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Why the Humiliation of Jason Russell is Such a Tragedy

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The success of 'Invisble Childrens' Kony 2012 campaign posed an enormous dilemma for those of us who have been engaged with the problem of the Lord's Resistance Army for many years.

Today it is no longer a dilemma; it is a tragedy. Not just a tragedy for Jason Russell, but a tragedy for the stolen children of the LRA - and a tragedy for the stolen goodwill of the millions of young people around the world who believed in the ultimately terribly wrong message of Russell's film: Kony 2012.

Behind the nonsense of the call to 'Make Kony Famous,' the central demand of Russell's Stop Kony campaign, was the call for the US to intervene militarily against Kony and the LRA. There are a many reasons why that was wrong. And I witnessed one of the most compelling.

In April 2004 I was in Gulu in Northern Uganda, home of the Acholi - the people who Joseph Kony claims to represent and who - at the time - were also his main victims.

I was called on the phone by the then head of intelligence for the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UPDF), Lt Col Charles Otema. He told me something exciting had happened - a great victory for the UPDF against the LRA.

A month earlier some 300 people had been killed in an LRA attack on one of the huge camps for the internally displaced in the north. These were awful places, overcrowded, rife with disease and inadequately protected by the UPDF. Uganda's President Museveni said they were places of safety. To the Acholi - a potential source of political opposition to the increasingly autocratic Museveni - they felt like prison camps, where they were kept marginalised and silent, and subject to constant attacks from the marauding LRA.

Otema was very anxious for me to travel with him to the scene of the victory in the bush - close to the border with Sudan - where, he said, some 55 rebels had been killed. After an hour in a helicopter and a high-speed trek through the bush, we arrived at the scene of the battle. Guns could still be heard some way off.

The first dead rebel I saw, slumped in a grass clearing, was four years old. He had almost certainly been born in captivity. A girl who may well have been his mother - a teenager - lay nearby, stripped to the waist. She was also dead. Most of the 55 dead were women and children. At least one youth, around 14 years old, was still alive, though dreadfully injured.

At the time I wrote that while few would deny that military action is needed to contain the LRA and protect local people. But in that bloody battlefield near Sudan, it was equally clear to me that the price of a purely military solution is unacceptably high.

I added: "It is very difficult to defend the slaughter of four-year-olds in the cause of peace." At the time this was - in western world terms - a largely unknown war. Tens of thousands of children had been kidnapped yet 'world' opinion seemed uninterested. The UN Security Council had not even discussed it. So - rather like Jason Russell, though far less successfully - I pleaded for the world to engage.

"Serious international pressure might force both sides into peace negotiations ­but it has been slow in coming. Last year the LRA abducted 9,000 young people. It is tempting to think that if they had been stealing oil rather than children, the rest of the world would have paid more attention".

Eight years later the world did at last pay attention, spectacularly, when 100 million people watched the Kony 2012 film.

Unfortunately in the interim, there had been several important developments - all ignored, or misrepresented - by Kony 2012.

The first was peace negotiations. They were spectacularly flawed - stumbling and inconclusive - marked by the dissembling of the Uganda government, whose commitment was often unconvincing, and the complete intransigence and unreliability of Kony who trusted his own negotiators as little as he trusted the Ugandan government.

But while the talks stumbled on the fighting stopped. Not completely, but to a great extent.
I was in Northern Uganda again at the time - and later Juba in Southern Sudan where the peace talks were happening. At the time the LRA were largely based in the Garamba Forest in Sudan.
It was a complex and far from perfect situation. Almost everyone, from the chief mediator, Southern Sudan's vice president Riak Machar down, was flawed or compromised. Even the International Criminal Court, an organisation I support completely in principle, had intervened crassly and tritely (because, I suspect, it thought 'African war criminals' were an easy target).
But there was relative peace, and for the people of that ravaged region, that was invaluable and to be treasured. Even the rightly-hated IDP camps were emptying.

And then came Operation Lightning Thunder.

Sponsored and logistically aided by the USA - in the first direct act of war by the new American Command for Africa, AFRICOM - the Ugandan Forces launched a massive military assault on the LRA in December 2008. (It was officially, though hardly in practice, a joint operation with the forces of the then quasi-independent Government of Southern Sudan, the SPLA, and the deeply dysfunctional army of the Democratic Republic of Congo).

It was a disaster. The weather was bad, Uganda acted prematurely. Kony got a warning and escaped, his forces scattered and although massively depleted, have caused renewed havoc, misery and death in the region, in Southern Sudan and in parts of Congo and the Central African Republic in particular.

So things are worse than they were during the deeply flawed peace talks. They are almost certainly worse than they would have been without the US sponsored Operation Lightning Thunder.

And yet Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign has been proposing more of the same. And millions of generally well meaning, mostly young, mostly white, kids have been duped into supporting them.

If you watched the film Kony 2012, you might well think that Joseph Kony was still terrorising the people of Northern Uganda with an army 30,000 children, rather than causing disproportionate misery elsewhere with at most a few hundred young conscripts.

You would not realise that what Northern Uganda needs is not another American-sponsored military adventure, but massive economic investment, an end to land-grabs by corrupt military officials and others, an end to economic and political marginalisation - and political empowerment and major social and health programmes to support and rehabilitate a community ravaged by a 20 years of war.

Meanwhile the people still at risk in areas of Congo, CAR and even Southern Sudan are entitled to, and should get, military protection. If Kony was to be taken out in the course of such defensive military activity, no-one will shed many tears, but the primary activity to accompany this defensive military operation should surely be intensive efforts to isolate Kony, encourage desertion by his conscripted soldiers and force him talk or surrender. A defensive military does not just protect people, it makes it difficult for Kony to recruit to replace his constantly haemorrhaging forces. So far large scale military offensives have always made things worse.

It would be bad enough if all that Invisible Children and their Stop Kony campaign had done was fail to deal with these complex issues - or even actively discourage engagement with them. But the problem is that they did something else.

They captured the attention of nearly 100,000 million mostly young people in a way that none of us concerned with the issue had ever managed. They recruited many of them into a well-meaning army of activists - a kind of goodwill Frankenstien which believed that hatred of an African bogeyman and the glitz of celebrity endorsement - combined with the might of the American military - could bring peace and justice to the 'poor children' of Africa.

It always was delusional nonsense. But when the self-appointed celebrity guru of this huge misled army of young people lost his rationality so tragically and publicly in San Diego last week, I fear it marked the beginning of the final awful consequence of this whole story.

Most of us who have expressed concern over the Kony 2012 campaign over the past couple of weeks have tended to qualify our complaints by acknowledging that the campaign had at least made millions of young people in the west begin to engage with the rest of the world. Something we never managed.

I suppose its possible that next time they will engage more intelligently. I fear its more probable that they will just feel rather foolish and betrayed, and engage even less.

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