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Northern Ugandans Criticize NGO's 'Kony 2012' Campaign

In this Nov. 12, 2006 file photo, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony answers journalists' questions following a meeting with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland at Ri-Kwamba in southern Sudan.
In this Nov. 12, 2006 file photo, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony answers journalists' questions following a meeting with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland at Ri-Kwamba in southern Sudan.

Although Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video is stirring up debate around the world, few in northern Uganda - the region most affected by Lord’s Resistance Army violence - have even seen the online video. But many of those who have are critical of the campaign's message.

"Kony 2012" teaser from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

By now, millions of people have seen Kony 2012, an online video made by the NGO Invisible Children about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The more people see the film, the more controversial it is becoming - as many accuse the film makers of arrogance and oversimplification.

Mostly unseen in Uganda

But in northern Uganda, the region most affected by Kony’s reign of terror, very few people have seen Kony 2012. Internet access is poor, and the half-hour video requires more bandwidth than most can afford.

Among those who have seen it, the reaction has not been positive. When a charity tried screening Kony 2012 in the northern town of Lira on Tuesday, it nearly caused a riot as the crowd erupted in anger at footage of white American men calling to “make Kony famous.” Future screenings had to be cancelled.


Macleord Baker Ochola, a former bishop and member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative has spent years working toward peace and reconciliation in the north. He has not yet seen the video. But he says he has heard about Kony 2012, and is unhappy that such a film has been released now, seven years after Kony and his rebel group left Uganda.

“Where were those people when people were dying in the hundreds and thousands?" he asked. "The problem is that so many people have lost their lives here, and their properties, when the world was just looking on, including the U.S. Now they come and they say they are going to do justice for those people. I don’t think they will be happy that the world is coming now.”

Invisible Children recently released a video response to the controversy surrounding the organization and its tactics. In it, CEO Ben Keesey argues that it is not too late to mount a campaign against Kony. In fact, he says, right now it is more important than ever.

“There has to be a massive amount of individuals, and citizens of the world, that are invested in that successful outcome, that are asking their leaders to do more, to do what it takes," said Keesey. "Especially since the LRA is in a weakened state, if we can rally now and get our governments to support the regional effort, we can disarm the LRA once and for all.”

Take focus off Kony

But Stephen Oola, a lawyer with the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project, disagrees. Oola is from Gulu, a town in northern Uganda that was hit hard by the LRA, and his organization works with displaced Ugandans trying to rebuild their lives. He says it is a mistake to focus on removing Kony, since the region’s problems are much more complex.

“Kony did not start that rebellion, and that is where the context is missing," noted Oola. "It was started by ex-soldiers who were pushed out of power. So who are we to think that taking out Kony wouldn’t bring another Kony? For the campaign to portray the issue as Kony vs. humanity is to miss the point. It’s a bigger political problem, and something we have been struggling with in this country.”

The people of northern Uganda are not looking for the kind of international military action Invisible Children is trying to rally, says Oola, a fact that the video’s makers blithely ignore.

“Couldn’t they consult? Couldn’t they include some local voices? People on the ground do not buy the messages, and they don’t want that help," he said. "Even if Invisible Children thought they were helping, that is not the help people want.”

People in the north are not only angry with the LRA, says Oola, but also against the Ugandan government, who are accused of committing atrocities as well. The kind of justice people want, he says, has to involve a dialogue between the two.

“They want to see a broader process, one that provides some kind of engagement between the different parties, allows the people also to understand what was motivating them," he added. "Until we engage in a process that allows the country to sit down at a table and say, ‘what went wrong, and how can we deal with it?’ there will be no justice.”

LRA on the move

The United States has a patchy record of military intervention in Central Africa. Previous U.S.-led campaigns against Kony have failed, and some, such as Operation Lightning Thunder in 2008, led to massacres as the LRA took revenge on the civilian population.

The LRA is no longer in Uganda, having moved into the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. But apart from the danger to civilians, sending soldiers across the border to fight the LRA rebels themselves can be a morally hazardous proposition, says Ochola.

“In the LRA we have people from Central African Republic," he said. "Are they going to harm those people, or kill them? Those are innocent people who have been forced by the LRA. What are you going to do with them? Are you going to destroy them also, for one person?”

But Ochola says the video is right about one thing. People in the CAR and South Sudan are suffering, he says, and something has to be done to stop it.

“What LRA did here they have been doing in Southern Sudan for the last three years," he said. "Governments and international communities should go and help these people who are suffering there. They should be helped, humanitarian support given to them. If it is possible to disrupt Kony from killing them, do it now in the name of Northern Uganda.”

Oola maintains that if anyone is going to solve the LRA problem, it is not the international community. If northern Uganda is peaceful today, he adds, it is because of local leaders like Ochola, who have dedicated their lives to reuniting their country.