Over the next few days, ACAC will be posting a series of reflections on “Kony 2012.” We realize there have been a multitude of responses to this viral video. We thought we would take the time to summarize the main arguments made by others, elaborate on these with examples and further analysis, and provide a few unique observations of our own.
Stay tuned – later this week we’ll unveil a new series by ACAC’s own Tanja Bergen, with her Reports from the Field, based on her recent trip to Gulu, Uganda. Those of you who are interested in a more up-to-date, on-the-ground picture of the region should be sure to check in.
March 5, 2012 will now be known, for as long as our distracted social media-driven memories will allow, as the day Joseph Kony, Invisible Children and the child soldiers of the LRA were catapulted into popular consciousness. For better or for worse, the “Kony 2012” video has become one of the most successful viral campaigns employed by an international NGO, maybe ever. At the time that we write this, the 30-minute video has had 72,433,716 views online. 72 million. By Wednesday, #stopkony was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, while by the end of the week, “Uganda” remained a trending topic on Canadian Twitter feeds. Some have reported Invisible Children has raised $5 million in sales of their Kony 2012 Action Kit.
Almost as soon as the video went viral, so too did countless critiques of it and of Invisible Children’s approach, a sampling of which we compiled into a round-up you can see here. Since the critiques continue to rapidly emerge in blogs, vlogs, editorials and the like, this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many. Over the next few days we are going to expand on the critiques already penned by many authors online, as well as add a few points of our own.
Issue: Over Simplification
Critics have expressed a problem with:
- the unequivocal dichotomy that is created between “good guys” and “bad guys;”
- the implication that capturing Joseph Kony will bring peace to the region;
- the explicit focus on short-term ‘solutions;’ and
- the reduction of the complexity of the LRA’s power structure.
Sample critique: This post by HelloAfrica contributor Debbi N. Onuoha.
One key figure that demonstrates the problematic nature of the good guy/bad guy dichotomy employed by Invisible Children is a man named Dominic Ongwen. (Much of our information on this figure comes from the work of Erin Baines, who discusses the ambiguity of Ongwen and victim/killer labels in this article). Ongwen, believed to be now in his 30s, is also an indicted war criminal, wanted by the International Criminal Court for his involvement in the LRA. However, unlike other figures on the list, Ongwen is the first to be charged with the very war crimes of which he is also a victim.
Ongwen, born in Northern Uganda, was abducted by the LRA at the age of 10. He quickly moved up to the highest ranks within the rebel group because of his ‘loyalty,’ or his willingness to carry out leaders’ orders and the efficiency with which he did so. All of this is complicated by the fact that he was a child – just like the filmmaker’s friend Jacob – at the time, and yet, his ‘loyalty’ continued well into adulthood, now making him one of the world’s most wanted criminals. Child soldiers aren’t children forever.
Ongwen’s reported compassion further complicates his role in the LRA and his label as a “killer.” As Erin Baines describes, Ongwen is said to have occasionally shown mercy to families during village raids (i.e. by leaving at least one child behind with their family), and is said to have spared civilian villages from violence when they were caught in between his conflicts with other rebel groups.
Clearly, the case of Dominic Ongwen is not so clear-cut. He is neither a good guy, nor a bad guy, and hardly fits into the simplistic model of child soldiers put forth in the Kony 2012 video. The picture that Invisible Children captures – a world where big bad Joseph Konys exploit innocent little Jacobs – may be slightly out of focus.
What’s more, the Ongwen case illustrates the problem with assuming that capturing Kony will dismantle the LRA. This is because Ongwen is one of two men (the other being Okot Odhiambo) who are in a position to take over leadership of the LRA in the event of Kony’s arrest. This also illustrates the complex power structure of the rebel group (which extends far beyond Joseph Kony), and the flaws of such a short-term solution without a long-term sustainable plan for peace.
To this we add: The significance of stigma
One issue ACAC has yet to see emerge from the multitude of critiques of Kony 2012 is the issue of stigma and the politics of ‘reunification.’ In the video, there is a shot of (what we are likely meant to assume is) a former child soldier, being reunited happily with his parents. This image misrepresents the incredibly complex relationship between family members and those who become, willingly or unwillingly, involved violent acts or armed groups in Uganda. As stated earlier, child soldiers are not children forever – sometimes the reunification or reintegration process happens after children have aged into adulthood, complicated their relationship with their families. Often times families treat former family members with direct hostility, having known the level of violence their children, sisters, or brothers may have committed on others or even on their own community.
The Kony 2012 video states outright that boys are recruited to be child soldiers, and girls, sex slaves. While this may be true, these roles are not exclusive – Uganda girls have been documented as both child soldiers and sex slaves (or forced into ‘bush marriages’) and boys are not immune from sexual violence. The stigmatization of female child soldiers is extreme, as is the stigmatization of rape victims, outright rejected by some communities who fear HIV infection or ‘bad luck.’
For a summary of a panel related to these issues, visit this page by the United States Institute for Peace.
Next post: Issues of misrepresentation and omission