How to get rid of Konys
Friday, March 16, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Okay there has already been too much written on Invisible Children and on Joseph Kony (in case you have been stranded in a cave for the last few weeks, you can start here and see the video here; see also the latest article by Nicholas Kristof here). Though it also has its detractors, Invisible Children’s campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice has raised awareness of terrible atrocities and has a lot of supporters. Last year President Obama committed 100 more US troops to help hunt Kony down, and even its critics generally admit that Invisible Children’s actions might help to capture Kony. 

                   War Criminal

But is that the right thing to focus on? There is absolutely no doubt that Kony kidnaps, kills, and murders, and has an army made up mostly of child soldiers. The world would be a far better place without him. But focusing just on Kony, without understanding the grievances of the civil war in northern Uganda that has raged for 30 years on, misses the big picture. Kony is portrayed as a homicidal maniac, which he is. But he is not raging his campaign in the complete absence of any support. At one point on encountering children hiding in the Ugandan town of Gulu from Kony’s army the film’s commentary says: 

This has been going on for years? If that happened in one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek.

Angelina Jolie, Goodwill ambassador to the UN, says ‘Joseph Kony is an extraordinarily horrible human being’

Alas, the main reason for the war in Uganda is not the absence of Newsweek or a suitable Ugandan alternative. It is no coincidence that there is a civil war in northern Uganda nor that Kony is still on the loose. There are good reasons for the conflict and once you recognize that, then an implication is that just killing Kony will not solve the problem, there will be many other potential Konys.

Consider the Colombian civil war, which we’ll write about in greater detail next week. This war has been going on for even longer than the Ugandan one. The main rebel group fighting the government is the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). A similar “bad guy” explanation for the civil war is just as possible in Colombia and the US government has leant the Colombians special forces and high tech machinery to track the leaders down. The long standing leader Tirofijo died of natural causes in May 2008 before he could be eliminated and just two months earlier FARC’s spokesman and Secretariat member Raúl Reyes was killed by the government in Ecuador. Yet the deaths of Tirofijo and Reyes led not to peace but another bad guy leader Alfonso Cano who was killed by the government and their high tech equipment in November 2011. But now there is just another bad guy leading the FARC by the name of Timochenko. Maybe the problem in Colombia is not just bad guys, and the solution to the civil war is not simply the elimination of bad guys but a resolution of the political and economic problems that create the war.

The first thing to note about the Ugandan civil war is that it was initiated by the invasion and military takeover of Yoweri Museveni in 1985, still Uganda’s president. Museveni is from Ankole, the southwest of the country as are most of the high ranking military officers in the army. The president he overthrew, Tito Okello, who also came to power by force, was Acholi, from the north. The roots of the war in Uganda are in this clash between Museveni, whose regime has massively favored the south, and the north of the country, which he has attempted to pacify and control, particularly during the first 15 years when he consolidated his rule. In the first decade of his rule Museveni ruled as a dictator and herded the population of the north into camps depopulating the countryside. The first presidential elections were held in 1996 and then 2001, though political parties were banned and people had to stand as individuals. Though these elections were stage-managed, Museveni still only managed to poll just over 10% of the vote in the north, compared to 70% nationally. The pain and suffering of the war was concentrated amongst those who don’t support him. Indeed, even those who lament the horrors of the war, such as Peter Eichstaedt (see First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, here) recognize two things: first, the root cause of the war is the political exclusion of the north and second the war has persisted because it suits the regime governing the country. Simply put the chaos and bloodletting has been part of the political exclusion of the north.

There are also deeper reasons for the conflict (as there are for most civil wars that have raged in Africa as we discussed here). Like many sub-Saharan African countries Uganda was arbitrarily constructed from a whole gamut of African polities, like Ankole, but also Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro, all with long histories of warfare and animosities. As the historian Richard Reid has shown for this part of the world (see his Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since c.1800, here) current conflict often mirrors past ones which also feature things apparently created by Kony, such as child soldiers.

To stop the killing and kidnapping in Uganda it is not enough to bring Kony to justice – though that itself would be a worthy goal if it could be achieved. What is required is further change in the way Uganda is governed to make the political system more inclusive, rather than a dictatorship of part of the country over the rest. This has been happening to some extent, but slowly and partially. International pressure forced Museveni to allow political parties before the 2006 elections. Greater political competition and more constraints on fraud forced Museveni to change his strategy, encouraging him to start wooing northern voters — Kony being driven of Uganda into Congo and Sudan likely was a result of this. In the 2011 presidential election, Museveni even got 37% of the vote in Acholiland. So it is this gradual change in the political system which probably accounts for Kony’s retreat. To finally get rid of Kony himself and the spectre of future Konys, the Ugandan political system needs to become more inclusive — and understanding African history would also help.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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