Leaked cables of secret diplomatic notes by American officials in Uganda to Washington reveal that Invisible Children, the makers of the controversial film, Kony 2012, shared intelligence information with Ugandan security operatives that led to the arrest of a number of suspected regime critics. According to the memos posted by whistle-blower Wikileaks, Mr Patrick Komakech, a reported ex-LRA child soldier currently facing treason charges with a dozen other co-accused, was arrested on March 5, 2009, following a tip-off from officials of Invisible Children.
The development will offer critics fodder to suggest that the US charity should not be entitled to its not-for-profit status that presents fringe benefits such as tax exemptions. Mr Komakech’s arrest, the cable said, was made possible because he had been featured in past documentaries by Invisible Children, and is understood to have led to a swoop that eventually uncovered the supposed recruitment of disgruntled “northerners into anti-Museveni rebel groups”, backed by LRA-leaning individuals from the Acholi Diaspora.
“Invisible Children reported that Komakech had been in Nairobi and had recently reappeared in Gulu, where he was staying with the NGO. Security organisations jumped on the tip and immediately arrested him,” wrote former US ambassador to Uganda Steven Browning in the June 11, 2009 cable.
“He had a satellite telephone and other gadgets which were confiscated when he was picked up.”
Both the UPDF and Invisible Children moved to dismiss details of the leaked memo yesterday, while officials from the US Mission in Kampala were unavailable for comment due to the Easter holiday.
“That’s a lie. Komakech was arrested in broad day light and we didn’t need a muzungu to tell us where he was,” UPDF Spokesperson Felix Kulayigye said.
Invisible Children Uganda Spokesperson Florence Ogola said: “That is not true. We are not involved in anything to do with security. We only deal with development.”
She said allegations that the charity was involved in spy work on behalf of the UPDF is part of the “propaganda” and “tagging” that is gaining prominence after the release of the 30-minute Kony 2012 video early this year, which critics dismissed for its supposed simplistic portrayal of the two-decade conflict and insistence on a military solution.
In an interview yesterday, Water Minister Betty Bigombe, who was at the heart of negotiations between government and the LRA, admitted that she “got wind of the role” Invisible Children played in bringing Mr Komakech back to Uganda from Nairobi, where he had been holed up but said she was “unaware” if the charity may have helped Ugandan security in having him arrested.
Mr Browning wrote that Ms Bigombe, “who has known Mr Komakech for 10 years, said he had confessed to being part of a new anti-government movement in the north.”
Mr Komakech is said to have been on the Ugandan security radar, reputedly for impersonating LRA leaders to extort money by presenting “fake defection” plans.
Ms Bigombe said she knew Komakech “very well”, as a child soldier she met during the first peace process in the early 90s and eventually a resourceful individual during the Juba peace process but admitted she was “shocked” to discover “he was playing games with other ex-rebels.”
Mr Browning wrote, however: “Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence officers confirmed Komakech’s confession and said the new group, previously called the Uganda People’s Front, is now the PPF.”
The ex-envoy said Mr Komakech reportedly gave the locations of several arms caches in Pader District with a total of 600 weapons recovered, and reported that the group had begun recruiting throughout the north, from West Nile to Pader.
Mr Komakech is said to have named several former LRA combatants that had been integrated into the UPDF as members of the new group as well as other civilian participants.