Africa Viral Video

A Joseph Kony reality check – Written for “the Pixar of human rights stories” by Alistair Edgar

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(Q) So we all are a-twitter about KONY2012. Is it a well intended, if chronically and often misleadingly simplistic effort to promote awareness of a decades-long brutal conflict and to make real change? Or is it a blatant effort at self-promotion, mixed with fund-raising for self-interested purposes?

(A) Most probably, it is both. And that should not be a surprise to anyone. It is trying to “sell” its product – and thereby to raise funds, primarily for itself as many reporters now have discovered – through a feel-good campaign appealing to YouTube watchers who respond to its slick but empty pop marketing approach. In a New York Times interview, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell says, “No one wants a boring documentary on Africa. Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool… We view ourselves as the Pixar of human rights stories.” A cool, pop Happy Feet II piece on a brutal, guerrilla warfare and the man most responsible for mass atrocity crimes, taking place in a deeply complex and political environment. Right, that should work.

(Q) Does the KONY2012 video, that has been taken up by millions of couch potato slacktivists and energetic idealists around the world, give a useful understanding of the conflict that embroiled northern Uganda for almost three decades, before Joseph Kony and the Lords’ Resistance Army was pushed out of Uganda and began their atrocities anew in long-suffering Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR)?

(A) Not even close. It is a dangerously simplistic picture of a very complex crisis. It neglects to explain to viewers that Kony and the LRA have not operated in Uganda since 2008; or that the UPDF have been accused (and have been documented) by many observers, including Human Rights Watch, of committing numerous atrocities against innocent Ugandans and of enlisting child soldiers themselves. It mentions large numbers of child abductions (over 30,000) but does not explain that the LRA today operates in dispersed and isolated small bands, and that they now have only a few hundred fighters in their ranks. It features Luis Moreno Ocampo, the energetic and dedicated chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who indicted Kony and several other LRA leaders but has not yet been able to arrest any of them – an indictment nonetheless that a number of Ugandan human rights groups blame for the LRA pulling out of peace talks in 2005-6 and renewing their campaign, and which others see as little more than a tool of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in the latter’s effort to placate international donors and investors while keeping northern Uganda (and his Acholi political opponents there) in check.

US troops uganda. Photographer: Michele Sibiloni.

(Q) Would the recommended course of action that is being called for in KONY2012 – to press the US government to commit its military to fund and train the Ugandan armed forces (the UPDF) to hunt down and capture (or kill?) Kony across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo – solve the “simple problem” of the LRA’s taking of child soldiers and child bush wives, committing savage atrocities against the unfortunate populations of DRC villages, and other criminal acts?

(A) Now, that’s an issue worth considering in more detail. Invisible Children, led by Jason Russell, is calling for his newly found slacktivist supporters to use their money and their voter-potential to advocate for US political and military intervention in Africa. He wants President Obama and Congress to maintain its commitment of 100 military advisers and trainers, supporting the UPDF in its hunt for Kony. He wants the UPDF to operate inside another country, the DRC. Never mind that the CAR and DRC governments both already have grown frustrated with the UPDF as it has been receiving large sums of money and support while doing very little to track down or to halt the LRA attacks, and that both governments have requested that the UPDF leave their countries. Never mind that the DRC Army has had clashes with the UPDF. Never mind the crimes that the UPDF is said to have committed in eastern DRC during 1997-2003. Never mind that a number of senior UPDF commanders charged with hunting for the LRA are reported (variously by International Crisis Group, by the Social Science Research Council, and by the United Nations) to have been listing “ghost soldiers” on their rosters so that they can collect salaries, rations and equipment. Or that others are reported to be engaged in illegal but very profitable logging in the DRC jungle, instead of conducting military operations. Or that others are accused of running prostitution rings in the CAR, and once again also of exploiting natural resources including gold, diamonds and timber. Never mind that when Guatemalan Special Forces were sent into the DRC bush to hunt for Kony and the LRA, they were killed. Never mind that when previous failed attempts to strike at Kony occurred, the dispersed LRA units in DRC and CAR responded with new attacks of increased viciousness against innocent and unprotected villagers. And never mind the concerns expressed by ordinary Ugandans (not the government) that the American interest in Uganda’s security may have something to do with its recently found oil reserves, estimated at 700 million barrels. If America is not there, an energy-hungry China might be, with money and workers.

The core principle of most humanitarian agencies working in difficult contexts is, ‘First, do no harm’. If KONY2012 is the brave new world of cool, pop reporting, and if millions of well-intentioned kids (and celebrities) buy into it, it’s a pity. The people of Uganda certainly do deserve our support, attention, and assistance. They don’t deserve to be infantilized and simplified, even by people with the best of intentions.

Alistair Edgar is an Associate Professor of the Political Science Department at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Director of the Academic Council on the United Nations Systems (ACUNS) and Co-Director of LCMSDS



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