William, our project manager in South Sudan, sounded somewhat shaken. Driving a truck of supplies close to the Sudan/Uganda border, he found himself in a hail of bullets coming from Kony rebels in the tall grass. He felt lucky to escape without injury.
This is the way it was for years, as non-governmental organizations like ours (Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan) sought to help the Sudanese people of the south survive a devastating civil war. Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) were Ugandan rebels hiding out in South Sudan and doing all they could to wreak havoc on Sudanese communities.
Those days of Kony's infiltration are largely over, as south Sudan has become the world's newest country and the Ugandan rebel himself has been out of Uganda for some six years -- a shadow of his formal self.
Which makes the Kony 2012 video phenomenon somewhat more difficult to comprehend. The 30-minute film by Invisible Children implies that Kony remains a major political and military figure in Uganda, still recruiting child soldiers at significant levels, and destabilizing the region -- none of which is true.
I grew increasingly troubled over the video as I spoke with NGO leaders and workers in the northern Ugandan region who have endured ongoing worries over the influence of Invisible Children -- the group responsible for compiling and promoting the video Kony 2012.
Their concerns are three-fold, and because of their deep experience in the region, deserve serious note.
Those of us who have worked in international development and human rights for decades learned important and costly lessons early on when it came to cooperating with corrupt governments and militaries. At times there was no other choice: Pay the bribe to get into the village or the people will die of starvation or lack of health services. These were moral quandaries, made all the more difficult because of the lack of alternatives. In many cases it was like bargaining with the devil -- the overall situation often deteriorated.
The case with Uganda and Kony is clearly different than it was a mere six years ago. President Obama has 100 top investigators -- including Navy Seals -- in the region to hunt the criminal down. Both the UN and the African Union are also in on the hunt, sensing that Kony is now hidden away somewhere in the Central African Republic. In other words, alternatives have opened up and the need to fund the partially corrupt Ugandan army is not as essential. Uganda is changing for the better, in part because Kony has run out of room.
The second concern of many NGOs is what you might call the "credibility factor." Many donors are more intuitive and educated on complex matters than in times previous. For this reason, many agencies, while promoting their needed work, are nevertheless ensuring that the data they release is as accurate as possible.
Watching the Kony 2012 video leaves you with the impression that Kony journeys in and out of Uganda at will, that he has an army of thousands of child soldiers, and that the only alternative is to fund Ugandan military operations in order to capture Kony. We now know that Kony only has a few hundred troops at most, that most of the child soldiers are no longer with him, and that international forces are taking the lead in discovering Kony's whereabouts. Confusion has ensued with the discovery that only 30 per cent of Invisible Children's donated funds goes directly to programming to help the youth.
As the increasing criticisms emerge over the Kony 2012 video, donors could well become even more skeptical about investing in Africa, just at a time when the continent has turned a significant corner.
Finally we come to the most important issue of all: the kids themselves. It took 30 years for Kony to recruit some 30,000 child soldiers. At present there appear to be only a few left. The remnant of that child soldiers abduction or recruitment has spread itself throughout northern Uganda, where troubled youth are now young adults, racked with guilt and haunting memories -- liberated and trapped in their own emotions at the same time. If it's child soldiers you want to help, then donate to those numerous organizations that have taken on mighty work to rehabilitate these young adults from their troubled misery.
Some say that the Kony 2012 is brilliant because now everyone knows who Kony is. That is true, and to the producer's credit. Yet does proper awareness not require accurate data and perspective? Awareness is one thing; long-term commitment to rehabilitation of troubled minds is another. Kony will eventually be caught and tried. These kids don't require militia, but us -- people dedicated to their recovery. Thank God we have NGOs in the region that both understand and deliver on that promise.