The Bigger Picture – “Kony 2012”

Because of my new major change to Communication Arts and Journalism, strong interest in journalism and ambition to just start in the field right away, I will be publishing my own original work here. This March 14th, 2012 article was originally posted on my news Tumblr page.

Topic: The “Kony 2012” video released last Tuesday by the charity organization of Invisible Children.

For those who still don’t know who Joseph Kony is, he is without a doubt a bad person.

And if you still haven’t seen the video, here it is.

If you want more information on the LRA/Kony, The Guardian’s Simon Rawles and Christian Bennett released a 9 minute video last year here.

I’m not here to talk about the charity, Invisible Children, itself, we all know about the skepticism about the financials there and it has been addressed multiple times, especially when it has been corrected by one of the founders of Invisible Children on CNN. And how there has been a photo found of the Invisible Children posing with guns, the photographer has responded with his own opinion as well – interesting interview by the Washington Post, I may say.

However, I’m here to address how this situation is very much a complicated one, and to share all the resources I’ve found. I hope to clarify and bring up other aspects of this conflict to my readers.

First, I came across this informative article by the Council of Foreign Affairs published back in November 2011 on President Barack Obama sending troops to Central Africa, here are some really interesting excerpts from the article that could serve as a background to the conflict:

The LRA conflict goes back to the late 1980s. After toppling the regime of Tito Okello, the victorious forces of Uganda’s new president, Yoweri Museveni, sought to impose his authority on the Acholi population in northern Uganda, which had been closely associated with Okello. A diverse range of resistance groups emerged at that time; all were eventually defeated, except for the LRA, which proved –more resilient than anyone might have imagined. In the decades that followed, the outside world largely looked the other way as Uganda’s north sunk into violence and deprivation. That changed in the early 2000s, when images of thousands of children taking refuge in the town of Gulu, Uganda, first hit mainstream television. Various celebrities began to speak out about the war, mostly focusing on shocking incidents associated with Kony’s rebels; the Ugandan government’s aggressive counterinsurgency measures, however, were shocking as well. For example, the government forced the region’s population to relocate into what were effectively concentration camps. There, they were poorly protected from attacks, and faced dreadful living conditions. A study carried out under the auspices of the World Health Organization in 2005 found t-hat there were 1000 excess deaths per week in the Acholi region. Growing recognition of the scale of the crisis within the humanitarian system was coupled with occasional intense periods of media attention that brought awareness to a wider audience. Media reports mostly covered LRA atrocities and were prompted by particular events, such as when, in 2005, the newly created International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants — its first ever — for the LRA’s top commanders; when Kony announced his interest in peace negotiations in 2006; and when he repeatedly failed to sign the subsequent agreement in 2008. There has been rather less media concern about events after that failure.

Basically, the whole conflict with Joseph Kony has been going on for a while. Actually, for quite a while, since the 1980’s. And it wasn’t only Kony, the Ugandan government also had their part in this crisis against the African people.

Ugandans share their opinion on the timing of the video campaign here:

“There is no historical context. It’s more like a fashion thing,” said Timothy Kalyegira, a well-known social critic in Uganda who once published a newsletter called The Uganda Record.

For some Ugandans, the timing of Invisible Children’s campaign is suspicious. Nicholas Sengoba, a political analyst, said there was something “sinister” about Invisible Children’s campaign.

“The issue has been around for ages,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves why suddenly there is this uproar. I believe that these people have other motives that they are not putting out in the open.”

Doesn’t it seem skeptical? If it seems skeptical to a Ugandan, should we be skeptical of the campaign?

Here’s some more from the first Foreign Affairs article:

“In [the charities’] campaigns, such organizations 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.

The above paragraph has been proven wrong at this Washington Post article by Invisible Children founder Jenkins saying that their statistics and facts have been up to par by the numbers from the Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. I’ll give them that.

And the second part of that paragraph is in fact true. It reflects on what my first excerpt points out – Kony didn’t perform all of the atrocities in Africa, the governments and other armies had their part in the violence and devastation.

Here’s another excerpt from the first Foreign Affairs article:

Beyond the ins and outs of dealing with Kony, the political challenges in the region are simply too massive for Obama’s new operation to yield much fruit. The violence in Uganda, Congo, and South Sudan has been the most devastating — anywhere in the world — since the mid-1990s. Even conservative estimates place the death toll in the millions. And the LRA is, in fact, a relatively small player in all of this — as much a symptom as a cause of the endemic violence. If Kony is removed, LRA fighters will join other groups or act independently

The situation here is that it’s not all Kony’s doing. There is much more to it. The Ugandan government has performed their own wrong-doing as well.

The movement is only putting the blame on one person where, maybe, they should broaden their scope.

Analyst Simon Allison from AllAfrica defends this statement by saying:

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.

There are a lot of other players in this situation, there’s much more that the video doesn’t cover. The movement cannot blame one person, there’s other people involved.

The “Kony movement” of trying to support and move forward in the mission to kill Kony will not end the crisis in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Blaming and trying to kill one person will not solve the situation.

Doubling back and clarifying that President Obama has sent in troops from October 2011 in the Washington Post:

President Obama, in a letter to Congress, has authorized the deployment of about 100 U.S. combat forces to central Africa to assist in the fight against the notoriously savage Lord’s Resistance Army.

President Barack Obama has sent in American troops to fight against the LRA. He has been persistent with this situation since May of 2010.

In May of 2010, Obama signed a bill committing the United States to help arrest Kony. Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch wrote in October of 2010 that Obama needed to put in practice what the president said during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “Force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans.”

President Obama has addressed the deployment of the troops in October 2011. However, it’d only be redundant to send more troops into Africa. What does Invisible Children expect President Obama to do now?

Moving on, the White House has also congratulated the Invisible Children “Kony 2012” video makers on the viral success of the video.

And The Guardian has been doing some great, great work on the “Kony 2012” movement and they got this quote from Arthur Karok who is the Action Aid’s director in Uganda and has worked with NGO’s in Uganda. This is his standpoint on Invisible Children, relating to his experiences in Uganda:

From what I know about Invisible Children, it’s an international NGO, and it documents the lives of children living in conflict for international campaigning to draw attention to the lives of children in the north.

Six or 10 years ago, this would have been a really effective campaign strategy to get international campaigning. But today, years after Kony has moved away from Uganda, I think campaigning that appeals to these emotions … I’m not sure that’s effective for now. The circumstances in the north have changed.

Many NGOs and the government, especially local government in the north, are about rebuilding and securing lives for children, in education, sanitation, health and livelihoods. International campaigning that doesn’t support this agenda is not so useful at this point. We have moved beyond that.

There are conflicts in the north – several small conflicts over natural resources. Land is the major issue: after many years of displacement, there is quite a bit of land-related conflict.

But many organisations and governments are focusing on this. We need to secure social stability, health and education. These are the priorities. This is what we’re trying to focus on. Poverty is high compared to the rest of the country. That’s the practical issue that needs to be addressed.

I don’t think this is the best way. It might be an appeal that makes sense in America. But there are more fundamental challenges. Kony has been around for 25 years and over. I don’t think in the north at the moment that is really what is most important. It might be best on the internet and the like but, at the end of the day, there are more pressing things to deal with. If the Americans had wanted to arrest him, they would have done that a long time ago.

They [Invisible Children] are not a member of our forum. Many international organisations prefer to work and have direct contact with their quarters. They don’t work so much within the structures we have in the country. There is nothing dramatic about them. They are like any other organisation trying to make a difference. At the moment I think the work of Invisible Children is about appealing to people’s emotions. I think that time has passed. Their reputation in the country is something that can be debatable. There is a strong argument generally about NGOs and their work in the north.

It doesn’t sound like a fair representation of Uganda. We have challenges within the country, but certainly the perception of a country at war is not accurate at all. There are political, economic and social challenges, but they are complex. Being dramatic about a country at war is not accurate.

If the international media want to be helpful especially for the conflict situation, they should exert more time and effort understanding practically what the needs are. It is fast-changing.

The video would have been appealing in the last decade. Now we just need support for the recovery rather than all this international attention on this one point. Getting the facts right is most important for the international media. That would help the situation as it is.

Arthur Larok says, it’s too late to be focusing on Joseph Kony and that there’s much more to focus on in Uganda and in Africa as a whole. The Guardian continues by getting credible sources citing that the campaign is clearly outdated.

Let’s get down to the facts –

Joseph Kony is not in Uganda anymore.

Michael Wilkerson, a freelance writer with experience in Uganda shares:

Following a successful campaign by the Ugandan military and failed peace talks in 2006, the LRA was pushed out of Uganda and has been operating in extremely remote areas of the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic — where Kony himself is believed to be now. The Ugandan military has been pursuing the LRA since then but had little success (and several big screw-ups). In October last year, President Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. Army advisors to help the Ugandan military track down Kony, with no results disclosed to date.

And Joseph Kony’s army is much, much weaker now. It is not as big as Invisible Children says it is in the “Kony 2012” video.

Wilkerson continues:

Additionally, the LRA (thankfully!) does not have 30,000 mindless child soldiers. This grim figure, cited by Invisible Children in the film (and by others) refers to the total number of kids abducted by the LRA over nearly 30 years. Eerily, it is also the same number estimated for the total killed in the more than 20 years of conflict in Northern Uganda.

As I wrote for FP in 2010, the small remaining LRA forces are still wreaking havoc and very hard to catch, but Northern Uganda has had tremendous recovery in the 6 years of peace since the LRA left.

Analyst Simon from AllAfrica agrees with Wilkerson as he states:

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 agains 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.

Back to Michael Wilkerson, he concludes with this statement:

There are many reasons uninformed and oversimplified advocacy can cause trouble, and Siena Antsis catalogues some of them here, noting that Invisible Children expertly “commodifies white man’s burden on the African continent.”  Buy a bracelet, soothe some guilt.

But as researcher Mark Kersten notes, after “stopping Kony”, then what? Or what if the activism just results the the 100 U.S. advisors staying but no Kony?

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic “Stop Kony” message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts . But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone? Will they actually stop fighting after Kony is gone? What if they shoot back?

Coming back to the “Kony 2012” video and its celebrity endorsements, what are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts? Defining Uganda in the international conversation by issues that are either geographical misfires (Save northern Uganda!) or an intentional attempt to distract the international community (Death to the gays!), do a disservice to the many critical problems Uganda has.

In addition to the problems of poverty and nodding disease Izama highlights, Uganda is barely (if at all) democratic, and the president Yoweri Museveni ushered himself to a 4th term last year, taking him to over 25 years in power. Corruption is rampant, social services are minimal, and human rights abuses by the government common and well documented. Oh, and oil is on the way.

Stopping Kony won’t change any of these things, and if more hardware and money flow to Museveni’s military, Invisible Children’s campaign may even worsen some problems.

Here’s to hoping Kony hands himself in tomorrow and that the fear of the U.S. “cancelling” its LRA-hunt support is misplaced. But if the most impactful the result of Invisible Children’s campaign is to cause millions of viewers to think Northern Uganda is a war zone, even if it’s not their intent, it’s hard to defend.

There’s much more behind just Joseph Kony. One of the big problems of this “Kony 2012” campaign is that millions of people are sitting down and watching this video, getting overwhelmed by emotions and spreading the film without necessarily finding out more about the conflict itself.

I’m not at all pro-Kony, I’m sure none of us are. However, I’m only trying to get to point out that I’m not going to trust a fancy-schmancy-emotion-induced 30 minute video. I’m going to put in the time and research on what’s behind the story, what’s behind the video.

Katie J.M. Baker from Jezebel shares the same sentiments as I do:

Look: I wish I knew more about what’s going on in Uganda, and I don’t want to hate on Kony 2012 just because I’m a cynic. But it took me about the same amount of time to read up on this criticism as it took me to watch the video itself. That’s still under an hour, about the same time it takes to watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. I recommend doing the same before you get behind any cause. It’s awesome to hear my Facebook friends say they feel “empowered” by sharing the video — but remember that charity isn’t really about you feeling empowered, is it?

CNN also hosted an opinion piece by TMS “Teddy” Ruge, an expert with social media and technology born in Uganda, questioning whether or not if the video created the “wrong buzz.” He says:

Kony 2012 missed a grand opportunity to empower these voices to realize the power within themselves to change their situation and surroundings.

Instead, it trotted out the same tired line about Africa. Torture, rape, conscription; tent poles for the single, sad story on Africa that Western society has come to accept. But by God we are so much more than the sum of our failures.

The charity missed an opportunity to empower the many Ugandan and Central African voices newly visible with the advent of mobile technology and social media tools on the continent. Instead of enjoining us to work together to amplify pressure on our governing bodies to address security and development holes, IC has taken the initiative to proposition an outside agency to do it for us.

The attention is on the wrong audience, for the wrong message, using the wrong messenger. I would have welcomed an opportunity for IC to partner with those of us visible and empowered to drive the conversation to its rightful audience, therein instilling a permanent sense of strong civic responsibility that is the basis of all modern societies.

If I can take anything good from this, it is that I hope this visibility provided by IC will usher those of us Ugandans engaged in this conversation to realize we have a right to exercise our agency when we are called to do so.

And when we do galvanize around an agenda that we set, that we are wise enough to partner with individuals that can accelerate that message.

There are some articles I found where some Ugandans are opposing the video; especially this one from Washington Post, this interview from CNN, and by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire (and her follow up blog posts here and here) and from citizen journalist Maureen Agena.

The Atlantic Wire posted an article of a NGO volunteer putting on a film screening of “Kony 2012” and the Ugandans who watched it “weren’t thrilled” and here’s a video of their angry reaction from Al Jazeera.

One Ugandan, who actually is featured in the film itself, has come out in support of the film. Here’s another who demands justice. I couldn’t find any other articles of Ugandans in support of the video, if you do, gladly send it my way.

Invisible Children responded to some of the questions raised after the release of the film, however, it still doesn’t answer every single question out there. It seems that most of our questions lie in the “Kony 2012” campaign and not so much in the charity itself and answers weren’t given in that last segment in the response video.

I only hope that if people actually did read this entire post, that we all learn a lesson and not back a cause immediately without knowing the whole story. No doubt is it a good cause, no doubt is Kony a bad person and no doubt is it a great marketing campaign, but it’s an incredibly hyper-complicated conflict and there definitely was a lot lacking in the video that should have been included and addressed.

That’s all I have to say.

Author: Patrick deHahn

International news reporter

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