By Michael Wilkerson, The Guardian, 8 March 2012
You could forgive eager tweeters crying out to stop the non-existent violence in Uganda
Are you helping to stop Joseph Kony? Kony 2012, a video by advocacy group Invisible Children about the mass-murdering and child-abducting leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been viewed more than 50m times. The goal is to make the elusive warlord a household name and keep pressure on governments to bring Kony to justice.
Oprah, P Diddy, Rihanna and other celebrities are all on board, along with teenagers and other socially conscious people, fired up and ready to accomplish their mission: Stop Kony.
Sadly, however, a wet blanket looms. There is no question that the LRA has been one of the most horrifying armed forces in the past half century. But while the video urges spreading the word, signing a pledge, buying an action kit of Kony 2012 bracelets and posters, and of course donating to Invisible Children, it’s hard to understand how this will aid the current slow chase of Kony and his forces through some of the most intractable terrain in the world.
US military advisers have been helping the Ugandan army track the LRA since October, and Invisible Children wants to keep pressure on the US to maintain or improve that assistance. But as there has not been a whisper of possibly withdrawing this support, raising it as the reason for urgency seems slightly odd.
Beyond this quasi-straw man, the most immediately problematic part of Invisible Children’s video campaign is the simultaneous success and failure of Kony 2012 in raising awareness. Uganda and Kony are trending on Twitter but does awareness mean a basic understanding that goes beyond Kony’s name? Only briefly, and 15 minutes into the video does the narrator, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, mention that the LRA has left northern Uganda, and he doesn’t say when. So you could forgive the thousands of eager tweeters crying out for action to stop the non-existent violence in northern Uganda now. But can you forgive Invisible Children for glossing over this?
Maybe Invisible Children, which has shown itself to be an expert in raising awareness about the LRA (on Oprah twice!), did not do a good enough job explaining the LRA’s regional expansion. Perhaps this is a harder task with the followers of celebrities than your more motivated university do-gooders. Or maybe Invisible Children decided that as its most powerful footage highlighted the very worst of Kony’s terrorising children in northern Uganda, introducing confusing borders and less well-known places such as the Central African Republic would lose the audience and was not worth cutting time from the bouncing bracelet-wearing students outside the US capital.
This leads to another worrying aspect of the Kony 2012 campaign. The arc of the video tells you that before, no one cared but, thanks to technology and Invisible Children, everyone can now take the necessary action to earn Kony the infamy and arrest or death he deserves.
But since Invisible Children as an organisation began with a few north Americans stumbling into a conflict they didn’t know existed and then resolving to help the child victims by making a movie, the base level of great white saviourdom is already high. Implying that finally now, by getting the word out about Kony via celebrities, bracelets and social media, can the LRA be ended plays into this narrative of white rescuers coming to help poor Africans and totally ignores the efforts, good and bad, by Ugandans to fight the LRA for 25 years. I belong to a discussion group of hundreds of Ugandan journalists, and so far only one has been willing to stand up and say this campaign is a good thing (and mainly because it might help more people find Uganda on a map). Nearly everyone else finds Kony 2012 self-aggrandising, patronising and oversimplified.
As someone who, like the Invisible Children founders, loves and cares deeply about Uganda, perhaps most worrying to me is defining the image of Uganda in the minds of these millions of video viewers as a place of perpetual conflict and strife. Thursday, some of my Ugandan friends pointed out, was International Women’s Day and attention to the many positive things to celebrate about the progress of Ugandan women were overwhelmed by attention to Kony 2012.
On a darker note, Uganda also has many serious problems: a president in power for 26 years, millions in stolen funds and missing medicine, oil wells soon to begin flowing (with the potential for further corruption) and one of the world’s youngest populations facing high rates of inflation and rising unemployment. Like many who know more than just one household name connected to Uganda, I worry that these important and more complicated issues will be overwhelmed by the half-informed outcry over the LRA and Uganda will, for millions, still be connected to one of the most terrible times in its history. And, of course, to the nice Americans who came to help.
We should stop Kony, and Invisible Children as an organisation and Kony 2012 as a campaign are intended to further this goal. But not all well-meaning efforts are flawless and, rather than being depicted as cynical nay-saying, criticism should be embraced and addressed rather than rejected.
If there were a referendum on whether or not Joseph Kony should be hunted with all available resources until he is arrested or killed, it would certainly pass. But translating millions of video views to change on the ground in eastern and central Africa is much harder than the social media outpouring of concern (and congratulation about that concern) would lead you to believe.