Millions of viewers have thronged to watch a video put together by the California based media company “Invisible Children” about one of the world’s most notorious criminals Joseph Kony. Since the 30 minute video went up a day ago supporters of the company have flooded twitter and facebook promoting the capture of Mr. Kony. According to Invisible Children the aim is to make Kony so famous that his capture would be inevitable. It seems to be working. That is the part about capturing the imagination of a certain demographic of largely young college kids. Most of them look to campaigns such as this as an opportunity to do some good in the world and make it a better place. And now even P.Diddy has joined #StopKony2012 along no doubt with his 6 million followers. Not since Idi Amin Dada and perhaps the “Kill the Gays Bill”, has Uganda been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, accused of cannibalism amongst others occupies top spot. His life was reduced to the award winning film “The Last King of Scotland”. Joseph Kony seems to be heading that way too. To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement. While it draws attention to the fact that Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, is still on the loose, it’s portrayal of his alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era. At the height of the war between especially 1999 and 2004, large hordes of children took refuge on the streets of Gulu town to escape the horrors of abduction and brutal conscription to the ranks of the LRA. Today most of these children are semi-adults. Many are still on the streets unemployed. Gulu has the highest numbers of child prostitutes in Uganda. It also has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.
If six years ago children in Uganda would have feared the hell of being part of the LRA, a well documented reality already, today the real invisible children are those suffering from “Nodding Disease”. Over 4000 children are victims of this incurable debilitating condition. It’s a neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.
It is true that since the theatre of Kony’s operations shifted from Northern Uganda ( in December of 2005) to neighboring countries he has continued his mayhem. According to the United Nations increased attacks in Orientale province have led to thousands of displacements and abductions including children. However the LRA leader is the subject of an international manhunt by a joint force of Ugandan, Congolese, Sudanese and Central African troops. This effort is assisted by US combat troops deployed there since October 2011. Ironically Uganda that has approximately 4000 elite troops after Kony and the LRA, uses former child soldiers, ex-LRA abductees to hunt him which some success.
So why the misleading campaign? Why now? What does it profit to market the infamy of a man already famous for his crimes and whose capture is already on the agenda? Critics of Invisible Children are also likely to be critics of foreign aid and by extension the place of Western charities in the mis-education of western publics about the realities of Africa. The real danger of the game-show type “pornography of violence” that Invisible Children as made so appealing also has a dangerous hold on policy types in Washington DC whose access to information and profiles of issues is as limited.
Recent examples of the impact of evangelizing NGO’s can be seen from the distortions of the Save Darfur Coalition to a recent mining ban in the DRC under the guise of saving hapless Africans. The simplicity of the “good versus evil”, where good is inevitably white/western and bad is black or African, is also reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the colonial era interventions. These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.
Like a colleague once told me a campaign such as this cannot be mounted about peace in the Middle East because that would require actual scholarship and knowledge of the issues.
Many African critics unsurprisingly are crying neo-colonialism. This is because these campaigns are disempowering of their own voices. After all the conflict and suffering is affecting them directly regardless of if they hit the re-tweet button or not. At the end of the day the Kony2012 campaign will not make Joseph Kony more famous but it will make Invisible Children famous. It will also make many, including P.Diddy, feel like they have contributed some good to his capture- assuming Kony is even alive. For many in the conflict prevention community including those who worry about the militarization of it in Central Africa this campaign is just another nightmare that will end soon. Hopefully.