Kony: What Jason did not tell the Invisible Children

The Lord’s Resistance Army is a Ugandan problem calling for a Ugandan political solution.

Joseph Kony
Joseph Kony and the LRA leadership were the first to be indicted by the International Criminal Court [EPA]

New York, NY – Only two weeks ago, Ugandan papers carried front-page reports from the highly respected Social Science Research Council of New York, accusing the Ugandan army of atrocities against civilians in the Central African Republic while on a mission to fight Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The army denied the allegations. Many in the civilian population however, especially in the north, were sceptical of the denial. Like all victims, they have long and enduring memories.

The adult population recalls the brutal government-directed counterinsurgency campaign, beginning in 1986, which evolved into Operation North, the first big operation in the country that people talk about as massively destructive for civilians, and which created the conditions that gave rise to the LRA of Joseph Kony and, before it, the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena.

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Young adults recall the time from the mid-1990s when most rural residents of the three Acholi districts were forcibly interned in camps. The Ugandan government claimed it was to “protect” them from the LRA. But there were allegations of murder, bombings, and the burnings of entire villages: first to force people into the camps, and then to force them to stay put. By 2005, the camp population grew from a few hundred thousand to over 1.8 million in the entire region – which included Teso and Lango – of which over a million were from the three Acholi districts. Comprising practically the entire rural population of the three Acholi districts, they were expected to live on handouts from relief agencies. According to the government’s own Ministry of Health, the excess mortality rate in these camps was approximately 1,000 persons per week – inviting comparisons with the numbers killed by the LRA even in the worst year.

Determined to find a political solution to enduring mass misery, the Ugandan parliament passed a bill in December 1999 offering amnesty to the entire leadership of the LRA, provided they laid down their arms. The president refused to sign the bill.

No amnesty

Opposed to an amnesty, the president invited the International Criminal Court (ICC), newly formed in 2002, to charge that same LRA leadership with crimes against humanity. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the prosecutor of the ICC, grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Joseph Kony became the subject of the ICC’s first indictment.

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Critics asked why the ICC was indicting only the leadership of the LRA, and not government forces as well. Ocampo said only one step at a time could be taken. In his words: “The criteria for selection of the first case was gravity. We analysed the gravity of all crimes in northern Uganda committed by the LRA and the Ugandan forces. Crimes committed by the LRA were much more numerous and of much higher gravity than alleged crimes committed by the UPDF (Uganda Peoples Defense Force). We therefore started with an investigation of the LRA.” That “first case” was in 2004. There have been no others involving Uganda in the eight years that have followed.

As the internment of the civilian population continued into its second decade, there was another attempt at a political solution, this time involving the new government of South Sudan (GOSS). Under great pressure from both the population and from parliament, the government of Uganda agreed to enter into direct negotiations with the LRA, facilitated and mediated by GOSS. These dragged on for years, from 2006, but hopes soared as, first the terms of the agreement, and then its finer details, were agreed on between the two sides.

Once again, the only thing standing between war and peace was an amnesty for the top leadership of the LRA – Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti in particular. In the words of Vincent Otti, the second-in-command: “… to come out, the ICC must revoke the indictment … If Kony or Otti does not come out, no other rebel will come out.” Yet again, the ICC refused, calling for a military campaign to get Kony, joined by the Ugandan government, which refused to provide guarantees for his safety. Predictably, the talks broke down and the LRA withdrew, first to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then to the Central African Republic. 


The government responded with further militarisation, starting with the disastrous Operation Lightning Thunder in the DRC in December 2008. It then sent thousands of Ugandan troops to the Central African Republic, and asked for US “advisers”. The ICC called on AFRICOM, the Africa Command of the US Army, to act as its implementing arm by sending more troops to capture Kony. The US, under President Obama, responded by sending an unspecified number of advisors armed with drones – though the US insists that these drones are unarmed, for now.

Now Invisible Children has joined the ranks of those calling for the US to press for a military solution – presumably a campaign supported by a mostly children’s army of more than 70 million viewers of its video, “Kony 2012”. What is the LRA, that it should merit the attention of an audience ranging from Hollywood celebrities to “humanitarian interventionists” to AFRICOM to children of the United States? 

The LRA is a raggedy bunch of a few hundred at most: poorly equipped, poorly armed, and poorly trained. Their ranks mainly comprise those kidnapped as children and then turned into tormentors. It is a story not very different from that of abused children, who in time turn into abusive adults. In short, the LRA is no military power. 

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Addressing the problem dubbed “the LRA” does not call for a military operation. And yet, the LRA is given as the reason why there must be a constant military mobilisation, at first in northern Uganda, and now in the entire region, why the military budget must have priority and, now, why the US must send soldiers and weaponry, including drones, to the region. But rather than being the reason for accelerated military mobilisation in the region, the LRA is merely the excuse for it.

The reason why the LRA continues is that its victims – the civilian population of the area – trust neither the LRA nor government forces. Sandwiched between the two, civilians need to be rescued from an ongoing military mobilisation and offered the hope of a political process.

Alas, this message has no room in the Invisible Children video, which ends with a call to arms. Thus one must ask: Will this mobilisation of millions be subverted into yet another weapon in the hands of those who want to further militarise the region? If so, this well-intentioned but unsuspecting army of children will be responsible for magnifying the very crisis to which they claim to be the solution.

The 70 million-plus who have watched the Invisible Children video need to realise that the LRA – both the leaders and the children pressed into their service – are not an alien force, but sons and daughters of the soil. The solution is not to eliminate them physically, but to find ways of integrating them into Ugandan society.

Those in the Ugandan and the US governments – and now, apparently, the leaders of Invisible Children – must bear responsibility for regionalising the problem as the LRA, the Ugandan army its US advisors crisscross the region, from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Central African Republic. Yet at its core, the LRA remains a Ugandan problem calling for a Ugandan political solution.

Mahmood Mamdani is Professor and Director of Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, New York City.