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A Letter From Uganda on #Kony2012
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
Sara Weschler lives in Gulu town, not far from where Joseph Kony was born. She has been involved with northern Uganda and the LRA issue since 2005, and moved to the region after college. She works as a communications officer for Information for Youth Empowerment Programme (www.IYEPuganda.org)—a small local NGO founded by LRA returnees and other war-affected youth to promote peace and post-conflict recovery. After a video about the Lord’s Resistance Army became an international phenomenon, Weschler wrote this letter to share her perspective and set the record straight.
I’m coming to all of this a bit late, I know. But it’s hard to respond to Internet phenomena in a timely manner when power supplies are cut almost every evening and you’re busy fighting off a fever. The fact that a ship in Mombasa harbor dropped its anchor on the region’s primary Internet cable two weeks back doesn’t help with connectivity either.
For starters, let me say this: As a viral campaign, #KONY2012 (or #StopKony) is simply astounding. Granted, I’m not the most Internet savvy member of my generation, but I honestly cannot think of a group or cause that has more successfully harnessed the power of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so forth. The question is, however, to what end?
From what I’ve seen on Twitter, the campaign has spawned two types of reactions. The first, and by far the more prevalent of the two, is fervent, unquestioning, self-satisfied (and self-righteous) support from people who know very little about the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] and who are, in many cases, hearing the name Joseph Kony for the first time. The second is of the seething, venomous backlash variety—people who have been involved with northern Uganda and the LRA for years, who are infuriated by the superficiality and sensationalism of this campaign and who basically want to rip the campaign’s creators, Invisible Children [IC], to shreds.
I am, of course, adamantly not in the first camp. But I’m going to try my best not to slip too far into the vitriol of the second. I’ve noticed that in the aid and advocacy world the cheapest way to make yourself feel good about your own work is to condemn the efforts of another. So while I feel a need to point out the inadequacies of this campaign, I will try to keep the IC bashing to a minimum. A number of commentators (Rosebell Kagumire, Mark Kersten, Angelo Izama, Tom Murphy, to name a few) have come out with measured, balanced responses, and I hope that I can manage to make my case in a similar vein.
The members of Invisible Children are by no means bad people. While the school sponsorship work they do in northern Uganda is neither unique in its method nor remarkable in its achievements, it is a perfectly decent, solid set of programs. Meanwhile, their contribution to the LRA Crisis Tracker and their work on early-response radio systems in South Sudan, the Central African Republic [CAR] and the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] are extremely valuable. My problem with IC, though, is that it is more concerned with image than with substance, that it prioritizes creating the illusion of a momentous and world-changing movement over effecting actual positive changes on the ground, and that it propagates a narrative of Western saviors swooping in to rescue “Africa.” Its latest campaign and accompanying video, “StopKony/Kony2012,” are no exception.
The overarching claim of the movie (which, because I am in northern Uganda and it takes me three hours and eight tries to stream a 30 minute film, I have, admittedly, seen only once) is that there is an evil man somewhere out there in Central Africa. He has spent more than 25 years waging a brutal war for absolutely no reason, his army consists of 30,000 abducted children, and he cynically uses any attempts at peace talks or negotiation as an opportunity to rearm his troops and strengthen his power. The biggest problem is that no one knows about him. But if “we” spread the word and pressure the U.S. government to maintain military assistance to the Ugandan army, then by the end of this year “we” can capture Kony and end this horror.
Where do I even begin?
Misrepresentation of the Facts
The statistic cited for the number of children in Kony’s army comes from legitimate U.N. reports, and is in fact on the low end of estimates concerning LRA abductions (many sources put the number closer to 60,000). However, this count represents the total number of LRA abductees since the army’s inception in the mid-1980s. In its current state, the LRA is believed to consist of only a few hundred soldiers. This is not to say that it has ceased to be a threat. In the years since the Juba Peace Talks, the LRA has killed hundreds upon hundreds of civilians and forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. But the fact remains that the video distorts and sensationalizes the truth.
In addition, the claim that all attempts at peaceful negotiations have failed because of deceit on the part of the LRA is erroneous and one-sided. On several occasions—most notably at the end of the 1994 talks spearheaded by Betty Bigombe—it was unilateral acts of bad faith from the Yoweri Museveni regime that sabotaged the peace process.
Finally, we come to the central conceit of the #StopKony campaign: that the LRA continues to exist because it is utterly unknown; that spreading awareness is all it would take to put an end to this conflict.
Jan Egeland, former United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, once referred to the LRA conflict in northern Uganda as “the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on Earth.” Such a statement would seem to corroborate IC’s assertion that “99 percent of people” in the world have no idea who Kony is. The problem is, Egeland made that assessment nearly a decade ago.
The claim might even have rang true as late as early 2005. But ever since July of that year, when Kony and four of his subordinate commanders became the targets of the first arrest warrants ever to be issued by the International Criminal Court, the LRA has been, if not a household name, at least a term well known to politicians and policymakers across the globe.
The sort of mass “awareness” that this campaign is now spreading does not serve to further an international understanding of this issue. Instead, it misleads people and leaves them with a dangerously convoluted impression of the LRA conflict and what it would take to end it.
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