Anyone who has been following and studying the conflict between the (now Ugandan government) National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda, would have woken up to quite a surprise to find a ‘viral’ internet video, emblazoned with the name of Joseph Kony, racking up millions of views. Hyperactive American-led campaigns concerning Africa are nothing new – see the Save Darfur Campaign only a few years ago and more recently George Clooney’s misguided intervention into the situation in Sudan. But the speed with which the KONY2012 video spread and the amount of attention it has gained is something entirely new. It raises issues about social media activism and more broadly, about how Africa is represented outside of the continent.
The group behind the video, Invisible Children (IC), have been the subject of a significant public backlash, inside and outside of Uganda, with the group’s credentials brought under scrutiny and apparently found wanting. News has spread of the very public breakdown of the film’s director, Jason Russell, evidence of financial mismanagement, links to far-right anti-gay movements in America and a link to the Ugandan Pastor who started the sickening ‘Kill All the Gays’ bill in Uganda; amongst many other things.
Beyond IC’s public unravelling, what does need to be made clear is that IC are not only ‘commercialising’ the conflict in Uganda- through the sale of t-shirts, bracelets and ‘action kits’- portraying consumer power outside of Uganda as a key solution to the conflict; but ‘militarising’ it through their calls for a rejuvenated AFRICOM mission (to which I will return presently). It is a conflict which, until now, Ugandans in Northern Uganda have been dealing with and reconciling within their own communities in personalised and localised ways. But the evangelical nature of IC, casting the light of their own divine justice onto a conflict which they deem to have been forgotten, or ‘invisible’, is now putting this whole fragile process of dealing with the post-LRA situation in Uganda, at risk.
The message and the approach contained in the campaign are more worrying still. The historical background of the conflict provided in the film is very limited, misleading and selective. To fill in some gaps then: the LRA formed in 1987 in response to President Museveni (from the South) committing atrocities against the Acholi people (from the North). They are widely believed not to have been operational in Uganda since 2006, but exiled in the jungles of Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic.
Museveni’s National Resistance Army was drawn from the Bantu population of southern Uganda, and in opposition to perceived domination of politics and the military by the northern Acholi people in the immediate post-colonial period. However, unlike the South, the North didn’t have a coherent ethnic or communal identity.
The NRA defeated then-president Milton Obote’s forces in 1985, but the Acholi, took power briefly for six months (reiterating the NRA’s potrayal of Acholi dominance), only for their rule to be smashed by Museveni and the NRA, sending the Acholi back into the North (Acholiland and Southern Sudan).
Soon after the return of the defeated Acholi fighters to their northern homelands, an antagonism began to brew between them and the civilian population. The Acholi elders were convinced that they had returned with bad luck engendered by crimes they had committed while away. This belief was further solidified when Museveni, anticipating discontent within the Acholi, occupied Acholiland, and launched a counterinsurgency campaign that amounted to the looting, rape and massacre of Acholi civilians. And it is out of this situation that the LRA grew, as Joseph Kony was able to cast the bad luck Acholi fighters as ‘collaborators’ with Museveni, and prey on the Acholi communities concerns about a renewed attack from Museveni.
Because this whole story is not told by Invisible Children, they detach the LRA and Kony from their long historical-geographical-political context.
The message is that for 25 years, Africa has been waiting for America to solve this problem, which can be done by capturing Africa’s crazed evildoer and handing him over to international justice. The IC campaign is formed as a matter of saving Africa from evil, portraying those in Northern Uganda as helpless victims, who have been silent throughout the conflict.
What the campaign inadvertently highlights is a key problem of social media activism: a disconnect between expectation and reality. Proponents of the KONY2012 campaign argue that the campaign above all else is positive as it raises “awareness” of an issue. The internet and social networking has enabled ‘concerned’ humans (as Jason Russell has pointed out, Invisible Children is not political, just an assemblage of concerned human beings), to interact with the issue. But is the Internet really facilitating interaction, or instead excusing mutual passivity? The story goes that Internet users are embarking on a new dialogic relationship with the Internet, breaking out of the mould of a ‘passive’ observer. But is this, in fact, not simply interpassivity, being active through some Other, whilst sitting back, reassured the Other is doing the ‘caring’ for you? Those supporting the KONY2012 campaign on the Internet are engaging in pseudo-activism. And what is ‘awareness’ worth when it is ‘awareness’ of incorrect facts and dangerous over-simplification of real and very complex issues, above all depoliticising a deeply political conflict?
The strongest opposition to the campaign has come from Uganda itself. The editor of the Acholi Times wrote a response to Invisible Children, voicing his concern that the video was stripping Ugandans of any agency, portraying them as mere victims, waiting for an outside solution to the problem. The film was actually shown in Northern Uganda to a group of people who had lost limbs or had family members killed at the hands of the LRA. Before the Invisible Children film could end, the crowd had erupted into a fit of anger and the sheet that the film was projected onto was stoned and ripped down. And these are the people with the greatest reasons to want to see Kony brought to justice.
In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military solution to a fragile situation, the campaign isn’t just ‘dumbing down’ the conflict, it is irresponsibly naïve- the “let’s get the bad guy” script is a problem, not a solution. Those ‘clicktivists’ suddenly empassioned about the conflict in Uganda might retort – ‘well isn’t it good that people are now aware?’ But we must ask the question – ‘aware of what?’ And what sort of awareness? The campaign has raised awareness, but awareness of incorrect and out-of-date facts, meaning that by pulling on people’s heartstrings, Invisible Children have been able to manufacture consent, both public and political- for a rejuvenated AFRICOM (a wing of the US military) mission in Uganda, to bolster the Ugandan army in their search for Kony, and to obscure further Museveni’s involvement in the massacres of the Acholi people. In fact, I wouldn’t call it raising awareness at all. I would call it “peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” (http://africanarguments.org/2012/03/11/don’t-elevate-joseph-kony-by-alex-de-waal).