Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
I happened to be in Kitgum, one of the seven districts that make up the Acholi sub-region, in the same week that the Kony 2012 video was released.
This region, located in the far north of Uganda, on the border with South Sudan, was the area worst affected by the two-decade-long insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA. Over a long period, LRA forces based in South Sudan used Kitgum district as an entry point to launch devastating attacks on the civilian population in Uganda.
But that was more than five years ago. Even so, the Ugandan government has broadly welcomed the film.
The reason I was in Kitgum was to report on a discussion on the future of the Amnesty Act, a piece of legislation passed by the Ugandan parliament 12 years ago to pardon people who had engaged in war or armed rebellion. Most of the beneficiaries of the law are former LRA rebels.
So it seemed fitting that Kitgum was where I first saw Kony 2012, a sleek video by the American charity Invisible Children which aims to make LRA leader Joseph Kony so notorious that governments will take action to apprehend him.
The film went viral and quickly attracted global attention; at the time of writing, more than 100 million people have finally viewed the 30-minute documentary.
As a charity, Invisible Children has built dormitories for schoolchildren, fixed water supplies in schools and sponsored disadvantaged children to go to university. But all that is dwarfed by the controversy surrounding Kony 2012.
Critics of the film point to a major disconnect between the message framed in the video and the current realities on the ground in northern Uganda.
For instance, camps for internally displaced persons, IDPs, in northern Uganda have been officially closed, and the government has said the region has moved into a “recovery and development phase”. The film, meanwhile, seems to suggest there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
At the peak of displacement in northern Uganda, there were 251 IDP camps spread across 11 districts. So wretched was life in the camps that on a visit to northern Uganda in 2003, Jan Egeland, the United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, described the conflict in northern Uganda as “the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today”.
At about that time, there were calls by some local leaders in northern Uganda for the government to declare a state of emergency in the region as a way of attracting from the international community. The government dismissed the suggestion outright. In doing so, it was in a sense rejecting international attention at the very time northern Uganda needed it most.
It is only now, more than a decade later, the government welcomed the spotlight that Kony 2012 has placed on the north. It is quite a turnaround.
In 2003, with about 1.8 million people displaced in the IDP camps, any international focus on the humanitarian situation in the north would have exposed the inability and failure of the Ugandan state to protect its citizens, at a time when the government wanted to create the impression that it was in full control.
Another reason is that as well as the LRA, the Ugandan army stands accused of gross human rights violations in the north. Opening the region to international scrutiny at a time when the authorities were not even fully in control of the camps they had set up – some massacres took place in these IDP facilities – would not have been to the government’s advantage.
These days, the government’s magic wand for northern Uganda is the Peace, Recovery, Development Programme, PRDP, a multimillion US dollar initiative funded by external donors and the state itself. PRDP was launched in October 2007, with implementation beginning in July 2008. Roads, health centres, police outposts and schools have been built under the initiative. Clearly, these are positive post-conflict achievements.
Why, then, would the government of Uganda be happy about a video that appears to suggest the north is still in the grip of a humanitarian crisis?
The answer is that unlike in 2003, the government now feels it is now totally in control of affairs in northern Uganda and can therefore allow and even welcome greater international attention. External interest will work in the government’s favour as it looks for more funding for post-conflict recovery efforts both in this region and in other poor parts of Uganda.
The video continues to receive criticism from bloggers and journalists in Uganda. On March 13, an attempt to screen the video in Lira, in the Lango sub-region – another area affected by the LRA conflict – had to be stopped when things threatened to turn violent.
The reasons for such hostility could be because the video was not primarily meant for a Ugandan audience.
Irrespective of the video’s weak points, it could yet lead to deeper questions being asked about what exactly happened in northern Uganda during the conflict, and who was responsible.
Outside interest may have come far too late, given that the crisis is over and reconstruction is moving ahead. But the victims of war are still crying out for justice. They might be the ultimate beneficiaries of Kony 2012.
Moses Odokonyero is head of the Northern Uganda Media club, based in Gulu reporter in northern Uganda.
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