Ex-child soldier in Uganda reads to his comrades. <br>CREDIT: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/18199113@N02/1986610953/in/photostream/" target=_blank">Robin Yamaguchi </a>
Ex-child soldier in Uganda reads to his comrades.
CREDIT: Robin Yamaguchi

Blind to Reality: Invisible Children and the LRA

Mar 9, 2012

People campaigning for international humanitarian intervention have an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate, ignore context, or engage in historical inaccuracy.

Campaigners—in, say, human rights, international law, or disaster response—are often either blind to nuance or perhaps deliberately ignore it because they feel that it gets in the way of a higher ideal.

For example, actor George Clooney's address on the conflict in Darfur to the UN Security Council in September, 2006 illustrates just how wrong advocates can be.

"Now, my job is to come here today and to beg you on behalf of the millions of people who will die— and make no mistake; they will die—for you to take real and effective measures to put an end to this,"announced Clooney. "Of course it's complex, but when you see entire villages raped and killed, wells poisoned and then filled with the bodies of its villagers, then all complexities disappear and it comes down to simply right and wrong."

Firstly, the complexities never disappear in such cases, no matter how unpleasant the bloodshed. Secondly, those who were skeptical that millions would die in Darfur from 2006 onward were not mistaken. The worst was already over by the time Clooney gave his speech. Violence was at its highest levels from 2003-2005. Since 2006, the conflict in Darfur has decreased and looks nothing like it did at its outset.

Such inaccuracies are evident in the "documentary" by the Invisible Children campaign to defeat the (at this point nominal) Ugandan insurgency, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and to bring its leader, Joseph Kony, to justice.

The LRA/Kony dossier certainly reads like evil personified. Since the late 1980s the organization's objectives have been to overthrow the Ugandan state and, in a macabre irony, institute a system of governance based on the Ten Commandments. The roots of this rebellion are complex, but to summarize, it is rooted in northern Uganda, where the Acholi ethnic group has been marginalized by the government for decades. In the beginning it was here among the Acholi that the LRA found their constituency. However, by the 1990s, the LRA violently lashed out at any population within range, including the Acholi.

The LRA had a devilish modus operandi. They often forced children to kill their relatives and then kidnapped them to serve as slaves (sexual and otherwise) or as foot soldiers. Massacres of entire villages were common, and the amputation of limbs and facial features was an LRA calling card.

It should be noted that at the height of this conflict in the 1990s, the population of northern Uganda suffered enormous brutalization and displacement at the hands of the Ugandan government, as President Yoweri Museveni felt the best policy to root out the LRA was to set up internment camps and conclude that anyone living outside them was a rebel. There is also substantial evidence that for a long time Kampala had little interest in winning the war, as it was a useful tool to both keep down the Acholi and keep military aid coming in.

Between the LRA and the government, Northern Uganda in the 1990s was one of the most violent regions in the world, where civilians, and particularly children, bore the brunt of the abuse.

Operation Lightning/Thunder: A (Not Quite) Resounding Defeat

By the 2000s, the government in Kampala finally concluded it was time to clean house, and in 2008 they agreed to take the lead in Operation Lightning/Thunder (OLT). By this time, the dwindling LRA was occupying a remote area of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with regular forays both into Uganda and neighboring Sudan. The three African nations, with intelligence and material assistance from the United States military, attacked in December 2008. However Kony was tipped off at the last minute, and as a result of varying degrees of military incompetence on behalf of the three neighboring countries, only a portion of the already small LRA force was destroyed.

Despite criticism of OLT in the (often knee-jerk anti-American) blogosphere as a "disaster," by and large OLT was a success. Although they lashed out at several communities in the ensuing months, the LRA were now scattered in all directions. In the last few years they can be defined as small bands of uncoordinated, nihilistic criminals wandering as far afield as the Central African Republic (covering this ground on foot, mind you) with nowhere to go but onward. They engage in carjackings and attack villagers for food and clothing—which has resulted in hundreds of deaths each year since OLT.

As terrible as that is, and as much as efforts should be made to kill or capture the last of the LRA, there are much more significant armed groups in the region that are a far greater threat to human security. One need only to look in Sudan/South Sudan, the eastern DRC, and Somalia to find dozens of far better armed groups in much larger numbers. The LRA have no objectives, no constituency, are few in number, and are no longer a major concern. They're more nuisance than insurgency.

The LRA has long both filled analysts of the region with rage and tugged at the heartstrings. But considering the current state of affairs, those informed about the conflict find it puzzling that it has been taken up as a cause célèbre at this point.

Some argue that the U.S. government's agreement to deploy 100 troops as advisers to the Ugandan military to root out the last LRA stragglers is a worthwhile, low-risk humanitarian intervention. Others contend that it is merely a quid pro quo for Ugandan troops making up the bulk of the African Union force in Somalia—although in my opinion, it's surely more the former. The intervention would be small, and the Ugandan government no longer sees the miniscule LRA as a priority. The collaboration amounts to advisory assistance to clean up loose ends between governments that have worked together on this issue before, nothing more. But because the LRA evokes such emotions due to their past butchery, the initiative made headlines and politicians sought to grandstand on a new achievement.

The Invisible Children organization's film implies that Kony and the LRA are the cause of a major human rights emergency in the world today, which requires intervention in the broadest sense on behalf of the people of northern Uganda. The film barely mentions that what little is left of the LRA have long since been expelled from Uganda. Jason Russell, the founder of Invisible Children, has made clear that such details are reserved for those out-of-touch types who like to deal with facts. "No one wants a boring documentary on Africa...Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool...We view ourselves as the Pixar of human rights stories."

Whether they are longing for justice or (as I suspect) merely youthful amateurs seeking to keep their own organization relevant, Invisible Children's depictions do not reflect current realities. Policymakers are well advised to ignore them—or at least find to adults to explain the holes in their story. Despite their noteworthy campaign, this urgent effort at public awareness—as well as knowledge of the current context—are off by over a decade.

In my opinion, Mr. Russell's is a piece of propaganda to advocate for a cause his organization does not fully understand. Forming simplistic narratives to sell international humanitarian interventions in complicated places is a graveyard with many headstones in recent history—whether such foreign campaigns were genuinely altruistic or ostensibly so—with names such as Somalia, Darfur, Afghanistan, and Iraq featuring prominently.

This is not to suggest that international intervention is never warranted; but if such a route is to be considered, you had better have your facts straight. Promoting a "save the children" storyline (complete with a Joseph Kony awareness bracelet for just $30) to whip up less-than-nuanced public awareness is not only unhelpful; it is dangerous.

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