XI: Samantha Power, Invisible Children and Joseph Kony
There is one area where there has been real progress in reducing atrocities – the changing status of the marauding, plundering, abducting and murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. Defections of personnel from the LRA are way up; the number of atrocities is way down. A week ago (14.01.2015), the last of Joseph Kony’s lieutenants alive, 34-year-old Dominic Ongwen, originally a 10-year old LRA abductee, was handed over to Ugandan troops in the Central African Republic. He is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and, since his capture, he has been transferred to the ICC.
It is still unclear whether Ongwen defected to U.S. Special Forces troops working in collaboration with Ugandan army units or was captured by Mounir Ahmat, commander of the Central African Republic’s (CAR) mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group. The latter claimed they had captured Ongwen near the eastern town of Sam Ouandja when he was trying to escape and Mounir claimed the $5 million U.S. reward on offer since 2013. The U.S. forces said that Ongwen defected. Uganda, which initially wanted to try him, under pressure, agreed to transfer him to the ICC that had issued his arrest warrant in 2005. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni conceded that the LRA had also committed atrocities in neighbouring countries and, therefore, Ongwen should face international justice.
Last year, Okot Odhiambo, then LRA’s second in command, was killed in CAR by African Union forces near the town of Djema, On 12 May 2012, Caesar Achellam was captured by the Ugandan military in the CAR. In 2011, “Brigadier” Bok Abudema was killed by the Ugandan army. Vincent Otti was killed on Kony’s orders in November 2007 for wanting to sign the peace deal offered by the Ugandan government and that he, Otti, had personally negotiated. In August 2006, the first of Kony’s lieutenants to be taken out was killed by the Ugandan army just before Kony signed a Cessation of Hostilities agreement that initiated two years of peace talks. After the collapse of the peace negotiations, the LRA left Uganda and never returned.
As background, the north and south of Uganda have been at odds throughout the colonial period with a de facto peace imposed by the British by allowing the Acholi in the north to predominate in the army and the Buganda in the south to become predominant in the civil service and the professions. Between Idi Amin’s assumption of rule in 1971, when he and his West-Nilers overthrew the democratic government made almost impotent by north-south divisions, until he himself was overthrown in 1979, 300,000 Ugandans had been slaughtered by his regime. However, the 1979 intervention by Tanzanian troops backing former Prime Minister Milton Obote in partnership with General Tito Okello leading an army of purged Acholi ex-soldiers, the Uganda National Liberation Front/Army (UNLF/A), proved to be even more murderous than Idi Amin. Frustrated by the lack of peace and reconciliation, in July 1985 Okello led a revolt that overthrew Obote only to be overthrown in turn six months later by Yoweri Museveni’s combination of Bugandans and Rwandan Tutsis.
Now, neither the government nor the army had a significant presence of Acholi after a short period in which they had dominated both. Disaffected Acholi soldiers returned north and became engaged in a struggle with tribal elders who viewed the soldiers as “contaminated’ by the spirits of their dead enemies. Modernity vied with traditionalism only to yield to the leadership of a charismatic Joan of Arc, Alice Auma (Lakwena), a spiritualist claiming to have been possessed by a dead Italian general. Alice rallied both ex-soldiers and elders behind the reconstituted Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF), or Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), that initially had considerable success against Museveni’s Ugandan National Resistance Army. The HSM with its new-found discipline and messianic fervour (the resurrection of Jesus Christ had been promised), in spite of its initial victories, was decisively defeated in November 1987 after coming within 50 km of Kampala.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, taking advantage of both the defeat of Alice Lakwena whose spirit he claimed to have inherited, and the availability of disaffected former soldiers who refused to accede to the peace agreement between northern insurgents and the new Ugandan army, Joesph Kony initiated his so-called rebellion. He was aided and abetted by the continuing alienation of northern Uganda from the Yoweri Museveni regime. The LRA (originally the United Holy Salvation Army/Uganda Christian Army/Movement) under Joseph Kony emerged as a dangerous extremist Christian cult that kidnapped children and sent fear throughout the Acholi people who populated the north of Uganda. Supported initially by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which then viewed Museveni as an upstart who aided the rebellious south Sudanese, the LRA’s ostensible purpose was the overthrow of Museveni. However, the primary victims of its campaign of pillaging, rape and abductions were the Acholi people. The latter were caught between the LRA, which they learned to fear, and the Museveni regime, which they loathed.
Though the LRA was both a spiritualist and an evangelical Christian organization as well as a personality cult, with the support of Sudan it also developed a strong political agenda, but its methods of intimidation and maiming, mutilations and abductions soon alienated Kony from the local Acholi population and eventually Khartoum. After failed peace talks that began in 1994 and a resumption of the war, in 2002, Museveni decided to bring the LRA reign of terror in the north to an end by launching a full-scale military action to hunt Kony down. He had obtained the agreement of the Sudanese government to allow Ugandan troops to invade southern Sudan in Operation Iron Fist. However, Kony counterattacked against IDP camps and escaped the pincer efforts of the government. Mediation in 2004 by both the Carter Centre in Atlanta and Pope John Paul II failed. Subsequently, Joseph Kony was made an international pariah, having been accused of crimes against humanity by the ICC. In 2005, the U.S. placed Joseph Kony on a list of most wanted terrorists. By 2006, UNICEF estimated that in the previous 15 years, the LRA had abducted 25,000 children (many became kadogo – child soldiers) and others estimated numbers as high as 60,000 including porters, sex slaves, etc. 95% of the Acholi population was living in over 200 IDP camps in the north of Uganda in February of that year, in part to protect them and in part to deprive Kony of a support base. Initially, a UN special forces operation to capture Kony failed abysmally at a cost of 8 Guatemalan commandos.
Peace talks began in 2006 and lasted until the end of 2008. As with previous efforts, they also ended in failure, according to Kony, because he and his lieutenants were not promised amnesty from the charges laid by the ICC. Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) was then launched by Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), CAR and Sudan. The U.S. supplied intelligence and logistical support. Kony escaped. Led by Dominic Ongwen, the LRA attacked villages in DRC on 24 December 2008, killing 865 civilians and abducting 160 more over the next several weeks. Just before the next Christmas in 2009, the LRA launched attacks in the northeast of DRC in the Makombo region, killing 321 and abducting 250. Human Rights Watch broke the news three months later.
Since then, however, as described in the third paragraph above, the whole of the command structure of the LRA has been eliminated. The only leader of the LRA left is Joseph Kony himself, the former Catholic altar boy, athlete (he played football) and reputedly brilliant dancer. He survives with an estimated 200 followers hiding in northeastern CAR. He is being hunted down by four African armies supported by 100 U.S. special forces troops, Navy Seals, who were featured in the movie American Sniper, reviewed last week. As I will try to make clear, this is not the only overlap between the Kony story and that of Chris Kyle, the top American sniper in American military history. However, unlike Iraq, the U.S. special forces in CAR only provide logistical, medical, training and intelligence support. In March 2014, the mission obtained four V-22 Ospreys and the total force authorized was expanded to 300, though evidently only 150 have been deployed.
Can Samantha Power (SP) and/or Barack Obama claim any credit? After all, when SP was Obama’s adviser on reducing atrocities, in May 2010, President Obama signed the “Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Recovery Act” that authorized the deployment of U.S. troops to the region. Obama said to the Invisible Children (IC), an activist group launched to bring attention to LRA atrocities and in attendance when the bill was signed, “We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards—you have made the plight of the children visible to us all.” Obama gave IC enormous credit. Samantha Power had been an active promoter and backer of IC.
The first American military units arrived in October 2011. There is evidence that suggests that SP deserves some and perhaps considerable credit. After all, she has over the years been the main spokesperson arguing that NGOs who engage in activism and pressure their government are the main, if not the exclusive determinants, of foreign policy. This theme was echoed both in what she said and who she addressed in her first speech after she was named UN ambassador.
On 10 August 2013, SP addressed the Fourth Estate Leadership Summit in Los Angeles sponsored by Invisible Children (IC), the anti-Kony activist group credited by Obama. IC was started in 2004 by Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell. Since then, IC has campaigned to stop the LRA warlord, Joseph Kony. Convinced (erroneously) that the world was unaware of the havoc of the LRA and Joseph Kony, they produced their first film, Invisible Children: Rough Cut. SP said, “Invisible Children doesn’t just lobby policymakers to go after the LRA, it designs fliers that tell LRA fighters how they might defect, and it distributes them – more than 400,000 so far – into LRA-affected areas in DRC and the Central African Republic…It has also built six locally-run FM radio stations in areas of high LRA activity. These stations now reach an audience covering more than 29,000 square miles.” For example, Radio Zereda (Zereda means peace in Zande) in Obo, broadcasts advice and information on UN camps and appeals by former abductees, such as Emmanuel Daba, to help those trying to flee the LRA.
If defections are way up and IC has had a significant responsibility for that result, and if SP has been a major champion of IC, then surely she deserves considerable credit for the diminution of the LRA threat. For IC’s effects went further. After all, the activism operates on two fronts – in the education of politicians in Washington and in the information spread in the field to undermine Joseph Kony. Further, there is a double effect in America for the media campaign in Africa reverberates back on the politics and policies in Washington.
In 2012, IC produced a video, Stop Kony, that went viral with more than 5 million views. It became the number one topic on Twitter, multiplied many times over by Facebook references. IC made a follow-up film, Beyond Kony, emphasizing post-conflict reconstruction. Yet, although the LRA was on its last legs, the objectives of IC remained, not only to publicize the evils about LRA, but also to pressure the U.S. government “To intervene militarily in Central Africa.” At the end of 2014, when IC announced that it was ending the bulk of its mass mobilization programs, it remained committed to the priority of political advocacy in America and its on-the-ground programs in Africa. When the poster child for grass roots political pressure, as both the necessary and sufficient cause of policy change, throws grass roots organizing out the window, the delusionary belief in its efficaciousness should be thrown out with it.
IC started making films about Joseph Kony and the abductees back in 2004. High school students in Massachusetts sent one of the films to their Senator. He and his colleagues then wrote a law directed at the LRA and modelled on the rewards offered for narco-traffickers. President Obama signed that anti-LRA bill in 2010 that created a rewards program to bring Kony and his thugs to justice. That Senator from Massachusetts was John Kerry who is now the Secretary of State. Based on that law, the State Department offered rewards of up to $5 million that lead to the arrest of LRA leaders.
In addition to its first 2004 film and famous 2012 film, Stop Kony, IC has produced many other films such as: Innocent: The Story of a Night (2005); Groce: The Story of a Child Mother (2006); and The Story of an Orphan (2006). Further, IC has won numerous awards over the years for its films:
- 2007 Progressive Source Awards for best fundraising podcast
- 2008 Human Security Award
- 2008 People’s Voice Webby Award
- 2008 American Advertisement Federation award
- 2008 Summit Creative Award for its School for Schools and its Display Me websites
- 2009 Interactive Media Award for The Rescue website
- 2009 nominated for the Think Social Award
- 2010 and 2011 Stay Classy Award for Most Effective Awareness
- 2011 LRA Crisis Tracker for MediaPost Creative Media Filmography Award
- 2013 Digital Campaign of the Year Award for Interactive Media
In an open letter IC sent to SP after she became ambassador to the UN concerning Joseph Kony, the following appeal was made:
Joseph Kony has been committing war crimes and crimes against humanity for nearly 30 years. And this month marks the nine year anniversary of his indictment by the International Criminal Court. But Kony still remains at large and the fact that he has, quite literally, gotten away with mass murder for this long is completely unacceptable. We know you agree.
We also know that for the last few years, Kony has regularly received safe haven in the Sudanese-controlled region of Kafia Kingi, but this area is largely out of the reach of African Union and U.S. forces that are pursuing him.
Most importantly, we know that you are among the few people who can do something about it. Ambassador Power, you, along with nine other U.S. and world leaders, have the unique power to help end Kony’s impunity and finally stop decades of LRA violence. We’re asking you to publicly reaffirm your commitment to bringing Kony to justice and stopping LRA violence.
More specifically, your commitment to stopping LRA violence must include the following actions during the upcoming U.S. Security Council Briefing on the LRA crisis:
–Ask the new UN special envoy on the LRA, Mr. Abdoulaye Bathily, direct questions about what the UN is doing to prevent Kony from a) enjoying safe haven in the Sudanese-controlled Kafia Kingi enclave and b) poaching elephants in D.R. Congo.
–Ensure that the UN Security Council’s statement on the LRA in response to the briefing highlights deep concern about Kony’s safe haven and elephant poaching by the LRA, and clearly directs the UN to do more to address these issues.
Thank you for all that you’ve already done to help end LRA violence and arrest Joseph Kony. We’re so grateful for your committed leadership on this issue. With these additional actions, you can help us make sure the 10-year anniversary of Joseph Kony’s ICC indictment is a celebration of justice — not only for Kony, but also for the millions that have been affected by his crimes.
The letter clearly acknowledges SP’s past influence on and efforts on behalf of the campaign of IC to capture Joseph Kony and beseeches her to do more now that she is the American ambassador to the UN. SP clearly comes across as the go-to person in the Obama administration with respect to Joseph Kony, even though John Kerry, the Secretary of State, authored the bill that created the reward program for capturing Kony and his lieutenants. To what extent can SP claim and be awarded credit for the decline in the LRA?
Tomorrow: Samantha Power and the Diminution of the LRA