Digested: Kony 2012

Joseph Kony
Joseph Kony

Earlier this month, media furore ensued after a 30-minute documentary condemning the Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony appeared on the internet.

Where hundreds of similar initiatives have struggled and failed to dent the popular consciousness, Kony 2012 was instantly everywhere, being bandied around YouTube, surfacing on usually-banal social networking sites and being watched 30 million times in 48 hours.

The video excoriates Kony for war crimes committed over several decades, particularly for kidnapping children and using them as soldiers and sex slaves, and calls for his arrest. It hadn’t been ricocheting around the internet for long, though, before its creators, American advocacy group Invisible Children, were on the receiving end of criticism themselves.

Their film, critics claimed, contained glaring factual inaccuracies: the video was misleading and out of date. The suggestion throughout was that Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army were an active danger within Uganda. As the Ugandan government among others were quick to point out, the LRA had been pushed out of the country by its People’s Defence Forces in the late 2000s. Since then, militarily weakened and dwindling in numbers, Kony and his followers have moved between remote areas of several Central African countries in an attempt to survive.

Then came the inevitable medium-straddling debate over whether the whole project was positive or negative, a well-meaning attempt to shed light on unimaginable atrocities or a clumsily wasted opportunity with sinister undertones. Kony’s crimes, meanwhile, fell by the wayside.

Who is Joseph Kony?

A young woman whose nose, ears and lips were cut off on Kony’s orders
A young woman whose nose, ears and lips were cut off on Kony’s orders

Joseph Rao Kony is a 50 year-old guerrilla commander and self-proclaimed spirit medium from Odek, a village in northern Uganda. Since the late 1980s, Kony has been the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group driven by a confused mix of African mysticism and vengeful Old Testament Christianity.

In the quarter-century since, Kony and the LRA have committed a series of sickening military atrocities, initially in the name of resisting Uganda’s central government, but latterly for no apparent reason at all. It is estimated that Kony has recruited – which is to say kidnapped and pressed in military service – between 60,000 and 100,000 children, and displaced approximately 2,000,000 people across central Africa.

Kony is believed to have at least 88 wives and 40 children. One abductee who managed to escape has described how, kidnapped aged 12, she was chosen as one of Kony’s brood of retainers-cum-personal sex slaves, and had given birth to one of his children by the time she was 13. At the time of her escape, she was pregnant for the third time. Others abducted as children told how they were forced to hack their own friends and neighbours to death and drink their blood. 

Kony regularly communes with spirits, including a Chinese phantom, and consistently claims to be following God’s orders. He instructs his child followers to paint crosses on their bodies to deflect enemy bullets. Suggestions that he is clinically insane are obviously impossible to verify, but, given the evidence, would seem likely.

The Lord’s Resistance Army

In 1986, an earlier self-styled prophet called Alice Lawkena started the Holy Spirit Movement in north Uganda, claiming to have been inspired by God to overthrow the national Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni. Despite the fact that Lawkena’s forces would often march straight at entrenched machine gun positions in cross-shaped formations singing hymns, the Holy Spirit Movement won a series of early skirmishes with the Ugandan national army. In 1988, however, the Movement was decisively routed during a march on Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and Lawkena fled to a Kenyan refugee camp where she remained until her death in 2007.

Joseph Kony was one of many spiritual leaders to emerge on the coat-tails of Lawkena’s movement. During her campaign, he had built up his own militia from national army defectors, and now sought to absorb the remnants of the leaderless Holy Spirit Movement to begin his own insurgency against the Museveni regime. Initially popular amongst his own Acholi people, Kony turned against then when he suspected some of supporting the government, and had hundreds mutilated.

By the mid-1990s, Kony was using arms supplied by the Sudanese government to savagely attack his own people – in 1995, he massacred the village of Atiak and captured 139 school girls, in 1996 he did the same thing in Aboke, and in 1997 he attacked the town of Lamwo, killing 400 and displacing 100,000. 2002 saw a massive campaign by the Ugandan army to wipe out the LRA. Kony retaliated by killing hundreds sheltering in refugee camps across the north Ugandan border. Successive US-backed military offensives smashed the LRA’s organisation, forcing Kony to flee, while the vestiges of his army massacred thousands.

What’s the situation now?

It is estimated that 95% of the Acholi population in Uganda has been uprooted by LRA violence – in 2005, 1.7 million were living in Displaced Persons Camps with the worst mortality rates in the world, 1000 dying weekly. This situation has thankfully slightly improved in the intervening years.

Kony and a band of approximately soldiers, mostly children, have terrorised regions of the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo since leaving Uganda. Between 2008 and 2011, the LRA remnants have killed over 2,300 and displaced 400,000.

Coincidentally, in the very same month that saw the Kony 2012 film meet with media frenzy, the African Union announced that 5,000 troops were being dedicated to hunting down and arresting the warlord himself. More significantly, United States ‘military advisors’ are being dispatched to aid the search for Kony. Judging by past precedent – an extreme example, but the US was originally only sending ‘military advisors’ to Vietnam – it seems that Joseph Kony might meet his end fairly soon at the point of a Delta Force M4 somewhere in the Central African bush.


For all the video’s errors, that millions of Westerners are now aware of the existence of a merciless warlord responsible for a litany of horrific crimes against humanity is obviously a good thing.

The whole grim affair just emphasises the unrelenting fear, instability and arbitrary violence that haunts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in regions of the world we barely know exist.

We can judge Kony 2012’s success, then, not on the basis of how many posters calling for the capture of Ugandan warlords suddenly appear on student walls or in suburban windows, but by whether other more current atrocities receive the same frenzied media exposure. Ideally, it will teach us to pay enough attention to world affairs to catch the next Joseph Kony in the act, rather than belatedly sending flowers after the damage is done.