XII: Samantha Power and the Diminution of the LRA

XII: Samantha Power and the Diminution of the LRA


Howard Adelman

Invisible Children (IC) undertook dangerous work in Uganda in making its films to publicize the atrocities of Joseph Kony. I am fully aware of how dangerous work in northern Uganda can be without the explicit or, at least, implicit backing of the Ugandan government. One of my students was murdered in northern Uganda, likely related to his research; the Andrew Forbes Resource Centre at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University was named in his honour. Nevertheless, hundreds of NGOs and overseas volunteers work out of Gulu 275 km north of Kampala and 100 km south of the South Sudan border. It is a town of about 147,000 and it is the largest urban area in Acholi.

IC’s regional office is located in Gulu. IC is in the process of transferring its on-the-ground activities to its local NGO partner in Uganda. IC is and has been involved in early warning protection and detection programs in CAR, but I was unable to find out if there was any connection with IGAD’s FEWER (Forum for Early Warning and Early Response) program – the early warning system of the countries in the Horn of Africa. In conjunction with OCHA’s 2015 South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan, FEWER issued its report on the South Sudan Crisis. There is no apparent evidence of IC input, yet the South Sudan civil war crisis is immensely greater than the crisis of abducted children and displacement of 95% of the Acholi population between 1996 and 2006 in northern Uganda.

The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is of a far greater order of magnitude than the Ugandan northern crisis at its peak. This year, the estimated number of IDPs in South Sudan is estimated to be almost 2 million. Over a quarter million have fled the area and become refugees. The death toll from the inter-ethnic violence is enormous and almost 6 million suffer from different degrees of food insecurity. Nevertheless, due in part to the efforts of IC, the conflict with Kony’s LRA has received far more publicity in its waning years than the immensely more critical South Sudan crisis. Proportionality has not been a virtue in attending to the sensationalist horrific practices of the LRA.

When one watches IC films (possibly to be reviewed separately) or reads its literature, it seems to have connections with certain government agencies and NGOs, but not with others. Further, it ranks of boosterism. “Our protection and detection programs using the Early Warning Radio network, fliers, radio messaging and community sensitization have played a critical role in weakening the LRA fighting force alongside the pressure exerted upon the African Union supported by US forces.”

That is quite a boast. Not only has IC played a big role in saving lives, but “a critical role in weakening the LRA.” Try to find out what that role was, quite aside from its valuation as “critical.” Try even to find an independent evaluation of lives saved. Compare IC to Save the Children, the ninety-year-old NGO operating in 120 countries, including Uganda, where Save the Children ran survival and protection projects. Save the Children always explains its mission, mandate and the way it works in the six programs it has operated in Uganda, including child protection as a major one. In that latter area, it has a very broad approach in contrast to the narrow laser-like focus on simply protection from Joseph Kony of IC. Further, though Save the Children literature declares, “We save children’s lives. We fight for their rights. We help them fulfill their potential,” the quantitative and qualitative assessment of its success are evaluated by independent consultants. I could find no such process for IC. Save the Children never seems to declare that its role has been “critical” in saving lives. In the Save the Children literature, there are no self-inserted adjectives and adverbs.

“Critical” is an equivocal word. It is used both with respect to subjective assessments as well as to the status of the objective world. With respect to intellectual assessments, it is even more ambiguous. On the one hand, it means a negative evaluation, or, at the very least, an analysis that makes clear certain inadequacies. But it also refers to judgments about what is both good and bad in something, and evokes a sense of balance and fairness in analysis, rather than merely a negative or even biased evaluation. There is a parallel equivocation with respect to the use of the term in describing the objective world. On one hand, such as in the expression “a critical juncture,” the reference is to a significant turning point. On the other hand, as IC used the term, it wasn’t the juncture that was critical, but the self-appraisal of its own role evaluated as significant, and perhaps even indispensable, but with neither IC’s own data provided anywhere or that of independent assessors to verify that result.

Critical when applied to my work is either taken as a negative in my approach or, as I believe it to be, and as others have depicted it, as an attempt to be fair in my assessments showing both negative and positive elements in what I am examining. I would not claim, nor do I believe others would declare, that these series of blogs are important turning points in evaluating the world around me, let alone that they make a significant difference, and certainly not an indispensable one. My sense of IC is that it lacks a self-critical sensibility and does not employ an independent one. Further, their own evaluation of their work hypes its significance and even perhaps its indispensability.

There happens to be some objective data available based on surveys of former abductees who returned to Acholi. Though the rest either remained in captivity, died from disease or were killed in battle or by the LRA, it is estimated that 79% of male abductees and 92% of female abductees did return. Of those, the key factors were:

Escape             80%

Freed by LRA   15%

Rescued.             5%

The interviews with returnees indicated that they escaped when they were left unattended, or during the chaos of battle or during an ambush. The IC propaganda was not mentioned. Perhaps that was because the question was not asked. That may have been the case. Nevertheless, in narratives of returnees collected by anthropologists, the broadcasts or leaflets of IC are not mentioned. Perhaps the returnees spoke about the role and even significance of the broadcasts or the literature distributed, but the recorders did not think they were significant. The fact that such a reference was not even mentioned indicates that, at the very least, if IC efforts were mentioned, the reference did not make a strong impression on the interviewer, significant in itself since reference to the impact of media on an escape would be important and make a strong impression on an interviewer.

Did IC play any role let alone a significant or indispensable one in the rescue? Only the armed forces are given credit for rescues. Now all this may be academic nitpicking. But to make a claim, and to make it in a superlative form, not only without independent evidence, but in the face of contrary evidence, suggests that the value of IC was not in their effect on saving lives in Uganda and elsewhere, but in publicizing the plight of the abductees back in America. That may have been valuable enough, though its exact value also requires critical attention. IC’s literature is written in the tone of advertisements for itself when it boasts that the organization brought “life-saving work” to the threat of Joseph Kony.

What about the two other domestic parts of its program — helping to create a grassroots public pressure movement in the USA and influencing public policy with its complementary lobbying? The evidence for success in these two areas seems to be very strong. IC mastered the use of contemporary media to communicate a single message clearly and broadly, even if that message was criticized for casting the situation as simply a humanitarian one, at the expense of understanding the background politics, and of painting the situation as a moral war of good (the American grassroots and the interventionist role of the American government) versus evil (Kony and the LRA). When, as mentioned yesterday, there has been a recent shift abandoning grassroots organizing leaving only political lobbying in its mission after 2014, this suggests that in its own self-evaluation, lobbying was seen as far more important than organizing awareness and creating a grassroots public pressure movement, the very virtue that Samantha Power was so laudatory in praising IC.

What about its role in advocacy? The connection with the American government preceded the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. On 10 August 2007, Ben Keesey, CEO of IC, met with American ambassador, Steven Browning, and his officials in Kampala “to describe their efforts to provide to their audiences timely information on conditions in northern Uganda.” Innocent enough, except when the information is used both by the CIA and Ugandan intelligence services.

It is entirely a different matter when information provided by an NGO is used to repress non-violent dissent by the Acholi people in northern Uganda against the Museveni regime and when dissent is equated with armed rebellion and even with Kony’s criminal and morally repugnant behaviour. In a memo dated 11 June 2009, Kathleen FitzGibbon, the political affairs officer in the U.S. embassy in Kampala, wrote, “The Ugandan Government is investigating the latest attempt by Acholi Diaspora to mobilize support for a new rebellion in northern Uganda. The arrest of low level participants continues while the Government decides its next steps, which may include a public outing of Acholi Diaspora spoilers” exposed by an IC tip (my italics) “regarding the location of Patrick Komakec,” an LRA abductee branded by the Ugandan government as a former LRA child soldier who was reported by IC as being in Gulu, northern Uganda.

It is not as if the danger of abductions had passed at the time FitzGibbon wrote her memo. As the campaign geared up to finally eliminate the LRA, children continued to be abducted. In the same month that memo was written, on 24 June 2009, a security team from Uganda and the SPLA were reported as searching for six youths from Agoro and Madi-Opei in the Kitgum district of South Sudan. It was believed that they had been abducted from a market near Teretenya.

Patrick Komakec, whose presence in Uganda had been revealed either deliberately or inadvertently by IC, was not charged with abduction, but “was wanted by the security services for impersonating LRA leaders to extort money from government officials, NGOs, and Acholi leaders.” Assuming even that the charges were valid and not trumped up to silence a part of the political opposition, what business was it of IC, an American-based international NGO, to inform or provide information even on a fraudster. The alleged fraud had nothing to do with protecting and saving children. More significantly, any very preliminary knowledge of the Museveni regime, should have alerted IC that the charges against Komakec could have been made simply to silence a political opponent.

Based on names revealed by Komakec, presumably under torture, the Ugandan intelligence services conducted a sweep to arrest “suspects.” Most of them absolutely swore their innocence. Patrick Komakec and his associates were accused of trying to form a new version of the LRA, although the actual charges laid were for fraud not for treason. The Ugandan government also attempted to link this so-called new rebel group with Bishop John Baptist Odama, a highly respected Acholi religious leader who had always protested against military efforts by either side to resolve differences between Kampala and the north.

I do not know whether Jackie Komakec in Toronto is related to Patrick or how the various esteemed Komakecs originally from Uganda and now in the diaspora are related, but if Jackie is any indication, she has been a participant in a very different worldwide grassroots anti-Kony group that hold the Gulu Walk every year, but from the turnout I saw in Toronto, and the films they have posted on the internet about their efforts (for example, Gulu Walk in Toronto in 2009 or the one in Berlin in 2010), they have nowhere near the mastery of the media nor, correspondingly, the domestic impact in raising awareness, of IC.

What is the substance of IC’s advocacy? TIC is clearly on the side of military action by both the United States and Uganda. A 25 February 2009 memo from Ambassador Steven Browning noted that, “Invisible Children, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, is planning pro-OLT [Operation Lightning Thunder] events under the theme ‘Kony Must Be Stopped. Rescue Our Children’,” suggesting a far more intimate relationship between IC, the Ugandan government and the U.S. government and the use of IC publicity to advertise the military program favourably.

Even without these leaked government memos, IC, as indicated, has not been without its critics. The criticisms have been made by Ugandan journalists who have long followed and certainly criticized the exploits of Joseph Kory and the LRA. Rosebell Kagumire was prominent among them. So was Dr. Beatrice Odongkara Mpora and Angelo Izama. To summarize the criticisms, they include:

  • Oversimplification
  • Distortions about Africa and its dependency on the West
  • The war misrepresented in terms of the forces of good versus evil
  • Over-personalization when the conflict was also about both resources and representation
  • The exploits of the LRA and Kony were not ignored before the media intervention of IC
  • Kony has been driven out of Uganda for the last nine years
  • IC seems naïve about the complex inter-ethnic history of Uganda, particularly the rivalry between the Luo (Acholi) and Baganda or Chwezi rulers toppled by the Acholi
  • IC advocacy of military intervention for ostensibly humanitarian reasons, seems either naive or willfully blind to American neo-colonial interests in the oil and mineral wealth of the DRC, South Sudan, and the strategic importance to the US of northern Uganda
  • Northern Ugandans have not been in IDP camps for nine years
  • Outsiders have played a very minor role in the rescue of children; IC, in particular, was not necessary to get the US military role to continue or to bring Kony before the ICC
  • The claim that, “due to increased awareness and global efforts to stop the group, the entire fighting force of the LRA has been reduced from approximately 1,000 at the end of the Juba peace talks in 2008 to an estimated 200 fighters in 2014” is a patent misrepresentation of the factors and forces that have decimated the LRA
  • IC’s attitude is patronizing
  • The process, as in Arab Spring, magnifies the role of social media considerably, especially by congratulating itself for starting a social revolution, and diminishes the far more important work on the ground by locals
  • Defeating Kony does not end the underlying problem
  • Policy shifts both in Africa and America have had little to do with IC
  • The general story of a helpless Africa without American support is a gross lie
  • The real current domestic problem is reconciliation
  • The real current inter-state problem is pacification of the region, not simply the elimination of Joseph Kony and the LRA

That is a long list of criticisms. Rebuttals can be provided to many. For example, IC was not the only organization that believed the LRA situation required a huge spotlight on it. In the same year that the three founders of IC first went to Africa, Jan Egeland (then the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs), after visiting northern Uganda for only two days in November 2003, described the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government as the “biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.”

Overall, the IC has adopted the format of a Western with a focus on one bad guy as the source of evil. In that sense, the strategy of the right in America differs little from the strategy of the American left. Further, when Stop Kony came out, Kony and the LRA were already near their end. Critics called for a Stop Museveni campaign. Raising the awareness of college students about Joseph Kony has not only not been a sufficient cause in the depreciation of Kony, it has not even been a necessary factor according to Andrew Harding, the BBC Africa correspondent.

Mobilizing more, galvanizing more, getting more people to pay attention and to participate, in fact, played only an infinitesimally small role in the destruction of Joseph Kony and the LRA. Further, perpetuating the belief that online activism can change the course of international politics is not only naïve, but terribly misleading, especially when it suggests that the LRA has recruited 30,000 abducted children when this is the estimated total of abductees over almost 30 years. (See Michael Wilson’s critique in Foreign Policy.) The Council on Foreign Relations also accused IC of both exaggeration and manipulation. Michael Diebert, author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, echoed these criticisms and chastised IC for its silence on the human rights abuses of the Uganda and South Sudan governments.

IC has also been criticized for a less than stellar reputation on Charity Navigation, an independent assessor of charities. However, an examination of the financial report of IC indicates that IC operates well within the norms of charities undertaking similar types of activism, whether with respect to the percentage of expenditures on administration, accountability and transparency criteria. In the latter areas, IC deservedly received a 100% approval rating.

While I acknowledge IC’s role in raising awareness, I am also critical of its narrow focus much as American Sniper only saw Iraq through Kyle’s rifle scope. This links up right wing and left wing activism in their narrow-minded moral frameworks, their personification of politics and their polarizing issues into the forces of good against the forces of evil. Most significantly, as indicated above, IC was accused of providing an intelligence tip to Uganda’s security service leading to the arrest of regime opponents. As distinct from its initial criticisms of the Ugandan government for inaction, IC has cooperated with Uganda and South Sudan in its film-making and awareness campaigns. The U.S. has been aware of Museveni’s efforts to link opponents of the regime with the LRA and thereby demonize them. Most significantly, IC may now be effectively acting as a propaganda arm of the Uganda government. Jolly Okot, who runs IC’s Gulu office, seems to have been an apologist for the OLT military campaign of the Ugandan government. Most interesting, IC has been unavailable to comment on such criticisms.

IC is certainly not the only NGO that inflates its own importance. IC is certainly not the only NGO that ignores politics in the emphasis on its humanitarian work, but IC seems to do so by going to the opposite extreme of providing an advertisement program for the Museveni government policies in dealing with the north. IC is also not the only NGO to inadvertently provide information to an oppressive government. I believe that IC has been led by sincere, well-intentioned and highly committed individuals who have sacrificed a great deal. But I have become convinced over the years that, as the cliché goes, the road to hell has often been paved with good intentions. Surely, the harm an organization causes must be weighed against its benefits.

What has been Samantha Power’s responsibility for all of this? She too has exhibited a similar level of naiveté, a similar level of lack of self-critique, a similar level of over-estimating the importance of grassroots movements. This is not simply guilt by association. This is guilt by reflection and identification. To make this explicit, I will examine two specific issues of double violation and suffering, the victimization of former abductees by organizations such as IC when IC takes the credit for the abductee’s salvation; former abductees deserve most of the credit. IC has also provided unstinting support for the International Criminal Court when the ICC, too, in its single-minded pursuit of justice, has been guilty of being complicit in victimization.

Next: Victimizing Acholi Abductees by NGOs and the ICC