercialism of the campaign ― “doing something” meaning buying something overpriced from IC ― has also been criticised, especially given the high wages of the three filmmakers and IC’s enormous expenses (more than a million dollars annually on travel), leaving only 30% of the money they raise going to Africa.
Others have criticised the film’s lack of context and inaccuracies. One of these is not making it clear the LRA have not operated in Uganda since 2006 when they were driven out in a US-supported UPDF offensive.
The film shows Kony with thousands of child soldiers behind him, but the LRA is now a remnant, with an estimated 200 remaining fighters.
Furthermore, the focus on a single warlord takes the focus off the many other perpetrators of violence in one of the world’s most violent regions.
This “dumbing down” of the message is more than just patronising to viewers. Most of the millions of people viewing and forwarding the video would be shocked to learn that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government and military, who IC demand are given more arms to “get Kony”, are responsible for the same sort of atrocities as the LRA.
The IC and KONY 2012 explicitly support US military intervention.
When US President Barack Obama announced in October that the US had deployed 100 troops in Uganda, IC was quick to take the credit. It described it as “a huge victory for the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who have been lobbying Washington to take action”.
US military policy is generally not determined by the moral outrage of “thousands of young Americans”. In 2003, millions of people, in the US and around the world, took to the streets fuelled by moral outrage to oppose the invasion of Iraq ― which the US carried out regardless.
The war in Afghanistan is also deeply unpopular in the countries with soldiers helping occupy the country. Yet it continues.
The reality is that a permanent military presence in the Great Lakes region of Africa has been a US policy goal for many years.
The viral spread of KONY 2012 has been aided by prominent and supportive coverage in the mainstream media, celebrity endorsement and bipartisan support from US politicians. The reality is that IC is working to influence young people in the US and other Western countries on behalf of Washington’s war planners, not the other way round.
KONY 2012 portrays the LRA as if it came from nowhere.
In the 1970s, Uganda was ruled by Idi Amin, a tyrant whose regime killed at least 100,000 people. Amin came to power in an Israeli-backed military coup, but switched allegiance to the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
This, along with his personal brutality and eccentricities, made Amin the West's archetype of a psychotic post-colonial dictator.
Having alienated the entire Ugandan political spectrum and launched irrational aggressions against neighbouring countries, Amin was overthrown in 1979 by invading Tanzanian troops and a broad coalition of Ugandan opponents.
Uganda’s nightmare continued, however, as the coalition fractured along ethnic rather than political lines.
Between 1979 and 1986, 500,000 Ugandans were killed in what became known as the Bush War. In January 1986, Museveni’s NRA took the capital, Kampala. Museveni’s predecessor, Tito Okello, was from the Acholi ethnic group from the north, who had been particularly persecuted under Amin.
The invasion of Acholiland and crushing of pro-Okello forces was particularly brutal, even by the standards of the Bush War. The dislocation and resentment this caused led to an armed religious millenarian movement, the Holy Spirit Movement. This was crushed, spawning a number of smaller, more violent, armed religious cults.
One was Kony’s LRA.
The LRA’s brutality alienated the support it initially had in Acholiland, but it retained its influence through terror.
The focus of IC’s propaganda, as its name suggests, is on child soldiers. However, it was Museveni’s NRA that was the first armed group in Uganda to make widespread use of child soldiers. The December 15, 2002 British Sunday Times carried an interview with China Keitetsi, who joined the NRA in 1984, when she was eight years old.
Describing a massacre she took part in, still aged 8, she said: “When we got back to our camp, the prisoners were ordered to dig their own graves and some of our officers told us to spit in their eyes. The enemy was told that no bullets would be wasted on them … They were hit on their foreheads and on the back of their heads [with hoes] until they dropped into the graves and died.”
Before the invasion of Acholiland the NRA had a better reputation than other armed groups with regard to treatment of civilians. However, this created more suffering for the child soldiers. Keitetsi explained: “Museveni wanted us to be different from the government soldiers. If we were caught taking money, we were shot. If we stole food, we were shot ...
“I had to shoot my own friends, for stealing a sweet potato or cassava. That would be the last you saw of your friend, six bullets going into their bodies.”
Keitetsi eventually left the army and fled Uganda because of sexual abuse. She was 12 when she first had to sleep with a much older male soldier.
“It was not once. It was every night. It was an order. It was a duty you had to fulfil. I couldn’t say no.”
Despite having previously professed Marxism, upon taking power Museveni adopted neoliberalism and allied with the US. He has, with US support, become a regional power.
Between 1997 and 2003, Ugandan troops took part in the devastating war in the DRC.
On October 1, 2010, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in which Uganda and its Congolese proxies (who made extensive use of child soldiers) were accused of mass rape, targeted killings of civilians and other crimes against humanity.
IC has repeatedly pointed out that the LRA has killed tens of thousands. But their opponents killed millions in the DRC.
Ugandan soldiers are no longer directly involved, but the war in the DRC continues. Rival militias backed by either Uganda, Rwanda or the DRC’s weak government fight over the ability to use forced labour to mine minerals such as coltan.
The Congo War coincided with a boom in demand for these minerals because of their use in consumer electronics such as mobile phones and personal computers. Most Congolese coltan is exported, by way of Rwanda or Uganda, to the US.
One of several aspects of the KONY 2012 video that has outraged Ugandan commentators is it implies the LRA is still active in Uganda. Even the Ugandan government, which stands to benefit from IC’s campaign, has criticised this aspect.
The US military deployment is clearly not mainly to fight the LRA.
One factor is the recent discovery of oil in Uganda. Also, the focus on working with the UPDF is due to its growing role as a US regional proxy.
Since 2009, Ugandan troops have tried to impose a US-friendly order on Somalia, something not achieved by Ethiopian troops who invaded in December 2006 or a 1992-95 intervention by a US-led multinational force.
More generally, the US is looking for an African nation willing to host the US military command for Africa (AFRICOM), which since its establishment in 2008 has been based in Germany.
Competition for Africa’s resources with China (and to a lesser extent European powers such as France) is behind the US military interest in Africa.
However, fighting al Qaeda, and now the LRA, make more palatable public justifications.
Ugandan blogger Drew Ddembe wrote on March 8: “Today I have listened to lots of questions by really ignorant people! Just because they watched some 5 year old say Kony was a bad guy who made him sad, they believe they now know all about Uganda!
“Kind of like all those people who try to tell you they know all about Uganda ― because they watched the Last king of Scotland.
“This is activism pornography at its best! … Ugandans need to move on with their lives … not this time wasting white messianic crap!
“People need help to get back onto their feet. To fight poverty. To access quality healthcare. America sent 100 US troops into the region not to fight or look for Kony but to safeguard its interests in the region's resources. Let's not delude ourselves!”