Brief History of Conflict in Northern Uganda and “KONY 2012″
Since Yoweri Museveni’s takeover of the Republic of Uganda and his claim to presidency in 1986, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony has waged war against both Museveni and the Ugandan army, known as the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force (UPDF). After Museveni’s takeover, many resistance movements, including the LRA, arose in opposition to his repression of primarily Acholi peoples in northern Uganda, an ethnic group associated with the previous regime of Tito Okello. While the government was able to quell most of these movements, the LRA subverted them and over time became increasingly more violent, abducting thousands children for their army and terrorizing local populations. In response to escalating violence the Ugandan government encamped nearly two million northern Ugandans, the majority of whom were Acholi, into “protected villages” exposing them to malnutrition, violence, and preventable disease. The Republic of Uganda requested the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate the situation in northern Uganda, and in 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants for the top commanders of the LRA, including Kony. Thus far it has failed to investigate the Ugandan government or the UPDF which has also recruited child soldiers, and inflicted violence on its own citizens, whether associated with the LRA or not.
Invisible Children, a non-governmental organization focusing on issues of child soldiers, released the short 30-minute film “KONY 2012” in early spring in an attempt to make Joseph Kony a household name and to bring attention to the long-forgotten struggles in northern Uganda. The film, which has reached over 100 million views, centers discussion on Jason Russell, the director of the film and his experiences in northern Uganda. It features Russell explaining the conflict to his toddler, focuses on one Ugandan youth’s story, and depicts western youth holding hands, standing in the shape of a peace sign, and wearing Invisible Children t-shirts and bracelets which the viewer may buy to support the NGO’s cause.
Responses to “KONY 2012”
The response by researchers to Invisible Children’s short film has been overwhelming. Researchers from many disciplines, including anthropology, political science, and economics, among others, have expressed their concern or support of the film. Noted researchers such as Mahmood Mamdani, Sverker Finnström, Paul Stoller, Alex de Waal, Richard Vokes, David Rieff, and David Rosen, in addition to countless others, have provided public criticism of the Invisible Children campaign. The Association of Concerned African Scholars has released several documents and resources enumerating their concerns about the “KONY 2012” campaign and the U.S. governments’ involvement. The African Studies Association has also provided a list of resources and proposed a statement to the US government concerning conflict in central Africa. Their concerns are echoed by many noted Ugandan officials, leaders of local organizations in the region, and citizens who have been affected by the conflict. Examples of local responses to the film are available in this article from the Acholi Times and a brief video which Al Jazeera created in which locals speak briefly of their reaction to the video and attempts to create their own film cataloging the experiences of Ugandans who are rebuilding their lives post-conflict.
There are a few themes to critiques of the film. Critics point out the film’s ethnocentric bias and its emphasis on the “white man’s burden,” the notion that without western intervention or involvement the conflict will never cease. The film focuses on white western youth and features many images of these groups holding hands, standing in the shape of a peace sign, and showing their “KONY 2012” t-shirts and bracelets, the idea being that if western youth can come together in solidarity and buy these goods as a show of support for the Invisible Children campaign, Kony will be captured, brought to justice, the conflict will cease, and all the problems in the region will be solved.
“KONY 2012” centers discussion of the conflict around one Ugandan youth’s story. Formerly a child soldier, he explains the conflict in relation to his life experience and the viewer is meant to appropriate his story as an example of how all lives in northern Uganda have been affected by conflict. Critics point out that as a result of this singular approach, “KONY 2012” homogenizes the differential experiences of those affected by conflict. The vast majority of child soldiers fighting for the LRA have no doubt had similar experiences as the youth depicted in the film, however it fails to discuss how the lives of families, those who were encamped for decades, or children who were not abducted were affected.
The video also exaggerates the current realities in northern Uganda and the relative importance of the LRA. The LRA has been operating outside the borders of Uganda since 2006 and have not been actively recruiting child soldiers for years. Critics point out that a campaign about violence and child soldiering in northern Uganda would have been more relevant years ago when the conflict was still ongoing. Betty Bigombe, previously the State Minister for Northern Uganda who attempted to convince the LRA to lay down arms, expressed her concern over just this issue: “It’s [the Invisible Children campaign] coming rather late, and I’m not quite able to understand the objective. Is it fundraising? Is it awareness creation?” The video also ignores the broader regional conflicts of which the LRA are now a part. Conflict in central Africa involves many more militant groups, governments, and armies and bringing Joseph Kony to ‘justice,’ a notion which is also up for debate, will not necessarily solve these broader regional issues.
The film advocates for increased militarization of the region, and critics also strongly resent this as the only viable solution. More troops or guns will not necessarily bring peace and many locals are advocates of a reconciliatory peace process. Many of their criticisms are discussed in the Acholi Times newspaper. Despite critiques of the film for its militaristic rhetoric, the inopportune time at which it was released, and its homogenous approach, at the core researchers criticisms seem directed at the films conscious attempt to empower western youth. The film is asking western youth, primarily of high school and college age, to stand up against Joseph Kony and buy goods to support the cause, instead of empowering Ugandan youth to utilize their political consciousness, form local organizations or support groups, or be empowered in other ways that could positively affect their lives and the outcome of the situation in northern Uganda.
Despite the criticism which overtook the media not long after the film’s release, there are some supporters of the campaign, including Chris Blattman and Norman Mao. Here is a small segment of Mao’s guest post in Foreign Policy:
It’s clear that the aim of the video was never intellectual stimulation. I don’t think the founders of Invisible Children are the foremost analysts of the complicated political, historical and security dynamics in our troubled part of Africa. They certainly wouldn’t earn high marks in African Studies. But I will go to my grave convinced they have the most beautiful trait on earth – compassion.
The supporters of the campaign are quick to point out the flaws inherent in organizations such as Invisible Children: their tendency towards simplistic solutions, homogenous approaches to complex conflict and diverse populations, and their desire to involve western populations in the solution they see to the problem at hand.
Many local Ugandans also express support of the campaign, at least as far as it brings greater attention to the continued struggles of the region. Some have recoiled at the video or fail to understand why it focuses mainly on the director, his toddler, and the western youth discussed earlier, but want the world to pay attention to their current struggles with poverty, disease, homelessness, and lack of social services. Several articles and videos have been created which discuss the confused reactions from the few Ugandans who have seen the video. Al Jazeera created a video in which locals speak briefly of their reaction to the video and their attempts to create their own film cataloging the experiences of Ugandans who are rebuilding their lives postconflict. The Daily Monitor discusses the mixed reactions of residents in Lira Town after seeing the video.
Where is “KONY 2012” Today?
True to the drive-thru, instant download culture of today “KONY 2012” faded to the background after about a month of its debut. Invisible Children planned an event entitled Cover the Night about five weeks after the video went viral; viewers interested in participating in the event could purchase a “KONY 2012” kit for $30 which includes a t-shirt, bracelet, posters, and an ‘action guide’ with information on how to make Kony “famous.” The information for the action kit posted on the Invisible Children official store website states that “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome with this official Action Kit.” Invisible Children has always been an organization appealing to western youth, particularly those of high school and college age. As a result their campaigns are sensationalist, lacking the nuance researchers strive for. The obvious downside to internet videos and movements seeking the involvement of youth, clearly illustrated by the KONY 2012 campaign, is the short attention span the movement is likely to get.
National Public Radio reported the quick shift of youth interest from “KONY 2012” to spooning, due in part to the quick rate at which today’s youth move on to new trends and as a result of increased criticism of the campaign. Shortly after the videos release and subsequent criticism, Jason Russell was videotaped screaming and naked on a public street. This action, in conjunction with the increased criticism of the campaign from scholars and Ugandans severely lowered public support for the organization and participation in the Cover the Night event scheduled for April 20.
Despite the fact that “KONY 2012” and the criticism has subsided by this point, the overwhelming response of prominent researchers from a myriad of fields to the campaign is an important point to consider. Attempting to make criticisms and information accessible to a wider audience is done relatively rarely by professional scholars, particularly those in academia, but it is slowly becoming more acceptable and even encouraged. The responses to “KONY 2012” were so professional, thought-provoking, and genuine that Invisible Children felt compelled to release a second video and written response justifying the campaign and acknowledging its flaws. While Invisible Children succeeded in bringing attention to the conflict in northern Uganda, researchers who publicly responded have succeeded in informing many of those same viewers of the complexities and nuances of conflict and the dangers of simplistic, militaristic rhetoric and a homogenous approach.
Amanda Reinke, a cultural anthropology graduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, focuses her research on conflict, militarization, human rights, politics, and children within the geographic context of east Africa and the Great Lakes region of Africa. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the fact that “KONY 2012” and the criticism has subsided by this point, the overwhelming response of prominent researchers from a myriad of fields to the campaign is an important point to consider. Attempting to make criticisms and information accessible to a wider audience is done relatively rarely by professional scholars, particularly those in academia, but it is slowly becoming more acceptable and even encouraged.