Child soldier in Central Africa. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hdptcar/949798984/
The Internets were abuzz on Wednesday with one name: Kony.
Joseph Kony is the leader of Uganda’s rebel army, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant cult that has forcibly recruited thousands of children and teens to fight the country’s armed forces. The boys are often forced act as soldiers – though more likely, human shields – while the girls may be forced into sexual enslavement; the conflict itself, now more than 25 years old, is by no means confined to Uganda, but bleeds over into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
But now, the indicted war criminal the focus of a viral social media campaign, Kony 2012, to make him “famous” enough to arrest and to stop the LRA. “#MakeKonyFamous”, “#stopkony”, “LRA”, “Uganda”, and “Invisible Children” were among the top trending topics on Twitter, helped along by retweets from the likes of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, while a 30-minute video about Kony has garnered more than 2 million hits on YouTube.
The film and the campaign around it was created by US-based charity Invisible Children, which describes itself as a “movement” to end the conflict in Uganda and release the children. The film implores US politicians and celebrities like Oprah and Lady Gaga to use their influence to promote a 100-person team of US soldiers currently aiding the Ugandan government in the hunt for Kony. The campaign will expire on December 31, 2012, by which date organizers hope to have Kony in custody.
As evidenced by its strong promotion on Twitter, the campaign seems to have touched a nerve: Noah Fitzgeral, a 17-year-old high school newspaper editor blogging for The Huffington Post, called Invisible Children a “wonderful organization” and exhorted readers to watch the video. “Take advantage of this moment, and become a component of a system that will ultimately revel in the destruction of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the ever amplifying voice of the world’s youth.”
But whilst everyone seems to agree that ending the conflict and rehabilitating the child soldiers is important, not everyone seems to agree with Invisible Children’s approach.
Something suspicious. Perhaps a reaction against the viral traction the campaign achieved so quickly, a few on the Internets voiced their concerns about the campaign. “Suave Charlie”, posting on The Escapist forum, found the charity “rather dubious”, claiming that Invisible Children rejected America’s Better Business Bureau attempts to conduct an assessment of its charitable practices. Visible Children, a Tumblr blog set up specifically to voice criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign and Invisible Children’s strategy, also flagged up the organization’s publically available finances. Those show that in 2011, the charity spent $8,676,614, only 32 percent of which went to direct services. Visible Children also pointed out that the charity seems to lack accountability, earning it a middling rating from charity ratings groups.
Simplistic. Others denounced the video’s hero-villain simplification of the situation in Uganda. Jennifer Lentfer at international aid blog How Matters noted, “The simplistic narrative of heroes and villains – this, among other things, has always been a big concern with Invisible Children’s work. How well has the bad guys vs. good guys paradigm ever really served the world?”
Questionable strategy. Tumblr blog Unmuted questioned Invisible Children’s approach and strategy, citing the charity’s “lack of context and nuance” in simplifying the conflict in Uganda to good guys and bad guys. “This approach obviously denies realities on the ground, inflates fantasies abroad, and strips Ugandans of their agency, dignity and humanity- the complexity of their story and history. The work, consequence, and impact are all focused on Uganda, but the agency, accountability, and resources lie among young American students,” Unmuted blasted. “Clearly a dangerous imbalance of power and influence; one that can have adverse lasting effects on how and what people know of Uganda.” The blog also claimed that Invisible Children’s campaign paints the people of Uganda as victims, “lacking agency, voice, will, or power”, and requiring the aid of an external, in this case “White” liberator – “a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground.”
Defending the Ugandan Army? Invisible Children has also come under fire for what appears to be its support for the Ugandan Army, which is currently battling the LRA, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Visible Children noted that both have been accused of rampant rape and looting among their ranks, and pointed to a Foreign Affairs article noting that Invisible Children, among others, “have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.”
But now Kony can’t hide. Musu Okwonga, whose family hails from Northern Uganda, explained in a blog for The Independent that though he understands and agrees with some of the criticism of Invisible Children’s potentially colonialist strategy, he is relieved that Invisible Children is raising the issue to worldwide awareness. Even so, the solution presented by Invisible Children is “simplistic”. For one thing, the video never mentioned Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power at the same time Kony emerged. “Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video. I thought that this was a crucial omission,” he wrote. “Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora.”