Comment | Why #StopKony2012 is malicious, vile and repulsive
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, March 8, 2012 14:28 - 71 Comments
By David Leon
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