Eight months after Joseph Kony became a household name when the release of a video documenting his war crimes went viral, the indicted war criminal remains at large. More than 100 million people have viewed the film “Kony 2012,” and its success has focused attention both on Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Invisible Children, the nonprofit group responsible for the film and campaign.
The movement mobilized Millennials to care about a savage, long-running conflict most knew nothing about, but can Invisible Children and others keep the public focused on the LRA with Kony still at large?
Kony is, by any measure, a monster. For more than two decades, the messianic, cult-like warlord has led a rebel group that’s kidnapped, mutilated, hacked, massacred and raped tens of thousands of people, turning girls into sex slaves and boys into wanton child killers. But Invisible Children has also come under intense fire for glossing over complexities (like the fact that Kony hasn’t even been in Uganda for six years) to create a slick Hollywood production that tugs at the heartstrings.
Invisible Children is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that grew out of a trip its three co-founders, Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell, took to Uganda in 2003, in which they witnessed the devastating impact of the LRA, whose leader, Kony, became the first person to be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2005. Russell, then a recent film school graduate, directed the group’s first film, “Invisible Children: The Rough Cut,” and the group toured the country showing it to hundreds of schools and churches.
Over the ensuing years, Invisible Children grew, producing 10 documentaries highlighting LRA atrocities in Central and East Africa and adding staff in Africa and at their home office in Southern California. When the group released “Kony 2012” on YouTube on March 5, their goal was for it to reach 500,000 page views for the year. But thanks to high-profile support from Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities, and nearly 10 million tweets in the first week of March alone, the video was viewed more than 40 million times in its first four days on the site.
Since that initial burst of worldwide attention, Invisible Children has continued its work, though not nearly on the same scale. By comparison, the group released “Move,” a 30-minute follow-up film that addresses some of the controversy surrounding “Kony 2012.” As of Oct. 25, that film garnered just over 14,000 page views in its first eight days on YouTube.
Invisible Children is also re-emerging on the political scene in Washington, D.C., where it called on thousands of young people to attend a Nov. 16 lobbying event with members of Congress, as well as a Nov. 17 rally and march on the White House. The summit did attract Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Johnnie Carson and other U.S. officials, though it generated far fewer headlines than the original “Kony 2012” video did.
Ugandans criticized “Kony 2012” for leaving viewers with the impression that Kony and the LRA were still in northern Uganda and utilizing tens of thousands of child soldiers, when in fact the now much-depleted LRA is thought to consist of just three clusters of fighters, who may number no more than 200 men in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) — though they are still capable of wreaking havoc through occasional attacks.
Critics also mocked Millennial “slacktivism” and the “Kony 2012” kits the group sold on its website, while others complained that only 37 percent of Invisible Children’s expenditures in 2011 went toward programs directly in Africa, with the group receiving a rating of just two stars out of five by the charity industry tracker GuideStar.
Eleni Gianulis, a spokeswoman for Invisible Children, said that claims the organization spends too much on salaries and administrative costs are baseless. She noted that the salary of Ben Keesey, Invisible Children’s CEO, is just $88,000 and said that the organization “spends 81 percent on programs, which includes media, mobilization, protection and recovery.”
At least one of the victims depicted in the film, Margaret Aciro, whose lips, nose and ears were mutilated by the LRA, told the Ugandan press that she felt the filmmakers used her suffering for profit. Gianulis expressed regret about Aciro’s charges but also noted that the individuals depicted in their films benefit through Invisible Children’s legacy scholarship program as well as a micro-economic program they run geared toward LRA victims.
But critics like Michael Wilkerson, an American journalist based in Uganda who co-founded Own Your Own Boda, a for-profit social enterprise that helps motorcycle taxi drivers in Kampala buy their own bikes, says that many Ugandans will never get over the bad initial taste the film left.
“It’s frustrating to have Uganda continually defined for millions of people in a misleading, superficial way, and I think Invisible Children won the prize for that,” he said. “I don’t think anyone since [Ugandan military dictator] Idi Amin has hurt the perception of Uganda for as many people who can’t find it on a map.”
As reported by the New York Times — though overlooked in the “Kony 2012” video — “the United States has also pumped in more than $500 million in development aid to northern Uganda, turning a former battlefield into a vibrant piece of the Ugandan economy with new banks and hotels.”
The Ugandan government, in fact, pushed the LRA out of the country after peace talks collapsed in 2006. Many of the child soldiers Kony abducted have long since grown up, many still grappling with the scars of war. Since 2006, the Ugandan military has continued to hunt the notorious warlord, though with little success (in some cases failing miserably, such a 2008 operation that sparked retributions by the LRA against villagers). Other than a small blip in the film, however, “Kony 2012” gave the impression that the LRA continues to use Uganda as its stomping ground.
Ten days after the video was released, as critiques of the film and the organization were amplifying, Jason Russell was hospitalized for exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition after a public meltdown in which he ran naked, screaming through the streets of San Diego.
Despite the resulting bad publicity, even its harshest critics had to admit that Invisible Children managed to push the Kony issue into the mainstream.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the criticism “the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.” And some of Invisible Children’s defenders were quick to point out that much of the sniping came from other NGOs that were envious of all the attention and donations that were pouring into the group’s coffers. Invisible Children itself admitted it was unprepared to handle the deluge of attention that their video sparked.
But how much of an impact has their campaign had now that 2012 is almost over?
“There’s no question that they helped increase awareness, but it’s very hard to measure the impact of their campaign beyond that,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I do think they’ve also been successful in engaging Congress and getting Congress to act on the issue.”
Just a week after the release of the film, a Kony 2012 resolution with 124 bipartisan co-sponsors was approved in the U.S. House of Representatives and was later approved unanimously by the Senate. In March, the African Union announced the formation of a new joint force, led by Uganda, to track down the LRA. In April, the Obama administration extended the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisors helping Ugandan troops in the region. And in May, the Ugandan army dealt a blow to the LRA by capturing Caesar Achellam, a major general in Kony’s army in the CAR.
Weeks later, the Senate appropriated humanitarian aid for LRA-affected communities and $50 million for intelligence and surveillance of LRA activity. And in August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Uganda and raised the LRA issue with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. A few weeks after Clinton’s visit, the African Union formally took command of a regional force of about 2,000 Ugandan and Sudanese troops tasked with tracking Kony and other LRA fighters in the region.
A contingent of about 100 U.S. Army Special Forces have been providing tactical, intelligence and logistical support to the effort at four bases in Uganda, South Sudan, the CAR and the DRC since late 2011.
Some in the advocacy community, such as the Enough Project, would like to see the U.S. contingent actively patrolling with regional troops, but Downie said the president’s approach not to involve U.S. forces in combat has had broad support.
Other groups have floated the idea of providing additional arms to the Ugandan military, though that too is fraught with difficulty, given its spotty human rights record.
Meanwhile, the AU force tasked with capturing Kony — which was supposed to number 5,000 but lacked countries willing to provide the additional soldiers — faces a challenge that may be just as daunting as the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which took nearly a decade.
“It’s an incredibly difficult operation,” Downie said. “You’re dealing with a huge, remote area that is hard to access. There’s difficult terrain, poor infrastructure. And you’re dealing with a very small band of fighters, some of them active for well over 20 years. Kony is a smart operator — he knows how to evade capture. The fact that his group is now so small in number adds to the difficulty of getting him. It is like finding a needle in the haystacks.”
The task is further complicated by the fact that the governments of the newly independent South Sudan, CAR and DRC each face their own serious security threats. Even if fighting the LRA were a top priority for any of these nations, they lack the capacity to get the job done.
Meanwhile, Kony’s small army continues to commit atrocities, mostly in the DRC. According to the website www.lracrisistracker.com, operated by Invisible Children and Resolve, another advocacy group, LRA forces killed 47 civilians in 2012 through October and abducted more than 400 others. Those figures represent a sharp decline — in 2010, more than 700 civilians were killed and in 2011, there were just over 150 civilian fatalities.
Gianulis, the Invisible Children spokeswoman, said that the point of the group’s Nov. 17 rally in Washington is to recapture momentum for their campaign and to press for an international summit focused on coordinating efforts to catch Kony and dismantle the LRA once and for all. The group’s new film plays clips of television commentators mocking the Millennial generation’s supposed short attention span and challenges young people to stay involved and show their dedication to the issue by attending the D.C. rally.
Gianulis couldn’t say whether the Kony 2012 campaign would be rebranded if Kony isn’t captured before the end of the year but insisted that the group’s efforts won’t stop on Dec. 31.
“Kony 2012 is a yearlong campaign that ends Dec. 31,” she said in an e-mail. “However, the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA have been going on for over 26 years and we will not give up on our goal of stopping him if he is not captured before the end of the year.”
Wilkerson said that “Kony 2012” might have left people with the false assumption that capturing Kony this year would be easy.
“No matter how inspiring the music is, or how nice their wristbands are, or how many people you gather at a park in Washington, the extraordinarily difficult operational task of capturing Kony doesn’t get easier,” he said. “I see a disconnect between Invisible Children’s approach and that reality.”
But Downie said that every advocacy group tries to create a sense of urgency for their campaigns.
“They want to attract urgency to the situation, so I don’t blame them,” he said. “But it probably did lead to unrealistic expectations from people who weren’t aware of the LRA’s history. If you just watched the video, you could be led to believe that this is something that could be done easily if only we just tried a little bit harder and put more U.S. effort and resources to this.”
Downie noted that the challenge of keeping the LRA hunt in the spotlight is daunting given the other headline-grabbing security problems in Africa and around the world that will take precedence over the long, arduous campaign to capture Kony.
“The longer this goes on without any big headline success, people are likely to forget about it,” he said. “There are some big pressing challenges that are affecting more people in Africa right now, in places like Mali, Libya and the DRC, so the administration has to focus on those issues.”
The tepid public interest in the follow-up video to “Kony 2012” appears to confirm that suspicion, but Invisible Children’s campaign will likely change how advocacy groups operate for years to come. And the hunt for one of history’s most notorious war criminals will go on, whether the American public is paying attention or not.
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former U.S. diplomat.