African Experts: Stop Kony? Not So Fast

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Joseph Kony (Stuart Price/AFP/Getty Images)
Joseph Kony (Stuart Price/AFP/Getty Images)

One place you won't find a "Stop Kony 2012" sticker is at the headquarters of the African Union, the continental body that has spent years chasing the elusive rebel leader.

The Ethiopia-based organization has released no reaction to the wildly popular video calling for the arrest of warlord Joseph Kony. The slickly produced video — which in only two weeks has been seen by more than 82 million people on YouTube — presents a visceral look at Kony's atrocities and attempts to translate them into a universal problem through the lens of an adorable blond, American child. Several officials at African Union headquarters, who have long been familiar with Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, said that they hadn't even watched the video.

As many critics have already said, the situation is more complicated than can be conveyed in a 30-minute piece. And analysts and officials on the continent say that the video, simplified as it is, won't change their mission or the inherent difficulties in pursuing the elusive warlord.

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Thought to be in his early 50s, Kony originally based his movement in northern Uganda on a bizarre and strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which his critics — including the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and international rights groups — say he has widely ignored through his crimes against humanity.

The African Union has long condemned Kony's ragtag force as a terrorist group. The AU most recently met in late February to discuss how to pursue him and the group that has spent more than two decades cutting a wide and painful swath across central Africa through rapes, abductions, torture and killings. The ICC issued a warrant against him in 2005.

A diplomat present at the African Union meeting said that officials there "unanimously resolved" to strengthen the fight against the rebel group with assistance from several armies and the U.N. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

The diplomat also said that the video has made little impact at the continental organization, and he himself had not seen it — a sentiment echoed by El Ghassim Wane, the head of the African Union's conflict-management division.

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"The AU policy against Kony was done long, long, long before the video," Wane said. "I have not seen the video," he said, "but all I'm saying is that what was decided was decided years ago. It's not new for us. We don't need to be told what to do."

But is 2012 a realistic deadline to catch a man who has eluded justice for decades?

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In January Adong Oder cautioned that the stepped-up mission against Kony could be clouded by serious political and security considerations in central Africa. Kony's reach spans across an especially volatile region — comprising Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. "The presidents of the four countries involved have more pressing issues to deal with domestically and this may affect the dynamics of the regional initiative," she wrote.

The new nation of South Sudan is still wrangling with Sudan after its separation last year and fighting back waves of internal ethnic conflicts. Congo, a poorly developed nation the size of Western Europe that is covered in jungle and divided into fiefdoms, is riven by ethnic conflicts and political instability. Kony is thought to have left Uganda years ago, and it's been ages since he presented a political threat to President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for 26 years and whose army is also accused of atrocities. And Kony's corner of southern Central African Republic — which is geographically the most inaccessible spot in Africa — is too far from the capital for leaders to be overly concerned.

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And bringing Kony to the ICC in handcuffs is not the end, Adong Oder said.

Even if he is caught, she said, "We will have the effects of the atrocities he committed there. We can’t stop him as people want him stopped. Maybe we can kill him, but we can’t stop him as people want to. It’s just killing the leader, but then his followers will still commit crimes."

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The United States recently said that the presence of 100 U.S. military advisers in Kony’s area has already negatively affected the rebel group, which is thought to number in the low hundreds.

But then what? Kony watchers may want the man hauled into The Hague, but the African Union has long maintained that the solution to Africa's problems is on the continent, in its courts or through mediation.

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For years African mediators have tried to reach peace deals with the elusive fighter. Museveni has said he'll request that the ICC withdraw its case and let Uganda try him if Kony signs a peace deal — an especially iffy proposition now that tens of millions want to see him in handcuffs. Kony came close to signing in 2006 but didn't show for talks in 2008. The international pressure brought on by the viral video also complicates what Uganda gets to do with one of Kony's deputies, Okot Odhiambo, who defected from the LRA in 2009 in exchange for Uganda's agreement not to send him to the ICC.

The African Union has previously bristled at foreign pressure to pursue one of its own. The organization maintains that the ICC unfairly targets Africans. The math is on its side: Of all the atrocities in all the world, 14 of the court's 15 cases are against sub-Saharan Africans. The remaining case targets the Qaddafi regime.

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And then there is the timeline. While international rights groups on Wednesday welcomed the conviction against Thomas Lubanga — a Congolese warlord accused of crimes similar to Kony's — it took six years from his arrest to his conviction, in a case marred by fits and starts.

For Kony watchers, that makes 2012 look further and further away.

A. Hawes has lived and reported in Africa for about five years and covers a range of topics.

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