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26 July 2014 08:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista Simon Allison

Kony 2012: Lord help us, because this campaign won't help anyone

  • Simon Allison
So everyone now knows who Joseph Kony is. Great, I’m sure he’s shivering in his combat boots, if he’s even been able to watch the video that is launching him to terrorist superstardom (do they have 3G in the bush?). It’s just a pity that at best the campaign will achieve nothing, and at worst it’s got the potential to do a lot of damage in a very fragile part of the world.

I’ve been playing the “who’s the biggest terrorist” game for years. It’s particularly fun with Americans, and the most fun with American Christians. You can see their mind going through the options – Saddam, Osama, the Taliban? They’re not sure which one, but they know it’s one of those Arab Muslim types.

Except it’s not. This is the fun part – introducing them to Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, and watching the realisation dawn that there are people who do bad things in the name of Christianity too, and they’re worse than the Muslims. If the world was just, the War on Terror would be fought in Central Africa, and everyone wearing a crucifix targeted by the overzealous officials at US airports.

But this game’s not going to be fun anymore. As of Tuesday morning, Joseph Kony has finally entered the consciousness (and the conscience) of the western world, thanks to a slick piece of viral marketing from the Invisible Children campaign. If you have any social media presence whatsoever you’ll know what I’m talking about: the over 4-million YouTube views of the Kony 2012 video, the “shares” on Facebook from even your most apolitical friends, the six Kony-related hashtags trending in Twitter’s worldwide Top 10. Finally, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have gone mainstream.

And they’ve earned it. There is some debate about the figures, so let’s keep it general, but the LRA have done some terrible things. The lives of hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by their misdeeds, whether through killings, child conscription, sex slavery, rape, maiming and displacement. Al-Qaeda can only dream of this kind of influence. There’s some evil stuff going on in central Africa, and it needs to stop.

Step forward Invisible Children Inc., self-appointed saviours of central Africa’s children. Even their name is problematic. The 'Inc.' bit at the end implies a company, which they’re not. But for a non-profit they do have a very shiny headquarters and an impressive fleet of branded vehicles, judging by what we saw in the video, and an unimpressive record when it comes to making your donations count – only 32% of the money they receive goes to direct services in Uganda, with the rest being spent on film production, staff salaries, and that shiny headquarters.

And then there’s the name’s main bit – Invisible Children. As the old adage goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no Americans hear it, does it make a noise? I might have messed that up slightly, although it does seem an appropriate mistake in this case. I’ll rephrase: if a Ugandan child dies, and Americans don’t know about it, does that make that child invisible? Of course not. In Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and both Sudans, people know exactly who Joseph Kony is, and what he’s doing to their children. And believe it or not, people and NGOs and traditional structures (and governments, although this is more problematic) within these affected communities have been doing whatever they can to stop him.

But what’s in a name? It’s just a label, and if it packs a punch of emotion then all the better for it. Let’s move on to the Kony 2012 video itself, and the campaign that it’s driving. The goal? To make Joseph Kony famous and thereby stop him. The method? Explain why Kony is a “baddie” and why Invisible Children Inc. is a “goodie” to a cute white five-year-old boy (a cunning strategy this: let’s face it, the internet loves cute children, and age five is the intellectual level of too many social media users).

The solution? I’m still a bit fuzzy on this one, but the basic idea is to get everyone to write to their favourite politicians and celebrities, creating such a buzz around the issue that it becomes impossible to ignore. Personally, I can’t wait for Justin Bieber’s take on central African politics. This then forces American politicians to keep their military presence in LRA-affected areas (not a huge ask given that there’s only 100 of them there, and there’s been no sign that they’re likely to be removed anytime soon, especially given they only arrived in October). Although not specified, there’s a definite subtext that America should get even more involved. And then the American troops will somehow get Joseph Kony arrested by the end of 2012, despite the previous failures of everyone else, including an American-led mission, who has tried to do exactly that (once Kony was in the bath when the Ugandan army turned up and he still managed to escape).

But this 2012 deadline is important. At the end of 2012, something happens, and it just might be a game-changer. The Kony 2012 video expires. I don’t know what that means either (perhaps it will collapse under the sheer weight of its self-righteousness), but we were told it would happen right in the beginning of the video and judging by the dramatic videography it’s not a good thing. So the pressure’s on: get Kony now, or else people might take off those stylish red wristbands that you get if you make a donation to the Invisible Children campaign.

I wonder how Kony’s feeling about all this sudden attention? They probably don’t have good 3G signal out in the bush where he’s meant to be hiding, but word will get through that there are college students all over western universities calling for his downfall. As one astute observer commented on YouTube: “I bet Kony is shitting bricks after he saw this video, the comments and the views.”

Apologies if I seem a little disgruntled. Surely any awareness of what Kony and the LRA are doing is good? Surely the more that people know, the more they can do? And it can’t cause any harm, can it?

Here’s the thing. The LRA is an incredibly complex issue. By simplifying down to a case of “Goodies versus Baddies” the Invisible Children campaign risks undermining the very real progress that is being made against the LRA. Also released on Tuesday, in a report completely ignored by social media, a spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees said that a recent spate of LRA attacks were “the last gasp of a dying organisation that's still trying to make a statement,” adding that there were only about 200 LRA fighters left. Progress is being made. There’s even a chance that Kony will be caught or killed by the end of 2012 – but this will have nothing to do with a YouTube video, however slick it is.

And in the rush to simplify things to the level of a five-year-old, the creators skimmed over a few relevant facts. Most important is that few political actors involved in that part of the world are innocent. The Ugandan army – the people that Invisible Children want the USA to support – have been accused of gross human rights violations on northern Uganda’s civilian population under the pretext of the fighting the LRA. These include rape, torture, summary executions and child recruitment. And Uganda’s government hasn’t been much better. In a bitter irony, one of only two Ugandan politicians featured in the Kony 2012 video is a man named Santo Okot Lapolo, a district commissioner with a shady history. Most recently, he’s being investigated on corruption charges, accused of diverting for his own benefit 1,700 pieces of iron sheet intended for northern Ugandans displaced by the LRA. This is the man who wants to “rescue our children”, according to the video.

The other politician interviewed also has an interesting take on this issue. Norbert Mao is the leader of a Ugandan opposition party. He was also instrumental in establishing an amnesty deal for former LRA fighters, a solution that has proved remarkably effective in allowing LRA members to return to normal society. This wasn’t mentioned in the video because it requires a little nuance to understand that the men who fight for the LRA and commit these atrocities are themselves victims, many of them having been recruited as child soldiers and brainwashed from an early age.

Ultimately, the Kony 2012 campaign is based on a false premise: that increased American involvement in the issue will solve it. This might sound completely reasonable to starry-eyed Americans, but here in the real world we know that increased American involvement almost never leads to increased peace and stability. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Invisible Children organisation reminds me a little bit of a certain Julius Malema. Loud, charismatic and with a popular touch, both can attribute their success to raising awareness around issues that aren’t being spoken about elsewhere – Invisible Children on Kony and the LRA, Malema on land rights, wealth distribution, etc. These are all important issues. But raising issues is the easy part, requiring little more than good marketing. Solving the issues is harder. Misguided solutions have the potential to make problems worse, and calling for the American military to get more involved in the middle of our continent is likely to make things much worse indeed. Even Julius wouldn’t approve of that. DM


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  • Simon Allison
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Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

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