The Kony 2012 campaign against Ugandan LRA leader Joseph Kony and his use of child soldiers released by the human rights organisation Invisible Children (IC) last week has caused quite a stir globally and has been quite controversial. However, the issue of children in combat is not new at all and it is a very grave one which constitutes one of the worst forms of child labour. The issue was highlighted by the landmark 1996 study by Graça Machel and the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Representative on the issue. Although it is not an issue in South Africa (although it could be argued that children involved in gang activity constitute children involved in combat), it is or has been an issue in a number countries on the continent namely Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Uganda. One that is said to be most critical in Afrika affects us all in one way or another.
Both girls and boys fall victim to this. They are beaten and exposed to all sorts of hazardous conditions. Girls are subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence and many of them fall pregnant and have babies or contract STIs and HIV as a result as they were often “wifed” by commanders in the group. By 2008, the LRA had yet to release many women and children from its ranks, claiming that those remaining were their wives and children. Despite repeated pleas and a request by the UN Secretary-General they were still not released and while the total number of remaining LRA fighters in the bush remained unknown, up to 2,000 women and children were believed to remain in LRA camps in the eastern DRC and southern Sudan. According to the Child Soldiers Global Report, 2008:
“About 25,000 children were abducted by the LRA from the beginning of the conflict in the late 1980s. Abductions peaked after 2002, with an estimated 10,000 children abducted between May 2002 and May 2003 alone. Throughout 2003 and 2004 more than 20,000 child ‘night commuters’ sought safety each night in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader towns, to reduce the risk of their abduction.”
Child soldiers join armed groups for various reasons such as economic or social pressure or because they believe that the group will offer food or security. Others are forcibly recruited, “press-ganged” or abducted by armed groups. As part of their initiation they are at times forced to kill family or relatives in order to ensure their loyalty and prevent possible defection. Government forces in some countries including Uganda and the DRC have also been guilty of recruiting children under 18 into armed conflict.
There have been developments over the years thanks to local and international efforts particularly in the form of policy and legislation with most notably and most recently the conviction by the ICC of Thomas Lubanga for the war crime of enlisting and conscripting children under 15 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) armed conflict in the Ituri region between 2002 and 2003 and now faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Other efforts to note are United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict which prohibits the forced recruitment of children under the age of 18 or their use in hostilities as well as the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour that prohibits the forced or compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18 for use in armed conflict. Also, the office of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict was established in 1997, following the Machel Report, facilitating a global focus on the issue.
Although conversation and debate are welcomed and encouraged in activism, it is important not to divert attention from the issue. I acknowledge that very pertinent issues have been raised by different people globally with most of the concerns raised being founded but my bone of contention lies with the fact that the people who are talking about the campaign are not really addressing the issue of children in armed conflict. They are instead focusing on the implications on the portrayal of the continent and its people as a result thereof i.e. either as war and atrocity mongering savages or as helpless victims that need the West to come and save them.
In part, I agree with most of these concerns but I must highlight that I feel that to some degree some of these concerns, particularly the one of the portrayal of Afrika are, however founded, also a matter of projection, denial of our realities as well as self involved and uninterested arrogance. I realise that this is harsh but based on conversations that I have had I think it is fair for me to say. The assumption that everyone else in the world (one wonders if this said world includes the rest of Afrika that is not Uganda, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America or if it only constitutes the US, the UK and the “Western Bloc”) is a supposition that is perhaps informed by one’s own sentiments about the continent upon first watching the video. People seem to either be in denial or actively ignorant of the experiences of the people outside of their immediate social and geographical sphere and although they purport to, in a quasi Pan Afrikanist fashion, champion the rights of the Afrikan in the face of adversity they appear to only be willing to do so when “outsiders” are the said adversity. Lastly, when I asked some of those who question the legitimacy and sincerity of Jason Russell and his colleagues’ claim to care about the children if they themselves care and they have said that they don’t but they care that a group of Americans want to profiteer from Afrikan children. This is fair enough to say but should it really just be about whether or not the Americans genuinely care and not whether or not we as Afrikans care and what we are willing to do about it.
That said, I agree that IC’s callous encouragement of US militarization in Afrika is both harmful and unwelcome especially after the failure of the US backed Operation Iron Fist in 2002 that did more harm than good and saw LRA forces that had left Uganda crossing back into Uganda and carrying out attacks on a large and brutal scale. The same can be said of their suggestion that it is up to their government to put a stop to Kony. There needs to be a rethink on their strategy and they need to take into consideration that a lot of the issues can be attributed to US and Western influence and perhaps it is this that they should be encouraging their government to end.
Awareness raising and advocacy are important but they need to be conducted intelligently and knowledgeably, devoid of any monolithic neo colonial ill informed notions and one needs to be careful what they are advocating for. Unfortunately, this video could also lead people to believe that “stopping” Joseph Kony will be enough and automatically mean the end of over two decades of conflict or that the situation is as simple as Ugandan army and US armed forces = good guys, rebels = bad guys because nothing could be further from the truth.
IC itself is an organisation with questionable motives for the work it does, mostly based on their spending of donations, their continued call for the expansion of US militarization and apparent close relations with the Museveni government and right wing anti-gay rights Christian groups, their arrogant approach and the implications in the video that until now, nothing else was done by others to end the LRA’s reign of terror in Northern Uganda as well as justified concerns of whether or not they truly comprehend the issues surrounding the conflict.
I find it worrying that the current absence of the LRA in Uganda in the last 7years has given credence to and substantiated beliefs by some that the whole campaign is pointless and in part this is true however the issue should not be about the LRA’s presence or absence in Northern Uganda but its presence anywhere and the atrocities that it commits, particularly those committed against children. It is not the work of the LRA in Northern Uganda this campaign, or any other should seek to end but its work, and of other militia forces that use children period and this includes countries like the DRC, CAR, Southern Sudan and Darfur where children in armed conflict are still present.
People have suggested that there are more important issues than that of children in armed conflict that need to be dealt with and that this is just a symptom of these issues and I concur that the issue of children in conflict is as a result of a plethora of other issues but I don’t agree that it is not just as important. As in the case of diseases, symptoms should not be viewed in isolation but they too must be prioritised and dealt with accordingly and it is very troubling that people who have commented do not seem to appreciate this.
At the end of the day however, our differences aside, two things remain and the first is that children need to be protected at all times and at all costs no matter where in the world they are from. Recruiting, abducting and coercing children into armed conflict is a gross human rights violation and there is an urgent need to abolish it once and for all and a good place to start is getting more and more people involved in ensuring this. The second thing is that although we need to do away with the “save Afrika” syndrome, we also need to realise that ultimately we need to encourage collective social responsibility and an altruistic moral strength in people globally as well as foster a transnational connection that doesn’t come from a place of arrogance or mistrust.