Updated: Follow up on Kony 2012, Invisible Children and the power of lies.


Something is happening concerning the Invisible Children video I have not seen yet, at least not to this degree.  It’s a brilliant piece of marketing, many believe it passionately or want to believe it. We have had close to 5000 views on our first article about it. We’re happy to have shared knowledge about it and in learning more ourselves have become more and more skeptical about the the intentions behind the video and the results that will come of it.  It is often defended with the thought, as we even said, “They should be credited for bringing these issues to light for so many people.” and “It’s positive for making people care about something more than themselves”. The other side of the argument views the creators as shady, hipster opportunists and their many supporters on Facebook as “slacktivists” –people just in it for the status update, that they too care about something, someone on the other side of the world. The reality of course lies somewhere in between these two viewpoints.

I wish this was enough, and that “caring” was all it took to make change. But we are in an era of subterfuge, obfuscation, lies. Wars are created from these, Presidents even. Some lies are told not to obscure the truth but out of ignorance of it.

Unfortunately the people least enthusiastic about the video seem to be the Ugandans as this article in the Telegraph states.

“What that video says is totally wrong, and it can cause us more problems than help us,” said Dr Beatrice Mpora, director of Kairos, a community health organisation in Gulu, a town that was once the centre of the rebels’ activities.

“There has not been a single soul from the LRA here since 2006. Now we have peace, people are back in their homes, they are planting their fields, they are starting their businesses. That is what people should help us with.”

Suggesting that the answer is more military action is just wrong,” said Javie Ssozi, an influential Ugandan blogger.

“Have they thought of the consequences? Making Kony ‘famous’ could make him stronger. Arguing for more US troops could make him scared, and make him abduct more children, or go on the offensive.”

Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist specialising in peace and conflict reporting, said: “This paints a picture of Uganda six or seven years ago, that is totally not how it is today. It’s highly irresponsible”.

There were criticisms that the film quoted only three Ugandans, two of them politicians, and that it spent more time showing the filmmaker’s five-year-old son being told about Joseph Kony than explaining the root causes of the conflict.

There are some telling quotes in an article from the New York Times about the filmakers and their enthusiasm about…themselves.

“No one wants a boring documentary on Africa,” he said. “Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool.”

“We view ourself as the Pixar of human rights stories,” he added.

Mr. Russell said he was far from finished with his campaign, which he said was an example of just how much young political novices could accomplish. “We are ready to make this bigger,” he said. “We are waiting for Jay-Z” to trumpet the cause.

And as a filmmaker, he said he had already received plaudits from producers in Hollywood. “They are getting in touch with the Academy Awards. They want this to be up for an Oscar.”

And based on an article today in the New York Times, the suggestion could be made that the call for military invention towards Kony might be tied to America’s greatest addiction: oil.

An Anonymous Ugandan wrote…

In 2010, OIL was found in the Uganda. Less than 12 months later, the US government sent in 100 military “advisors” to help the Ugandan government find Joseph Kony. I think that people need to research the causes that they back because this is going to be BAD for the continent of Africa. As of today, March 7th, 2012, Kony is NOT in Uganda. He has been reported to be in the Congolese jungle. The American people are weary of war so the celebrities and social media are being used to draw public support. America has seen how the continent of Africa proved to be a resourceful asset to the Chinese. The #Kony2012 movement is a way for America to engage in a turf war with the Chinese in order to secure Ugandan resources for themselves.

This is the timeline:

Uganda discovers oil

US Sends troops to Uganda to help fiight terrorism

An international campaign is mounted to find the #1 terrorist in Uganda. Celebrities are used to sway public opinion of Western funded war in Uganda.

Whether this is directed from our Government or the Oil companies the results would be the same. And using some well meaning Americans duped into funding a war for a cause that ceased to be a problem six years ago does not seem far fetched at all. As always, follow the money; and the long smeary trail of oil.

Update: I am linking this exceptional post by Ethan Zuckerman that has the best and most fair to all parties understanding of this issue I’ve seen yet. Please read it.

Some highlights…

As a nonprofit, Invisible Children has been engaged in efforts on the ground in northern Uganda and in bordering nations to build radio networks, monitoring movements of the LRA combattants, and providing services to displaced children and families. They’ve also focused heavily on raising awareness of the LRA and conflicts in northern Uganda, and on influencing US government policy towards the LRA. In 2010, President Obama committed 100 military advisors to the Ugandan military, focused on capturing Kony – Invisible Children was likely influential in persuading the President to make this pledge.

The Kony 2012 campaign, launched with the widely viewed video, focuses on the idea that the key to bringing Joseph Kony to justice is to raise awareness of his crimes. Filmmaker and narrator Jason Russell posits, “99% of the planet doesn’t know who Kony is. If they did, he would have been stopped years ago.”

As a set of Kony-related hashtags trended on Twitter yesterday, some prominent African and Afrophile commentators pointed out that the Invisible Children campaign gives little or no agency to the Ugandans the organization wants to help. There are no Africans on the Invisible Children board of directors and few in the senior staff. And the Invisible Children approach focuses on American awareness and American intervention, not on local solutions to the conflicts in northern Uganda. This led Ugandan blogger and activist Teddy Ruge – who works closely on community development projects in Uganda – to write a post responding to the Invisible Children campaign titled “A piece of my mind: Respect my agency 2012“, asking supporters of Invisible Children to consider whether IC’s framing of the situation is a correct one, whether IC’s efforts focus too heavily on sustaining the organization, and whether a better way to support people of northern Uganda would be to work with community organizations focusing on rebuilding displaced communities.

Other criticisms have focused on more basic issues: Kony is no longer in Uganda, and it is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region. Reporting on an LRA attack in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a UN spokesman described the attack as “he last gasp of a dying organisation that’s still trying to make a statement.” The spokesman believes that the LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters, as well as a band of women and children who feed and support the group. Rather than occupying villages, as the LRA did when they were stronger, they now primarily conduct 5-6 person

Russell argues that the only entity that can find and arrest Kony is the Ugandan army. Given that the Ugandan army has been trying, off and on, since 1987 to find Kony, that seems like a troublesome strategy. Journalist Michael Wilkerson, who has reported on the LRA for many years, notes that the Ugandan army is poorly equipped, underfed, incompetent and deeply corrupt. Past efforts to crack down on Kony have failed due to poor planning, poor coordination and Kony’s deeply honed skills at hiding in the jungle.

Complicating matters, Kony continues to rely on child soliders. That means that a military assault – targeted to a satellite phone signal or some other method used to locate Kony – would likely result in the death of abducted children. This scenario means that many northern Ugandans don’t support military efforts to capture or kill Kony, but advocate for approaches that offer amnesty to the LRA in exchange for an end to violence and a return of kidnapped children.

Invisible Children have demonstrated that they can raise “awareness” through a slickly produced video and successful social media campaign. It is possible – perhaps likely – that this campaign will increase pressure on President Obama to maintain military advisors in Uganda. As Wilkerson points out in a recent post, there’s no evidence the President had threatened to pull those advisors. And as Mark Kersten observes, it’s likely that those advisors are likely in Uganda as a quid pro quo for Ugandan support for US military aims in Somalia. In other words, the action Invisible Children is asking for has been taken… and, unfortunately, hasn’t resulted in the capture of Kony.

The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.

Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage. By simplifying the DRC situation to a conflict about minerals, the numerous other causes – ethnic tensions, land disputes, the role of foreign militaries – are all minimized. The proposed solutions – a ban on the use of “conflict minerals” in mobile phones – sounds good on paper. In practice, it’s meant that mining of coltan is no longer possible for artisanal miners, who’ve lost their main source of financial support – instead, mining is now dominated by armed groups, who have the networks and resources to smuggle the minerals out of the country and conceal their origins. Similarly, the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table. Finally, the focus on the Congolese state as a solution misses the point that the state has systematically abused power and that the country’s rulers have used power to rob their citizenry. A simple, easily disseminated narrative, Autesserre argues, has troublesome unintended consequences.

What are the unintended consequences of the Invisible Children narrative? The main one is increased support for Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda. Museveni is now on his fourth presidential term, the result of an election seen as rigged by EU observers. Museveni has asserted such tight control over dissenting political opinions that his opponents have been forced to protest his rule through a subtle and indirect means – walking to work to protest the dismal state of Uganda’s economy. Those protests have been violently suppressed.

The US government needs to pressure Museveni on multiple fronts. The Ugandan parliament, with support from Museveni’s wife, has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Obama administration finds itself pressuring Museveni to support gay and lesbian rights and to stop cracking down on the opposition quite so brutally, while asking for cooperation in Somalia and against the LRA. An unintended consequence of Invisible Children’s campaign may be pushing the US closer to a leader we should be criticizing and shunning.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

Unfortunately as Zuckerman points out there are no easy answers, he doesn’t give “white American liberals a method to engage and so SOMETHING with our bleeding hearts”. If we care about this issue we should learn all we can about it. I keep saying over and over Invisible Children should be commended for bringing the issues of Africa to many people’s attention but it should just be seen as the very start, not an answer.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.



Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply