Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Invisible Children's KONY 2012: A Liberal Narrative for American Military Intervention in Uganda

(Originally published March 7, 2012)

The NGO Invisible Chidren has just put out a video called KONY 2012.  It describes the situation involving the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army and his terrorising of Ugandan children, including his abducting children to serve in his forces.  The video further describes the efforts of Invisible Children to have Joesph Kony brought to justice in 2012 and lays out a strategy for doing so.  
The strategy, however, is deeply problematic.  It celebrates the introduction of the American military into Uganda and the surrounding area and advises equipping interested parties with more advanced military equipment in order to track down Kony.  In doing so, Invisible Children is providing a liberal narrative for the increased militarization of Uganda that coincides with Western interests in the region.
Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 Campaign
President Obama recently sent 100 American soldiers to Uganda to “capture or kill” Kony.  This action is lauded by Invisible Children -- in the video there is joyous celebration over the news (18:54) and this ringing endorsement of the action: “It was the first time in history the United States took that kind of action because the people demanded it -- not for self defense, but because it was right.” (19:37)  An American force in Africa is essential to Invisible Children’s strategy for ridding the world of Kony’s influence: “Now we know what to do.  Here it is.  Ready?  In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him.  In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle.  That’s where the American advisers come in.” (21:36)
The video goes on to elaborate on a proposed pressure campaign to mobilize support for the military action.  “We are going to make Joseph Kony a household name.  Not to celebrate him, but to bring his crimes to the light.” (23:00)  More detail: “We are targeting 20 culture makers and 12 policy makers” (23:12)  The targets presumably include Justin Beiber, Condoleezza Rice and Bill Clinton judging by a search of Invisible Children’s website.  The initiative also encourages participants to utilize social media -- “Geotag your posters and track your impact in real time” (26:00) -- and purchase “action kits” from International Children which provide materials useful for propaganda: “Everything you need is in a box called the action kit” (26:05).
The Ugandan Context
The United States has been increasing its activity in Africa over the past several years.  A notable example is Somalia, in which the US is both arming proxies and conducting its own quasi-secret counterinsurgency campaign.  The recent overthrow of Gadaffi’s Libyan government is another case in point.  According to AFRICOM, “The U.S. is conducting counterterrorism training and equipping militaries in countries including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.”
The American military activity in Africa is, according to Olayiwola Abegunrin writing on the web site Concerned Africa Scholars, designed to secure Africa’s resources and ensure American interests on the continent.”  Specifically, the “[m]ajority of Africans believe that the aim of the U.S. for the Africa Command Center is to protect its potential oil interests in Africa. [The] second reason is that U.S. is worried about current rapid increased economic and diplomatic competition from China in Africa.”
Indeed there has been interest from Western oil companies such as Exxon in Uganda’s oil resources.  Interestingly, one Wikileaks cable details how senior Ugandan government officials were “compensated” for a deal that would favor Exxon.  But such ambitions are threatened both from moves from Ugandan politicians to assert more power over petroleum resources and what the New York Times calls one of the most active protest movements in sub-Saharan Africa.”  
Human Rights as Justification for Intervention
American military interventions are always justified in the most laudable ethical terms by supporters, but those reasons are often forgotten soon after the bombs drop.  The US military was supposed to bring women’s rights to Afghanistan, but now it is the “worst place in the world” for women.  The bombing of Kosovo was sold to the American public as a way to halt atrocities but, in fact, the violence increased once NATO intervened.  
A similar moral appeal is being made by Invisible Children for Uganda (for what is, truly, a horrific situation).  But before one embraces the call to deploy the troops in the grip of the “We must do something!” emotion, it would be worth considering what the American military’s effect on a foreign people usually is.  And it would also be wise to reflect on why the American military is predictably sent to certain locations, out of all the plentiful violent centers of the globe, in whose soil lies materials that Western powers covet.
None of the above criticism of Invisible Children’s campaign should be taken as an endorsement or whitewash of Kony or the LRA.  Indeed, the LRA is a terrible, murderous outfit and Kony has brought extreme misery upon many Africans.  However, history shows that the introduction of the American military into situations of desperation has only made matters worse.  Ugandans would be better served if the world pursued an alternate strategy for disarming Kony.
Other Criticisms of KONY 2012
Jennifer Lentfer calls the video’s narrative of good vs evil “simplistic” and says the video creates “A shallow sense of empowerment, that is, enabling us to believe that we can change the course of another country’s history.”
David Sangokoya paints the video’s take on Uganda outdated, writing The LRA threat has greatly diminished since 2006, and the real story that needs to be researched, quantized and talked about is growth and development in a post-conflict northern Uganda.”
Eric Ritskes argues that the video is missing the real problems in Uganda, and contains a racist subtext: “White ignorance is not the problem. White colonialism/oppression/domination/violence (whatever you want to call it) in the past and present is. It is built on the idea that Africa needs saving – that it is the White man’s burden to do so.”
Similar reservations to mine about American military intervention and some more analysis of Invisible Children are expressed in this article.
UPDATE: It seems that the Internet is positively awash in both links to the Kony 2012 video and articles pointing out its flaws.  (It seems that whoever was responsible for the video's virality seriously knows what they are doing and/or is quite connected -- the YouTube video has 11 million hits in two days.  This is the fastest spreading Internet video I have ever seen.)  But the most worthwhile read, I think, is this one by Mark Kersten.  See this Metafilter thread for others.

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