Children, the Congo and the new Konys

People may remember the Kony 2012 campaign back in March and the slick video which accompanied the campaign launch produced by a charity called “Invisible Children”.  Despite an initial explosion all over social media and a substantial level of initial nieve support for their proported mission to bring Joseph Kony, the former leader of the Lords Resistance Army to justice over his use of child solders, as people dug behind the scenes and into the set up of the organisation, substantial issues emerged.

Once the emotive and heart-string pulling section of the video was over, the action that the video wanted people to take was to publicise the situation to pressurise the US government to send troops into the region to find Kony and bring him to justice.  US military intervention in Africa, rarely pours oil on troubled waters – more frequently oil is siphoned from Africa’s waters as the trouble intensifies.  The immediate threat that Kony posed was now over, given that the conflict ended over five years ago and Kony had fled to the Congo – a site of intense regional conflict over coltan and other rare minerals, so its worth examining the behind the scenes motivations of those funding this campaign.

The funding of the group also came under scrutiny, after it emerged that it had taken substantial donations from right wing Christian funding groups with an explicit anti-gay agenda including Caster Family Foundation, one of the largest backers of the campaign opposing the demand for equal marriage in California, Philip Anschutz, a major backer of the homophobic Discovery Institute and a donor to the campaign opposing equal marriage in California as well as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, The Fellowship Foundation, and the Call – all organisations of the Christian Right, all with anti-gay policies.  Another backer is Harvest Evangelism, run by Ed Silvoso, who has worked closely with Julius Oyet, a Ugandan author who once stated that “even animals are wiser than homosexuals“.

Uganda is one of the most dangerous counties to be publically homosexual – a situation which is rapidly escalating.  In 2004, a radio station was fined over $1000 after allowing openly gay men to speak on a live radio show, in 2006, a newspaper published a list of 45 allegedly gay men, many of whom subsequently faced harassment.  In 2010, another newspaper published names, addresses and photographs of 100 allegedly gay Ugandans, accompanied by a call for their execution.  When the gay-rights activist David Kato sued the newspaper, just weeks later, someone followed its call and murdered him.  This year, Uganda has seen police raids of gay rights workshops, a ban on organisations “promoting” homosexuality and it looks increasingly likely that  the “Kill the Gays” bill, which provides for the death penalty to be issued to “repeat offenders” of the crime of homosexuality will pass into law before the end of the year.

But lets let that pass for the moment, and assume that if the cause is to prevent the exploitation of children as soldiers then a the mass execution of homosexuals is a worthwhile price to pay.  As stated at the beginning, the purpose of the video was to lobby the US government to intervene in Central Africa to track down and bring to justice Joseph Kony, who has been wanted for war crimes by the UN since 2006, specifically for the use of child soldiers.

Only if your problem is with the use of child soldiers, encouraging US military intervention ain’t the way to go about that. Kony fled Uganda in 2006 to the troubled area of the Congo, meanwhile the US is currently employing the former child soldiers that he used in the Lords Resistance Army as mercenaries for subcontracted private security units in Iraq and Afghanistan, for little pay, scant healthcare, no pensions and few rights.  The current government of Uganda, which Kony2012 was aiming to provide military assistance to have themselves been providing military assistance to the M23 militia operating in Eastern Congo.

The M23 rebel group is backed by Rwanda – a major recipient of Western aid – over half of which goes directly to the government with little to no accountability. Despite accusations of intervention in the Congo surfacing for several years, only this July did the US government announce that it was reconsidering the amount of aid that it provides, while it was only last week that the UK government felt it appropriate to suspend aid.  The M23 group was originally led by General Bosco Ntaganda, commonly known as “The Terminator” and wanted by the International Criminal Court since August 2006 for …recruiting child soldiers, its current leader Sultani Makenga is also accused by the UN of recruiting child soldiers – some as young as eight.  They are the new Konys.

Over the last week, while the eyes of the world were on the ongoing slaughter in Gaza, the M23 rebels launched a major offensive, yesterday taking the regional capital of Goma.  Despite UN peacekeepers stationed in the area, there was little resistance.  Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting, and in chaos, parents and children have become separated.  Unaccompanied children are at great risk of being co-opted into the military, either as child soldiers, or to provide sexual services for soldiers.

Kabila is ostensibly backed by the West, yet there are ongoing issues over the supply of coltan and other rare minerals from the Eastern Congo.  The Dodd-Frank act sought to establish an ethical framework for the trading of minerals which had fuelled and financed a deadly conflict which left millions dead, yet there is evidence of widespread smuggling of conflict minerals into Rwanda and Burundi and onto the international market.  Rwanda, with few natural resources, has massively extended its trade with the west, opening up trading missions with a number of European partners.

The slow reaction of the international community to the buildup of the M23 fighters and its backing from Uganda and Rwanda is surprising with aid – including military aid – only being suspended recently and the unwillingness of the UN peacekeepers to step in to the situation.  In July, the US military, as part of “Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa” with a mission to “build partner nation military capacity and promote stability in the region” trained both Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers – while both were implicated in providing support to the M23 group.  Rather tellingly one of the specific forms of training provided was in the use of Night Vision Goggles – a very specific form of equipment which the M23 soldiers had access to and were able to use effectively.

One of the most notable aspects of the conflict in the Congo is the high level of sexual violence which accompanies the fighting.  Although women bore the brunt, they were not the only target – men too were raped in high numbers by advancing troops.  The homophobia of the region, particularly in Uganda where many fled to escape the violence has led to a humanitarian crisis in the lack of care for male victims of rape, who are shamed and isolated.  The fear of rape and the consequent shunning by the community encourages male children to join with the military.  Unaccompanied male minors, separated from their families as they flee the fighting join the rebel groups as fighters as an alternative to being pressed into sexual slavery.

With the fall of Goma to the M23 rebels, while the eyes of the world were trained on Gaza, an uncertain future beckons for the Congo.  The Congo Siasa blog suggests that this development may present the international community with a “fait accompli“, leaving them no choice but to deal with the situation as it presents itself.  Given the prior involvement of the US in funding and training Ugandan and Rwandan troops, the arms length encouragement of US military involvement in the region through the Kony campaign and the tacit acceptance of smuggled minerals coming from countries bordering Congo, it begs the question of what the aim of the West has been all along.




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