The Kony viral campaign? Dislike
With its inaccuracies and childish arguments, Kony2012 is no help whatsoever to the people of Uganda.
Last week, the Kony2012 video went ‘viral’. This is Facebook speak for loads of people watching it on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as on video streaming websites like YouTube and Vimeo. At the time of writing, the number has reached 72million.
The Kony2012 video launched a new campaign by an American charity called Invisible Children. The aim of the campaign is to have Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the truly ruthless Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), arrested and tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Late last year, around 100 US troops were deployed to Uganda to assist the Ugandan government in hunting Kony and the remaining LRA fighters. The Kony2012 campaign calls for international pressure to ensure that US troops remain in the country until Kony is found and put on trial.
The LRA, under Kony’s leadership, has perpetrated extreme violence against Ugandan citizens for decades. The stories of mutilation, rape and murder that the LRA leaves in its wake are truly appalling. Kony himself is a ruthless individual who imagines that he has been told by spirits to overthrow the Ugandan government. He is a prolific employee of child soldiers who are cynically deployed on the battlefield to fight the Ugandan army. He is, undeniably, a skunk.
Despite Kony’s nastiness, however, criticism of the film spread as quickly as the film itself. The film’s irritating narrator, Jason Russell, was chastised for simplifying Ugandan politics to an absurd degree. His critics have a point. At one stage of the film Russell explains his views to his five-year-old son by pointing at a photo of Kony and saying ‘this is the bad guy’. Kony is a nasty piece of work, but he is hardly the root of Uganda’s problems.
The film was also shown to be rife with inaccuracies. Kony has not been in Uganda since the LRA was pushed out of the country in 2006. The film overplayed the strength of the LRA, which is significantly weakened today. It now numbers in the hundreds and has dispersed throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The 30,000 child soldiers cited in the video in fact referred to the total number of children kidnapped by the LRA over 30 years rather than the number they have at any one time.
Yet the discussion that took place around the Kony2012 video was not, predominantly, a discussion about whether it was right for the campaign to call for intervention in Uganda. Most commentators described this motivation as ‘noble’. Rather, the debate focused on what kind of intervention would be the right one. Vice, a trendy fashion magazine, picked up on the video and ran an editorial called ‘Should I give money to Kony2012 or not?’ The article echoed concerns that had been pointed out in the Guardian and elsewhere: Invisible Children has dodgy finances, received a poor ‘transparency rating’ and expressed its support for the Ugandan government, which is hardly a beacon of pacifism.
The fact that the concerns of the liberal media around the operations of Kony2012 appeared in a fashion magazine was fitting. After about 48 hours, exchanges between Kony2012 supporters and its detractors were filled with morally searching questions like ‘how do I know where my money is going?’ and ‘how do I know that there is nothing dodgy about it?’ It all started to sound eerily like a conversation I overheard recently between two ethically fraught shoppers in Primark trying to justify the purchase of an impossibly cheap designer handbag.
That is because for Kony2012, along with some of its detractors, signing up to a cause in Africa is like shopping for accessories. It is way of showing off your moral credentials without ever having to do or understand anything about the cause you are singing up to. This explains why Kony2012 can use up the majority of its promotional video showing footage of Western people doing things, like putting up posters and shouting in megaphones, rather than explaining anything about Uganda. When a campaign is more about making people feel good, about ‘doing something’ and being seen to ‘do something’, it makes sense that the discussion that arises around it sounds a little like an extract from a Gok Wan show.
This consumer colonialism ignores the fact that recent American involvement in Uganda has been disastrous. In March 2009, America provided weapons, funding and military advice for a Ugandan Operation against the LRA in Southern Sudan. A series of logistical mistakes meant that the LRA had left the target area two days before troops arrived. Perceiving themselves to be the targets of an all-out assault by Ugandans as a result, the LRA swept through the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing nearly 1,000 civilians and displacing 180,000. This operation aggravated the situation, especially given the LRA had been comparatively inactive in the months before the operation.
Of course, the campaign also ignores the fact that the ICC needs no encouraging to interfere in an African country’s affairs. Joseph Kony was the first person to be indicted by the court in 2005. Every person indicted since has been African. Most recently, in a preliminary hearing in the trial of Uhuru Kenyatta and Willliam Ruto for crimes associated with post-election violence in Kenya, the ICC had the gall to tell the Kenyan government that its investigation into these crimes was insufficient, refusing the government’s request to try them domestically. The ICC does not need the encouragement of Kony2012 supporters to override the democratically elected governments of African countries - it is part of the court’s standard procedure.
The problem with the Kony2012 campaign is simple: intervention by the ICC and other western institutions will never be good for the people of Uganda. There is an assumption behind this campaign, and others like it, that Ugandans are incapable of managing their own affairs. The result of such intervention is that political conflicts become separated from the people involved in them and delegated to unaccountable powers abroad. Supporters of Kony2012 will say that the Ugandan government has been asking for American support in fighting the LRA for two decades, but the result of American endeavours so far show that such intervention will not resolve the conflict, but only serve to destabilise it further.
The ICC cannot deliver justice to Joseph Kony. Neither can the tens of millions of people who have shared the Kony2012 video. The only people who can are the people of Uganda. The Kony2012 campaign is fundamentally problematic as it seeks to deny the Ugandan people the right to self-determination. This fact is best met with another bit of Facebook speak: ‘Dislike’.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.