Child abductee featured in Kony 2012 defends film's maker against criticism

Ugandan Jacob Acaye says world needs to know about war waged by Joseph Kony that is still going on elsewhere in Africa

Jacob Acaye, the Ugandan former child abductee at the heart of the film Kony 2012, a web phenomenon seen by more than 50 million people around the world, defended the video and its makers on Thursday against criticism that it is misleading and champions western intervention against an insurgency which is already waning and on the run.

Acaye's home region around the town of Gulu is now relatively peaceful, and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which kidnapped him and killed his brother in 2002, has been driven out of northern Uganda along with its warlord leader, Joseph Kony, who has melted into the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. But Acaye denied widespread criticism in Uganda and elsewhere that the American-made film calling for Kony's arrest is out-of-date or irrelevant. "It is not too late, because all this fighting and suffering is still going on elsewhere," Acaye, now 21, told the Guardian in a telephone interview from Kampala, where he is studying law. "Until now, the war that was going on has been a silent war. People did not really know about it.

"Now what was happening in Gulu is still going on elsewhere in the Central African Republic and in Congo. What about the people who are suffering over there? They are going through what we were going through."

Kony 2012 has become a surprise hit around the world some 25 years after Kony founded his militia and a decade after the peak of its reign of terror in northern Uganda. But its makers, a group called Invisible Children, have been widely criticised by Ugandan journalists and other aid agencies for being self-promoting (the video spends much of its 28 minutes on its maker, Jason Russell and his young son, Gavin) and opaque about its use of funds – and for concentrating on an issue that has dramatically changed in recent years.

"They are focusing more on an American solution to an African conflict than the holistic approach which should include regional governments and people who are very key to make this a success," said Victor Ochen, the director of African Youth Initiative Network based in Lira, the site of one Kony's worst massacres in Uganda.

"They are advocating for a mechanism to end war with more attention to a perpetrator not victims. Campaigning on killing one man and that's the end is not enough … There are many people who are caught up in this war. Invisible Children has good access to international media but they have no connection with the community they claim to represent." Ugandan writer Angelo Opi-Aiya Izama wrote on his blog: "To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement ... its portrayal of his alleged crimes in northern Uganda are from a bygone era." He added that the main problems in the area now are child prostitution, HIV and a mysterious and incurable neurological disorder, known as nodding disease, which has afflicted more than 4,000 children.

Izama said that although the LRA is still preying on civilians in neighbouring countries, it was no longer an unknown problem. He said: "The LRA leader is the subject of an international manhunt by a joint force of Ugandan, Congolese, Sudanese and Central African troops. This effort is assisted by US combat troops."

In 2009 a US-supported military operation dubbed Operation Lightning Thunder and carried out by Uganda government forces failed to kill Kony. The Ugandan army said Kony had left his compound a few minutes before the attack. Since it was set up in 2003, Invisible Children, a San Diego-based charity has released 11 films and run regular "awareness-raising" film tours across the US, mainly showing to schools and universities. The group is barely known in Uganda, but claims to have given school and university scholarships to 750 children, and helped re-build schools. Acaye said that his old school is one of those the group has rebuilt.

"Now that the situation in Gulu is stabilised and there is no longer war there, there is reconstruction of the place. Schools are being built. It is not the fault of the people there that they were abducted and used. They need to be helped," he said. "The organisation has fought really hard to rebuild my school. It is doing good work." Acaye was taken prisoner by the LRA militia when it attacked his home village of Koro, near Gulu, but he escaped after three weeks when one unit handed him over to another.

"I got lucky. I was taken by a second group which did not know much about me, and I was transferred to that group. They asked me how long I had been with the LRA and I said three months so they thought I had no intention of running away, so they did not watch me," Acaye said.

He found his way back to his village, but from then on joined the hundreds of children who walked into Gulu to sleep every night for safety. It was while he was sleeping on a verandah there that he was found by Invisible Children.

"They could not understand what was happening. They wanted a kid who was sleeping there and who spoke English. I could understand English and I could say what was happening, so that is how I was in their film," Acaye said.

Invisible Children's accounts show it is a cash rich operation, which more than tripled its income to $9m (£5.68m) in 2011, mainly from personal donations. Of this, nearly 25% was spent on travel and film-making.  Most of the money raised has been spent in the US. The accounts show $1.7m went on US employee salaries, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in "professional services" – thought to be Washington lobbyists –  and $1.07m in travel expenses. Nearly $400,000 was spent on offices in San Diego. 

Questions were raised on Thursday about its operation after it emerged that Charity Navigator, a US charity evaluator, gave the organisation only three out of four stars overall, four stars financially, and two stars for "accountability and transparency". Noelle Jouglet communication director, responded in a statement saying: "Our score is currently at 2 stars due to the fact that Invisible Children currently does not have five independent voting members on our board of directors. We are currently in the process of interviewing potential board members, and our goal is to add an additional independent member this year in order to regain our 4-star rating by 2013."

The three founders of the group, who advocate direct military intervention in response to the LRA,  were also criticised for posing with guns alongside members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in 2008. In a statement the group responded : "We were there to see Joseph Kony come to the table to sign the Final Peace Agreement. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was surrounding our camp for protection since Sudan was mediating the peace talks. We thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo. You know, "Haha – they have bazookas in their hands but they're actually fighting for peace'." 

The group , which employs around 100 people, is expected to raise millions of dollars from their Kony2012 video but has so far not said how much has been donated or how it will spend the money. Visitors are invited to click a button and buy T shirts, bracelets and  posters,  ranging from $30-$250. "People will think you're an advocate of awesome",  runs the sales pitch.

The video has broken records for the speed at which a 30-minute film has spread. "It's an internet phenomenon. It's the mob mentality. Everyone can feel outraged. We are buying into the emotion and handing over money but who it's going to and how it is helping [Uganda's children] is left unanswered", says Phil Borge, a director of London-based 1000 Heads, a "word of mouth" marketing agency. According to figures posted on Vimeo, only four people viewed the video on 3 March , and eight on 4 March, but 58,000 on 5 March, 2.7m on 6 March and 8.2m on 7 March. It had been played over 38m times on YouTube by Thursday evening.

Jedediah Jenkins, director of idea development for Invisible Children, called the criticisms "myopic" and said the film represented a "tipping point" in that it "got young people to care about an issue on the other side of the planet that doesn't affect them".


Julian Borger, John Vidal, and Rosebell Kagumire in Kampala

The GuardianTramp

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