By Arturo R. García
The online campaign against Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony gained serious momentum online Wednesday. But so have questions regarding the organization behind hashtags like #StopKony.
The group, Invisible Children, has said it released its latest video (TRIGGER WARNING for one scene) to help spur action leading to Kony’s arrest “and set a precedent for international justice.” Between YouTube and Vimeo, the 30-minute short film has been seen more than 21 million times since being released Tuesday. In addition, blogger Scott Ross noted (emphasis his) that the campaign, “took up six of the top ten trending topics on Twitter, and ‘Kony’ and ‘#KONY2012′ accounted for 3-4% of all tweets.”
The video, narrated by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, was released days after the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report saying Kony’s paramilitary group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), had engaged in 52 new attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, killing at least 35 people, abducting 104 others and leaving more than 17,000 residents displaced from their homes.
Kony and the LRA have been targeted by authorities worldwide for his activities for years: in 2005 he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for crimes against humanity, including the abduction and conscription of tens of thousands of children over the past 25 years. And the U.S. military has committed financial and logistical resources toward his arrest since 2008, most recently advising Ugandan troops pursuing the LRA across parts of Central Africa, a development Invisible Children takes credit for in the video.
But in a post for Foreign Policy, reporter Michael Wilkerson was among those accusing the group of slanting the story:
But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.
First, the facts. Following a successful campaign by the Ugandan military and failed peace talks in 2006, the LRA was pushed out of Uganda and has been operating in extremely remote areas of the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic — where Kony himself is believed to be now. The Ugandan military has been pursuing the LRA since then but had little success (and several big screw-ups).
Additionally, the LRA (thankfully!) does not have 30,000 mindless child soldiers. This grim figure, cited by Invisible Children in the film (and by others) refers to the total number of kids abducted by the LRA over nearly 30 years. Eerily, it is also the same number estimated for the total killed in the more than 20 years of conflict in Northern Uganda.
Uganda itself is largely absent from the video, aside from brief appearances from Invisible Children employees and a few local leaders (on its website, the group says it employs “roughly” 100 Ugandan citizens in programs in the area.) But for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to neither appear nor be mentioned in the video is “a crucial omission,” said author and musician Musa Okwonga in The (U.K.) Independent:
Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora. It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.
On his blog, Visible Children, Canadian political science student Grant Oyston provided a link to four other charitable groups working in central Africa. He has also criticized Invisible Children for photos the one shown at right, where Nelson and his fellow co-founders are holding weapons and posing with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
“Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting,” Oyston wrote Wednesday. “But Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.”
While not naming Oyston’s site, Invisible Children issued a statement addressing the issue on its’ website:
We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army (UPDF). None of the money donated through Invisible Children ever goes to the government of Uganda. Yet the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments.
Invisible Children’s mission is to stop Joseph Kony and the LRA wherever they are and help rehabilitate LRA-affected communities. The Ugandan government’s army, the UPDF, is more organized and better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries (DRC, South Sudan, CAR) to track down Joseph Kony. Part of the US strategy to stop Kony is to encourage cooperation between the governments and armies of the 4 LRA-affected countries.
The statement also responded to critiques of the group’s funding structure (a similar statement was posted on Reddit) and provided more detailed information on its campaigns in Uganda, which include scholarship and community-improvement programs, as well as a radio network allowing communities to track and alert one another against LRA attacks.
Invisible Children’s video ends with a call for a mass protest on April 20, “Cover The Night,” with the goal of putting up posters–available for sale on its website as part of an “action kit”–in major cities around the world with the goal of expanding the campaign’s reach as far as possible. But the way the campaign is presented–led by a white man’s voice, with groups of predominantly white American activists juxtaposed with survivors/victims who are African–paints a picture of neo-colonialism, and justifiably so, according to Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama:
This is because these campaigns are disempowering of their own voices. After all the conflict and suffering is affecting them directly regardless of if they hit the re-tweet button or not. At the end of the day the Kony2012 campaign will not make Joseph Kony more famous but it will make Invisible Children famous. It will also make many, including P.Diddy, feel like they have contributed some good to his capture- assuming Kony is even alive. For many in the conflict prevention community including those who worry about the militarization of it in Central Africa this campaign is just another nightmare that will end soon. Hopefully.