INVISIBLE CHILDREN: THE UNTOLD STORY
Invisible Children, makers of KONY2012, provided an intelligence tip to Uganda's security apparatus leading to arrests of several suspected regime opponents, according to U.S. embassy cables posted by WikiLeaks.
The San Diego-based group has since 2008 acted in concert with the Ugandan government in coordinating public relations campaigns to promote a military solution against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), while keeping the U.S. administration informed. Key partnerships formed by Invisible Children in Washington, D.C. include lobbying organizations Resolve Uganda and the Center for American Progress' Enough Project; groups that have also promoted U.S. military penetration in Africa.
The memos also document that U.S. officials were aware of the Ugandan government's campaigns to demonize opponents of the military approach by linking them to the LRA as sympathizers or collaborators -- even church leader Bishop John Baptiste Odama was implicated.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State declined to comment on the U.S. memos and its contents when excerpts were sent via email message for reaction. Invisible Children's CEO Ben Keesey didn't return a phone message left at the San Diego office seeking comment. Additionally, an outside spokesperson for the organization didn't respond to detailed questions submitted via email message.
It's unclear whether Invisible Children provided additional intelligence information to the Ugandans beyond the one referred to in the U.S. memo and whether the relationship continues. (The organization didn't respond to this specific question either. Similarly, The State Department didn't respond to a question about whether a U.S. NGO was authorized to share intelligence information with Ugandan authorities leading to arrests).
According to Invisible Children's PR plan to promote armed operations against the LRA outlined in the memos, Ugandan officials and politicians, such as Norbert Mao, backed the military approach, and were to be brought on trips to the U.S. to meet with lawmakers to help build U.S. support. (Later, an LRA Disarmament bill was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, paving the way for deployment of the U.S. military in Uganda, beginning in October, 2011).
Critics contend Invisible Children, by actively engaging in intelligence work for the Ugandan authorities and then promoting the regime's military approach through campaigns such as "Kony2012" -- part one and "Beyond Kony" the sequel released last week -- shouldn't be entitled to its not-for-profit status. The U.S. embassy memos now provide more insight into the working relations between Invisible Children, the Ugandan authorities and the U.S. government -- dating to the George W. Bush administration.
The memos highlight an August 10, 2007 meeting in which Invisible Children's CEO, Ben Keesey, met in Uganda with then U.S. ambassador Steven Browning "...to update the Ambassador on their activities and to describe their efforts to provide to their audiences timely information on conditions in northern Uganda."
Invisible Children's current alliance with the Ugandan authorities began after the AFRICOM-assisted military maneuver against the LRA in Congo, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT), which was a turning point in the war between Museveni's army the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) and the LRA.
OLT was conducted with the Ugandan military's heaviest weapons -- the U.S. fueled helicopters to the tune of $1 million dollars, and, the mission itself was conducted with logistical support and intelligence from the U.S. army. After Kony's delays in signing a final agreement Gen. Museveni ordered what would be a disastrous military assault, after receiving a nod from Washington.
OLT failed to neutralize Kony; instead, attacks against civilians resumed, with over one-thousand Congolese civilians slaughtered in reprisal attacks, as the LRA was pushed into the Central African Republic (CAR). Hoping to reverse the negative publicity, the Museveni regime, with U.S. knowledge, teamed up with Congo to launch a public relations blitz to influence journalists, human rights organizations and other governments. Invisible Children played a role in the campaign, culminating with Kony2012.
"The Government of Uganda (GOU) will deliver to Kabila a coordination and outreach strategy designed to enhance the delivery of accurate, timely information by allied governments to journalists, domestic audiences, and international human rights groups," then U.S. ambassador Steven Browning wrote in a confidential memo dated February 25, 2009, referring to Congo's President Joseph Kabila. "Invisible Children, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, is planning pro-OLT events under the theme 'Kony Must Be Stopped. Rescue Our Children.' We expect the GOU to start a more coordinated communications strategy in the near future," the ambassador added.
The memo also revealed that Gen. Museveni and Kabila were to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which would authorize the extension of OLT indefinitely, although it would be reviewable every three months.
Ambassador Browning's writings also revealed that Congo didn't trust Uganda's army inside Congo. After all, in 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had found Uganda liable of what amounted to war crimes -- plunder, mass rapes and massacres -- when Uganda occupied parts of Congo from 1997 to 2003 and awarded Congo $10 billion.
"Uganda will commit to not plundering any Congolese resources," Ambassador Browning wrote, and added, referring to Kangumba Adyeri, a Uganda foreign ministry official, "Ambassador Kangumba said that this issue remains a sore point for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda is willing to sign the pledge because it has no intention of repeating its behavior during the Congolese civil war." This is a remarkable acknowledgment of guilt by Kangumba Adyeri for the years of atrocities Uganda committed in Congo with complete impunity.
While the ambassador's memo reveals Invisible Children's involvement in the pro-OLT campaign, a memo by another U.S. official documents the organization's collaboration with Ugandan intelligence services.
The memo is dated June 11, 2009, and written by Kathleen FitzGibbon, a political affairs officer at the U.S. embassy, which echoes claims by the Museveni regime about a conspiracy against his government. The memo -- which reads like something which could easily have been written by the Ugandan authorities themselves -- detailed accusations that some Ugandans living in the U.S. backed insurgencies.
Under the subject, "UGANDA: GAMES THE ACHOLI DIASPORA CONTINUE TO PLAY," FitzGibbon in the June 11, 2009 memo wrote: "The Ugandan Government is investigating the latest attempt by Acholi Diaspora to mobilize support for a new rebellion in northern Uganda. The arrest of low level participants continues while the Government decides its next steps, which may include a public outing of Acholi Diaspora spoilers."
"The latest plot was exposed when the Government received a tip from the U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) INVISIBLE CHILDREN regarding the location of Patrick Komakech," FitzGibbon added. "He was wanted by the security services for impersonating LRA leaders to extort money from government officials, NGOs, and Acholi leaders. Komakech is purportedly a former child soldier abducted by the LRA. Invisible Children had featured him in its documentaries. Invisible Children reported that Komakech had been in Nairobi and had recently reappeared in Gulu, where he was staying with the NGO. Security organizations jumped on the tip and immediately arrested Komakech on March 5."
As a result of the tip from WikiLeaks, the Ugandan military claimed it obtained the names of other suspects from Komakech. The Ugandan military then conducted a sweep and arrested many suspects, many of whom later declared their innocence, according to Uganda media reports. Torture of arrested suspects by Uganda security forces is routine , human rights agencies report
The New Vision, Uganda's government newspaper on June 16, 2009 reported on charges against several suspects for allegedly plotting to form a new rebel outfit, including a Patrick Komakech, who was presumably the same individual mentioned in the U.S. memo. His whereabouts and those of the others mentioned in the government newspaper's report isn't determined.
The FitzGibbon memo makes it clear that the Ugandan authorities also wanted to implicate Bishop John Baptist Odama, an opponent of a military approach to ending the conflict.
Referring to then Gulu District Resident Commissioner, Col. Walter Ochora, now deceased, FitzGibbon wrote: "Ochora reported that Bishop Odama, a prominent and well-respected Acholi religious leader, had been implicated as funding airtime for both the LRA and the new organization. In addition, Odama allegedly had harbored some of the group's members. The Government is considering its options on Odama."
Yet, the FitzGibbon memo also notes the need for caution, noting there could be credibility issues with the information provided by the Ugandan authorities. "Several sources outside the security services say that various Government officials may be overplaying the level of threat posed by the rebel group for their own interests. They claim the group is still in its formative stages," FitzGibbon wrote. "However, its existence reinforces a widely-held belief within the southern-based government 'that the Acholi will never surrender,' which in turn reinforces government suspicions about the north and Ugandan exiles."
It seems clear that U.S. officials did not heed this suggestion to exercise skepticism and instead the U.S. has adopted Uganda's and Invisible Children's preferred solutions. Invisible Children is too compromised and corrupted; it can't produce a helpful film about the Ugandan calamity showing both the LRA's -- and the Museveni regime's even larger role in the bloodshed.
In the Kony2012 sequel, more Ugandan faces are shown, as if that would itself exonerate Invisible Children for essentially producing a propaganda piece for the Museveni regime. (In a devious but ineffective attempt at spin, Uganda's appointed prime minister Amama Mbabazi recently posted on YouTube a "mild" criticism of Kony2012, when in fact the regime has worked all along with Invisible Children).
Norbert Mao, and Jolly Okot, are both featured in the Kony2012 sequel, with Okot more frequently. While Okot, who is also a former victim of LRA atrocities lends credibility to Kony2012, nevertheless she is a senior executive of Invisible Children in Uganda. While both Mao and Okot seek an end to the conflict, they are also early supporters of the military approach, as revealed in the earlier WikiLeaks memo by ambassador Browning on February 25, 2009.
"Meanwhile, domestic support for the operation is high," Browning wrote, referring to OLT. "Jolly Okot, Invisible Children's Gulu Office Director, informed us that the San Diego-based non-governmental organization is planning a worldwide campaign day in support of OLT on April 24, Okot said that the theme is: 'Kony Must Be Stopped. Rescue Our Children' and was developed after consultations in all of the LRA-affected areas of northern Uganda. Gulu District Chairman Norbert Mao will honcho the events. Part of the campaign will include a visit to key policymakers and lawmakers in Washington by Mao, Resident District Commissioner Walter Ochora, and Acholi Paramount Chief Rwot Acana. Events will be held in major cities in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and Mexico."
According to the memo, a Ugandan official, Walter Ochora -- now deceased -- said members of parliament from the war affected region of Acholi, such as Reagan Okumu, who opposed military operations had "been quieted down after visits to their constituencies revealed that they were out-of-step with the voters."
On the other hand, FitzGibbon, the political affairs officer in her own memo wrote that the same Ugandan official, Ochora "reported that Bishop Odama, a prominent and well-respected Acholi religious leader, had been implicated as funding airtime for both the LRA and the new organization. In addition, Odama allegedly had harbored some of the group's members. The Government is considering its options on Odama."
Odama is one of the most revered church leaders in Uganda and while a staunch opponent of the LRA has lobbied hard for a negotiated resolution, even risking his life in attempting mediation.
Mao, who is now president of the Democratic Party, one of Uganda's opposition parties, disputes the former U.S. ambassador's characterization of his position. "I did not support OLT," Mao said, in a strongly-worded statement to The Black Star News. "It was an operation to rain bombs in the areas where Kony was believed to be participating and would lead to indiscriminate killing of those the operation was intended to rescue. But even so, I believe there is no purely military solution to the LRA issue. Even after the release of Kony 2012 I stated clearly that the doors to peaceful solutions must never be closed."
"But perhaps more importantly I met Ambassador Browning and shared my views on OLT. But I guess he wanted Washington to think a certain way or those in Washington wanted him to present that kind of supportive evidence," he added.
"On the 2009 events in DC I did not participate. I knew about it and I was briefed about it. The goal was clear - the world cannot continue with business as usual when thousands of abducted children are with the LRA," Mao added, noting that he did attend an earlier event paid for by Invisible Children in 2007 (see complete statement).
He said he did "know the power of such activism because that is what pushed George Bush to appoint Tim Shortley as an envoy to the Juba talks. When he did we could not believe it because initially the US was very lukewarm about the talks."
The Juba talks ended with the ill-fated OLT.
"What killed the talks was that deep down in his psyche, Museveni wants a military solution," Mao added. His belief that he is a reincarnation of the Chwezi conquerors cannot allow him to rest until he has humiliated the Luo (Acholi) who toppled the Chwezi rulers." (The Chwezi are variously referred to as an empire that may have been real or mythical who lasted until the 16th Century until the invasion of Luo people).
The U.S. collaboration with Gen. Museveni's army -- found liable for war crimes in the Congo by the International Court of Justice in 2005 -- insulates Uganda's dictator and his military commanders, at least for the time being, from prosecution.
It also diverts news attention from the fact that Gen. Museveni is fighting for his own political survival in Uganda, as opposition politicians who claim he stole the last presidential election continue their mass protests in Kampala, the capital. This week the regime banned protests by activists.
In return for the license granted him by Western powers, Museveni has contributed thousands of Ugandan soldiers -- some of whom may have participated in the war crimes in Congo and in Uganda -- for the U.S.-backed mission to stabilize Somalia, which, Washington fears, will become a haven for Al Qaeda.
At the same time, the U.S. also gets to maintain and expand its military presence in the oil and resource rich regions of Uganda, South Sudan, Congo and Central Africa. In this way, the U.S. is building leverage to check China's aggressive search for energy in the same region. The government of Sudan now must also think twice before it dares to launch a full-scale invasion of U.S.-backed, oil-rich, South Sudan.
Kony2012 was viewed more than 100 million times; yet it now turns out that Invisible Children may have duped a global audience by hiding the fact that it's been working closely with the Museveni regime all along, to the extent that it even shared intelligence leading to arrests of perceived or alleged regime opponents.
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