STOP KONY and the perils of ‘conflict for the Facebook world’

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Dr Jonathan FisherJonathan Fisher is a research fellow in IDD, focusing on the relationship between Western aid donors and developing states, and how donors construct perceptions of foreign governments and key concepts in international development. He has recently completed an analysis of the role of international donors in Uganda’s recent 2011 elections commissioned by the Deepening Democracy Programme, a donor ‘basket fund’ based in Kampala.

In November 2003 UN Under-Secretary General Jan Egeland described the conflict in northern Uganda as ‘the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today.’ In the last week, with STOP KONY 2012 having garnered over 30 million views on YouTube and been shared ad nauseam through endless re-posts and re-tweets on social networking sites, the shocking barbarity of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s thirty-year rebellion has finally begun to receive the international attention that it merits. Does it matter, therefore, that the undoubtedly moving video put together by Invisible Children on the issue doesn’t quite tell the whole story? Do activists need to understand the nuances of conflict in order to ‘make a difference’?

Jason Russell of Invisible Children

Jason Russell of Invisible Children. Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger

Invisible Children has been assailed from some quarters for its ‘questionable motives’ in promoting the STOP KONY campaign. Its accounts have also been pored over and the organization criticized for prioritizing salaries, travel and film-making over ‘on the ground’ action in its financial decision-making. While these issues are pertinent (albeit often ‘invisible’) in virtually all advocacy efforts, such attacks are somewhat unfair. Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s co-founder and the ‘narrator’ of the video, is clearly a compassionate and intelligent individual; surely a money-hungry Machiavellian would opt for a comfortable life as a K-Street lobbyist rather than concoct, over a decade, a campaign such as STOP KONY to feather his nest? Furthermore, as the doe-eyed excitement of the ‘Yes we can!’ age gives way to the jaundiced pragmatism of the ‘at least he’s not Santorum’ era it is undoubtedly edifying to see that notions of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ can still unite and motivate young people around a common goal.

As someone who has studied Uganda and its international relations for a number of years, however, I do have several issues with the campaign. Firstly, to paraphrase Chris Cramer, conflict is not a stupid thing. Though undoubtedly one of the more bizarre movements in recent African history, the LRA is not simply the zombified private army of an evil ‘bad guy’ unconnected to the political and social history of northern Uganda or its people. It is not helpful to depict African violence as incomprehensible, illogical and ‘solvable’ by ‘taking out bad men’ like Kony. However horrific and deplorable they undoubtedly are, crimes such as those committed in Kenya in 2007 or in Rwanda in 1994 do not happen because of any cultural predisposition to random, unintelligible outbreaks of communal blood-letting. Northern Uganda has been, at best, neglected by the Yoweri Museveni / National Resistance Movement (NRM) government in Kampala since 1986 and anti-Museveni sentiments will not simply dissipate when Kony is eventually captured. These important nuances cannot always be communicated in YouTube clips.

Kony 2012 poster

Secondly, the STOP KONY campaign presents a wholly unbalanced view of the northern Ugandan conflict, as Norbert Mao, a former politician in Gulu who features in Invisible Children’s video, has recently lamented in the Ugandan media. The Museveni government and Uganda’s armed forces have not only frequently reneged on peace agreements with the LRA rebels (Museveni himself has previously dismissed peace talks as ‘soft landings’) but have also periodically coerced around 1.6 million northern Ugandan civilians into insecure, unsanitary, crowded ‘camps’ closed-off to the outside world – camps that have been frequently raided by Kony and his subordinates. The UPDF (Uganda’s army) has also been accused of its fair share of human rights abuses in the north during the 1990s and 2000s – according to many commentators the Museveni regime (dominated by westerners) has long been intent on ‘punishing’ northern Ugandans for their role in opposing his rise to power during the 1980-1985 war with Milton Obote, the last northern leader of the country.

Finally, the significance of this Kony-focused depiction of the northern Ugandan crisis (which has, since 2006, spread to central Africa more generally) is the extent to which it serves the ambiguous agenda of the Kampala government. Where Museveni would dismiss the rebels in the 1990s as common ‘criminals’ and ‘bandits’, following the 9/11 attacks on US soil they rapidly came to be described as ‘terrorists’ in line with the new ‘ally in the War on Terror’ narrative being promoted by Uganda in its international diplomacy. By painting itself as a ‘victim’ of LRA violence, as opposed to an equally guilty participant in a complex cycle of barbarity, the Museveni government soon saw its receipt of weaponry, military training and logistical assistance rising courtesy of its allies in Washington, London and elsewhere. Curiously (as one former senior UK official has since told me) this didn’t seem to have much effect on ending the conflict. It did, however, enable Museveni to send troops into neighbouring Congo (twice) and, more recently, to Somalia. The policy impact of Invisible Children’s work to date has solidified this pattern. In 2011, the Obama administration dispatched 100 US military advisers to assist the UPDF in their fight against Kony and the campaign is based around ensuring that such US support for Ugandan security forces continues.

The question is, therefore, to what degree are campaigns such as STOP KONY playing into the hands of semi-authoritarian regimes? The LRA rebellion has been extremely useful to the Museveni government in its conduct of foreign policy and it has consequently demonstrated little fervor for wiping out the group. How is it, for example, that a large, disciplined African military can expertly march across an entire continent and depose a long-serving tyrant in Kinshasa but not, over the course of nearly thirty years, eliminate a rag-tag army of frightened children led by a maniacal lunatic? By failing to place pressure on the Ugandan government over its lack of political will in the fight against the LRA, the STOP KONY campaign is playing right into its hands.

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