The tyranny of distance, up close

The larger story of the United States’s rapidly expanding military interests and presence on the continent.

Invisible Children founders Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole, and Jason Russell posing with guns in 2008 in Northern Uganda. Image credit Glenna Gordon.

Remember #Kony2012? In March 2012, US-based humanitarian organization Invisible Children (IC) launched its global internet-driven campaign to “make Kony famous.” Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), had been at war with the Ugandan state and its army, the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), since the late 1980s.

The LRA abducted hundreds of boys and girls in their frequent attacks on northern Ugandan communities, pressing many of them into service as soldiers and workers, and forcing many into sexual relationships with its men. According to escapee testimony, Kony himself had numerous child “wives” at a time. Indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2005, Joseph Kony remains at large, perhaps ill, perhaps somewhere in South Sudan. After receiving blistering criticism about IC’s methods and finances, and after a very public breakdown by its founder and main spokesperson, Jason Russell, the organization announced in December 2014 that it would hand its operations over to a much smaller, local Ugandan staff later this year. For an instant though, IC succeeded in making Kony famous.

The viral success of IC’s fundraising and public awareness campaign was the result of brilliant guerrilla marketing that sold a powerful idea: ordinary people around the world (and some extraordinary ones too) could and should act to bring an end to Kony’s atrocities. This campaign’s manipulative appeal to knee-jerk white savior impulses generated an astonishing outpouring of support. But IC’s call to capture Kony was, at its heart, also a call for US military intervention in East Africa. In the name of capturing Kony, US troops and aircraft currently operate alongside African Union and UPDF forces in Uganda and a number of other nations with contiguous borders. It is worth noting that Uganda has long occupied a special place in US security thinking, damn the consequences. This latest expansion provides new cover to a longstanding military alliance.

#Kony2012’s story of villainy and heroism in Central Africa is but one chapter in the larger story of the United States’s rapidly expanding military interests and presence on the continent. Over the last few years, more and more information about the increasing presence of US troops, equipment, and bases across Africa has emerged. This “new spice route” reflects the substantial progress the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has made since its founding in 2006 in establishing infrastructure for a range of operations, including military training exercises, humanitarian interventions, and new logistics support bases.

Earlier this month, the online national security journal The Intercept published a series of reports, collectively referred to as “The Drone Papers”, which are based on a “cache of secret documents” obtained from a government whistleblower. Nick Turse, Jeremy Scahill, Cora Currier, and a number of other investigative journalists who have long followed US covert military activities overseas have analyzed these documents and now are beginning to publish their findings. These journalists’ chilling reportage shows that the US is undertaking significant investment in building and sustaining a base infrastructure for drone operations in East Africa, especially in Djibouti, a tiny country on the horn of Africa. Why?

AFRICOM calls it overcoming the “tyranny of distance”—that is, finding ways to overcome the vast distances involved in conducting operations in Africa, especially given the continent’s “underdeveloped” transportation network. Applied to the realm of militarized humanitarian operations, such as the deployment of a small force to assist in the fight against Ebola last year, overcoming the tyranny of distance sounds innocuous enough. Applied to the context of East Africa however, where US concerns about the activities of Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and other extremist organizations in Somalia and Yemen, this phrase takes on more ominous tones. The hardening of bases in Djibouti and elsewhere serve AFRICOM’s goal of using drones to act on “kill lists” not from the safety of the United States, but instead from forward operating bases that dramatically cut response times, enabling rapid strikes against designated human targets that have been approved at the highest levels. #Kony2012 called for US military intervention in East and Central Africa to conduct a manhunt for Joseph Kony. As Joshua Keating noted in a March 2012 Foreign Policy blog post critical of #Kony2012:

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic ‘Stop Kony’ message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts.

A mere three years later, it seems guaranteed that many more manhunts of a different order are in the offing. The US government no longer needs a humanitarian cloak to mask its imperial purposes as it digs in to Africa as its newest frontline in the war on terror. Inevitable indeed.

Further Reading

#Kony2012 is ‘magical’

This weekend after watching this surreal clip on CNN of a hyped-up Jason Russell addressing Joseph Kony directly through the screen (on Piers Morgan’s “interview” show on CNN), we asked Swedish anthropologist Sverker Finnström if …