Over this past month I’ve received numerous requests to weigh in on this whole Kony 2012 business, perhaps in part due to my World Bank research involving conversations with 120 former Ugandan rebels (many of whom were former LRA abductees) and 25 post-conflict-oriented development organizations last year in Uganda. While I imagine my research partner and I have had more exposure to Uganda and the issue of the Lord’s Resistance Army than most people I know, I certainly would never claim to be an expert on the subject.
I apologize for the delay in getting this out as the intervening weeks since returning from field research in Swaziland and Lesotho have left me with a tremendous amount of catch-up work, but I was finally able to view the Kony video a few days back and read a bit about Mr. Russell. My work in Uganda, coupled with the rest of my professional and academic experience with Africa (including living in post-war Mozambique for 27 months) and other work in the area of international development over the past decade have led me to have some strong opinions on the topic of the 30-minute short “film” “Kony 2012,” the organization Invisible Children, and the force behind it, Mr. Jason Russell.
What KONY 2012 leaves out
To be quite honest, the first thought that jumped into my head when I first heard about this, and then again when I watched the video, and then again as I’m writing this, is…seriously? I mean, seriously? …as in, a decade has passed since the most intense days of the conflict and Kony hasn’t been seen or heard from in years; seriously? …as in, if there had ever been a time in which the benefits of such a video could have outweighed the potential harm it might inflict, the wounds it might re-open, the fuel it might cast on a dying flame, it might have been 5-10 years ago when Kony was still largely relevant. But even then, it would have been far simplistic and naive a story, fixating on one particular figure who managed to take advantage of a period of institutional dysfunction and social unrest. The LRA was in fact one of about 20 other active rebel groups vying, often violently, for political power from the end of Idi Amin’s regime in the late 1970s up until about the mid 2000s. But the video still would have been a hugely presumptuous call-to-arms by one tragically uninformed Southern Californian filmmaker.
Against all odds, the area affected most by the LRA, Northern Uganda, has made an impressive recovery over the past decade. Not to say that they didn’t have outside help, but it was the local Acholi religious and tribal leaders that cut the legs of the LRA leadership from under them by brokering a blanket amnesty and working tirelessly for reconciliation within their communities. Peace, however, has come at a price and Ugandan leaders were forced to make a difficult decision between two outcomes:
1. Seeking justice and vengeance on each and every last commander, including Kony, knowing full well the institutional challenges and limited resources of Uganda after 25+ years of fighting the LRA and 20 other rebel groups with full knowledge that the LRA in particular would have no alternative but wage a fight to the death in the face of such an extermination campaign; or
2. Moving forward on a path of amnesty and forgiveness.
While Mr. Russell may have chosen the first option for Uganda, the people of Northern Uganda chose the latter back in 2000, and 12 years later they are dealing with the consequences of an elusive justice, but a more peaceful and prosperous nation.
All of this shouldn’t be taken to mean that many Ugandans wouldn’t celebrate with the news of a Kony capture, but in 2012 have other concerns such as the economy, land tenure issues, education, and reconciliation trumped the MIA rebel commander? Most certainly. Are most Ugandans keen on American intervention to help capture Kony? Not likely. After all, American forces have been assisting the Ugandan military for quite some time, most famously with Operation Lightning Thunder in 2008, Operation Iron Fist in 2002 and Operation North in 1994 (something else that Russell conveniently leaves out). By many accounts, these campaigns only served to embolden and intensify the LRA’s atrocities committed on young children, and send the peace process back to square one. But America knows best, right? We always know best…
Which leads us to the sticky-icky. Activists like Jason Russell are so eager to tell you that in today’s interconnected global economy average citizens can make a big difference in the world…and it’s absolutely true. In fact even since long before social media, average citizens have been making a big difference in the world: in the products they consume, the leaders they choose to elect and, yes, the causes they take up. But in Russell’s particular brand of activism, there continues to be an underlying assumption that America knows what’s best, and Ugandans, along with everyone else in the “developing” world, need America to solve all of their problems. And it’s amazing how many of us have bought into it.
This Kony video isn’t sickening just because it serves to feed Kony’s own belief that he is a god, or indeed, God Himself; nor is it sickening simply because it blatantly exploits the suffering of millions of affected Ugandans, Sudanese and Congolese (not to mention the exploitation of Russell’s young son for his own purposes) for such a misguided, narcissistic, disrespectful and hurtful endeavor. This video sickens me because it is exemplary of the worst kind of activism and charity fueled by ignorance, arrogance, and a heaping dose of self-righteous assumption. Beyond Mr. Russell’s young Ugandan friend, did the other 33 million Ugandans have a chance to weigh in on Mr. Russell’s plan for Kony’s capture? Do you suppose they petitioned for the youth of America to intervene on their behalf as well? If so, the video doesn’t illustrate any of that. Actually, I know for certain that the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a leadership group in Uganda instrumental in bringing an end to the conflict and leading justice and reconciliation efforts in the area affected most by Kony and his thugs has urged Russell to stop his activities immediately. In fact, it seems to be wholly Russell’s idea alone – to save the people of Uganda! To deliver Uganda from the belated and largely-neutralized threat of this lunatic Kony. Did he ever ask the people of Uganda what THEY wanted? My guess [and I think a pretty good one] is a big, fat NO. Perhaps he was too busy daydreaming about “changing the world” to care.
In fact, where are the voices of Ugandan leaders in the video? Where are the soldiers who have been fighting the LRA for 25 years? Where are the Acholi elders and religious leaders who have done an amazing job in leading Northern Uganda forward into peace, resettlement, and reconciliation? I saw a lot of young idealistic white faces being lauded for taking up Mr. Russell’s cause, in American park squares and the halls of U.S. government, and I heard way too much from Russell himself, but where are the real heroes? But of course we all know that this video is propaganda meant to appeal to the frustrated, idealistic, and frequently under-employed youth of America to take up Mr. Russell’s cause–
I’ll say it again, Mr. Russell’s cause.
Making 2012 the year of KONY? Seriously? Elevating this piece of trash Kony to the god-like figure he sees himself as when his own nation is trying so desperately to forget his existence, while so desperately trying to focus their government’s attention and limited resources on more pressing issues like jobs and reform. Seriously? This video has succeeded in putting the spotlight on Africa, where it so deservedly belongs, yet once again for all the wrong reasons. If Russell really wants to change the world for the people of Uganda, he should focus his sights on the future. The skills training that his organization Invisible Children have been doing seems like a start in that direction, but if Russell really wants to make a difference, he should be advocating for a meaningful partnership with the Ugandan people, shining a spotlight on the incredible work being done there by local activists and community workers. Let’s see the youth of America take to the streets and legislative halls of our nation, devoting their time, energy, and resources to bringing forth a real revolution of ideas and challenging the worn imperialist agenda of so-called advocates and activists who continue to lend a deaf ear to the voices of those whom they claim to serve.