Confronting the Criticisms of those Kony 2012 Ads

Border Crossings

Views of the Kony2012 campaign launched by Invisible Children (IC) have drastically fallen after its initial premiere on 5 March and the subsequent backlash. On 16 March, IC founder and star of the video Jason Russell was back in the news after having a breakdown in San Diego. The rhetorical space for advocacy around the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been eroded. The work of IC, in its own right, has largely been discredited and oversimplified.

Kony2012 represents the perils of advocacy in a complicated world. It is too soon to tell what the future direction of IC and their “cover the night” campaign to make Kony famous will take. Discursive signals to the public from Kony2012 being a simple, easy foray into African politics and the removal of an evil warlord to the critical backlash calling for more nuanced analysis has most certainly battered public space for advocacy. While the influx of donations to IC may have detracted funding to NGOs better equipped to work in the Great Lakes, it also is possible that it will have a long term positive effect on humanitarian NGOs, who may have received donations after readers became aware of the issue and will continue to engage in the future. If there is a positive that came out of the campaign, perhaps it has been the amount of criticism levelled and disseminated via the same social networks as Kony2012, changing the façade that conflict resolution is easy and participation and transformation are possible via a Facebook “like”. But, as a friend points out, the critics themselves need critics. 

Others have raised the problems with the video better than I could, pointing to its disempowering narrative and portrayal of Ugandans lacking  agency, the dangers of military intervention, false  impressions that the LRA was growing rather than shifting out of Uganda and an inflated number of child soldiers, and lack of acknowledgement of atrocities committed by the Government of Uganda and “social torture” perpetuated through the region. Institutionally IC has been criticised on their financials, lack of African staff representation on their board, and previous funding by groups who had tenuous links to anti-gay legislationin Uganda. IC’s response to the criticism was relatively unconvincing, perhaps because fundamentally disagree on what the role of advocacy is.

Narrator and IC founder Jason Russell later stated that the video was made "quick and oversimplified on purpose”. Whether they clung to this belief after the backlash ignited or whether they had intentionally oversimplified their work is unclear; they must believe their own rhetoric to some extent as the video portrays a child soldier at one point happily reuniting with their parents. In reality, IC runs a demobilisation centre for child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the hopes of future reintegration into their societies, something that is highly stigmatised. So they must be well aware of the realities.

To me, the most interesting takeaway from Kony2012 is the extent to which both sides were actively challenging who can participate in advocacy and which voices are legitimate and representative. Perhaps more frustrating to me was the amount to which some criticisms were empty signifiers, rehashing arguments that they themselves might not have understood the complexity of and were also guilty of excluding voices.

I still have more questions than answers with how the Kony2012 campaign advocacy around the LRA will play out. The cynic in me is more inclined to fundamentally disagree with Kony2012’s aims and the deliberate oversimplification to inspire young people to blindly adopt their policy aims. But it isn’t as if they don’t have concrete strategies for combatting the LRA (even if they are contested), and the campaign was a joint one with Enough and Resolve.


Representation and Audience

Kony is already infamous in East Africa and internet service is unreliable in many LRA-affected areas. Even streaming it in Uganda’s capital Kampala would be difficult. It’s clear, even implicitly, who IC’s target audience is. Al-Jazeera’s screening in Lira and viewers throwing rocks at the screen showed the level of outrage at their depiction. The few Ugandans in the video who appear empowered appear to be so because they work with IC.

But I think we also have to look at the flip side of representation. This is where I think many of the critics have been just as bad. Jacob Acaye, the young man featured as a child and later as an adult, has since come out in support of the campaign and defended IC. I have my doubts as to how much consent IC obtained from those included, particularly in the very intimate moment where Acaye begins crying at his brother’s death. In a misguided attempt to console him, Russell tells Acaye that they will find Kony. Russell’s actions are very human, and maybe Acaye saw them that way and believes in the campaign.

There probably is a good argument to be made that some Ugandans in support of the campaign have been co-opted into IC’s work for funding. But doesn’t this deny agency in the reverse – whatever their motivations may be, can we doubt them? Northern Ugandans aren’t a homogenous group the same way Fox News doesn’t speak to all Americans, and there are undoubtedly people who are in favour of the campaign. Presumably supporters of the campaign know more about their hopes and fears than someone who has read an expert report after reading criticism of the Kony2012 campaign. To present a conflict and its complexities requires the time to encounter and listen to different perspectives. This is the inconsistency of the democracy via facebook platform; it can mask views and inequalities.


Regional Dimensions, Voices, and Policy

A central problem with the campaign has been the lack of analysis of the regional dimensions and how Kony is being funded. But very few critics have commented on the lack of Congolese, Central African, and South Sudanese voices in the film. IC was reportedly present at a meeting in November 2011 in Dungu, DRC of civil society organisations on the LRA (interestingly, with no Ugandan representation). Why then did they solely focus their video on Uganda? Congolese and Central African NGOs have reported that when LRA attacks in remote areas take place, they frequently do not hear about them for weeks. Some attacks may have never been reported. Presumably these people have opinions and are not on facebook or twitter. 

Including these voices might also allow for more reflection on military intervention in the region. The LRA’s reprisal 2008 Christmas Day massacres in DRC occurred after the beginning of a failed joint military operation in December 2008 led by the Ugandan army with support from the Congolese, South Sudanese, and CAR armies, with logistical support from the Americans.

Who else is in that video…?

Chief Prosecutor of the ICC Luis Moreno-Ocampo and Ugandan Politician Norbert Mao are also featured. Little of the criticism has been focused on their inclusion, as if they are both non-controversial figures.

Uganda referred the case to the ICC in 2003. The decision was extremely controversial with Northern Ugandans left feeling as if their views wouldn’t be adequately represented due to President Museveni’s role in the conflict. There were later accusations that the ICC process derailed the Juba Peace Talks with the LRA from 2006-2008, with Kony drawing concessions and incentives to continue talks without signing to avoid arrest.

Former presidential candidate Norbert Mao also pops up in a brief shot. If IC are apologists for Museveni, then the inclusion of Mao is an interesting one. Mao is Acholi and was critical in negotiating the amnesty law for former LRA combatants in Uganda. On this logic I would assume he would be against any military intervention. Mao also isn’t a mainstream opposition – his involvement in the Walk to Work demonstrations in 2011 led to multiple arrests alongside other opposition leaders and all were facing criminal charges before they were later dropped. Interestingly, Mao has a previous history with IC from 2009. When two students who had worked on peacebuilding initiatives in Northern Uganda called IC’s headquarters complaining about the “I heart LRA” t-shirts, they were told that they had been approved by Norbert Mao. Mao denied this when asked by the students. When confronted, Russell dismissed the criticism as Mao’s opinion was biased.


What’s to be Done?

I realise that the criticisms with the campaign are more than semantics; I too found aspects of it offensive and extremely detrimental. But if we can take the campaign for what it is and the interest it generated, it may be more worthwhile to understand how advocacy can be better channelled and competing interpretations can coincide. On this note, news about Russell’s meltdown is unfortunate and shouldn’t detract from the campaign’s original intentions.

One of the main problems is poor governance throughout the region, with civilians trusting neither the LRA nor their governments. This is a political process. The situation facing Northern Uganda today is decidedly less sexy but still suffers from the legacy of the LRA and Ugandan counterinsurgency campaign. Many of these issues continue: a series of land grabs of Acholi areas by Uganda for developmental projects has left thousands without livelihoods.  Those same children featured in the video are now young adults and face different challenges of unemployment. Professor Adam Branch from Makerere University writes that the

“problems people face today are the legacy of the camps, where more than a million Acholi were forced to live, and die - for years - by their own government as part of a counterinsurgency that received essential support from the US government and from international aid agencies.”

What may be the most effective thing for people on both sides of the Kony2012 fence is how they can most positively contribute to the campaign if everyone is in agreement that Kony should be stopped. The criticisms of the US’ interest in AFRICOM and the recent discovery of oil in Uganda are valid ones. If young Americans want to address the LRA head on they may also want to address more complicated issues of how the US Government itself is implicated structurally in the governance of the region.

Congo, Joseph Kony, LRA, Sudan, Uganda, ICC