- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Just days after releasing its new video, Invisible Children — the U.S.-based NGO behind the phenomenally successful "Kony 2012" campaign — has yet again found itself in the midst of controversy over a U.S. diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks, which reports that the group cooperated with the Ugandan military to facilitate the arrest of a former child soldier who was allegedly involved in the formation of a new rebel group.
The cable, released as part of WikiLeaks’ massive "Cablegate" series, was sent on June 11, 2009, and signed by then ambassador Steven Browning. Titled, "GAMES THE ACHOLI DIASPORA CONTINUE TO PLAY," it concerns reports of a "new rebellion in northern Uganda" organized by members of the Acholi ethnic group, of which Joseph Kony is also a member. The cable describes Ugandan government reports of a "new resistance group called the Peoples’ Patriotic Front (PPF)" that had "begun stockpiling weapons in the districts of West Nile" and was attempting to win support of Acholis abroad for a new effort to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
In early 2009, the Ugandan army arrested a number of people alleged to be involved in plots by the PPF (originally known as the Uganda Patriotic Front or UPF) to attack military targets, including Patrick Komakech, who had reportedly been impersonating senior LRA commanders on behalf of the new rebel group. Komakech, reportedly a former LRA child soldier, had been involved with Invisible Children for some time and appeared in several of its videos. (A 2007 Des Moines Register story describes a bike trip he and other former child soldiers took across Iowa organized by American missionaries.)
According to the cable, it was Invisible Children that gave the government the tipoff on where to find Komakech:
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 Komekech. He was wanted by the security services for impersonating LRA leaders to extort money from government officials, NGOs, and Acholi leaders. Komekech is purportedly a former child soldier abducted by the LRA. Invisible Children had featured him in its documentaries. Invisible Children reported that Komekech 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 Komekech on March 5. He had a satellite telephone and other gadgets, which were confiscated when security forces picked him up.
Komakech is currently facing treason charges, along with over a dozen other alleged PPF members.
While the cable has been online for months, its contents seem to have been first reported on Sunday by the obscure New York-based website Black Star News under the inflammatory headline, "Invisible Children, Makers of Kony2012, Spied for Ugandan regime." The story has been picked up in the Ugandan media as well.
Invisible Children has been criticized by a number of observers in the United States and Uganda for working with the Ugandan government — which has itself been implicated in a number of human rights abuses — as part of its campaign to apprehend Kony. The group responded to this critique last month on its website, noting that it "does not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government" and "none of the money donated through Invisible Children has ever gone to support the government of Uganda," but that nonetheless, "The Ugandan military (UPDF) is a necessary piece in counter-LRA activities."
Komakech, however, was not alleged to have been a member of the LRA at the time of his arrest. And some Uganda watchers have suggested that Museveni’s government may be playing up the threat from the PPF to distract from more pedestrian problems of governance, now that the LRA threat has been largely neutralized in Uganda. The diplomatic cable itself suggests that "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."
Invisible Children Uganda Spokesperson Florence Ogola was quoted in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper yesterday denying the truth of the cable. "That is not true. We are not involved in anything to do with security. We only deal with development," she said. She described the allegations as part of the "propaganda" campaign against the group.
Felix Kulayigye, a spokesperson for the Ugandan People’s Defense Force, also told the paper, "That’s a lie. Komakech was arrested in broad day light and we didn’t need a muzungu [foreigner] to tell us where he was."
In an e-mailed statement to Foreign Policy, a spokesperson for Invisible Children did not elaborate on whether it had played a role in Komakech’s arrest, but did say it had discussed his case with the U.S. Embassy:
"In 2009, Invisible Children was contacted by a member at the US Embassy in Kampala regarding Patrick Komakech, a former LRA combatant who Invisible Children had been supporting in attempts to assist with his personal recovery and academic development, in keeping with Invisible Children’s mandate to provide assistance to individuals affected by LRA violence. At the time, it was brought to our attention that Mr. Komakech and a group of others were allegedly involved in activities that could be jeopardizing the lives of civilians and putting the organization and its staff at risk.
"Invisible Children was deeply saddened to learn of these allegations; the organization was cooperative in providing information to the US Embassy regarding the nature of our relationship with and academic support to Mr. Komakech. In light of the severity of these allegations, the organization severed all ties immediately with Mr. Komakech. In this case and as always, Invisible Children acts in good faith to preserve the integrity of our programming and uphold the protection of human rights in the communities we work."
"[W]e do not conduct intelligence efforts of any kind for a foreign government," the spokesperson said.