Has the Kony 2012 campaign scored its first tangible victory?
Last Friday, the African Union announced that it would be deploying a force of 5,000 troops to pursue Joseph Kony and the remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army, now believed to be operating deep within the jungles of the Central African Republic. Kony and the LRA rocketed to international infamy thanks to a web-savvy marketing campaign by the charity Invisible Children, which focused on the LRA’s use of children as soldiers and sex slaves. While Kony’s LRA is no longer as powerful as portrayed in the Kony 2012 video, the LRA is still believed to number between 200 and 700 members and still preys upon remote villages in the CAR and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The mandate of the African Union mission is to pursue the remnants of the LRA until Kony is captured, surrenders or is otherwise “neutralized.” Francisco Madeira, the African Union’s special envoy on the LRA stated at a press conference last Friday that the new AU mission was not in response to the viral Kony 2012 campaign, though it is hard not to draw that inference, especially since Madeira did not offer an alternative explanation as to why the AU decided now to launch this massive campaign to catch Kony, who has been plaguing central Africa for the past 20 years.
But if the AU mission to catch Kony is to be viewed as a victory for Kony2012, then it also should be looked at as a defeat of sorts for the African Union.
The 5,000-man anti-Kony mission is almost a quarter the size of the African Union’s ongoing peacekeeping mission in Somalia, yet despite recent gains in establishing security in southern Somalia, the AU isn’t sending an additional 5,000 troops there. In fact, the projected addition of nearly 1,000 troops from Sierra Leone will be offset by a reduction in Kenya’s contribution to the AU peacekeeping mission.
It’s worthwhile taking a step back here to get the bigger picture in Somalia, which has existed without a government since the overthrow of dictator Mohammad Siad Barre in 1991. The current phase of the Somali conflict began in 2006, when a pan-Islamic movement called the Islamic Courts Union brought together squabbling warlords and militias and seemed close to finally unifying much of central and southern Somalia (the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland have been largely self-governing since the 1990s). Christian Ethiopia didn’t like the idea of an Islamic state next door and invaded. They shattered the Islamic Courts Union, but then settled into a protracted guerrilla war with fragments of the ICU, one of which would become the more militant Islamic group, Al Shabaab.
After two years, the Ethiopians got fed up with fighting against insurgents and withdrew, turning the security of the capital, Mogadishu, over to a perpetually under-manned, under-equipped African Union peacekeeping mission. The AU did the best it could to keep Al Shabaab from taking Mogadishu, while the militants made gains in retaking the surrounding countryside. The situation turned again in the AU’s favor last year, as Al Shabaab suffered from internal, clan-based divisions that limited their effectiveness, while Kenya, and later Ethiopia, each launched their own military incursions into Somalia to take on Al Shabaab separate from the African Union peacekeeping mission. Fighting this multi-front war has set al-Shabaab back and has allowed something of a sense of normalcy to return to Mogadishu for the first time in years.
But the Kenyan government is already growing weary of their Somali incursion, which bogged down during monsoon season and has yet to capture Al Shabaab’s key stronghold, the port city of Kismayu. Kenya has folded their military deployment into the broader African Union peacekeeping mission, but as mentioned earlier, are also looking to draw down the number of Kenyan troops involved. As for Ethiopia, it is anyone’s guess how long they’ll choose to remain in Somalia this time.
All of this would argue in favor of an enhanced African Union mission into Somalia to consolidate the improvements in the security situation in and around Mogadishu, and perhaps to deal a finishing blow to Al Shabaab; 5,000 additional troops could be decisive. But instead, the African Union is choosing to dispatch these scarce resources in an enormous game of hide-and-seek against the much-higher profile Joseph Kony. It is a triumph of Internet hype over sound military tactics, and in a very real sense, a defeat for the African Union.