By Taro Kili
Joseph Kony’s recent transformation, overnight, from spent-out rebel hiding deep in the African bush, to internationally infamous warlord is shocking. Posters portray him as “the Bad Guy” flanked by Hitler and Bin Laden, completely irrational, a sort of sadistic, glorified paedophile surrounded by five year old boys armed with AK47s wreaking a trail of destruction wherever he moves: the epitome of evil. How could one even consider reasoning with such a monster? Much better to bomb him the hell out of the Central African Republic! … or is it?
If this was your reaction after watching Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, you could be forgiven. No one could object to anyone publically denouncing the man behind some of the worst atrocities committed in Uganda’s history. As a half Ugandan having grown up in Kampala, being told we couldn’t visit our grandparents because there was a war on in the North, I followed the events of the conflict and find aspects of the Kony 2012 campaign unforgivable. I will not dwell too long on the sensationalism of the filming, or the irony of focussing on a five year-old American child when making a film about the invisible children of Northern Uganda (perhaps they were just too invisible to be caught on camera?). However, the video’s complete disregard for the conflict’s history, previous peace-making efforts, Northern Ugandans’ thoughts and wishes, and its blind support for the Ugandan government and the ICC, merit interrogation.
Whether intentionally or not, Kony 2012 exudes American supremacy. Not once in 30 minutes does the clip mention the 25 years of Ugandan and other international efforts to end the war. We are to assume that the poor, pitiful Africans were unable to sort out their mess and now, thanks to Invisible Children’s exclusive footage, the youth of the world along with American politicians and celebrities are “aware” and this mess will be sorted out in less than a year. But even putting aside this astounding arrogance, many facts and realities about the conflict’s history and current impact are confusingly omitted.
The clip opens with these words: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, whose time is now”. The impression given is that this war is new, and it is unique. In fact, for years now, I have been able to visit my grandparents, stopping in thriving towns which were once oases of fear. Why are we focussing on a war that is over in Uganda, and petering out elsewhere, when so many more pressing conflicts persist? In Congo alone, other armed groups far more dangerous than the LRA exist. And why pass over Somalia, where recent advancements have been made and where international support could be really instrumental?
While the video could not be expected to teach an African history class, it ignores Kony’s historic origins in Uganda. Internal power struggles between North and South Uganda have dictated the country’s politics since colonial times. After the fall of Idi Amin (himself a northerner), this power struggle broke out into the Ugandan Bush War (1981-86) which saw an opposition between many armed groups including the then incumbent government, the original LRA or Holy Spirit Movement led by Alice Lakwema (Kony’s alleged cousin, spirit medium and founder of the entire movement) and the National Resistance Army led by our very own military-general-turned-President Yoweri Museveni (popularly known as M7). Thus, Kony’s war derives directly from this North/South tension and perceived northern marginalisation and southern domination. Along the way Kony picked up support from even the Sudanese government which fought a proxy war in Uganda which was backing Southern Sudanese rebels at the time. The object of this brief history interlude is to puncture the myth propagated by Invisible Children that Kony is a rootless devil rather than a national and regional player within Uganda’s historical narrative. Kony 2012 fails miserably to inform. Apart from the existence of a man called Kony (10 points to anyone who can give his first and second names, 50 points if you can name his second-in-command) no valuable information is provided. This is not merely sloppy activism; it is also irresponsible and arguably manipulative because it prevents the viewer from forming an intelligent opinion on what action should be taken.
This brings us to our next problem: Invisible Children’s advocacy for military aid to back up the Ugandan Government. Many would argue that given the state of both democracy and corruption in Uganda, not to mention the grey area that is the Ugandan Army’s treatment of civilians during their campaigns against the LRA, this is not a great idea. A huge proportion of international aid to the government mysteriously disappears (for more details watch Andrew Mwenda on TED talks). M7 is currently in his 26th year of office. Where is the opposition you ask? Well the principal opponent, Kizza Besigye, failed to win any regions in the last election, though his four-year exile, hospitalisation and four arrests in 2011 alone tell you something about tolerance for dissent. The old fear of marginalisation of certain ethnic groups is still present; it is said that in desperation some mothers are giving their children names from Western Uganda (M7’s home) in order to increase their chances of landing a government job in future. So even within Uganda there are more pressing issues than Kony. In addition to a flawed democratic process, Ugandans face a high cost of living, high maternity death rates, a national university suffering from constant strikes, and a scary new “nodding disease” affecting thousands of children in northern Uganda. One could say that Uganda has 99 problems, but Kony is only one of them.
But enough of my personal grievances: what of the reactions of Northern Ugandans to Kony 2012? A report by al Jazeera gives a clear answer to this question. Those who know Lira as one of the sleepier towns in the North will be surprised at the strong negative reactions, even beyond rock-throwing. Two questions prevail: Where is our story? Where are our voices? The fact is that Kony 2012 doesn’t tell their story; the account of northern Ugandans, the people who have suffered the most. Not once do the makers ask whether this righteous cry for justice (or is retribution a more appropriate word here?) is echoed in Uganda.
In fact, Ugandans have been trying to withdraw the ICC case, and to deal with the cases nationally, after it emerged that the ICC arrest warrants posed an obstacle for ending the conflict. For many Northerners whose villages were attacked, the so-called rebels remain their children, who need to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society rather than prosecuted. On a moral level, the fact that the rebels are essentially child soldiers, or child soldiers that have now grown up, poses further problems. Take the case of Dominic Ongwen: kidnapped as a child, socialised within the LRA, he rose to status of general and now has an ICC indictment over his head. Ongwen has committed atrocious crimes but can he said to be morally responsible for them? Does free will apply here? (For more see the 2008 BBC article by Steve Bradshaw) And what about the government that failed to protect these “30,000” children in the first place? What responsibility do they bear in all this? Kony would not sign the 2008 peace accord because the ICC refused to lift its indictments. The Ugandan government then turned to military action; the LRA was bombed in Operation Lightning Thunder and dispersed across East and Central Africa. Military action has already failed more than once, @Invisible Children: can’t we learn from the past?
If Kony 2012 is really advocating for justice why does it want to ship the rebels off to The Hague, denying Ugandans the right to deal with them through developing national and local courts? Here lies another assumption that justice is universally defined, when there are many conceptions and mechanisms of justice. Traditional justice, which could lead to reconciliation and the healing of the affected communities, has long been espoused in northern Uganda. Sadly in many fields traditional justice is sneered at or dismissed as a form of amnesty; but can one ignore the processes that will be owned and understood fully by the communities which have been affected by the LRA? Other mechanisms clearly have a contribution to make, for example South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which, though criticised in some quarters, ultimately paved the way for one of the greatest post-conflict transition success stories of 20th century Africa.
Invisible Children might say that they aren’t providing a solution; they just want to END THIS NOW. This is the most dangerous of all their messages. Capturing Kony entails killing innocents in the process (because when a warlord is guarded by child soldiers, what other outcome is there?). It’s a Disney-fied fallacy, already seen in Iraq, that once the bad guy is killed, everyone else can live happily ever after. The LRA has a military structure that has survived over 20 years of military threat, what is to stop another commander continuing the fight? Will Kony 2012 be followed by Ongwen 2016? When will we learn?
The Kony 2012 video has undoubtedly mobilised millions, thanks to social media and networking sites. But is mobilisation a valid end in itself? Well meaning, enthusiastic but essentially blind mobilisation of the masses legitimises projects and ideas that do not stand up to scrutiny. I do not claim that mass movements for change which use social media cannot be a Good Thing, but targeting the Facebook generation doesn’t mean you have to dumb the issue down. If we are to reach levels of real “awareness” hit us with the realities, in all their complexities. It’s okay, we can take it!