Critics say 'Kony 2012' video distorts fight against Lord's Resistance Army

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 8, 2012 

NAIROBI, Kenya — If you haven't yet seen the viral "Kony 2012" video yet, you could soon be in the minority.

The half-hour film urging sustained U.S. military support against an elusive Ugandan war criminal was posted to YouTube on March 5, and by Thursday it had captured more than 36 million views, with Twitter and Facebook feeds bursting with reaction to the film.

The non-profit behind the campaign, Invisible Children, is hoping to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army and an indicted war criminal who is regarded by some activists as an embodiment of evil.

But the film has irked many intimate with the conflict. They charge it oversimplifies a complex war and they take issue with the group's 1-2-3 solutions.

"The war was more than just an evil man killing children. The war is much more complex than just one man named Joseph Kony," Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire, who covered the conflict in northern Uganda, said in a response to the video posted to YouTube.

"This is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero by rescuing African children," she said.

Most of the footage in the video is several years old. Kony's band long ago stopped fighting in Uganda and instead is terrorizing the populations of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

The video urges Americans to keep up the pressure on U.S. politicians to support the deployment of 100 special forces troops who've recently landed in Africa to advise local armies on the hunt for Kony.

In the YouTube video, Americans are told that in order to save the children Kony abducts to turn into child soldiers and sex slaves, the U.S. needs to give more military aid to the Ugandan forces chasing him.

"The Ugandan military has to find (Kony). In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle," the video's narrator proclaims.

The problem with that is that the Ugandan military is not clean of human rights abuses itself, and some doubt its resolve to finish the war.

"Some say (Ugandan President Yoweri) Museveni has done his best for 20 years to not catch Kony," Jean-Sebastien Munie, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Central African Republican, said in a January interview in the capital, Bangui. He pointed out that not everyone agreed with the U.S. that the military solution was the answer.

He was referring to a popular conspiracy theory that Museveni and his generals — reaping the benefits of U.S. military support and foreign plunder — have purposefully failed to rein in Kony, who is not believed to have stepped foot on Ugandan soil for years.

Also problematic: The Ugandan military is hardly a great crusader for justice that the film portrays.

In the town of Obo, where the U.S. soldiers have a base, some locals say the Ugandans already have overstayed their welcome.

A local chief, Bassire Moke, described how one day the Ugandan commander in town burst into his home, raging drunk, waving a pistol, demanding his 18-year-old daughter.

Eventually, the commander was restrained by other Ugandans. But Moke still bitterly recalls the day, wondering "who sold our land and gave it to the Ugandans."

Invisible Children has responded to the criticisms on its website with a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal.

"We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army," the group said, but it argued that the only feasible way to stop Kony was through coordinating with regional governments.

The group also said it offers means for supporters "to go deeper" in learning about the Lord's Resistance Army, calling the video a "first entry point" into the conflict for many.

"In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format," the group said. In the 30-minute video, "many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked."

Even if most Americans had never heard of the organization, Invisible Children and other anti-Kony activists already have proven successful at advancing their cause, pushing Congress to pass a law requiring a new plan to end the LRA and then the Obama administration to follow through with U.S. boots on the ground.

Despite the criticisms the group's approach has attracted, a McClatchy correspondent in January found that locals in southeastern Central African Republic are so overjoyed at the U.S. deployment that they have created songs in celebration and eagerly talk about the expected end of Kony's grip of terror.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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