Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Uganda be kiddin' me*: Kony 2012, Ugandan Oil Boom, and America's Next Bin Laden

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A parody pic by a hadtodoittoo posted here.
Kony 2012 has been perceived by many as one of the most effective advocacy strategies in the recent age of viral memes and social networks. Created and launched by the non-government organization Invisible Children, it has a simple objective: to stop and arrest international criminal Josephy Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army in any way possible. It's strategy is simple as well: get as much international support to push the United States (and possibly other states - they are very ambiguous on this) to do its usual thing of saving the world. But an originally all-American movement, the mobilization of support will naturally target the US populace. It's tactic: a year long spectacle of raising awareness, selling campaign paraphernalia, lobbying and leveraging  important personalities, and finally, direct action on April - seemingly riding the fad of creative protest actions sparked by of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

Unfortunately for them, Kony 2012, which gained considerable success in its air war - million hits for its videos, #stopkony trending globally, and sparking a global discourse on Africa and the existence of Christian fundamentalist militias (not unlike that created by the joint US and Philippines forces during the late 1980s, but more on this later) - backfired. Various criticisms had been hurled, from the mild accusation of oversimplification and misplaced attention, to moderate criticism on its failure to highlight and expose Uganda's poor human rights record - in effect condoning or even supporting it, to a vicious assault on Invisible Children itself - exposing the fact that very little actually goes to Uganda and African nations. Then there is also its push for US intervention, which flies in the face of sovereignty issues and the reputation itself of the US military. There are more comprehensive criticisms here, here, and here. (All of these prompted Invisible Children to issue a reply here).

Invisible children graphic
Invisible children graphic. Click image to see it.
Picture from the Guardian.
But, as we know, the issues can can still go deeper. For instance, we can think about how the Kony 2012 phenomenon is placed in the current political milieu. After all, Joseph Kony, the repressive Ugandan state, as well as "US-as-the-policeman-of-the-world" concept didn't emerge in a vacuum. There is always a historical and political context behind any phenomenon.

One of my most insightful friends Primo Morillo had this hypothesis about Kony 2012 and Uganda, a hypothesis I want to share with you. He proposed that Kony 2012's timing is impeccable - in fact, it coincides with the fact that there is recently discovered oil in Uganda. Verifying this assertion, I found out that there are indeed recent interests on a "Ugandan oil boom". This is what prompted me to write this post - which would center on Kony 2012 and the probable US interest on Ugandan oil amid rising oil prices, and its more important implication - that the US establishment is to create pretext for its petro-imperialism, similar to the demonization of Muammar Gaddafi. But I go further and propose that Kony is America's new Osama Bin Laden, meant to justify military intervention in resource-rich Africa.

Oil Prices, the Ugandan Oil Boom, and America's Next Gaddafi

Rising world oil prices at the wake of the seeming recovery of consumer demand after the 2008 global financial crisis has been a critical issue for developing and developed nations alike. An important economic input, volatility in oil prices can destabilize value chains and price expectations. As such, countries have always sought to secure continuous access to oil, either tapping indigenous sources, earning enough currency  to buy from the oil market or sealing bilateral deals with oil exports, or securing new resources offshore - using military and diplomatic means.

The United States is no stranger to the third. In fact, the world has seen US's diplomatic schemes, geopolitical machinations, and even outright military interventions in the process of securing its access to oil and other hydrocarbons. American intervention in the Middle East geopolitics is centered on its access for petroleum, but it is not limited in that region. From Iran (1953) to Iraq (2003, also see this) to Afghanistan to even Somalia (1991) [and there are others], the US army tried to vigorously seal its oil access by toppling governments, invasion, searching for terrorists, etc. - masking it's intervention by a host of incredibly unbelievable and far-fetched excuses, from anti-terrorism to humanitarian acts. Recently, the 2011 Libyan "civil war" is also seen as a move to secure oil interest in a time of volatile oil prices (with France and UK taking their share of the pie). To quote Noam Chomsy:
"The oil companies are the major international corporations. Since oil has become important, they have virtually owned the State Department. They are the corporations within the American imperialist system that have the greatest concern for American foreign policy. Because they have the largest overseas investments, their influence over foreign policy has always been extremely strong.”
So what does this have to do with Kony 2012 and Invisible Children's call for another round of US military intervention in Uganda (with the help of similarly brutal Ugandan government, and even if Kony is no longer at Uganda)? Five years ago, about two billion barrels worth of oil were discovered in the landlocked nation, the culmination of years of search which cost at least US$70 million - starting with the oil blocks of Waranga 1, Waranga 2 and Mputa in 1989. Unfortunately for the Ugandan people, which has one of the most corrupt governments in the world, the oil exploration is yet to translate to less poverty and increasing incomes. In fact, 40% on Uganda earns less than $1.25 a day, in a country where inflation is around 30%. Corruption and regulatory flaws in the oil sector are seen as major stumbling blocks.

Of course, the United States quickly denied any interest on Ugandan oil, but we know better. In fact, it's initial move against the LRA in 2011 (something that in the Kony 2012 video Invisible Children claimed was due to its campaigning) was seen by many as a move to secure footing in the region. Of course, it would help a lot that a brutal and corrupt ruling class who would sell out Ugandan national interest at the blink of an eye would be very helpful for this purpose. The timing, as I said, is impeccable. Just this end of February, UK-based Tullow Oil PLC invested at least $1 billion in the exploration of oil and gas in Uganda, leading to the discovery of over a billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves, with an estimated 1.5 billion barrels expected to be found in three exploration blocks - a level of resource that could "place Uganda in the top 50 oil producers in the world." Will the US pass on such an opportunity?

It won't, just as it didn't in Libya. Immediately after the collapse of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who used oil earnings to provide a semi-welfare state for Libyans (just like the similarly demonized Hugo Chavez of another oil producer Venezuela), the US wasted no time making sure that the rebel groups (some sections of which are suspected to have received support from the US other than the explicit ones) supply them oil. Coincidentally, the 2011 Libyan coup happened with Gaddafi's impeding US oil interest in Libya.

Fishermen near an oil rig on the edge of Lake Albert.
Photograph: Xan Rice. From here.
What the US then need is a new Gaddafi, a new excuse for a new round of African petro-imperialism. Joseph Kony, with all his atrocious crimes against children and the African people, is a perfect one. Having roused up the sentiment of the world against a brutal, sinister figure (unfortunately, he really is evil), all they have to do is to exercise its "white man's burden" and "manifest destiny" and kick out the villain. What happens next, of course, goes under the radar. Invisible Children's Kony 2012 implicitly plays out the intended script - whether or not their purpose is genuine.

The Search for the New Bin Laden: US Hegemony and Religious Extremism

This brings us to another hypothesis. It may be that all US in interested at is oil in Uganda (having a similar foothold at Nigeria). We can, however, extend our suspicion further: just as it intervened in the Middle East politics in the past half century, it may be aiming now to do the same for the African region. And before we dismiss it as mere speculation, we have to ground it first at the fact and context that African economies are recently emerging as "lions on the move" (maybe a play of the "Asian Tiger Economies" of the late 20th century). The growth prospects are so good that the IMF even predicted that Africa will grab seven of the top ten fast growing economies of the world over the next five years. Uganda, actually, was already an early started on this - having made it to the top ten during the two decades to 2000, the only African economy to do so.

A Lion Economy, but who is riding it? It turns out that Beijing has already established an overwhelming presence in African economy - establishing six overseas economic and trade cooperation zones in five African countries (Zambia, Nigeria and Mauritius, Egypt and Ethiopia) and unleashing $328 million US dollars on African infrastructure by the end of 2010. By the end of 2011, 137 Chinese enterprises invested a total of $1.08 billion, with business volume estimated at $3.5 billion and tax contribution reaching $ 119 million.

With this massive money-mongering, US establishment simply cannot let the lion flirt with the dragon - geopolitics dictates that it has to intervene, and intervene fast. Africa may yet evolve into another theater of confrontation between the two giants. In fact, even oil is involved in this battle, with an expanding deal between energy-hungry China and hydrocarbon-rich Africa. Beijing is clearly a huge stumbling block for the US machinations to establish political dominance in Africa for oil security. (And this is not just in Africa. We know that US and China recently locked horns over the control of the oil-rich South China Sea - with the Philippine government as Washington's proxy).

Liberian children hold Chinese flags before the arrival of China's President Hu Jintao.
Photograph: Christopher Herwig/Reuters. From here.
And what is in Africa that the US detest enough to fight? The image of Africa in the US national psyche has always been that of immense poverty amid warring tribes and brutal Christian militias. Kony 2012 cannot paint the picture better. And the Obama administration, scouring the earth for oil amid rocky world petroleum prices and a reelection, can use that. It is foreseeable thus, that we see the war versus Kony turning into a war against all African Christian militias. In the evolving war against brutal religious fundamentalists, Kony will also be the new Bin Laden, and LRA - the new Al Qaeda.

Kony as the next Bin Laden, 21st century's Hitler. Of course, they were all bad men.
But remember how GM supported Hitler's war machine? And when CIA built Osama's Taliban
to fight the Soviets? The play goes on.
Of course, these militias, fostered by religious frenzy and supplied with cheap guns and abducted child soldiers, should be crushed. But with the US in, it may all just be a facade - an illegitimate motive wrapped by a legitimate issue. For as it may intervene to save thousands of lives from barbaric violence, it is maneuvering to subject the entire continent and consigning them to economic slavery. Moreover, it is ironic that while it the move will be against religious fundamentalists (Islamic terrorists then, Christian militias now), it has been expert at using religious militants as war instruments. We only have to remember CIA's creation of the Taliban to ward off the Soviet in Afghan soil, with Osama Bin Laden as its most famous member. Hated terrorist group Abu Sayaff in the Philippines was actually recruited by CIA as mujahideens. CIA, in collaboration with the Philippine army, supported violent Christian vigilantes during its war with the communists in the 1980s (which is the theme of the suppressed movie "Orapronobis").

But, before we even dismiss this as another "conspiracy theory", former European MP Richard Cottrell, a conservative, long exposed that US is actively supporting Kony and the LRA. Kony was the "bad cop" - destabilizing the region to justify humanitarian intervention, and Uganda's dictator Yoweri Museveni the "good cop". The tactic is the same for Congo and other nations within the region.

Towards Sovereign African Peace
Picture from here.

The only way to push for genuine peace in Africa is through sovereign economic development - a kind of development only possible without the imperial motives of US. The likes of Kony will only be truly stopped if we aim to stop first the very force behind their emergence - the perpetuation of colonial and neocolonial relations between the West and Africa, driven by oil and exports and backed by US's powerful military-industrial complex.

In the end, Kony 2012, with all its call for US intervention, will only facilitate the emergence of new Konys in poverty-infested Africa. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, Invisible Children seems to play its part in an old script that aims to subvert sovereign nations and perpetuate an oil-hungry, market-gobbling hegemon.

* coined by Primo Morillo.

1 comment:

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