Changing Planet

Kony 2012: A New Video, and Lessons Learned

Children at the Labuje internal displaced person camp near Kitgum, northern Uganda, March 2006. More than 1.5 million people were forced into squalid camps like Labuje by the Lord's Resistance Army. Just five months after my visit to Labuje, the LRA left Uganda for South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, and residents began returning home after more than a decade away. Photo by Dan Morrison.

Invisible Children has released a new film in its Kony2012 campaign, one that, unlike its predecessor, puts the focus on the countries in central Africa where the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army is currently operating. The filmmakers clearly hope to make the most of the phenomenal reach of the first Kony2012 video, which has garnered more than 90 million views since it launched one month ago, and to address some of the fierce criticism the campaign attracted.

Four weeks since the groundbreaking video appeared, the campaign to “Make Kony Famous” and bring LRA leader Joseph Kony to justice continues to inspire a lot of smart analysis, as well as a fair bit of invective.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Betty Bigombe, a Ugandan cabinet minister and former peace negotiator, summed up a lot of what appalled some viewers, in particular many with on-the-ground experience in humanitarian aid and conflict resolution. “My problem with all this,” Bigombe says, “is that it’s being portrayed as ‘This is us; it’s all we Americans, we can do it; we, the world, can do it; we don’t need them; we don’t need the Ugandans; we don’t need the countries that are actually going through this.'”

Writing in National Geographic, Anyway “Ricky” Richard, the former child soldier who I met while researching the LRA for my book The Black Nile, said he opposed Invisible Children’s call for a military solution. Ricky, the founder of the Ugandan NGO Friends of Orphans, followed up on this point in an interview with CNN, quoting the proverb that “when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” Every major attempt at killing Kony since 2006 has resulted in deadly reprisal massacres by the LRA. (Still, I don’t think the LRA would have ever participated in the failed 2006 Juba peace talks if it weren’t for military pressure.)

But every action has a reaction. Kony’s October 2005 indictment by the International Criminal Court also didn’t go unanswered. Two weeks after charges were filed against Kony in The Hague, a group of NGO managers at a conference in Kampala noticed their silenced phones had all started vibrating at the same time. Those calls were the first indication in the capital that two aid workers had been gunned down in northern Uganda. Another was killed the following week in South Sudan.

The brief passage of time has brought with it increasingly dispassionate analyses of Kony2012. The Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Tendayi Achiume, a teaching fellow at the UCLA School of Law, took a nuanced look. Writing last week in Jadaliyya, she notes the acid rhetorical counterattack against Kony2012’s critics by Invisible Children supporters, including the heavyweight New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. “In an interview with the BBC in which he responded to the backlash against Kony2012, ICC Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo declared: ‘Criticism is stupid,’” Achiume notes.

We should reject out of hand and with suspicion (sneering scorn is optional) any attempt to muzzle intellectual contestation of the norms and politics advanced even by compassionate responses to embroiled conflict. This is particularly the case when confronted by those who would have us believe that Africa’s problems are the stuff of an old-school Batman comic —- two dimensional, gripping, and conveniently shelvable once the caped hero has zinged the baddy into prison.

In London, panelists at the Frontline Club were annoyed, dismayed — and impressed with Kony2012’s reach, while back in Uganda, Norbert Mao, an Acholi politician who knows as much as anyone about the horrors of the LRA, took a kinder view. “Is the video a bad thing? I would say no,” he wrote. “Has it got gaps? Plenty.”

With this new video, Invisible Children makes good faith effort to address those gaps, and make the most of Kony2012’s surprising reach and momentum.

Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities.Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010.Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.

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