Sabah Rahman & Amy Saunders
In a world that chronically suffers from historical amnesia and short attention spans, KONY2012 is no doubt a very effective method of consciousness raising. But as soon as the campaign went viral on the internet (over 50 million views in just its second day), some crucial criticisms about the campaign began to emerge.
The campaign KONY2012, led by Invisible Children, goes something like this. Use the internet to make Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), both rightly accused of war crimes in Uganda and recently other countries such as Eastern Africa, famous! The hope is to connect a broader global audience to the “invisibility” of both Joseph Kony and the LRA in the abducting and recruiting of child soldiers in Central Africa.
In many ways, this campaign reflects Western sentiments of the War on Terror. It speaks the language we are all too familiar with: the permeation of transnational terrorism onto seemingly borderless terrains coupled with an increased importance of surveillance and capture; the policing of national borders; and identifying terrorists who defy physical and immaterial guard posts. All of these have a crucial purpose within questions of broader existence and maintenance of US hegemony.
The Bush administration declared Uganda an ally in the War on Terror in 2003 and announced an accompanying $100 million USD “aid package” for Uganda including selected East African countries to heighten efforts in tracking insurgents. As a result, President Yoweri Museveni, (who has maintained his presidency in Uganda since 1986 and has been accused of massive corruption and human rights violations within his country) took his military offensive against the LRA to Southern Sudan in Operation Iron Fist in Mar. 2002. The offensive was considered a failure, but since then the international community has increasingly linked development aid to Uganda with Museveni’s personal political agenda in Northern Uganda and the militarization of the national army. The political and military conflicts in Uganda are historically drawn and incredibly complex, and the US is intricately linked to the Museveni government based on its own political and military interests in the region.
While the US relies on Uganda for a great deal of its arms trade in Northern Africa, and there have been recent discoveries of rich oil and mineral reserves on the outskirts of the country of Uganda, Joseph Kony and the LRA have moved on to neighbouring countries, causing continued destruction in their wake. You will not find any of this information in the newly famed KONY2012 campaign that has recently gone viral.
Throughout the two-decade conflict within Uganda, Ugandan parliament has worked tirelessly to find Kony, end his wave of destruction, and pick up the pieces left in his trails. But you will not find this in the hashtag KONY2012 campaign. Instead, you will find an old rhetoric, knee-deep in racial epithets, in which one white man, cheered on by his blonde-haired, blue-eyed son of the suburbs, promises to put an end to Kony and his army – if he doesn’t have the power do it, who does?
Utilizing simplistic message campaigns and the wonderful world of social media, Invisible Children, the NGO that has started the KONY2012 campaign, has overly simplified years of conflict in Northern Africa. What has resulted has been mass-appeal to what I would call “Facebook activism.” One click and lives have been saved; one post and suffering children are joyful; one tweet and a warlord’s army is dismantled.
Lauren Berlant, queer theorist and author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington, would prescribe these attitudes as dead citizenship: the idea that through consumption and exchange of capital, we are contributing to the betterment of the life of our nation, nationhood, and others. No need to question or be critical; through the buying of a KONY2012 bracelet, you are saving African children – you are a hero. This campaign also follows rhetoric of the West as advanced, free, and most of all the exceptional humanitarians the world needs.
The campaign valorizes the 21st century obsession of the gaze, and builds on a culture of celebrityhood that sensationalizes atrocity in similar ways that terrorism have captured the limelight. The UK-based newspaper the Guardian launched the Guantanamo Prison files in 2011 to showcase the 779 detainees currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. The website heading reads as follows: “Documents leaked to the Guardian give details of the capture and transfer to Guantánamo of 779 people, some of them 9/11 masterminds, many of them Afghan farmers. Find out who’s who, how they were captured, and why, according to the files, they ended up in Cuba.” It is hard to conceive of the usefulness of some of the information that is provided on the inmates unless here too is another attempt to profile graphically the invisibility of terrorism and those who commit terrorist acts.
While it is undoubtedly an atrocity what Joseph Kony and his army, and many like them have done, it is imperative that we critically investigate how we are implicated in these types of situations. How we are implicated in not only their existence, but their prolonged proliferation and, as such, begin to think of new ways to organize and mobilize solidarity, across-borders, and cross-culturally around such an important issues, and many others like it.
During one favourable online conversation vis-a-vis #kony2012, a good friend suggested: “why not stop this kind of violence at its roots: let’s forgive debts owed to Western countries by African governments; balance trade agreements to be a little more fair; and compensate for all that murder, slavery, colonialism, and resource theft.” What many new Facebook activists, and youth of the West (whom the campaign seems to target) have forgotten is the context of the conflict in Uganda and the history of the country in question. Speaking upon acts of solidarity, Chandra Mohanty, author of Feminism Without Borders, would simply say: history and context matter.