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This is the kind of context that is sorely missing from the video and the broader campaign. For all their good intentions, the activists behind Kony 2012 don’t seem to grasp the complexity of African culture and politics. Yet that context is critical because arresting Kony, however worthwhile in itself, will not solve the most significant problems that African children face, which still stem from poverty and disease. (A debilitating illness called “nodding disease,” which causes epilepsy-like symptoms and blindness, is particularly devastating among Northern Ugandan children.)
Kony himself is as much a symptom as a cause of the country’s problems. The Lord’s Resistance Army is just of one of many rebel and guerrilla armies that have flourished in that part of the world, brought into being by the absence of functioning governmental and social institutions and the lack of economic opportunity. Indeed, the LRA itself has long been caught up in larger regional forces, acting as a pawn in an ongoing proxy war between Sudan and Uganda. For years, Sudan sponsored Kony and the LRA as a way to destabilize the Ugandan government. Uganda replied in kind by supporting John Garang and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, another ragtag guerrilla outfit with a history of children in its ranks and attacks on civilians. In fact, yet another reason why Kony has been able to dodge capture for so long is that Sudan has repeatedly offered him refuge in the southern part of the country. If the activists behind the Kony 2012 campaign understand these complexities, there is no sign of it in their video.
That ignorance is troubling because, as writer Joshua Keating observes, it could have real consequences for Ugandans. One of the aims of the Kony 2012 campaign is to increase U.S. support for the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Museveni and his military as they hunt down Kony. With that aim in mind, the Obama administration recently sent 100 U.S. “military advisors” to assist the Ugandan military. The video celebrates that decision as a vindication of its human-rights campaign. What it neglects to mention is that, with Kony expelled, the Ugandan military is now the most grievous violator of human rights inside the country. As human rights watchdogs have documented, the Ugandan army’s brutality actually rivals that of the LRA. In the past, Ugandan army soldiers have beaten, raped, and killed the very civilians they are supposed to protect from Kony and his thugs. And because the military refuses to prosecute or even discipline its rogue soldiers, the army, unlike Kony, really does operate with impunity. Except that now it also operates with the assistance of U.S. military personnel.
It’s easy and proper to be moved by the plight of suffering children, and the Kony 2012 deserves credit for turning Kony’s crimes into a high-profile issue. But the singular focus on a much-weakened warlord papers over the far bigger problems facing African children and pushes the U.S. into a military alliance that it may well have cause to regret. No doubt these activists imagine themselves to be engaging in a new form of web-driven social activism. They’re probably correct. Whether that activism truly helps Africans is another question entirely.
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