My take on #StopKony

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.



16 responses to “My take on #StopKony

  1. Thank you for a good response to the viral video. I began to get a bit skeptical after seeing about the 20th repost on my wall, so I raised the question of whether anyone had done any looking into this. Someone linked me to your post. Well written. But wouldn’t it be nice if bringing social justice to the world were as simple as a couple mouse clicks and made no demands on our own lives, attitudes, or life styles?!

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  3. Thanks for your comments, David. Channel 1 discussed the video today, and many of my students had watched it last night, so the others wanted to watch it today, and after watching it with two of my classes, I decided I’d need to check your blog to see what you or Faith had to say, being much closer and more informed on the issue than I am. They are impassioned by the topic, and while, like you mention, it may not be as big of an issue anymore, I want to encourage that because activating for change has to start somewhere, and this appears to be where they are choosing to enter the conversation, but I will bring your points into the discussion, let them see other problems as well, and maybe some will work to help change those, too.

  4. I believe the producer of the film indicated that this is no longer a Ugandan problem but that Kony is mobile and moving about in several adjacent countries. Uganda is not the focus but this free-moving man who is destroying, has destroyed, so many lives….

  5. Thanks David for your thoughtful analysis. I wonder why most Americans like manipulating us Africans.
    I live in Uganda and the last tym i had abt Kony is 2006. Kony is not a problem as of now.
    The problem is massive corruption and unemployment.

  6. Thank you so much for posting. I completely agree with when you say, “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 way that this thing spread just seemed too fantastic for me. I as well find Invisible Children to be rather suspicious. They are presenting numbers from seven years ago and saying that it is present information, and then asking you to send money to them to do something about those so called “present” numbers. This raises a red flag to me.

    The problem was that a vast portion of the population (with the best and most sincere of intentions) got on an emotional hype in the name of a humanitarianism. People started thinking and acting with their emotions instead of their brain. I can hardly find anyone who took the time to slow down and do research on this whole thing. Before I said yeah or nay to the Kony 2012 campaign, I really wanted to hear from a person who ACTUALLY lived/lives in Uganda, and I’m so glad I found this. Thanks for keeping it real!

  7. Thanks for the insight on Uganda. However, I think perhaps you miss the main point of the video and the Kony2012. It says in the start of the video “This is an experiment, in order for it to work you have to keep watching”. Kony and Uganda and the children are just a sample test subject, chosen almost arbitrarily. The MAIN purpose of the experiment is all about turning the “power pyramid” upside-down. The question is, Can social media be used to manipulate the government? If so, (and it would seem from recent events the answer is yes), and this experiment is successful, then just imagine our delight! Americans for years have felt helpless, disillusioned and alienated by politics. Now finally they discover a tool that gives them direct and immediate control over the bureaucracy that rules them. Like a two year old who learns how to work the TV remote! Listen to the last line of the video… Power and Control. Liberation of People. That is what it is all about. Kony and Uganda are just an exercise.

  8. Okay. I agree. Our military deploys all the time in an effort to get the bad guy. These are complex problems. But you don’t need a college degree or the compassion of Mother Theresa to know that Kony’s reign of terror needs to come to an end. I applaud those involved in the movement for doing something –educating the masses about something we’ve been ignoring.

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  12. I have to admit that this post and some of the responses have made me very sad and a little bit angry. I completely understand that there are other issues going on all over the world that deserve as much attention as this one is currently receiving. However, regardless of how old the “numbers” are that are mentioned in the video, nobody is disputing the fact that he is a terrible human being who has (and likely continues to) committed absolutely heinous, unforgivable crimes. What if these were our own children who had been affected? Would we say, “Oh, we don’t need to worry about it as much now because it happened a few years ago.” No! If something like this happened in the U.S., people wouldn’t say, “Oh, it’s not a problem for us anymore because he has moved on to another state and is committing his crimes there now.” I don’t claim to be an expert on what the current figures are in relation to Kony’s crimes and offenses or on all of the endless other issues that need to be addressed, but it seems that the fact that Kony’s crimes happened at all should be enough to do something about it, whether it’s now or 7 years from now.

  13. Faith here – thought I’d also weigh in on these comments.

    First off, thanks so much to all who have visited our site and commented over the last 3 days. Keep it coming!

    Secondly, since David and I truly want to offer a balanced viewpoint on an important issue like this one, here’s the link to Invisible Children’s response to many critique’s like ours:

    Third, there are a lot of good things about Invisible Children (IC) that David and I support. First and foremost, their programs on the ground are largely locally-run and focused on rehabilitation of populations affected by the LRA. In my mind, the unfortunate part of the current campaign is that IC focused on Kony rather than these rehabilitation programs. Let’s let the U.S. Special Forces and African governments deal with finding Kony – as they are currently doing! (Trust me, the Special Forces definitely don’t need our money.) Rather, the rest of us should focus our money, time, energy, and advocacy on rehabilitation efforts for recovering areas like Northern Uganda.

    Finally, the link above lists out all of Invisible Children’s expenses (which we questioned earlier). What I’d like to point out is that only 37% of their funding goes toward their Africa-based programs, while 44% goes to US-based awareness programs, products, and media and the remaining 19% goes to admin and fundraising. This is why we think that U.S. dollars can go farther when given to organizations providing more direct support to Northern Uganda.

  14. While Kony is no longer really active in Uganda, I know people in Congo and he is very much still active there. Just because he’s not in Uganda anymore doesn’t mean he’s not still a problem. He’s still taking children. He’s still fighting his pointless war.

    That being said, I think, above all, we need to be praying for him. I want to see him stopped, yes. But more than that, I want him to see Jesus. He probably needs Jesus more than anyone.

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