This is the second piece in a three part series about Ugandan politics and the “Kony 2012″ campaign.
Joseph Kony was born in 1961 to an Acholi farming family in Odek, a village in the northern region of Uganda. He was raised in the Christian faith and served as an altar boy. As a teenager, he dropped out of school to follow in his brother’s footsteps and eventually became a healer. Kony’s early history stands in stark contrast to later accusations of his atrocities. Why did Kony turn from healing to causing pain and suffering? The creators of the viral video “Kony 2012” didn’t explore Kony’s personal history – he is only presented to the audience as the face of evil and nothing more. And Uganda is portrayed as just another African country in crisis, in need of help from the West. Completely ignoring that the West bares, at least in part, responsibility for creating the situation in which Kony arose. The video reduced a complex issue down to the morally unquestionable black-and-white. How can we reconcile an altar boy turned warlord – how did it happen? Years of colonization led to social and political instability in Uganda, which in turn shaped Kony.
In my last blog post I detailed the numerous power grabs and coup d’état by military strongmen and rebel groups. And before I talk about the LRA, a brief in early and colonial Ugandan history is due. Up until the 19th century, Uganda had existed as several closely related kingdoms, Buganda being the most developed and prosperous kingdom at the time of independence. Before colonization, Buganda was a kingdom made up by several clans – any of which could produce the next king. The kingship was decided by a type of lottery in which all clans participated. Lineage unlike in Europe was decided by the mothers lineage. When rulers died the successor was chosen by clan elders. The purpose: prevent any one clan from monopolizing rule. Ugandans were in essence practicing a very primitive form of democratic rule. Of course, this often excluded the majority of people. Still, it should be recognized for what it was, at the time that it was.
Buganda was one of the last territories to be colonized under British rule. Having enjoyed a higher degree of self determination, the thought of resigning power over to a Ugandan federal entity in Buganda was not a popular one. But Milton Obote’s first power grab in 1966 left Buganda sovereign dethroned. The colonial rule of Uganda forced separate kingdoms to come together, and after the British departure, no one kingdom would let the next rule over them. And rebel groups promising democracy spread like wildfire through Uganda.
The LRA’s ideology can be described as a mix of Christian fundamentalism and traditional Acholi customs. The rebel group seeks a theocratic state based on the 10 commandments. For more than 20 years, the LRA committed horrendous crimes, marching into villages and planting land mines for unsuspecting villagers. Schoolteachers were shot to death. Children were abducted and turned into soldiers and sex slaves. It was not uncommon to see mutilated victims, with missing lips, noses and ears – an atrocity that grew to be seen as an LRA trademark. Kony presented himself to his followers as a prophet and called himself “the teacher.” He had multiple wives and dozens of children. Through interviews with his liberated wives and ex-abductees, we learned that the kidnapped would be forced to kill friends and neighbors, and in some cases, forced to drink the blood of their slain victims. According to multiple wives, Kony never killed anyone. Instead, he forced young children to kill.
Over the years, the LRA amassed power from surrounding countries. In the mid 90′s the Sudanese government lent support to the LRA in retaliation of the Ugandan government support of South Sudan. Only after Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 did Sudan retract support for the LRA. Kony has always maintained innocence, calling allegations Ugandan-government propaganda.
Kony has accused the Ugandan government of war crimes and blamed other crimes on the LRA. “Let me tell you clearly what happened in Uganda. Museveni went into the villages and cut off the ears of the people, telling the people that it was the work of the LRA. I cannot cut the ear of my brother. I cannot kill the eye of my brother,” Kony declared in a 2006 video. The LRA has been close to a peace deal with the Ugandan government in talks brokered by the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2006, peace talks broke down after the Kony was unable to ensure that he and other top ranking officials of the LRA would not be prosecuted for war crimes. The LRA went on to kill hundreds more. In December of 2009, the LRA killed 320 people in several Congolese villages, leaving bodies strewn in the streets. They abducted 250 people, many of them children. In 2011, the Ugandan government stated: “In recent years, the LRA has had no active presence in Uganda.”
Why then is a central plea in Kony 2012 to help the Ugandan Army? A 20-year war has not stopped Kony; it has only shifted his base from Uganda to neighboring countries. A military solution in which the West is now again involved will never prevail. What the West should do is listen Ugandan civil society. Kony is no more of a threat to the Ugandan people than the current Ugandan government, a government which established itself through a rebel coup using child soldiers. A government that is as illegitimate as any other that has ruled over Uganda. The real fight here is the fight for a true democracy and a definitive end to human rights abuses.
Please check back for Part 3 of this series.