Following journalist and adventurer Robert Young Pelton through a conversation is a labyrinthine task, one as apparently daunting as his new project—“Expedition Kony”, a crowdfunded mission to track down Joseph Kony, the infamous Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Yes, you read that right. This is not, as the social media joke goes, news from The Onion. Pelton is raising money for a trip to central Africa—he says he will be in four countries, and is cagey about naming them. When pressed, he mentions the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, with a team of filmmakers, journalists (Ross Fenter and Rob Swain), medics, security and translators, he plans to hunt down Kony and end a 20-year-long search for the LRA leader. As of Monday, Pelton had raised $8,407 of his $450,000 goal, but he expects private backers as well as public contributions to make up the difference.
Pelton explains that he and his team will be moving swiftly, but openly. “If he’s a human being and he has a pulse and he walks on two feet, I can probably find him—because people usually are limited by the bulk of the activity. You know what I mean?” Pelton tells me. “When you look for a fugitive and you bring in noisy helicopters and foreign troops, that tends to actually exacerbate the problem.”
The adventurer, who says he has been to “120 some-odd countries” and some two-dozen wars, claims to have met leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan; right-wing paramilitaries in Columbia; and Somali pirate kings.
He chuckles, “I’ve been with a number of psychotic African rebel groups so I have no problem with that. I have a pretty good feel for how they think and how they work and stuff.”
A spokesman for the Ugandan military, Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, had not heard of Pelton’s mission “We wish him good luck. That’s all I can say.”
For all intents and purposes, Kony’s LRA isn’t currently a functioning militia. For years, however, it terrified the Ugandan countryside and surrounding countries as a powerful and ferocious rebel group infamous for its cultish rituals, child abductions and guerilla tactics. Besides kidnapping and indoctrinating children, the LRA’s victims were forced to kill and maim or be killed and be maimed. Child captives were allegedly forced to murder their parents, and the LRA has been responsible for several massacres of civilians.
“Has” is the key word here. It should be noted, and Pelton himself readily points out, that the LRA is largely inactive and Kony isn’t the most important war criminal to find at the moment. As Pelton says, “In terms of lethality, [Kony’s] like an ‘80’s rockstar. You know, he wishes he got the publicity. His group is basically defunct.” Even so, Pelton says the reason he’s selected Kony is because he’s so famous, thanks to the controversial Invisible Children campaign of 2012. “It’s something I want to try, because if told people … ‘I’m going to go after [Ayman] Zawahiri, they’d be like ‘What?’ and ‘Who’s he?’ and ‘Where’s he?’ and ‘How do you do that?’”
Pelton doesn’t mention that the Invisible Children campaign was widely criticized for its lack of nuance and its indulgent representation of Africa. In fact, it’s hard not to see Pelton’s trip as carrying on that same tradition. In the blog Africa Is A Country, Corinna Jentzsch, a Ph.D candidate in Political Science at Yale, and SUNY Oswego Professor Neelika Jayawardane, put Pelton in the “#Bullsh*t Files” writing in a post, “In his promo video Pelton says he won’t use the plight of people in Africa to entertain us: ‘What we’re trying to do is not to use people’s misery as entertainment, but we’re trying to solve their problems.’ Of course, we hear him saying this right as the camera shows starving children and a boy with his hand cut off. While there is an overt dissonance between images and rhetoric in the video, that’s part of the game; if anyone accuses him of the very thing he’s doing, he can say that it’s our fault for interpreting his intent incorrectly.”
To The Daily Beast, Jayawardane added, “Image critique is clearly not the "real" problem here. We are also critiquing this particular brand of one man with a penchant for adventure will solve a deep structural/poor governance/complex political problem on the Dark Continent-type of solution.”
This is not how Pelton sees his mission. “I’m not doing it because of me, I’m doing it because I want people to go ‘Hey, that guy used crowdsourcing or crowd funding, or both, to go do something in this remote region, and it got done without a lot of middlemen.’ That’s all I am trying to do. I’m using me, because I have somewhat of a reputation for finding people, and I’m using Kony, because he has a reputation for not being found.”
It’s clear that, for Pelton, finding the criminal is as much about the journey as the destination. He’s quick to discuss the logistics of the project, which he says are his major concern. He likes to talk security, his past escapades, and danger potential (he's the author of the book The World’s Most Dangerous Places), and is less interested in a conversation about Kony, the LRA and how he plans to depict the complicated and often misrepresented continent.
In fact, Pelton has “no agenda” at all, he says. He’s just going. If he finds Kony, and he expects to, what happens from there is “up to Joseph Kony”—though Pelton doesn’t think he will surrender, as he has no history of doing so. According to Pelton, everyone he has previously tracked down has dictated the conversation. He isn’t worried about violence from the LRA. He chuckles, “I’ve been with a number of psychotic African rebel groups so I have no problem with that. I have a pretty good feel for how they think and how they work and stuff.”
Pelton has a legal adviser but no mandate or authority to arrest Kony. That’s not what this trip is about. “My goal is to show why Joseph Kony hasn’t been found. There are specific reasons why he has been moving around that region for 20 years. Second thing, once you make an effort to find someone, you want to show how difficult it is. You want to meet the various players to see what they wish they had in terms of access or assets or knowledge or whatever. And then thirdly, you start making contacts with people who are in contact with Joseph Kony and then Joseph Kony will decide whether he wants to talk to me or not. But as I said, I’m just relying on my track record of hunting down and meeting with a number—two or three dozen—leaders of terrorist and rebel groups that have multimillion dollar bounties on their heads.” Indeed, in April of this year, the United States offered a reward of $5 million a head for the warlord and some of his top aides.
Pelton also says his aim with the Kickstarter campaign is to fund the media side of his project, so people can follow, film and post about his work. He’s quick to emphasize that he usually travels alone, and describes himself as the first “solo journalist.” For this project, however, Pelton is “trying to engage people so they can follow [us] around and understand how difficult or how easy or how daunting it is to find one person or a group of people in Central Africa.” Another 10 minutes into the conversation, though, Pelton says he is going to “find a mass murderer and get him off the map," which seems to contradict his previous statement about simply opening up a dialogue with the rebel.
Pelton is big on that “engagement” buzzword. “I’m always trying to do something new that engages people so that maybe they get an idea that this isn’t so scary and maybe you can actually engage in these regions,” he says.
Later in the conversation, he switches focus again, saying “The crowdfunding aspect is really to pour money into these regions,” so that if those following his trip notice that a region needs “a specific kind of medicine” for example, they can raise money to help. Pelton believes that through following him through central Africa and watching his work, his audience will be “directly linked to solutions on the ground.”
Pelton says he has been tracking the warlord through his many personal contacts on the ground since 1993. He thinks that his age—Pelton is in his late 50’s—is an advantage because lots of people from his other trips are now working in Africa. It’s the new “big thing.” He insists that he has support from international organizations and important players who prefer to remain anonymous, and who, he says, are interested in his independent project because it is free of the bureaucratic red tape that bigger organizations must deal with.
Invisible Children does not endorse Pelton’s trip and responded to “Expedition Kony” by saying, “We respect Robert Young Pelton’s recognition of the need to get information on Kony’s location but do not believe this sort of effort will provide new, valuable information currently not obtainable by these active teams.” J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, said, "One really does not know whether this scheme merits ridicule or reproach ...The notion of asking the public to contribute to sending a self-promoting adventurer and two filmmakers off to find an elusive warlord whom the militaries of several African countries assisted by U.S. Special Operations Forces have not managed to catch is risible, to say the least."
Pelton is convinced that what he’s doing is different. “There [have] been advances in technology, and there’ve been advances in communication and funding and travel. Let’s harness those to see if we can solve problems.” Indeed, more than once during our conversation, Pelton seemed, for lack of a better word, behind the times. Or, perhaps, unaware of what is going at that this time. “There are things that are out there that can be fixed if you connect the dots,” he said. “I think the days as a witness thing are over and I think people are concerned and they want to know how to fix this, so I’m trying to come up with a formula, crowdsourcing and then sort of a media event to get people to focus.”
When it’s mentioned that a number of individuals and groups are already crowdfunding projects to make a positive difference Pelton agrees, unfazed. “Sure. But they’re not hunting down war criminals. They’re making electronic printers and watches that go around your wrist.”
Perhaps, for Pelton, things are just that simple. Watch him in interviews. No matter the level of controversy surrounding the topic, country or person on which he's focusing, he keeps his stance uncomplicated. “It’s the fact that I do keep an open mind, that I have so much access to these rebel groups and these terrorist groups and these freedom groups,” he reasons. “So, you know, it is what it is. If people want to turn it into a cartoon that’s cool.”