The Problem with Kony 2012

What the viral activist campaign against the Ugandan warlord gets wrong.

If you frequent the web, chances are you are familiar with “Kony 2012” – aka, “the most viral video in history.” The 30-minute video, created by American charity Invisible Children, is part of an awareness campaign against Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord notorious for kidnapping children and turning them into conscripts in his murderous guerilla force, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The aim of the campaign is to make Kony “famous,” that is, to show his crimes and to generate public support for international action to arrest him and end the humanitarian crisis in Uganda.

The campaign’s animating humanitarian concern is admirable. While he surely has too much competition to qualify as "one of the world's worst war criminals," as the campaign dubs him, Joseph Kony is indeed a monster, a faux-mystic and madman whose two-decade-plus catalogue of crimes includes the abduction of 30,000 children, the murder and mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians, and the displacement of over 2 million people in Northern Uganda. In showcasing those crimes for a global audience – the Kony 2012 video has garnered over 100 million views in six days – Invisible Children has at least ensured that the world will bear witness to what he has wrought.

Despite that, the campaign’s framing of the relevant issues is seriously flawed. For one thing, the video is strikingly self-indulgent. Notwithstanding its no-doubt sincere concern for Kony’s child victims in Africa, the child at the center of the video is the white 5-year-old son of Invisible Children’s co-founder, Jason Russell. Most of the campaign’s featured supporters are also white, and their enthusiasm for social activism via the internet, combined with the Kony 2012 bracelets they wear in support of the campaign, have the unfortunate effect of making an issue purportedly about Ugandans seem disconcertingly about, well, themselves. At least that is how it struck Ugandans, who jeered and threw stones after a recent screening of the video. Apparently expecting to see a film about the atrocities they lived through, they were angered to instead find young white people turning a murderer into an accessory. The irony, clearly, was lost in translation.

Ugandans aren't the only ones misled. The video would have viewers believe that Kony has been allowed to operate with impunity, killing children while the world averts its gaze. But in fact he has been on the radar of international authorities for years. In 2001, the Patriot Act named the Lords Resistance Army on its list of official terrorist groups. When the International Criminal Court issued its first-ever arrest warrant in 2005, it was for Kony and his top commanders. In 2008, the State Department, then headed by Condoleeza Rice, designated Kony a "terrorist." Then last May President Obama signed the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which made it U.S. policy to "apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield" and to "disarm and demobilize the remaining Lord's Resistance Army fighters." Given that Kony remains at large, there is nothing wrong with bringing additional attention to his case. But it's deceptive at best to suggest, as the video does, that he somehow escaped the international community's notice until the Kony 2012 campaign arrived on the scene.

It's similarly misleading to claim that Kony still poses a pressing threat in Northern Uganda. Not only is that not the case, but it hasn't been the case for nearly half a decade. The LRA has not been in Northern Uganda at least since 2005, when it was driven out of the country by Uganda’s military forces. Nor do Kony and the LRA inspire the kind of terror in Uganda that they once did. The most recent estimates suggest that Kony commands several hundred fighters at most, and one of the reasons he has proven so elusive is that it's difficult to track such a small cadre in the thick jungles of the Congo, where the LRA has fled. By no means does that obviate the need to bring Kony to justice, not least because the LRA still carries out random massacres in the Congo, but its simply untrue to suggest, as the video does, that Kony remains the same scourge to Ugandans that he was during the height of the LRA’s reign of terror in the 1990s. Pointing that out would probably detract from the urgency of the campaign, but at least it would provide a more accurate picture of the situation.

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.