Opinion
8:17 am
Thu March 22, 2012

Foreign Policy: I've Met Joseph Kony

Originally published on Thu March 22, 2012 7:41 am

Norbert Mao is a lawyer and politician in Uganda. In 2006 and 2007 he made several trips to South Sudan and the LRA base in Congo campaigning for peace.

On January 12, 2003, I received my first phone call from Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. At the time, I was a member of parliament representing an area that was the epicenter of the war in Northern Uganda. The call lasted about two hours — which was remarkable given that Kony was in the bush, and using a sat phone, to boot.

"People should seek to understand the political agenda of the LRA," Kony said over static when I was on the line. "Why are we in the bush?" he asked? "It is because we are resisting oppression. Many people have been to the bush in Uganda. We are also resisting murders committed by the NRA [the National Resistance Army, which brought Uganda's current president, Yoweri Museveni, to power]. You go to places like Acholi Bur, Paimol, Bur Coro, and Anaka and you will find there the mass graves of our people," he told me. "People must recognize that there was a problem. Kony is not the problem. The problem existed before Kony."

The LRA has a complicated history, to say the least. When the group first emerged in 1986, it cloaked itself in the garb of Christianity — a group that had risen from the ashes of previous rebellions to save the Acholi of Northern Uganda from the onslaught of the National Resistance Army, which had just swept the state a few months earlier. At the time, Uganda was in the throes of state collapse and civil war, with over twenty rebel groups raging throughout the countryside. One by one, the new government managed to pacify each group. The LRA managed to survive, but let its mask slip in the process, the true predatory face of Kony emerging to feast on the people he purported to save.

Over the years, I've spoken to Kony many times and eventually met him face to face in August 2006, when I led a community peace delegation to his hideout in the Congo. We pinned our hopes on him reaching a peace agreement with the Uganda government. Eventually, though, he walked away due to mistrust, an ICC indictment that would have sent him to The Hague, and probably pressure from his backers (the Sudanese government, among them). A great opportunity was missed.

Kony is now heading a multinational guerilla force comprised of mainly abducted children and adult soldiers who were first taken as children. He roams the bush in Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, the Central African Republic, and Chad without hindrance. He has defied the U.N. peace keeping force in Congo. He has also survived many military expeditions aimed at defeating him. He has redefined the rules of asymmetrical war.

This man with whom I've had many encounters is now the subject of a powerful videothat has captured the imagination of the world. Is the video a bad thing? I would say no. Has it got gaps? Plenty.

First, to give the impression — even by omission — that the victims themselves were passive and did little or nothing to relieve their own suffering is wrong. Before Invisible Children there were many efforts to let the world know what was going on. But the world was distracted. In 1998, in the middle of the insurgency, Bill Clinton came to Uganda and declared the country a peaceful nation. A few weeks later, the LRA marched from Congo into Bwindi National Park in Uganda and killed tourists who were gorilla tracking. Most of the victims were American. For a moment, Kony got some international media, but it soon went quiet. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands in Northern Uganda were displaced and the killings went on.

Second, it has to be said that official neglect on the part of the Ugandan government is responsible for much of the suffering we witness in Kony 2012 — suffering that was brought on by an incompetent counterinsurgency strategy that, at its height, herded over one million civilians into disease infested and poorly protected camps. Right now it is a point of controversy that U.S. troops are standing shoulder to shoulder with certain Ugandan officers who ought to be charged with war crimes. Americans should shudder at this partnership and demand that the Ugandan government hold accountable those members of its military establishment who need to be tried for crimes against humanity.

Having said all that, I still view the release of Kony 2012 as a positive development. To those critics who say that the video was propelled by less than savory aspects of western media culture that perpetuate the mentality of the white man's burden, I say that western advocacy matters and can make a difference. From the anti-slavery struggle to the anti-colonial struggle, voices from the West have been indispensible. The key is for Africans to influence the direction of that advocacy. We cannot stop it, but we can redirect it. So how do we respond to this video that has convinced the world to bear witness to the untold suffering of Northern Uganda? We can complain about the gaps, but we also have to celebrate the fact that at least part of our story has been told. And told powerfully.

It's clear that the aim of the video was never intellectual stimulation. I don't think the founders of Invisible Children are the foremost analysts of the complicated political, historical and security dynamics in our troubled part of Africa. They certainly wouldn't earn high marks in African Studies. But I will go to my grave convinced that they have the most beautiful trait on earth — compassion.

Such sentiments matter, even today. There are those who say the war is over in Northern Uganda. I say the guns are silent but the war is not over. The sky is overcast with an explosive mix of dubious oil deals, land grabs, arms proliferation, neglected ex-combatants, and a volatile neighborhood full of regimes determined to fish in troubled waters. What we have is a tentative peace. Our region is pregnant with the seeds of conflict. The military action in the jungles of Congo may capture Kony, but we need to do more to plant the seeds of peace founded on democracy, equitable development, and justice. Like peace, war too has its mothers, fathers, midwives, babysitters, and patrons. Perhaps Kony 2012 will help sort out the actors. The video has certainly shaken the fence, making fence-sitting very uncomfortable, indeed.

The current debate is thus timely. One hopes that the ICC will now have to investigate the Ugandan government. The scrutiny of Invisible Children (its finances and activities) is also a good thing. Communities emerging from conflict need more results than noise. But even more important is that all actors see the need to act with humility. This volatile place is not a project. It is our home. That is why we will never accept anyone closing the door to peace through dialogue.

Copyright 2012 Foreign Policy. To see more, visit http://www.foreignpolicy.com/.