Over the last few days Uganda and Joseph Kony have been trending. The reason for this, a video by Invisible Children that is intended to help capture Kony and put him away for good. There has been massive reaction to this video and I must say, I am one of those critics. I shared my thoughts with a great friend of mine Dr. Harry Verhoeven and I asked him to give me his views. He decided to write this in response.
I hope this finds all of you very well. Since this morning, I’ve been bombarded with all kinds of questions and assumptions regarding Northern Uganda and Joseph Kony, the self-declared Prophet-leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army which hails from ‘Acholi land’ (the colloquial term for the North of Uganda) but has been active in Southern Sudan, Congo & Central African Republic as well since its creation in the late 1980s. I’m frankly very surprised to see all this buzz around Kony, for never in all the years that I have been following conflict in that region has such a thing happened. To the contrary, I’ve often bugged people and possibly annoyed them with my stories and memories of Northern Uganda and the war there; the reaction was more often one of boredom and disinterest.
How interesting thus to see this change in the space of 24 hours. People who don’t even know on a map where Uganda is, urging all of us to “do the right thing”, pictures of Hitler and the Rwandan Interahamwe militia being mixed with the rare images we have of the LRA as well as with footage that is more than 10 years old of the humanitarian situation around major population centres like Kitgum, Gulu, Masindi and Arua. What on earth is going on?
As someone who spent quite a bit of time in Northern Uganda and saw the violence and its longlasting effects myself on a daily basis, I always have very mixed feelings when an advocacy group tries to cast a deeply moral and often one-sided judgement on the war between 1986 and 2006 there…The language of the video is the language of emotion, the language of a self-righteous humanitarianism and the language of the internet age. It’s a language that tries to draw out a carefully cultivated sense of guilt regarding a part of the world that few people know and where a seemingly apolitical war has been raging, with no clear interests, no tricky games and no deeper meaning but above all a lot of savagery (and intuitively, we can all imagine ghastly things going on in the dark heart of “Africa”, can’t we?). The imagery is powerful: the Prophet vs children, the killers and their “sex slaves”. How could anyone ever condone such things?
Yet, as always, with conflict, things are little bit more complicated than what slickly produced American video teams -and their Hollywood instincts of good and evil- can churn out. There is little history, context, sociology or critical inquiry in the Invisible Children campaign, today or yesterday; we are not encouraged to learn or to explore more or even to reflect on how we got to this point. Instead we are encouraged to act. And we are told action is simple, really. It’s all about one man and one movement. It’s only about mouse clicks and students “uniting” because “they care”. This is solving war like playing a videogame. It’s an illusion.
There is no question that Joseph Kony is a monster; that the LRA have killed and kidnapped tens of thousands of people; that systematic looting, raping and maiming has occurred (and in Congo, CAR and South Sudan) is still occurring; and that the world has not cared very much for Northern Uganda.
But there is also no question that simplifying the very complex and extended processes that underpin the violence in the North and neighbouring regions to the actions of one man is disastrously wrong and likely to be counterproductive. Invisible Children speaks not of the effects of colonial rule; of long standing and grinding poverty; of a region riven with internal contradictions; of regional geopolitics; of militias and standing armed forces with similar human rights records (but perhaps less beastly practices: though, which is worse? Killing a man by boiling him alive or killing a woman by running her over deliberately with a truck? A life is still a life for me); of the Ugandan armed forces and their lucrative trade in resources in the north and neighbouring countries; of the complex relationship between Kony, his men and local tribal leaders; of Ugandan oil and Anglo-Saxon interests; of land grabbing by the Kampala government; or of the IDP camps in which more people have probably died than in the actual conflict; etc.
Even if we accept that an NGO campaign cannot engage with all the fine nuances of war, we must acknowledge that leaving these factors out means we are giving a very different meaning to the violence, deliberately prioritizing one line of explanation over another and undoing it of all its complexity until, well, very little remains.
And thus no awareness is spread really. Because the language is liberal-humanitarian and the images are so moving, the video’s message is particularly hard to resist and one might even be willing to overlook glaring factual efforts (no LRA attacks in Uganda since 2006, for example) and painful simplicity (Northern Uganda is actually experiencing serious economic growth these days). After all the takeaway is: it’s ugly and it’s in Africa (a tautology); it’s that monster; Kony; and it’s remediable by killing him through a clean strike by a bunch of heroes (a classic Hollywood story in another words; a two hour ride and just finished in time for dinner!). And, of course, those who question this story-line are really siding with the killers.
Yet what Invisible Children is thus really doing is setting an agenda and framing the conflict in particular narratives, at the expense of others, and campaigning for war, not for peace. It’s incredulous, but the founders claim to get their inspiration from the anti-apartheid movement which explicitly disavowed force. The issue is here that once the tone has been set and people have done their “facebook thing” (today activism often seems reduced to posting a link and then patting one’s self on the back: “I care”), it becomes much harder than is commonly acknowledged to rephrase the dominant narrative and inject the nuance and complexity that will ultimately be required to obtain any durable peace in Uganda, or elsewhere.
And so the question is that what presents itself as a message about you caring is really deeply political, though the Invisible Children crowd denies it. Lobbying is never innocent stuff, even for the “right cause”- the question is not just about superficiality, but about military intervention and about agenda shaping, but also about encouraging American students (and others overseas) not to question what their own governments are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Palestine. Instead attention is diverted to remote locations where there is no such “complicated politics” and where we can all unite behind banners of good and evil. We don’t need to understand these places or their crises or even their people. We know evil when we see it and it is apolitical. Therefore we must act.
I’ve seen first hand in Darfur how the same kind of arguments by the same kind of people played out and were actively abused, deepening the conflict as opposed to spreading awareness or resolving any violent confrontations. The links between Invisible Children and the Save Darfur Coalition, an organisation with strong Zionist links and tactics that are rather questionable, only serve to highlight the problematic character of this kind of pseudo-activism. For those interested in what happened in Darfur and the campaigning around an immensely complex series of wars: http://www.facebook.com/l/KAQHetbAaAQEYNiFIVSny-Lb6lrlFV7gGssVY-Ot6nKR4WQ/www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n05/mahmood-mamdani/the-politics-of-naming-genocide-civil-war-insurgency (and my own piece in response to Mamdani: http://www.facebook.com/l/zAQE07qC6AQFHWqeNBYmAxCLsQDM2I8KJmj6AjDalX5NTgw/www.sudantribune.com/Understanding-Darfur-s-Saviours,32018 )
Discourse setting ultimately decides which policy options are acceptable and which aren’t. Some people are stigmatised as victims and others as perpetrators: hardly ever is there a way back from these deeply political labels. Now the lobbyists in Washington DC or the moralists at Invisible Children won’t give a damn about the implications, because they don’t have to live in Northern Uganda, South Sudan or Darfur. But other people do. And they are unlikely to benefit from simplistic videos and facebook hypes.
With thoughts and prayers for Northern Uganda,