Backlash against Kony 2012: Where are the voices of Ugandans?

Since the Kony 2012 video about atrocities in Uganda went viral, there has been a backlash and counter-backlash over the campaign by Invisible Children to stop Joseph Kony and his rebels. Lost in the debate: the need to include the voices of Ugandans.

Christian Science Monitor

No doubt: The crimes of Joseph Kony are monstrous. And now, thanks to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, millions more know about how he and his rag-tag forces destroyed communities and lives throughout northern Uganda and large swaths of East and Central Africa. The forcible conscription of children, the amputations, the sexual violence, and the pillaging of villages are Mr. Kony’s calling card. The predation began over 20 years ago. It continues to this day – though no longer in northern Uganda. It must be stopped.

Since the Kony 2012 internet video went viral, there has been a backlash and counter-backlash.

The backlash criticized Invisible Children for oversimplifying the issue. Certainly for those of us who have lived in Uganda and who have spent years working on these issues, it is difficult not to cringe at the missing nuance and the fast-and-loose treatment of history.

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Details overlooked in the video include the fact that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army was finally pushed out of Uganda by government forces in 2005. The border is sealed between northern Uganda and where the LRA currently carries out its atrocities. There have been no significant incursions into Uganda in six years.

The counterinsurgency against the LRA was brutal. The violent group is now quite small and made up primarily of Sudanese and Congolese. These missing details leave the viewer with many false impressions.

The counter-backlash pointed out that oversimplification is what advocacy does. Advocacy bundles a complex issue to reach a wide audience. It is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment or a rich historical retelling of the facts. It is meant to get attention. In this way, advocacy is an effective and important tool, particularly in a war that has not been a cause célèbre drawing in the likes of Angelina Jolie or George Clooney.

To its credit, Invisible Children has done more than just advocacy. It has raised funds to support education, wells, and economic growth in Uganda. Primarily, though, it is an advocacy organization. It is not fair to criticize an advocacy organization for not being a development organization. A primary mission of the organization is to make the invisible visible, to give a voice to the voiceless.

But here’s where it gets tricky: giving a voice to whom? True, northern Ugandans are not a monolithic group. But does the video attempt to represent the perspectives and opinions of the people depicted on the screen?

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It is evident that the video does not have Ugandans in mind as the intended audience. Last week, in Lira District, word had spread that a video depicting this horrible war was suddenly the most popular video on the Internet. A public screening in that district of northern Uganda was held by a charity organization so that those directly affected by the conflict could see what the world was watching.

People came from miles by foot, bicycle, and boda boda (motorcycle taxi). When they saw it, many were offended. Some threw rocks. The screening was halted.

In interviews with the media afterward, collective outrage was palpable. Several expressed that in watching the video they felt oddly left out of the conversation – foreigners talking to foreigners about them. One man, a former abductee who, like many others, had undergone a horrific amputation at the hands of the LRA, remarked that the all experts and commentators on the video were white.

Others were offended that Kony, a man who had caused them such suffering, was being presented as if to make him famous, rather than infamous. One can purchase Kony 2012 merchandise, such as T-shirts and yard signs. This all underlines a basic tension in advocacy: Who is your message targeting and for what policy ends?

In conversations with our Ugandan colleagues, it seemed that a predominant objection to the video is that it claims to speak for them, but it does not advocate policies they necessarily support nor does it do much to portray the current realities.

Particularly disturbing to many Ugandans we spoke with was the focus on continued hard military action as a solution to the problem. While many are grateful for continued US military support in rooting out the LRA, many are equally skeptical. They’ve seen military offensives against the LRA fail miserably many times over the last 20 years, and sometimes make things even worse.

Northern Uganda is no longer a war zone. Nor are its problems the same as those of an active war zone. While Joseph Kony and the LRA continue to wreak havoc in surrounding countries, using many of the same tactics that the Invisible Children campaign highlighted in their video about Uganda, it is important to realize that this is not Uganda anymore.

Most Ugandans affected by the devastating war with the LRA wish to move forward with their lives. They want to rebuild a region of the country that has languished for decades. They need public support and resources to help them with those goals. If the people of northern Uganda were to create a video about their needs and aspirations, it would probably look very different from the one now circulating cyberspace.

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Invisible Children, with its video, was successful in casting a light on one of the world’s worst humanitarian atrocities that has spent too much time in the dark. At the same time, it raises fundamental questions about the role of advocacy and the retelling of history.

Whether such a retelling benefits the victims and the realities of the present, or spends too much time focusing on the past, is a debate that deserves attention. Either way, advocating on behalf of the victims without faithfully representing their voices sometimes just serves to reopen old wounds.

Nate Haken and Patricia Taft are senior associates at the Fund for Peace. Mr. Haken works in northern Uganda on conflict assessment and resolution. Ms. Taft was an advisor to the government of Uganda and civil society groups in the north from 2008-2010 on war crimes charges against the LRA before the International Criminal Court.

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