What Joseph Kony can teach us about my daughter's Sunday morning question: 'Are people bad?'

The actions of the African warlord provide a useful route into the sort of ethical question that adults don't ask nearly often enough


The other morning my daughter asked me “Are people bad?”. I pretended to be asleep.

“What is a bad person?” she persisted.

“You’re a bad person” I replied. “It’s Sunday morning. It’s not yet nine o’clock.” 

She left me only to return bearing a large cup of tea and an extra pillow for herself. 

“I’m a bad person.” I corrected. 

“Stop it” she wailed, lying against me now, accommodating her growing frame, fewer soft bits than before and the heaviness of her head along my arm.

Half a cup of tea later she said “So, are there bad people?”  Resigning myself to moral philosophy for which I’m never well prepared, let alone early on a Sunday morning, I considered this from a biological perspective and off I launched:

“People aren’t bad. They’re the beautiful constructions of nature, lust and often a drop of alcohol.” “No. I don’t think there are bad people. I think people are good; they are just complex organisms, but they do bad things and if the number of bad things they do becomes overwhelming, then generally we call the people bad”.  

She looked at me, “You mean Hitler don’t you?”

“Well currently,” I said, “I mean Joseph Kony.”

“Joseph who?” she said, and that’s how we started talking about genocide, the abduction of children, sexual slavery and systematic rape in Central Africa before 9am on a Sunday morning.  This, I should like to add, is not usual practice in my household. 


“Joseph Kony”, I said. “He is somebody you need to know about because currently, for your world and your generation, he is a good example of what we might term a bad person or bad people”.  And reaching for the laptop, we opened it up and Googled Joseph Kony. It took .017 seconds to bring up 4,780,000 hits for Joseph Kony. So, it looks like people do know who Joseph Kony is, only unfortunately not enough people have known who he is, or not enough people have known what he does or not enough of the right people have known who he is and what he does to have stopped him doing what he still does.  So what does he do? 

Click on Google and one of the top links relates to the charity ‘Invisible Children’ and ‘Kony 2012’.  Kony 2012 was the brainchild of a group of American activists and film-makers who, in 2003, began a campaign to raise the profile of the atrocities perpetrated by Joseph Kony and the LRA, the Lords Resistance Army, in Uganda, Central Africa.  Their mission was to make 2012 the year that Kony would finally be hunted down.

Built on a potent mixture of Christian fundamentalism and African mysticism, Kony has set himself up as a ‘god’; ordinary people are too frightened to rise against him and his militia and have been convinced their Kony god and his LRA will protect them from harmful spirits.

The LRA’s “tactic” is to abduct children from their beds at night, primarily children in rural communities (i.e. away from towns with little in the way of protection), and force them, through threat and terror and bald abuse, to become members, child soldiers, in his ‘army’. Once “enlisted”, the children (often as young as eight) are press-ganged into committing atrocities themselves. Killing, raping, pillaging, the usual.

Not only are these children abducted from their families and coerced into a violent regime, but also, a hallmark or ‘signature’ of Kony enlistment practice is that the children are forced to kill their own parents, or other family members, or that those family members are killed in front of the children, usually at knifepoint, throats cut etc. And so, the children become orphaned and ‘adopted’ by the LRA. A further disturbingly common sight in the Kony camp and its surrounds is horrific, usually facial, mutilation perpetrated by one child on another, again at Kony’s instruction.       

To date, it has been estimated that over 30,000 children have gone missing and are thought to have been enlisted in Komy’s regime. Like Osama bin Laden before him, although perhaps with even less scruple, Kony is difficult to track down and governments internationally have been reluctant to “interfere” in a problem that was causing them little financial or military threat. 

Of course there is plenty of precedent for political indolence. Campaigners in the ‘Kony 2012’ camp have been remarkably tenacious. Terrier-like in their targeting of key policy makers in the US and, more recently, celebrities in Hollywood, they finally succeeded in persuading the Obama government to provide a special assignment of one hundred military advisers to the Ugandan army along with key technologies needed to track down guerrilla warriors.


Indeed, Kony is the number one registrant on the ‘Wanted List’ for the International Criminal Court for war crimes against humanity in the Hague; and he’s been top of their list since the inception of this court in 2005. But as the ICC’s leading advocate, Lewis Morales says, the problem remains that somebody has to catch him and bring him to the court first.

Approaching the end of 2012, it is estimated that Kony’s army has dwindled to a few hundred. In spite of this and of the continuing efforts of the African Union troops few see much realistic hope for the Kony 2012 mission to be successful and for Kony to be arrested and put trial for war crimes in the near future.

My daughter and I finished watching ‘Kony2012’ the film.

She is enthused to “do”.  She turns to me, shaking my arm and we click on the ‘pledge’, we click on the ‘buy-the-kit’ which contains Kony 2012 stickers, Kony 2012 bracelets and an action-pack of ideas about how to publicise the atrocities of the LRA and Joseph Kony in order to support the public awareness campaign and put pressure on governments to act.

We then donate money. The money goes to supporting Kony 2012 and its offices but also to developing infrastructure, particularly school building in the communities most affected in Uganda. We close up the laptop. She turns to me and smiles. 

“He’s a bad person mum,” she exclaims.

“Yes.” I say.  That’s probably a safe bet.                                             

Looking back on news from Africa this year, I am reminded of other humanitarian disasters. Seasonal drought and famine in West Africa (Malawi) where hundreds of thousands of people do not have enough millet (as if that were food) until the next harvest, nor the money to buy food elsewhere. And last week M23's capture of the regional capital Goma heralded fears of yet another large-scale war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations rejoiced at results of improved access to clean water (primarily for women) by the constructions of wells and pipe work in India, Bangladesh and Africa. I am then reminded that diarrhoeal diseases are still one of the biggest killers of children under 5 globally which, of course, is primarily due to poor sanitation/dirty water.

I reflect again on my daughter’s question “Are people bad?”  and my response that people’s actions are bad, but people aren’t. I’d felt a momentary glow in the giving to Kony 2012. But it strikes me that inaction, the inaction of us all, of the world, is perhaps a much worse thing and is likely to be related to the suffering and deaths of far more people than even Joseph Kony. And that token aid from a comfortable bed is hypocritical and bad.          

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