KONY 2012 and Issues of Western Interventionism

A slick and captivating documentary has been spreading wildly on Facebook within the last week. This video, KONY 2012, centers on war criminal and mass murderer Joseph Kony, who is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and there is no doubt that this is a very bad guy. However, there’s something off and misplaced in the newly-found outrage among Facebookers.

First, a very brief item about Kony and the LRA, since people who have seen the video are no doubt familiar with the LRA leader by now. The LRA has been abducting children, murdering and raping its way around Uganda since 1986. The LRA has no identifiable ideology or purpose other than to maintain the power of Joseph Kony.

In the aftermath of September 11th and the ramping up of the “War on Terrorism,” the United States has paid special attention in trying to put an end to Kony’s rampage. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Kony and other members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The United Nations has launched covert operations to capture or kill Kony. The Obama Administration has made capturing Kony a priority, when Obama deployed 100 advisors to aid African governments in apprehending Kony. All of these facts are stated in the video.

The United States and the world government has not exactly been laying down on the job, yet the video asserts that if everyone in the world knew who Joseph Kony was then he would have been arrested by now. Continuously, the video asserts that its main point is to move people to action. What action, exactly? The action, the video says, is to ultimately provide technology, arms and assistance to the Ugandan Army.

Visibility of a mass murderer and beginning a dialogue on how to get him is okay and admirable. But encouraging intervention from a superpower in an area where superpowers are responsible for a lot of the unrest? This is where Invisible Children, the charity that is behind the KONY 2012 campaign, gets away from the complex reality of what is happening in Africa. A very good critique by sociology student Grant Oysten has been published of the charity on this regard.

The forces fighting Kony and the LRA have blood on their hands as well. Some of the donated money that the Invisible Children charity receives goes to funding the Ugandan Army, in addition to promotion efforts to get the aforementioned technology and arms to the Ugandan Army, by their own admission in the video. This is at the same time when the Ugandan Army is under intense criticism because of soldiers in the Ugandan army raping women and plundering natural resources. The charity muddles this use of donations by promoting their more notable and valiant efforts in building schools and providing some semblance of safety to Ugandan communities under attack by the LRA.

The former Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (now the military for newly formed South Sudan), another ally of the Ugandan Army, had thousands of child soldiers in its own ranks in 2004 and they were under fire from the United Nations for this. Though the SPLA has officially ended the use of child soldiers, there are reports that they still use some children in their ranks.

There are NGOs in Africa that are doing amazing work and without calling down for military intervention, as Invisible Children is. To understand the reluctance to intervene, one needs to read the history of Western colonialism in Africa. There’s far too much history on the Scramble for Africa to cover in this post, and the material available on the Internet is massive and in-depth. The most popular history on the subject is probably “The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876-1912” by Thomas Pakenham.

However, the discussion of colonialism is relevant because the video makes no attempt at tracing the history of these conflicts. It’s a very blank argument and presents the conflict happening almost in a vacuum. In reality, many of the conflicts, wars and strife happening in Africa has its origins in European colonialism and the longstanding policy of the United States to support despots and dictators in the third world.

For the sake of example, the video made mention of the Rwandan Genocide and how we (the Western world) failed to stop it. To take this example further: not only did the Western world fail to stop it, but Belgium – the former colonizer of Rwanda – created the conflict that lead to the genocide. After Belgium’s colonization of Rwanda, it took advantage of lingering class resentments within Rwandan society, where the majority Hutus were the privileged class and minority Tutsis were considered lower class. Belgium turned this class resentment into manufactured racial resentment, when the colonizer declared that Tutsis were a superior “race” and therefore bestowed the Tutsis with a special status and preferential treatment in colonized Rwanda. This led to discontent between the two classes and civil conflict after decolonization post World War II, and eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide, where Tutsis were nearly murdered into extinction by Hutu gangs.

The act of ignoring history and treating events as if they were in a vacuum does a disservice to the victims of these events, and the aid workers who are working in the conflict ravaged areas. On that note, the LRA formed out of conditions brought about by poverty and near-slavery. These conditions were the result of British instituted slavery in north Uganda, when the British Empire held Uganda as a protectorate in the late 1800s. Though the tone of the LRA’s brand of insurgency takes on an extraordinarily psychotic character that isn’t present with other rebel groups, it did not form in a vacuum and it’s important to remember this because…

The answer to dealing with the ills of colonization and its aftermath is not to push a neo-“white man’s burden” agenda like that the filmmakers have here. The popular thing to do in cases like this is to beat people over the head with the Rwandan genocide and tell them that if we don’t send military “assistance”, then another genocide will happen (even though the situation in Rwanda is separate and different from what’s happening in Uganda.)

One of the more offensive things about the KONY 2012 video is the self-serving tone that the directors cultivate. It is their mission to save the world for their children and children like theirs, and almost as a footnote, children like Jacob. And they want your help to do it. Never mind educating yourself on the history of these conflicts, the continent and what has actually been done – just send your money to them so they can disseminate it in a way that encourages the American military complex to support the Ugandan Army, which is currently dealing with their own set of problems that include prostitution rings and resource plundering.

The reality is this: the situation in Africa is complex and it involves many different actors. It doesn’t necessarily help to beat people over the head with history, but it doesn’t help that people do not know the history. Because of historical ignorance, the conversation is poisoned and we begin thinking we can fix the situation through some Facebook slacktivism, pamphleteering, wearing bracelets and lobbying the American government to intervene militarily in one of the most militarized areas in the world. I hate to be cynical, but if Special Forces deployed by the UN can’t capture Kony, then a Facebook campaign aimed at Americans will not bring the effort any closer to capturing him, either.

So, what is the answer?

That’s a good question and there is no panacea, which the KONA 2012 video does marginally recognize. This will take serious discussion and multiple solutions. That is, while respecting history and including African voices in the discussion. African voices which have been eerily silent in this campaign, except those who lend support to the notion that the West, and Americans specifically, should militarily intervene in Uganda or the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A good start to starting this conversation is self-education in the West and questioning anyone who says we need to immediately reach for the guns and the tanks. I realize I’m posting this from a position of privilege and I am not privy to the pain of Jacob, or other Ugandan children, in the way that the Invisible Children directors are. However, a serious dialogue is needed in order to ensure that we are being good global citizens, but also not trampling on African empowerment and self-determination.

As far as alternative charities go, Visible Children – the original tumblr where the main critique so far has been posted – has started an alternative list to the Invisible Children charity. These charities go to the same non-violent projects that the Invisible Children charity are helping with, including providing water security, building schools, among other things. They will not give your money to militaries that are currently under suspicion of mass wrongdoing.

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