Comment | Why #StopKony2012 is malicious, vile and repulsive

Bringing war criminals to justice is a commendable thing, which is why it is such a shame that the Stop Kony 2012 campaign is so malicious, vile and repulsive, says David Leon.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, March 8, 2012 14:28 - 72 Comments


Invisible Children filmmakers pose with officers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army on the Congo-Sudan border during failed peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan Government, April 2008. Photo by Glenna Gordon.

First of all, it is important to establish that “Kony 2012” is worth lambasting, for we often fall prey to an extraordinary naïveté when expressing our moral outrage. When some brain-addled right-wing reprobate spouts some tired variation on “Britain for the British”, writing a detailed article labelling them malicious, vile and repulsive – and thus spreading their message for free – is playing straight into their hands. However, the idea that central African warlord Joseph Kony is a brutal monster is sufficiently obvious that I have no qualms in just letting you know about Kony 2012, in the unlikely event that you have somehow managed to avoid it so far.

That being said, the “Kony 2012” awareness campaign and viral video released by advocacy group “Invisible Children Inc.” is malicious, vile and repulsive.

The purpose behind the video and campaign is to raise public awareness and lobby for the United States government not to withdraw the 100 military advisors it assigned to the Ugandan military in October, in order to eliminate Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

On the one hand, the effectiveness of the approach taken by the campaign and its parent organization has been criticised in technocratic elite publications Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. They argue, amongst other things, that the scale of the problem posed by the LRA has been exaggerated: it is not, as the video implies, an 30,000-strong army of Ugandan child-soldiers, but a group of only a couple hundred at most (the 30,000 figure referring to all the children abducted over the past quarter of a century) which has been in decline for years. It has not even operated in Uganda since 2006 – Kony is currently believed to be in the Central African Republic. Furthermore, there has been no sign whatsoever of the US government planning to withdraw these military advisors, rendering the stated purpose of the campaign rather dubious. Indeed, U.S. Africa Command has been providing the Ugandan army with assistance for years before Obama’s deployment of October. Furthermore, in their struggle with the LRA, the Ugandan military, and the paramilitary organization the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, have perpetrated numerous and severe atrocities – yet Kony 2012 and “Invisible Children Inc.” unreservedly support both.

Most importantly, there appears to be little to no grassroots support for the interventionist agenda of Invisible Children. North Ugandan religious leaders are openly opposed to U.S. military engagement – Archbishop John Baptist Odama, chairman of the Episcopal Conference at Gulu put it thus: “Our stand as Acholi religious leaders is that we do not want the aspect of pursuing Kony with military means, [which] will just make the conflict and suffering spill over to other places.”

But all of this is, so to speak, besides the point. What’s wrong with Kony 2012 isn’t merely that Invisible Children Inc.’s approach is likely counterproductive to their stated aims. Rather, the whole project functions as a monumental, and suffocating, smokescreen to the real issues at hand. In their lust to portray this Star Wars villain as the face for all the world’s ills, they have fooled millions into looking at the wrong problem. It’s as if a campaign against Nazi war crimes exclusively targeted the (admittedly atrocious) war criminal Ernst Kaltenbrunner, without making a single mention of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or the racist, warmongering Nazi ideology. It’s a sin of omission so colossal it beggars belief.

In the whole half hour of the video, the name of Yoweri Museveni does not even crop up once. Museveni has been President of Uganda for the past 26 years, and it is against his rule that the LRA rebellion started. He is a corrupt autocrat, ineffective in providing basic social and economic services, with a history of well-documented human rights violations – not least of which was his role as a major instigator of the Second Congo War with his invasion and occupation of the DRC, a conflict which resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people, making it the bloodiest conflict worldwide since World War II. Although the conflict officially ended in 2003, it was estimated that in the following year, there were 1000 deaths every single day from disease and malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of the destruction caused by the war– these are the real invisible deaths, not the spectacular kidnappings of a crazed jungle warlord. In fact, as award-winning Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama points out, during Joseph Kony’s kidnappings (1999-2004), hordes of children thronged the streets of Gulu. They are now older, but still there – Gulu has Uganda’s highest rate of child prostitution, and one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.

Jacob (Kony 2012’s token victim) and other North Ugandans like him have not had to deal with Kony’s depredations since 2006 – if we want to help them (and we insist on pointing our fingers at one person’s face), we have to start with Museveni, and the poverty, disease, and poor governance in Northern Uganda.

What’s more, Kony 2012 makes much of Kony’s status as one of the most wanted figures targeted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, it somehow neglects to mention the fact that the United States has not ratified its statute, and has no intention of doing so – with good reason, as this move could potentially see the highest echelons of administration indicted for war crimes. But should we perhaps spend all that time and effort lobbying for the US to ratify the statute of the ICC? No; let’s mobilize millions of people to eliminate a single has-been warlord.

But the real heart of the issue goes well beyond the details of Museveni-this and ICC-that. Kony 2012 is a movement which has reached the attention and captured the imaginations of an entire generation. And once it has it, what does it do? Does it call for a radical shift of wealth and power away from privileged countries like the US and UK, and towards impoverished countries such as Uganda? Does it address, just for one second, the question of why a crazy Christian theocrat warlord like Kony happened to find fertile ground in Central Africa rather than, say, Kansas? The central aim of “Kony 2012” is to make Joseph Kony as famous as George Clooney. But why is it not to make Kony-victim Jacob as wealthy as George Clooney, or at least as wealthy as the yuppy college kid Sharing the video on Facebook? Hundreds of thousands just like him are kept from the most basic means of subsistence in Northern Uganda, but the campaign asks us to headhunt one man, not help them.

And it manages to perpetuate this vision through a thoroughly sickening, reverse personality cult. Invisible Children Inc.’s expenditure was $9 million dollars last year, nearly all of it spent with the sole purpose of killing one man – all the money flowing in from the $30 “action packs” means that it will surely be even more this year. Just as in the case of Osama Bin Laden, one man is fetishized and made the consummate scapegoat, the perfect anti-Christ – the redemptive act of killing him will symbolically end all our woes, and President Obama will have the head of another international super-villain mounted above his fireplace. Unlike the Occupy movements – which make no easy promises, but emphasize the need for continued struggle – Kony 2012, like Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, highlights one person as the focus of a generation; once he is elected and Kony disposed of, the mission will have been accomplished, and the generation will roll over and go back to sleep.

Now, one might say, “Look, it would be great if we could tackle the big problems of socioeconomic governance and global structural imbalances of wealth and power, but one video won’t change that. What it can do is perhaps fix one small problem (Kony) and then go on from there.”

But the problem is precisely that there can be no going on from there, because the picture of evil it portrays is fundamentally reactionary and counter-productive. It depicts us, the English-speaking West, as bystanders, rather than perpetrators. It merely reinforces a picture of evil as attributable to a couple of individuals somewhere else, which we will go and fix. It is the ultimate comic book approach to evil: find a colourful villain and beat him up rather than tackle the structural causes of crime – and while they’re at it, they make a pretty penny from wristband and T-shirt sales at the expense of the victims of these crimes.

The “White Man’s Burden” overtones are so blatant they hardly bear mentioning: three college kids discover a conflict, then convince the US government to send some elite soldier-types to go and kick some ass. Crucially, in the vision of the White Man’s Burden, the White Man is the solution, the saviour – never the problem. In the world of Kony 2012, our only crime is inaction in the face of the private idiosyncrasies of one deranged individual – we are not complicit, through our colonial past and neo-colonial present, in causing the circumstances in which it is possible for a Joseph Kony to happen. In this way, it is the ultimate smoke-screen, the most convenient self-delusion, the insidious abdication of whatever real responsibility we might have.

For the author’s response to many of the comments below, please see this post.

Also in Ceasefire: Africa, Racism and the West

David Leon

David Leon is studying International Relations at the University of Oxford.


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Mar 9, 2012 20:53

Dear all,

It’s been an interesting couple of days. David has responded to these comments in a short blog post:

Do have a look if you raised any questions about his article.


Students see different side of #StopKony2012 movement | csufhappenings
Mar 9, 2012 21:05

[…] Inga put up posters and an article outside of the Humanities building Thursday to inform passersby of what is “really going on.” Students who knew, or had heard whispers, about the #StopKony2012 movement stopped to read the article titled Why #StopKony2012 is malicious, vile and repulsive. […]

Mar 9, 2012 23:25

Very good article

Mar 9, 2012 23:38

Very well argued, Mr Leon. “Malicious, vile and repulsive” is probably a tad excessive for a campaign that essentially appeals to the compassionate side of them good-for-nothing apathetic young folk nowadays. And I believe some credit is due to the campaigners purely from a knowledge management perspective – unless someone can suggest some examples, I believe that this is a new approach to awareness raising on relatively obscure (to the common Joe) issues with clearly impressive results. The furore that this video has created is a testament to the successes that can be achieved if social media and marketing are used in an intelligent way.

However. Big, huge “however”.

David, you make completely valid and very interesting points about the less palatable aspects of this campaign. Indeed, perhaps the very reason for its current success is the fact that it is grotesquely oversimplified, with one clearly defined target for popular dissent.

My issues with this campaign boil down to two main factors. The first is economic. It seems to me a COLOSSAL waste of resources (and, indeed, entrepreneurial, marketing and organisational ability). In terms of making life better for Ugandan people and their children, killing one warlord is pretty low on the priorities list, below trifles such as treatment for preventable diseases, food security, access to clean water sources, access to education, infrastructure, social security, stable employment, etc, etc. Why not direct all that effort, enthusiasm, time, money and ability towards a project that will bring more direct benefit? I will not waste your time and mine on going into such things as the sustainability of an impact. Kill Kony? Bring a criminal to justice? Marvellous. Then what? How do you stop the next one?

And to those who proclaim that “it’s better to do something than to do nothing at all” – it will shock you to realise that there are a few more options open to compassionate humanity than “find and kill Kony” and “do nothing at all”.

The second of my issues is purely aesthetic. I think this is best summarised by the parody tagline for the recently released film on the civil rights movement in America, “The Help” – “White people solve racism. You’re welcome, black people”. I dread to think of the self-congratulatory euphoria that will flood the internet if he is caught – job’s a good ‘un, everyone can go home now. And I do wish his annoying blond child could bloody well sod off somewhere.

Lastly, I am frankly amazed by those of you who spat such venom at Mr Leon and his Oxford degree. Let me tell you a bit about how the international development/humanitarian aid job market works. I hate to break this to you but you do not get hired for your fervent beliefs and being sorry for African kids. You get hired for being competent, capable of incisive analysis and having some impressive names on your CV. This is how you get into jobs that allow you to get closer and closer to the people you are trying to help and that give you more and more scope to do so. This is how you get into the professional field where you can make a difference over the entire course of your career.

Judging by the disgust that you have registered at this approach to international cooperation, I can only assume you have chosen the alternative path. In which case I do wonder how on earth you managed to get internet connection in a remote African village where you have been living on a local wage with limited access to basic goods while actively hunting down rape-happy warlords and telling them off for bad behaviour while simultaneously organising the transfer of huge suitcases of donor cash for the economic benefit of the region.

And that’s my two cents.

Mar 9, 2012 23:41

Well said, David – this is among the most sensible pieces that I’ve read to date. As an oxonian it’s very sad to see Manu people’s ire and criticism centring more around your university than cogent discussion of the article. People keep saying that doing something, ‘one thing at a time’ is good, but seem to ignore the facts that a)this is not the most effective way to bring about the ultimate aim, I.e. Improve Ugandan’s quality of life, and b) may actually be counterproductive regarding peace in the region by unnecessarily stirring further conflict.

Additionally, it may be ‘nice’ that we feckless youth are ‘taking up a cause’, but this is just righteous self-indulgence – this is supposed to be about alleviating poverty and suffering, not congratulating ourselves on our misplaced activism. People’s myopia worries and perturbs me.

Mar 10, 2012 22:11

Extension on the ICC – the US also has over 100 agreements with states in a non-cooperation pact with the ICC, roughly 30 of them African. The abolition of US government aid was threatened to any state which did not comply, and thus the 26 states (if my memory serves) who did not comply subsequently lost US aid.

KONY 2012 – la campagna virale di invisible children | passione non profit
Mar 11, 2012 18:38

[…] Ovviamente il video e la campagna virale associata hanno suscitato consensi e critiche. Queste ultime in parte relative ai dati finanziari di Invisible Children (Atlatic Wire), in parte relative al fatto che il video racconta solo una parte della storia e che focalizza su una singola persona un problema decisamente più complesso (Ceasefire). […]

Mar 11, 2012 18:55

I do a lot of work with the homeless population in my community. My experience is that we do not even know how to help our own people. The government assistance programs are so flawed, impersonal and unregulated. We pay taxes to support hopeless addicts who feel that there is no way out right here in “the land of opportunity “. My point is people would way rather open their wallets for some movement half a world away than walk out their door and spend an hour with someone that is struggling right in their own community. I believe that social media is amazing in that it limits the regulation of the truth of what is really going on in the world however true change can only happen with the strength of the community involved. We cannot fix anyone’s problems if we can’t address. Our own. I say keep spreading hope around the world that all evilness will be exposed but if you really want to help someone stop turning your nose up and reach out to someone in your own community. Love is contaigous and the ripple efect of one act of kindness will be more effective than one hundred hits on youtube.

Now Joseph Kony has killed Simba! « rudy2shoes
Mar 11, 2012 21:34

[…] if anything, on what should be done about the case at hand.  Likewise, David Leon’s excellent piece is somewhat overcooked and therefore feeds into the dichotomy of ‘help us get Kony or fuck […]

Mar 12, 2012 2:45

The problem of poverty and sex slavery and war crimes will never go away. But if we know that this man is hurting thousands of children, it is disgusting that people call Invisible Children malicious for helping stop that.

Jason Robinson
Mar 12, 2012 10:59

Great article, David. Keep up the good work.

Comrade Ogilvy
Mar 12, 2012 23:29

Some of these comments are completely off-mark. First, great article. Second, to those questioning what this article accomplishes…it’s simple…it brings more awareness to what the real problems are. It identifies key players that otherwise have been completely omitted from the narrative.

Now, some of you fanatical #Kony2012 Fans are going to knock down any criticism to their cause. You will even do it blindly. But that’s stupid…and ignorant. You’re all too quick to toss the baby out with the bath water.

Mar 14, 2012 5:32

Goodbye My Kony Island Baby: March 13, 2012, WideShut Webcast - WideShut: Alternative News
Mar 14, 2012 21:43

[…] – Why #StopKony2012 is malicious, vile and repulsive […]

Mar 15, 2012 17:19

Great article. But possibly giving more thought to the matter than it even deserves.

To the detractors, first off, “yeah, well if you’re so clever why don’t you start an international charity” is not an argument.

And to those more reasoned commenters who think ‘vile, malicious repulsive’ is too strong, it is an understatement.

I suggest starting with this clip, which I think gives the matter all the coverage it deserves and with an appropriate tone:

If you can’t see the clip, all the guy really does is visit the Invisible Children Vimeo page and do some cursory internet research on Jason Russel, which any of us could have done, but didn’t. He makes some broad silly jokes, but for the most part lets Invisible Childrens own content speak for itself and reveal them very quickly for what they are: an aspiring new scientology-style racket in cynical pursuit of the socially conscious and their money.

Mar 16, 2012 12:23

Seriously? While I agree with most all of your points, you are suggesting just a different kind of ‘white man’s burden’ that we transfer wealth from wealthy nations to poor nations. Seriously? Get a grip. And even if I were a fan of that, who would it be done, certainly not through the horrible President you suggest he is (I’m not arguing that point!). So my gov’t should take my money and then distribute my wealth to each individual Ugandan. Right?!?! have you ever given an African a lump sum of cash? It destroys their lives. Seriously. Try it. I’ve witnessed it multiple times.

Mar 16, 2012 16:28

I do believe a man like Kony should be in jail, however putting him in jail or murdering him wont help to ease the suffering of the people in Africa. How many of you felt “Safer” once Osama or Sadam were killed? I truly believe targeting someone to be killed cannot be considered a “Humanitarian” effort. It seems to me, that this effort is like a more popular FBI’s most wanted list. Sure all of the people on the list deserve to be in jail, but don’t fool yourself in thinking that you are improving a whole nations quality of life by eliminating one person. For those who argue it’s a small step, I ask a small step to WHAT? To helping improve Africa’s infrastructure? To eliminating poverty? To help prevent HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, or the sinister Nodding disease? No, while it is refreshing to see a wave of benevolence sweep through everyone, it is alarming the causes people are willing to back after 30 minutes of sensationalism and a small child talking to “Daddy”. It’s like you trying to help someone on fire, by killing the person who set them a lite, they still burn in the end…

Mar 29, 2012 1:12

I agree with Sam. But these three college kids including Kony 2012 Director Jason Russell are not ignorant i think. In fact they are using their skills in film making and experience oversees to create a very dramatic and visually stimulating video that will raise awareness by provoking peoples emotions. It is the human nature to act based on our emotions and my initial reaction was to forward the video to all my facebook freinds. Just because the video “sold” very well doen’t make it what the writer of this article (David Leon) sais it is. Also it is fair to say that most of Leon’s arguments are not supported by any proof. Like the Invisible Childrens $9mil-nowhere a proven breakdown of how it was spent but one claim that it was used simply for ”headhunting one man”-hello? they also built radio alert towers in villages to warn against a raid?? and they used that money to build a school? Isnt educationg people the best way to improve their condition?? Has the writer of this article done anything to improve the life of the victims before this video came out?

And then he crudely accuses the viewers of being the “perpetrators”-or the cause that gave birth to those like Kony. That statement is false and ignorant. It is not us-the ordinary Western hard working people who just want to make a living- that cause this global imbalance of wealth. Its evil large corporations and govenments that do business with them that really fuck the world and give rise to rebel groups.
However what is unique is that Joseph Kony’s motive is religious. So that makes little sense as to how we are the problem. He doesnt seem to be fighting to improve the poverty and crime in his home country. Although bringing him to justice will not end the situation it will help. And all the other solutions are being implemented gradually.

The bottom line is that Kony 2012 was meant be a massive response for a small cause. And the cause is a good one. And I think that we all should know in detail in what way these 100 millitary advisors help exactly.

Apr 3, 2012 15:23

I don’t think you can deem the whole campaign as vile and insane…it ain’t all bad. But I think they should have directed most of the attention to doing something about the children and the poverty and hardships they are encountering, rather than bringing down one man. My greatest criticism is their request that the US send soldiers/advisors to helf Uganda capture the Kony…..if you do ur history, thats how major invations (in quest for resources) always start. You begin by hiping up something or someone that needs to be stopped, then u send a sample army to see how best to sort the situation, then a bigger battallion is sent in…then before you know it, a whole independent nation has been occupied. But to send the battalion, you need your people to fully believe and support importance of your invasion mission. You need to get full support of your taxpayer. You must unequivocally convince them of the absolute necessity of the OCCUPATION.

Now you may ask, what is so special about a foreign (western/north american) nation occupying Uganda. Uganda has the biggest oil reserves on land…not even nigeria got anything on them. Projections by Tullan and Total oil companies hint that the oil reserves in Uganda can probably rival those in Saudi Arabia. I am not starting a conspiracy theory, but I sure won’t be surprised if more troops land in Uganda looking for this KONY fella. Personally I think KONY shud burn in hell, but that video might end up doing more damage than good. Wud be really sad if Uganda ended up like vietnam or afganistan or Iraq….where you go after one man then take over the entire country and suck it dry….

…I am not against tha campaign, I believe a few people can make the world change, but you betta know where the badwagon is going b4 you jump into tha damn train…


Apr 11, 2012 12:47

I and my families are none parties and militaries. We are not to seek suport or win mass group of peoples rub with organizeis. We are indepant learn, work to live. If dectatorian ilegal need to influence us…


Apr 11, 2012 12:50

\*I and my families are none parties and militaries. We are not to seek suport or win mass group of peoples rub with organizeis. We are indepant learn, work to live. If dectatorian ilegal need to influence us…*/


Clicktivism - Social Likes Don't Count | blur Group Blog
Sep 26, 2014 11:52

[…] the young Americans behind the video who were murky about their finances and disturbingly were photographed brandishing guns in the very territory that the warlord apparently […]

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