Saturday, March 10, 2012

So easy a child can understand it: thinking twice about Kony 2012

Sunday, 11 March 2012

If you’ve so much as opened a browser window in the last four days, chances are that you’ve seen, in some shape or form, at least one article, tweet, video, or Facebook post about “Kony 2012,” the latest viral video campaign from the California-based advocacy group called Invisible Children. The premise behind the campaign is straightforward: in harnessing social media and the power of the almighty dollar, youth worldwide have the tools, the knowhow, and the moral fortitude necessary to land the LRA’s Joseph Kony in the ICC’s dock by the end of the year. Much like we’re meant to believe that sexing up breast cancer into a pink and lacy meme will ultimately lead to its miraculous eradication, Invisible Children sells the magic idea that money, “awareness,” celebrity, and violence itself will put an end to one of the world’s longest running conflicts. Lest anyone accuse me of cynicism for failing to believe in that magic, please consider this: that the gloss of “Kony 2012,” aside from its factual inaccuracies and poorly-concealed narcissism, has the potential to hurt more than help. It assumes not only that the market equals emancipation, not only that people are unable (or unwilling) to comprehend (or contemplate) the murkiness of central African politics and history, but that Ugandans (not to mention anyone from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic) are passive, apolitical bodies incapable of “saving” themselves. Ironically, that is exactly what Joseph Kony thinks of his abductees.

What’s now known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) emerged from the Acholi sub-region in 1987, at the end of a large-scale civil war in Uganda, itself tied to the grievances resultant from the colonial era’s militarization of politics. The LRA did not arise out of a political vacuum, nor was it the first rebel group of its kind in Uganda, neither was it the first or last (para)military force in Uganda or environs to “recruit” underage soldiers, to use rape and mutilation as weapons, to appeal to spiritual forces for blessings and protection, nor to pillage and spread terror in its wake. Nevertheless, by the mid-90s Kony’s force was filling its ranks by abducting children and youth (as well as adults) en masse from the Acholi sub-region (and later, in the neighbouring sub-regions of northern Uganda). Dominic Ongwen, one of the LRA’s top commanders and the youngest person ever indicted for war crimes, was himself abducted at the age of ten. He survived because he learned to follow orders and to kill. In this conflict, victim and perpetrator are often the same person. His story is dramatic, but it is not unique, and it offers a window into the intimate level violence that this conflict has fostered. Yet the Kony 2012 campaign insists that the world is made up of people in white hats and black hats. If Jason Russell’s pre-school-aged son can understand that Kony needs to be stopped, why can’t you?

This is a story about silence, but not the kind it’s presented to be. The reason children and youth are easy targets for military recruiters (and not just in Africa) is that they can be easily swayed and manipulated by simple boundary shifts of right and wrong. That is also the power of Invisible Children’s videos, which take a world complicated by grey and transform it into black and white. It is a message that says Africans need to be saved from themselves, and that it is not only the moral duty, but the right of American youth (anxious as they are about their place in the world) to speak up for them. These “children” are invisible, aren’t they? They don’t have parents who are searching for them, right? Not quite. The deeply insulting implication of Invisible Children’s message is that Ugandans are silent. They say next to nothing about the peace makers of northern Uganda who have spent the better part of the last three decades grappling with the consequences of the war, risking their lives to gain the trust and confidence of the LRA high command in order to build peace. It is the people who have witnessed their children abducted, abused, and subject to violent deaths and still called for dialogue that deserve our attention, support, and respect, not the youth of America (however well intentioned) who are looking for a feel-good story about their own human spirit. This is a story that also speaks to the saviourship of global capitalism, where suffering is sold and consumed in the misguided belief that “awareness” and the tears of celebrities will trickle down to the abject. Aside from the obvious self-indulgence of this entire enterprise and the near-celebration of ignorance that it promotes, the Kony 2012 campaign provides misleading information in the cynical belief that it has to sex-up and dumb-down the truth to be relevant.

The Kony 2012 video, like the full-length film that Invisible Children produced in 2006, features a kind of meta-narrative reminiscent of televangelism. We are presented with two types of people: the poor, young, frightened, victimized African, and the healthy, wealthy, happy white youth who “sees the light” and will stop at nothing to spread the gospel of the self-made activist. But a conversion story needs drama. Apparently the Invisible Children producers didn’t think the reality was stark enough: that the LRA was expelled from Uganda in 2006, that it continues to operate haphazardly in three neighbouring countries, that night commuting into Gulu and Kitgum towns stopped in 2006, and that previous attempts to “flush out” the LRA through military means have backfired with such violent intensity as to make the mere suggestion of a new operation abhorrent to anyone in the region. Instead, the video shows us footage of children (“night commuters”) pouring into Gulu Town and sleeping on verandahs. Much like the full-length film is interspersed with scenes of child soldiers from Sierra Leone and Liberia, we are led to believe that what we are seeing is northern Uganda right now. Two days ago, Jacob Acaye, the young Acholi man featured in both films, spoke to the Guardian to defend the campaign against its critics, grateful as he is for aid that the organization has given him. Of course Invisible Children does good works. To paint them as corrupt villains would be to give in to the kind of black and white rhetoric that they so regularly spout. And it is indeed disingenuous at best to argue that the LRA is probably not worth the attention it’s currently receiving (it’s in its death throes, it’s an irrelevant force that’s not even in Uganda any more, so why don’t we just move on to something bigger?). Jacob rightly pointed out that the displacement of the LRA to CAR, South Sudan, and DRC doesn’t lessen its horror. The LRA has grown and receded in strength throughout the last two decades, defying military analysts time and time again.

Contrary to the message of the Kony 2012 film, one of the primary reasons this conflict has been so intractable is not because “no one noticed it” until now, but because northern Ugandans know that it will take more than military might and the prosecution of three men to get at the roots of their long suffering. To suggest that the UPDF (Uganda’s national military), along with the SPLA and the armed forces of the DRC and CAR, should take the lead under AFRICOM assistance is to ignore that the UPDF is a belligerent party in this war. If the “international community” deems it necessary to physically force Kony out of his hiding place or kill him in the process, it has to accept that in doing so it also sanctions the death of the hundreds of people in the bush with him (boys and men, women and girls and their children born of rape) whom it failed to protect from abduction and slavery in the first place. The Ugandan Government has done well to play itself as the victim of rebel terrorists, and Invisible Children has fallen for it. To ignore the forcible displacement and internment of over a million people, an entire generation grown in IDP camps, ripped from any source of rootedness, security, empowerment, or hope, is to turn a blind eye to the very political conditions out of which the LRA was formed in the first place.

I don’t mean to be snarky. I try to give the benefit of the doubt to Invisible Children and assume that they are a group with good intentions. But we all know what the road to hell is paved with. This is not the first time they’ve concocted a plan of this sort, but it’s time they’ve learned a little about history. There is no deus ex machina in this story. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend to. I don’t speak for victims, for Acholi, or for Ugandans, and I don’t pretend to. But I have met thousands of Ugandans at this point, and have had sustained conversations with hundreds of ex-LRA abductees, many of whom have children, loved ones, and friends in the bush still. So I won’t pretend that solutions don’t exist or that the people who are actively trying to find them are “invisible.” The anthropologist Valentine Daniel wrote, of his work in Sri Lanka, that he was less concerned about giving “voice to the voiceless” than in giving “ears to the earless.” So open your ears, because there are people in Uganda who are speaking, and they have important things to say. If you’re Canadian, demand the Government renegotiate our place in the world and address suffering at home and abroad without turning to the gun. If you want to donate money, there are plenty of organizations doing wonderful work, and in fact, many of them are African-made and African-based.

Social media is a wonderful tool. Democracy can be pretty awesome. I’m a student of anthropology because, as much time as I spend bemoaning humans (a lot), they’re pretty neat. And I know they can do and be better. So if you want to help the LRA’s victims and show your fellow humans that you care about them, I ask you to take the time to do it in a productive way. Think. Read beyond a 140 character limit. Ask. Repeat. Then do. If you’re part of the “tl;dr” crowd, let me just tell you (if you’ve made it this far) that executive summaries are your friend. Yes, it might be said that I am pessimistic in dismissing this campaign. But what I think is pessimistic to a fault is the assumption that no one in the world can be bothered to watch more than a viral video, read a tweet, and get on to the next news flash. I think humans are capable of more than that.


  1. AMEN!! SO well written and like you took the words right out of my mouth! (except you didn't because they're yours)

  2. OK. I'm guilty of reading only the ex summaries. But the KONY2012 buzz got my attention - if only for a couple hours yesterday and a couple more today. $20 means I hope it is spent well, but only $20 if it is not. How many people like me (who have other life experiences and passions) will hear and will care and will support this or similar efforts as a result of this buzz?