A comment on Kony 2012, its repercussions, and its possible consequences
The last two weeks have been marked by an unprecedented internet activism campaign to “make Joseph Kony famous”. A viral internet video produced by US advocacy and development NGO Invisible Children (IC). As for now, it has been watched by roughly 100 million people which makes it as far as I am informed the most viral video in history. This is remarkably, given that African conflicts have so far not been able to cope with US music hits in that regard. The film’s outreach is further widened by a broad discourse including Twitter (where #Kony2012 has been worldwide top hashtag shortly after its release) and all sorts of other online and offline media. The debate, however, has developed in a very controversial way.
The 30 minutes movie shows a medley of IC’s development work in Uganda, its advocacy back home in the US, and finally, numerous clips where Jason Russell, IC’s operating campaigner for Kony 2012 talks to his son, explaining why Kony is one of the most awful war criminals. So far, so good. I can easily align myself to all those who want to see Kony captured, indicted, and jailed and despite all criticism, the ICC that has just proven operational capacity in finally condemning Thomas Lubanga for similar charges than those Kony is facing. But I am highly worried about whether IC’s massive viral campaign and the 20 April D-Day for posters and demonstrations will positively influence the solution of problems related to Joseph Kony and the LRA.
A couple of reasons do actually reduce the movie’s credibility and reliability to an absolute minimum:
(In order to get an introductory impression of the conflict related to LRA, I recommend two short texts by Michael Wilkerson and Koen Vlassenroot/Tim Allen/Mareike Schomerus. For deeper studies, I would also refer to the latter mentioned and their numerous publications on Northern Uganda and the LRA.)
1) Kony 2012 simplifies a highly protracted and complex conflict setting that is both in local and regional terms affecting communities.
The video does not really address the role Uganda’s army (UPDF/former NRA) and the current government under Yoweri Kaguta Museveni have played in the Ugandan part of the conflict. The role of long-time Acholi discrimination in Uganda and the military, political, and spiritual predecessor of Kony and the LRA, namely Alice Auma’s/Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement are not even mentioned. In that regard, Kony and the LRA are even more easily dismissed as the world’s (or at least Africa’s) most brutal rebel group. Beyond Uganda, IC lacks a wider and deeper understanding of conflict dynamics in the Great Lakes region, or at least they do not want to share it with the audience (more on the way IC addresses its audience will follow later…). This leaves the video vacuous and pointless in terms of how to tackle the security challenges in the Great Lakes region. Instead of pursuing a careful approach of balanced and intelligence-sourced advocacy (a strategy most thoroughly employed by organisations such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International), IC offers a catch-all solution leading its spectators to believe Kony’s capture will be a) achieved through watching a viral video and b) buying the so-called action kit (and give 30 dollars to IC out of which at best 10 will be spent for its cause!) to transfer the online campaign into real-world activism on a given day. In addition, IC insinuates that Kony’s capture will pacify a whole region whose major predicament to stability and peace is certainly not only and not even primarily the LRA. Even if the LRA was/is that powerful and that much a threat to the populations in the wider sub-region, it would be more than erroneous to think of Kony’s sole detention as catalyst for immediate peace. Just think of the arrestation of Laurent Nkundabatware in Rwanda, or the ongoing trial of Ignace Murwanashyaka in Germany that has not brought violence to a halt in Eastern DR Congo either. Another striking aspect of disinformation is the video’s continuous attempts to suggest Kony still being a Ugandan affair and committing atrocities in Uganda. This is not the case for almost 6 years now and a major reason why Northern Ugandans basically dismiss the claim of Kony’s detention solving their problems (which are currently more relating to sustainable development, banditry in the North East, or the nodding disease). Ironically, IC should be among those organisations best placed to avoid such flawed information, as they are running so-called LRA crisis tracker, an early warning mapping system to protect communities from LRA attacks. This information system gives precise data on where the group is currently active. That is far away from Uganda for a lot of time now. Very quaint is thus that IC does not seem to be interested in the great results of, in my view, their sole senseful project.
2) Kony 2012 does not take into consideration the affected populations.
Without prejudice to the young Jacob Acaye who acts as a testimony for LRa atrocities and by doing so represents numerous to countless victims that have to struggle to have a voice, especially on an international level, the video shows too much IC and Jason Russell speaking out through Acaye (and, of course, the small boy as well). Neither does IC mention that Acaye has been a collaborator of their NGO for years now and would certainly not speak out against his patrons even if he was wary of the video’s dangerous simplification. Nor does IC present a balanced debate between African and Non-African viewpoint in general as Acaye fully aligns to Russell. But what are other Ugandans, other Acholi people think? I was lucky to speak to a couple of good Ugandan friend currently in Gulu and Lira (two of the main cities in Northern Uganda, both heavily affected by the war between HSM/LRA and the Ugandan government throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s) last week. In doing so, I was told that an overwhelming majority of people were either ashamed, angered, or scared by watching the film. A public screening by IC had to be cancelled due to rising outrage against the videos emotionalising and simplifying style. A little later, this has been proved by videos and reports. All those intense reactions offer proof of how these people being the group primarily concerned with Kony and his cruel struggle think and react on this issue. Taking up those concerns, Ugandan blogger and journalist Rosebell Kagumire launched a more than remarkable and well thought answer to the Kony 2012 movie. Like often before, Western advocacy and foreign aid continue to ignore African responsbility, will, and ownership to find solutions for problems. IC’s Kony 2012 campaign is yet another example of ill-informed campaigning with a lot of good intentions that suffocate good strategies. So the question remains, what might be better in such context: intentions or strategies? Wronging rights have probably found the best tone to ironically critique the campaign’s “white-man’s-burden-like” disenfranchisement of those really concerned. Or, as a Christian Science Monitor article has framed it: “It’s fine to stop Kony and the LRA. But learn to respect Africans.” In my humble opinion, this also applies to a bunch of politicians and celebrities that punch in their weight in order to collect their social responsibility bonus without even carefully analysing which campaign they prompt and which complex conflict setting they approach and talk about.
3) As to taste and dignity, IC’s video and the underlying story are disgusting to a certain extent.
Does Jason Rusell really think, people watching the video do enjoy being transferred to a level of his tiny boy Gavin? In order not to confound things: I am also absolutely in favour to make small children learn things about this world. And to make them learn thing that are not nice, not beautiful, not perfect, particular. I may therefore also tell my future children about crisis regions and violence. Not least to make them understand that peace is not always given and that it is an immeasurably valuable thing. But this relates to a rather private sphere. As soon as things get public, one has choose their way of presenting serious issues in an adequate manner. Letting a 5 years boy utter his child argumentation about why Kony should be detained and letting him respond almost automatically in IC-speech to his father’s loaded questions does not only take the audience for fools but is an actual derision of all concerned people, including Gavin’s good friend (as told in the video) Jacob Acaye. Taste and dignity of IC’s have also been affected by allegations the NGO would only use a mere third of its funds to actually implement projects in the field. Instead, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent for movies that transport false and biased content and other hundreds of thousands vanish as direct development aid to Jason Russell and his colleagues (maybe to an account for the later Gavin’s Harvard studies in order to become the same style of “great” human rights campaigner than his dad!?). Unless IC does not introduce transparency and put their campaigning onto a minimum level of scientific and journalistic quality, the verdict can be nothing more than a lousy organisation that has launched a lousy campaign which has turned, though, into the most powerful viral campaign of all times. David Rieff is not really far from such estimate either. Finally, Kony 2012 posters show the rebel leader surrounded by Bin Laden and Hitler. What an imbecility – I simply cannot realise what Hitler and Bin Laden should have in common apart from being (or having been) very very bad guys. Well, Kony too – but what is the message apart from that? I might have understood things in case they had chosen Charles Taylor and Radovan Karadzic to accompany the LRA leader. Simply because there would be something like a logical connection. Otherwise, the whole of Kony 2012 sadly lacks internal logic. And, since I will be in Germany on April 20 which is set to be IC’s worldwide big poster day, I wonder whether German Kony 2012 will put posters everywhere on the very day Hitler was born.
4) Finally, a new era of interventionism might accompany Kony 2012 in a larger frame.
This bears a lot of positive developments, such as in the field of Responsibility to Protect, Human Rights, or Civilian Protection – unarguably. But is also has the potential of misuse through great powers and so-called coalitions of the willing. Examples include wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where it is extremely difficult to assess whether things have improved for the affected populations in the very end (partly, also due to the fact that the very end is still far, or course…). I will not start digging into such analyses since in my view there are too much rationales and arguments to foster either position be it positive or negative, but just to put the notion on these politics of intervention: Libya has experienced a different but similar fate when NATO deliberately took sides and in Côte d’Ivoire electoral deadlock has been solved by a regime change that did not take into consideration that both sides had broken valid constitutional law. Biased international broadcasting has implicitly empowered unsanctioned violation of the UN charter in the latter case. In all those examples, and others more, there is no final confirmation that intervention has been the right decision whom to back and whom to fight. The Kony 2012 campaign openly calls for military engagement, hence intervention, in an era where this has become fashionable. It will therefore be a major concern for the human rights sector to remain aware of potential contribution to “just wars” that are perhaps just wars, like others. Yet this is another point that should render ourselves sceptic about IC’s hidden agenda. Similarly to US campaigning in Darfur, the freshly built Anti-Kony-Block displays a strange mixture between human rights activism and a meddling of militarisation and potential economic interest. This coincides with the US, as other Western countries having experienced a great loss of influence in the Eastern/Central African subregion – a region with abundant oil reserves and other precious raw material. Although that point lacks basis compared to the critique I have mentioned before, time will tell us if we are about to experience such as paradigm shift in the global struggle for resources and politico-economic supremacy.
So far my part of Kony 2012 bashing, although it was not even meant as bashing but rather as worried analysis. I leave it at that although I might have an additional cynical comment to offer relating to Jason Russell’s ignoble recent activities by which he and his organisation have lost what was remaining in terms of credibility and morality.
However, let me end with a serious plea: No matter whether you share the arguments I have given or cited. Please be critical towards this one and similar campaigns. Not every charity is noble and not every pellucid campaign is worth supporting. This applies for the broader sector of aid as well. Both in advocacy and campaigning, and in concrete programmes many individuals and organisations pursue questionable aims or are influenced by other powerbrokers who do so. If the Kony 2012 campaign has had one definitely positive impact, it will be that people will have become aware of Kony AND will have done further research and investigation through which they reveal Kony 2012′s dangerous character.