A lot of Kony Baloney?

A couple of days ago, my facebook account was subjected to a fusillade of links to a video called Kony 2012. If you are reading this, then it is possible that this half-hour film, currently running viral across the internets, also made its way to you. It is doubly possible that you contributed to this disturbing phenomenon and joined the swelling ranks of well-intentioned spammers conned into a worldwide experiment (he did inform us at the start of the film that we were being inducted into his experiment with the same bold consideration of a ‘smoking kills’ warning on a packet of cigarettes), after running the full gauntlet of emotion the film was cleverly designed to elicit, by clicking ‘share’. But before you consider sending in money for an ‘Action Kit’ to join the eager masses of nighttime ninjas in painting the town red with Kony 2012 graffiti, let me tell you why I find the whole campaign a lot of baloney.

The story starts like this: Once upon a time three American boys of the privileged, white middle-class variety, decided to set out on a quest for adventure. Armed with their apparent fascination for superheroes and a video camera, they entered Africa, that clichéd “heart of darkness” where a story was sure to be lurking, awaiting capture. They expected to face danger, possibly even death because, erm, it’s Africa, right? Right. Never mind the millions of people who actually live there and get on with it….

After wandering about aimlessly in search of this illusive story, the “three hobbits” eventually got lucky and stumbled upon film gold. A 20-year-old tribal war, shocking images of hoards of displaced children and a cry for help. On return home, they were rewarded with general public acclaim, an Oprah interview and generous helpings of money and fame for their bush labours. Inspired by such characters as Enough’s own Aragorn-like John Prendergast, they set up an organisation named after their film, Invisible Children.

Fast-forward 7 years, with money and popularity waning, perhaps they needed a quick financial shot in the arm and Kony 2012 was born. A grossly misinformed campaign spread in the form of a short film using regurgitated ancient footage, horrific images of mutilated children, lots of healing tears, creepy crowds of young people with fists raised Hitler-youth style and a little white kid who adores and ‘wants to be just like his dad when he grows up’–that is, the white superhero who saves the little Ugandan children from the marauding devil incarnate, Kony.

Kony 2012 is just a symptom of a greater feel good endemic, what Nigerian-American novelist Teju Kole calls ‘White Savior Industrial Complex’. ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It’s about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.’ He twittered. This could not be better exemplified than in the comic poster that the Invisible Children volunteers were passing out to the Acholi children of the white Phantom rescuing little black children from a burning village. How patronising, how insulting to the African people. It implies that they do not have the means or ability to save themselves, to sort out their own problems. Of course Kony deserves to be brought to some kind of justice, but how and what kind is for the Ugandans to decide.

As the situation stands, Kony currently holds all the potency of a castrated rapist. He has been at large for nearly 30 years; the war that was both tribal and political brought devastation and desperation. Joseph Kony was merely a symptom of a much greater and further reaching problem and eliminating him is the equivalent of putting a band aid over a seeping wound. I find it curious that up until oil was discovered in Uganda in 2010, there was little if no interest in interference by the American government. ‘When my friends and I came home from “Ugonda” (narrator Jason Russell could not even pronounce the country’s name right), we thought that if the government knew, they would do something to stop him. But everyone in Washington we talked to said there is no way the United States would ever get involved in a conflict where our national security or financial interests aren’t at stake.’ Suddenly, it seems, there is interest. Those naive enough to think that sharing a video link, gluing posters around town and wearing a couple friendship bracelets will be the catalyst which pushes the US government to intervene in war atrocities are merely being used to create a smoke screen. This campaign by well meaning and ignorant bleeding hearts is really assisting in the legitimization of an American military presence in strategic and very lucrative positions throughout Central Africa under the guise of stopping an impotent rebel. Good job, IC!

I know a real life Ugandan hero. Mwaka Lutukamoi is an ex-child soldier and a direct victim of the war who worked hard to put himself through school, graduated from Makarere University, became minister to the Acholi king and set up United Youth Action for Progress to unite young people and rehabilitate the formerly abducted and displaced children. Mwaka was one of the first to come up with the idea of night commuter centers and he constructed two of the first centers which housed over 10,000 children and built a vocational school that has educated more than 300 formerly abducted boys and girls on vocational skills. He alone did more to help the night commuter children and those affected by the war in one year, with little money, backing or resources than Invisible Children in the seven years they have been operating in Uganda. His organisation encourages development through education and agriculture. Through the support of ACDI/VOCA and USAID, UYAP (United Youth Action for Progress) has transformed the lives of more than 1,000 farmers and 3,000 northern people. They provide scholarship to the very needy enabling them to go to university and secondary schools. Ironically, most foreign NGOs that came after UYAP and set up night commuter centers, kept the children in these centers till about 2010, whereas UYAP built in 2002-3 and by 2006, when the guns fell silent, began rehabilitating children and integrating them back into their communities. Mwaka now works in the Ugandan parliament and is a compelling voice for peacemaking in the war-effected regions. I believe if we are to listen to anyone on the subject of what the Ugandan people want and need, we should listen to representatives like him, not some clueless Americans with a hero-complex.

Following my initial rage over the Kony 2012 video, I chatted with Mwaka and put some questions to him on the subject.

What are the issues which the Ugandans and particularly the youth of the north currently face?

The biggest problem at the moment is the inability of formerly displaced parents and youth who are majority orphans to educate their children and themselves as education has become too expensive for them to afford. It is now a luxury and not a necessity – the privilege of a few rich in the countryside. Secondly, they have land, but the tenure does not provide for legal ownership. Much land appears free but is not and this has now cost lives and disunity in the regions. The raw material in oil wealth is destabilizing the peace. The rudimentary agriculture systems make production weak and there is eminent worry over further insecurities. Kony is no longer the issue now. The issue is how to develop and re-construct the minds of the people to think positively about development. This issue now is the disease HIV/AIDS. In short, poverty prevents the people from owning their destiny and freedom to own their land and dream for the future remains a challenge.

Will capturing and trying Kony in the ICC change the problems as they currently exist?

Capturing Kony is good, but not enough! The issue of Kony is not an issue now in Uganda. To kick Kony out of Uganda took the peace initiatives of the Acholi traditional leaders, Acholi Religious Peace Initiatives (ARPI), the Ugandan Police Defense Force (UPDF) and many stakeholders. To focus attention on Kony and say that the efforts of one organisation must be recognised is not only bad, but bad manners! That is why the people doubt the motives of any campaigns that leave out the stakeholders themselves! Basically, Acholi people still have a grudge in their hearts and hold that both Kony who maimed the people and the government who failed to give adequate protection which led to their near extinction are accountable. Kony simply hijacked a popular rebellion and killing him will not be enough. Addressing the underlying causes of the conflict is necessary in order to realize peace. The Acholi do not cherish war and military options; they cherish peace and dialogue which is central to their customs. Acholi believe in Mato Oput and not revenge! Acholi believe that the world can be peaceful if we accept and understand each other. Therefore capturing Kony alone will not help, it will only make a few people happy.

The campaign is set in America, the ultimate goal of which is to see Kony at ICC or probably dead, but will the victims have gotten justice? America isn’t a signatory to the Roman Statue! It’s not only an irony, but a paradox! America could have saved our lives before we lost and displaced near millions and lost all those decades to war. The world was quiet until 2001 when UN’s special envoy Ian Igland popularly said that “it’s the worst unforgotten human situation”. Then the pretenders started coming!

The bigger picture we want to see is our people well facilitated in paid war reparation. Our government has done a lot in Northern Uganda Reconstruction Action Fund (NUSAF) and Plan for Reconstruction, Development and Peace (PRDP). We now need special consideration on education and land. Donors and friends should focus on development through investments, education, livelihood/food security and matters related to rights and obligations so that the people can become the authors and co-authors of their own destinies.

What should the world know about the situation that they currently don’t?

The world should know that global responsibility must be embraced. A terrorist can be easily sourced among the millions of uneducated who are being denied land rights and education. They must know that there are many local initiatives which are on the ground, doing a wonderful job with the people on the ground. The world must listen to the voice of the people. Finally, our UPDF must be applauded and other initiatives which brought peace. Let us acknowledge the fact that Kony must be brought to book and all who were responsible for the pain alike. Our problem here, however, is  no longer Kony, but reconstruction.