Kony 2: Shining a light on hunt for the notorious African warlord

OK, it wasn't exactly #Kony2015, but it is still kind of a big deal...
Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony

Remember Joseph Kony?

He’s that infamous, murderous African rebel leader who, for a while anyway, was world public enemy number one because of his long and bloody history of indiscriminant murder, child kidnapping, sex slavery and other atrocities committed across central Africa.

There are plenty of other murderous people out there, in all parts of the world, with similar resumes. But Kony went to the top of the list of global bad guys in 2012 thanks to a powerful video produced by an evangelical Christian organization in California called Invisible Children that aimed to spur public outrage and a new push to capture or kill him.

Outrage was spurred and all sorts of things got set in motion, including the deployment of US special forces to the region and a somewhat bizarre paramilitary adventure funded by Howard Buffett and a Texas philanthropist named Shannon Sedgwick Davis – whose faith led her to support an unsuccessful private military action against the Kony abominations.

But Kony remains at large, frustratingly so.

Robert Young Pelton

Robert Young Pelton

Enter Robert Young Pelton, author of the “World’s Most Dangerous Places,” adventurer, businessman and (very) independent journalist. Pelton, along with Seattle-based documentary film-maker Ross Fenter and his colleague Rob Swain, have launched a crowd-funding campaign to go find Kony themselves.

This new hunt for Joseph Kony is called Expedition Kony, is something of a new media experiment and you can contribute to it (or even join it) via Indiegogo. Not surprisingly, given Invisible Children’s stunning rise and fall, Pelton’s new adventure is already drawing criticism, if not ridicule.

As J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, said: “The notion of asking the public to contribute to sending a self-promoting adventurer and two filmmakers off to find an elusive warlord whom the militaries of several African countries assisted by U.S. Special Operations Forces have not managed to catch is risible, to say the least.”

How can one man, along with a film crew, accomplish what the US military, the Ugandan government, other African governments, the son of one of the world’s richest men, the International Criminal Court and countless others over the past decades have failed to accomplish?

Two reasons, answered Pelton. To begin with, he’s not going in as a big military operation (which is often easy to see coming) but as a small team on the ground. Secondly, he isn’t trying to capture or kill Kony. He just wants to talk to him, hear his side of things – in part because he thinks Kony, however horrible his actions, is a bit of a red herring.

“I don’t think we really have the whole story here,” Pelton said. “I find this a fascinating mess with all sorts of interesting political, business and religious underpinnings.”

Ross Fenter

Ross Fenter

Indiegogo

“You know the old axiom to ‘follow the money?’ ” added film-maker Ross Fenter. “If you do that with the Kony story, you start uncovering a lot of layers to this story that nobody’s talking about. Kony is actually fairly irrelevant today. We see him as a vehicle for telling a much bigger story.”

On the money side, an estimated $200 million has been spent over the years to capture or kill Kony. The US government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Invisible Children, thanks to the parallel publicity the group brought to itself by exploding Kony’s notoriety, amassed a windfall of donations and today sits on a $17 million war chest it uses for a variety of ongoing anti-Kony efforts in Uganda such as dropping fliers, running an early warning radio alert system and projects aimed at helping affected communities.

But by far, most of the money raised has not been put to use in Africa (much of it in support of the founders’ film-making) and, for some reason, Invisible Children has opened a bank account in the Cayman Islands (IRS 990 form, page 5). Others have pointed to these financial red flags before.

Invisible Children did not agree to be interviewed by Humanosphere but the group’s communications director Noelle West said in an email they’ve “seen a ton of progress on the ground since the release of our Kony 2012 film due to the collaborations that are happening between military, NGO and civil society leaders.”

That’s what interests Pelton and his team.

Why, they wonder, does this much-diminished criminal hiding somewhere in central Africa (probably the Central African Republic) get so much attention when the world is host to so many more powerful and murderous criminals, rebel leaders and thugs?

In short, Pelton and his “Dangerous” film crew are not just looking for Kony. They’re also want to take a close look at all of those organizations, philanthropies, government agencies, businesses and military teams who say they are looking for Kony.

“My ideal goal is to convince him to turn himself into the Hague (International Criminal Court),” said Pelton, because of course he thinks Kony should face justice for his crimes. But Pelton also thinks the warlord’s testimony will reveal a much more complex tale that envelops corporate interests in resource-rich east and central Africa, the U.S. government’s desire for a bigger footprint in the region, the (to Pelton anyway) strange but powerful workings of private philanthropists and so on.

“Maybe these people just need a bogey man in order to pursue other agendas,” said Fenter. “Why has this one guy attracted so much interest and invested efforts by the US State Department, the CIA, the military, major corporations and philanthropists? Nobody seems to want us to even ask these questions, let alone answer them.”

To begin with, Pelton said, he wants to place Kony in a broader historical context, in part to emphasize that he’s hardly the lone bad guy in this movie.

Kony and his extraordinarily brutal militia formed in the late 1980s as a reaction to the arguably equally brutal ethnic attacks on and displacement of his fellow Acholi people. These attacks were orchestrated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (which also has a reputation for atrocities). The Ugandan government’s battles in northern Uganda – not just with Kony – lasted decades and, as recently as 2005, were reportedly causing the deaths of 1,000 people every week.

“Museveni’s forces put people into concentration camps and basically destroyed the Acholis’ way of life,” Pelton said. That’s what got Kony started.

Then there’s the strong religious element to this story. The founders of Invisible Children say they were motivated by their Christian faith to put a stop to Kony – to encourage a new effort to capture or kill him. The philanthropist Sedgwick said her beliefs are what drove her to pay for helicopters and a South African mercenary soldier to boost Uganda’s military effort against Kony.

Yet Kony reportedly also considers himself a Christian. He runs his now much-diminished Lord’s Resistance Army like a cult – and somewhat akin to the Old Testament Yahweh who reportedly (Joshua 6:21) told the Israelites when they entered Jericho to “Destroy with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys.”

“I’m a Christian, too,” said Fenter. “But the religious narrative and motivations on all sides of this story are pretty odd.”

There are big business interests, some of them possibily masquerading as philanthropy (Pelton and Fenter both noted Howard Buffett has invested heavily in agriculture throughout Africa). There are US military and geopolitical interests clearly aimed at expanding our presence in the region (“We need to catch up with China,” Pelton said). And there are probably a number of other angles that may yet surprise.

Pelton and Fenter don’t want to give away all of the angles they intend to explore on Expedition Kony. But they want their supporters – and their critics – to see this initiative as they see it. This isn’t just another fund-raising effort to track down and put a stop to Joseph Kony. This is a project that seeks to shine a light on this hunt, on the hunters as well as the hunted.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.