The Fallout from Kony 2012

Did the Kony 2012 documentary do more harm than good?

The biggest African news story last week did not come out of Africa but rather from the San Diego offices of an advocacy group. Invisible Children last Tuesday released a thirty-minute video calling for the capture of fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. What followed was an awesome display of the power of social media as the mainly youthful fans mobilized their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to push the Kony 2012 documentary, attracting the attention and endorsements of various mononymous celebrities like Oprah, Diddy and Rihanna. Just over the weekend, the video garnered more than 70 million views on YouTube alone.

The viral campaign has undeniably been successful in focusing attention on Kony. Whether that notoriety will translate into his being brought to justice remains to be seen—as does the impact social media has on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in an increasingly interconnected world.

Who is Joseph Kony?

Even set among the rogues’ gallery of despots, warlords and other misfits who have bedeviled postcolonial Africa, Kony stood out for his bizarreness and brutality. A former altar boy and high-school dropout who had briefly apprenticed for a local witch doctor, he founded the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda in 1987.

While the LRA drew some of its initial recruits from groups which had either been defeated by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in his rise to power or otherwise felt marginalized by the government, it never really advanced any ideological vision or articulated a political program. It was held together by brute force and terror—most of its “soldiers” were abducted children who were forced to carry out atrocities as part of their “initiation”—along with Kony’s messianic fantasies (he claimed to channel spirits and dabbed “holy” shea nut oil on his combatants to shield them from bullets).

Over the years, the LRA is estimated to have forcibly pressed as many as seventy-five thousand children into its ranks, the boys to serve as combatants or porters, the girls to be given as “wives” to fighters who had proven their loyalty. The group has been responsible for the murder and rape of tens of thousands of men, women and children across the middle of Africa and the displacement of over 1.5 million in northern Uganda alone. These horrors made Kony the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity and earned the LRA a designation as a “terrorist group” by the United States.

While efforts by the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and others have significantly weakened the LRA in recent years, Kony repeatedly eluded capture by escaping over the multiple borders in the region, and the group has enjoyed support from Sudanese authorities in Khartoum, which saw LRA attacks as a way to retaliate against neighboring countries for their support of South Sudan’s ultimately successful push for independence.

Kony and U.S. Interests

Between the atrocities committed by his fighters and the despicable bedfellows Kony has cozied up to during the LRA’s decades-long romp across central Africa, it is no wonder that two years ago Congress unanimously passed and President Obama signed into law the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which made bringing the conflict to an end a U.S. foreign-policy priority.

Last October, the administration announced the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. forces to the region to assist local militaries in a final push to end once and for all the threat posed by Kony and his now-dwindling band of followers. With the farcical exception of Rush Limbaugh’s confused championship of the LRA as a “Christian” group, the move received widespread support with frontrunner Mitt Romney leading the Republican pack with an endorsement of the deployment against what he described as a “virulent and malevolent force.”

Since then, about one hundred U.S. military personnel, mostly drawn from Special Operations Forces, have been living and working in forward positions in the bush and forests with their African hosts, bringing enhanced intelligence, logistical-management and staff-coordination capabilities to their efforts. These efforts and the assistance that the United States brought to them were even officially welcomed by the United Nations.