- By Musa Okwonga
- Notebook – A selection of Independent views –
- Wednesday, 7 March 2012 at 1:05 pm
My mother’s family are members of the Acholi tribe, and they hail from Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda. Northern Uganda is a place which has experienced significant ups and downs in recent decades, but all the same I was very surprised to come home last night to find talk of it all over Twitter. And the hashtags continued this morning – #stopkony, #Kony2012, #stopKony2012, #InvisibleChildren, #MakeKonyFamous, #CoverTheNight, #LRA, #Uganda. All of a sudden, my family’s region was famous – or, at least, trending on Twitter. What was all this about?
The previous afternoon, I had received a message from a friend, the Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams, asking if I had seen a video with a very moving message. I clicked on the link that he’d sent through, and what emerged was a painfully familiar tale. The video, created by Invisible Children, an American NGO, tells the story of Joseph Kony, and his horrific activities in Northern Uganda. For over twenty years, he and his Lord’s Resistance Army (or LRA) have been abducting children from villages there – boys so they can fight as soldiers in his army, girls so they can be subjected to rape and sexual enslavement. The video is part of a campaign, coming to a head this year, which aims to use a series of vigils to raise awareness of Kony’s atrocities. In doing so, Invisible Children aim to encourage the powers that be to stop this brutality and blood-letting.
Invisible Children has had some success already: late last year, President Barack Obama committed 100 US troops to provide “advice and assistance” to the Ugandan army in removing Joseph Kony from the battlefield. The President’s move came in part due to the NGO’s tremendous advocacy efforts. Everyone agrees that this a hugely important issue, but Invisible Children’s methods have come in for searing criticism; most scathingly, they have been attacked as “neo-liberal, do-good Whiteness”. Elsewhere, Foreign Affairs has provided some important context on this matter, in relation to Uganda’s strategic importance to the USA. I would also recommend the Twitter feed of Laura Seay, who was moved to comment this morning that “[Solomme Lemma] is tweeting links to great community-based organizations working in Northern Uganda. Give there if you really want to help.
I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism. I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots. On the other hand, I am very happy – relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue. Murderers and torturers tend to prefer anonymity, and if not that then respectability: that way, they can go about their work largely unhindered. For too many years, the subject of this trending topic on Twitter was only something that I heard about in my grandparents’ living room, as relatives and family friends gathered for fruitless and frustrated hours of discussion. Watching the video, though, I was concerned at the simplicity of the approach that Invisible Children seemed to have taken.
The thing is that Joseph Kony has been doing this for a very, very, very long time. He emerged about a quarter of a century, which is about the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power. As a result the fates of these two leaders must, I think, be viewed together. Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video. I thought that this was a crucial omission. 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.
About ten minutes into the video, the narrator asks his young son who “the bad guy” in Uganda is; when his young son hesitates, he informs him that Joseph Kony is the bad guy. In a sense, he let Kony off lightly: he is a monster. But what the narrator also failed to do was mention to his son that when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it. He probably should have told him that, too.
I don’t think that Invisible Children are naïve. I don’t think that President Obama was ever blind to this matter either: his own father, a Kenyan, hails from the Luo, the same tribal group that has suffered so much at the hands of Kony. My hunch – and hope – is that they see this campaign as a way to encourage wider and deeper questions about wholly inadequate governance in this area of Africa.
And as far as President Museveni is concerned, my thoughts are these: if thousands of British children were being kidnapped from their towns each year and recruited into an army, you can bet that David Cameron would be facing some very, very serious questions in the Commons. You can bet that he would be grilled on why, years after the conflict began, there were still about a million of his citizens slowly dying in squalor in ill-equipped refugee camps. You can also bet that, after twenty-odd years of this happening on his watch, he wouldn’t still be running the country.