If you’re at all exposed to social media, you have probably, in the last few days, been urged by Facebook friends or people you follow on Twitter to watch a 30-minute video about Joseph Kony and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), and then take action through an American NGO called Invisible Children.
The video already had 21 million views on YouTube at the time of my writing, and #StopKony was the top trending topic worldwide on Twitter for most of yesterday.
Let me start by saying that Joseph Kony and his vaguely theocratic army are indeed reprehensible thugs who are responsible for all sorts of despicable actions. While living in Kampala, I have met many people who moved here from northern Uganda to flee the fighting there, and many of them tell harrowing tales.
BUT! All those people I’ve met are my age or older, and the fighting in northern Uganda that they fled had mostly ended by 2005.
And so, let’s turn our attention to this latest campaign by Invisible Children, and the problematic text with which the video begins: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” The last two words of the sentence then morph into “is now.”
I remember watching Invisible Children’s namesake documentary in 2005 when I was a college student. That was the first I, and most of my peers, had heard of the LRA and Joseph Kony. Arguably, 2005 was when the idea’s ‘time had come.’ That was when pressure mounted on the LRA, and they were effectively driven out of the country by the Ugandan army (the last LRA attacks on Ugandan soil were in 2006).
So to argue that the time for this “idea” is NOW, is rather bizarre. Kony has, at most, a few hundred fighters left who are hiding out in the jungles of the Central African Republic, Congo-Kinshasa, and perhaps South Sudan (although that seems less likely). The rebel war waged by the LRA unquestionably left a wake of psychological trauma (my conversations with the northern Ugandans I mentioned earlier attest to this). But the LRA is the least of Uganda’s worries right now. The list of current challenges facing Uganda would include:
- The mysterious nodding disease in northern Uganda
- Massive corruption scandals surrounding Uganda’s soon-to-be-tapped petroleum deposits
- The more general problem of public corruption (the latest figure in the spotlight is the governor of the Bank of Uganda)
- The economically crippling electricity shortfall in the country (plenty has been written about this, including by me!)
- The increasing authoritarianism of President Yoweri Museveni and repeated crackdowns on democracy activists (once again, a lot has been written about this. Try Googling something like “Museveni crackdown”)
There are very few straightforward solutions to any of these problems. But if any of them can be effectively addressed, it would represent a huge step for Uganda.
Not so with the problem of Joseph Kony – on both counts: the problem has a seemingly straightforward solution, but capturing or killing him really won’t do much for Uganda.
Leaving aside more logistical concerns about Invisible Children (lack of transparency and disclosure about their finances, bias toward promotional film-making rather than on-the-ground activities, etc), what I find troubling about this campaign is how they have hyped up a problem that not many Ugandans would list as a top priority for their country and presented it to Americans as an issue of massive historical significance.
But to be fair, this problem goes much, much deeper (and broader) than Invisible Children. The traditional American paradigm for understanding problems in foreign lands is something like this:
There are bad guys in the world, and we need to take ’em out!
The LRA problem fits this paradigm, and I surmise this is what accounts for the enthusiasm Invisible Children has been able to generate. Killing a bad guy or at least bringing him to justice is something that Americans can get excited about; untangling and working through any of the other complex issues listed above is not.