Earlier this week, a video went viral on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and most other social media sites. It was a slick campaign video for an American-based NGO called Invisible Children who hope to use social awareness to end the use of child soldiers by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army militia and rebuild the communities in Central Africa which have been adversely affected by this conflict.
This campaign has very quickly gathered momentum and criticisms quickly followed. These ranged from accusations about their financial managements, the douchey nature of their organisers and lots of reference to the White Man’s Burden, and the organisation did respond with pretty thorough answers to their criticisms.
However there still is one criticism which has not been addressed, that of over-simplification and a lack of context. The campaign simplifies a story down to an easily understood narrative, a story of good versus evil. It tells the tale of a bad guy, Joseph Kony, who has been kidnapping children to use as his own personal army for the past 25 years, turning them into killers and sex slaves. There is not one person out there who would disagree that Joseph Kony is an evil person who has perpetuated some horrifying worst war crimes. Then, the narrative turns to a tale of the good guys who are going to save the day. These good guys are you and I, the users of social media who with a click of our mouse will influence those who hold power and influence to intervene and bring Kony to justice in front of the International Criminal Court.
However, there is as much not said in the video as mentioned in the video. The situation in Central Africa is very complex, and is not a simple issue of good versus evil. Kony and the LRA are one player in a complex scenario of a regional struggle for economic resources, political clout by various factions in Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Rwanda, the use of proxy wars, the consequences of colonialism and dictatorships, ethnic tensions, poor governance and hundreds of other factors.
One of the facts briefly mentioned but mostly glossed over is that fact that there have been military interventions with some regional cooperation, African Union support and American backing to try to capture Kony in the last two decades, even after he moved the base of his operations from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. All these campaigns have ever achieved is even more brutal retaliations.
The worst implicit message of this campaign is that Northern Uganda equals conflict, child soldiers and human rights violations when in reality, the area is beginning to recover from this dark period of history. In reality, the story on the ground is one of the 1 million internally displaced people being resettled, economic activities restarting, traditional Acholi methods of reconciliation being used to bring child soldiers back to their communities, and grassroot organisations working with international NGOs to facilitate all of this.
So all in all, this campaign has managed to promote funding an army which is also under fire for serious human rights abuses and spread a simplified message about a complex political situation. It is in the grey areas which are ignored in this campaign where we find questions about the aims of Invisible Children and, more importantly, how we reconcile and heal areas which have been ripped apart by conflict. Somewhere between the idealism of StopKony, the cynicism directed at the campaign and the realities in Central Africa, there are numerous urgent concerns which need to be addressed.
How can the consensus needed for a joint mission against the LRA amongst Central African countries built, many of whom are also recovering from civil conflicts, genocides and strained relations with Uganda? How can this be done when so many missions have failed?
How does an army capture a man who uses children as his bodyguards, and after the failure of other missions has retaliated in brutal and shocking ways, without causing even more violence, death and bloodshed?
What supports are needed to reintegrate former child soldiers back into communities which have been ripped apart by violence for three decades, sometimes by those very soldiers? Can this be done using traditional form of local reconciliation
How can the structural problems which have caused or at least played a major role in the conflict be addressed as not to give rise to another similar conflict?
Can decisions be made to resolve the conflict caused by the LRA which will not have even more tragic consequences twenty years from now?
Most importantly, how can we, the users of social media, even hope to fix these problems with simplified campaigns, retweets and shares?
The increased awareness of the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony is a good thing, but awareness is not enough, especially not this type of simplistic awareness. So, if you are interested in helping out in Uganda or any of the other countries affected by the LRA, do your research, ask questions, research other NGOs who help these communities to help themselves, and look beyond the simple messages to find the grey areas and the difficult questions.
Other criticisms levelled at Invisible Child such as how campaigns like this dis-empower Ugandans, reinforce the idea of the White Man’s Burden, the problematic classification of Ugandan children as ‘invisible’ and generally reflect poor advocacy practices are dealt with by some other bloggers, but this post is a good start.
Most of the information on the recent military campaigns and the Ugandan army came from Crisis Group’s 2011 Paper of the Lord’s Resistance Army.