Kony 2012 – is slacktivism enough?
The International Criminal Court (ICC) today handed down its first verdict in the ten years since it was established, when it found Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of a range of horrendous war crimes. That’s a good and a bad piece of news.
Good because it’s about time people were punished within some kind of rule of law for committing the kind of crimes Lubanga did. Good because it’s about time the ICC got a result. Bad because he should have been brought to book in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where he did it – justice which takes places thousands of miles away has far less impact on the society where the crimes were done; and is therefore less “just”. And bad also, because it should not have taken ten years for the ICC to achieve its first result – that’s got to be a failure of design or execution.
Interesting that the Lubunga case should come to an end now, just while the infamous Kony 2012 video is doing its rounds. You’ve no doubt heard of this video, which advocates US military action in support of the arrest of Joseph Kony, ICC-indicted Ugandan leader of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a militia group once active in Northern Uganda but now roaming around South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR). Perhaps you are one of the 78 million plus people who have watched the video so far, or one of the countless others who have heard or read expert commentators denouncing it as counterproductive, neo-imperialist, exploitative or just plain naïve. I watched it this morning, after hearing a debate about it on the BBC.
I should declare an interest: I work for a peacebuilding organisation active in Uganda; which I joined after working in Uganda for five years, much of which I spent trying to contribute to peace in Northern Uganda, which the LRA at that time terrorised constantly, attacking villages and internment camps, abducting and abusing children, brutally killing and causing mayhem and havoc. The LRA were finally pushed (or pulled) out of Uganda a few years ago, but my joy at the return to relative peace there after twenty-five years was tempered by the news that Kony had taken his marauders to the DRC, South Sudan and CAR, where they have carried on abducting, killing and causing mayhem to this day.
Well-equipped with GPS technology and arms, they thrive in the remote, ill-governed circumstances where they now find themselves; where the state is ill-equipped or ill-disposed to protect people, and where Kony and his lieutenants can easily exploit local and regional rivalries to act as mercenaries on behalf of one armed group or another, as their price for being left alone or perhaps re-armed. The Ugandan People’s Defence Force has hunted and harried the LRA for years inside and outside Uganda, and has captured and killed many. But they have always failed to get Kony himself, and he constantly replenishes his numbers through further rounds of brutal forced recruitment from wherever he happens to be at the time.
So I watched the 30 minute video with interest and – I must admit – the expectation that I’d not like it, after what I’d heard the experts say on the radio and in the press. It’s a simple film, which tells six simple stories.
A film of six stories
The main story is that of the American film maker Jason Russell. He went to Uganda ten years ago, was deeply affected by the stories of the young Ugandans he filmed, whose lives had been severely disrupted, and some of then deeply traumatised by the experience of civil war. In his own anger and sorrow he promised one young boy named Jacob, and recorded this on film, that he personally would stop Kony. Since then he appears to have devoted his life to helping children in Northern Uganda through a charity called Invisible Children, and campaigning for the US military to help find and arrest Kony.
The second story is the story of Jacob. Jason only gave Jacob a walk-on part. His role in the plot was to provide the emotional spur to motivate Jason’s own commitment to the cause; and also flying to America to motivate others (more of that later). It’s a pity he has such a small part, as he seems to have a powerful story to tell, and hopefully one of recovery after the terrible experience of seeing his brother murdered.
The third story is that of Jason’s young son, who is blonde like his father and must be about five or six years old. Jason uses him to tell the story of Jason – who as explained by his son spends a lot of time in Africa making things right. Like his Dad, he is young and naïve. Unlike his Dad, he’s of an age where one is supposed to be young and naïve.
The fourth story is that of the thousands of other young people, mostly Americans – disturbingly dressed at times in identical uniforms and chanting uniform slogans uniformly – who appear to have signed up to help Jason in his cause…
… which is the defeat and arrest of Joseph Kony, by American soldiers authorised by the US Congress. And Kony is of course the fifth story, and by far the simplest of all. Kony is at the top of the ICC’s most wanted list, and is quite simply a Bad Man who does Bad Things. As Jason’s innocent young son says: go get the bad guy, Dad.
And so to the sixth story: this is the story of the campaign of which the video is a part. For Jason and the Invisible Children organisation, 2012 is the year to bring Kony to justice, and this will happen because Jason and his thousands of activists, and the twelve celebrities and twelve politicians they are recruiting for their cause, simply want it to happen, and they insist that the US Congress commits the US army to help catch Kony this year. The film is slickly edited with nice graphics, and no less an authority than actor George Cloony declares his support. Angelina Jolie is somewhere in there too. We are exhorted to share the video with our friends and spread the word; and there is a kit full of Kony 2012 bracelets, stickers and posters you can send in for (or at least you could until the amazing success of this viral video meant they ran out of Kony 2012 kits).
Naive, neo-imperialist and offensive?
It is easy to sneer, and many have . One wants to be generous, as Jason’s heart is in the right place; and from its website, Invisible Children does appear to have made some sensible project choices (education, livelihoods, etc.) But there is plenty wrong with the film. First, it comes across across as very naïve indeed. Did Jason really think that Ugandans would welcome a film which implies they need help from a bunch of American idealists and can’t sort out their own problems? No wonder they’ve accused him of being offensive and neo-imperialist. In an ungenerous moment, I allowed myself to be reminded of Hollywood films about Africa which almost always seem to give the only real parts (roles with depth and agency) to the white guys from the USA or Europe - as with the Leonardo Di Caprio character in Blood Diamonds – while the African characters are often merely ciphers.
The film is also quite extraordinary in the absence of any contextual information – or even many facts, come to think of it. Apart from a map showing where Uganda is, the film is pretty much devoid of history or geography; or, indeed, biography since apart from Jason, no-one else’s story is really told, not even Kony’s! There is no attempt to explain the state of Uganda at the time the LRA emerged, its earlier history of civil war, or the ill-feeling between the north and other parts. Nothing is said of the resentment felt by many Nothern Ugandans against the government of President Museveni who some northeners saw as having ousted them from power.
The American military has been assisting the UPDF in its search for Kony for a decade without much success, but that was not said in the film. And the film’s throw-away mention that Kony is at the top of the ICC’s wanted list is correct – but only in the sense that he was the ICC’s first ever case, not because he is the “most wanted”.
And as for the Kony 2012 campaign itself: all it asks people to do is watch and share a video, and perhaps send off for a Kony 2012 kit. That reminds me of writing to the Chinese and Cuban London embassies for free Mao Tse-Tung Red Books and A Luta Continua revolutionary posters to decorate my bedroom as a teenager in the 1970s – I got the cool posters and the little red book, but it didn’t make me an activist. People have called this “slacktivism” – the sense that you’ve done something worthwhile just by watching and sharing a video on your laptop. It does seem to demean the suffering of people in Uganda, South Sudan, the DRC and CAR to reduce your activism on their behalf to something you can do in an armchair with no risk or sacrifice.
Ultimately, there is no doubt in my mind that the film is naïve, and it misrepresents the situation in a dangerously simplistic way as though there were a military-only solution, and as though only America can solve the problem. And it sends a strong subliminal message that for those of us sitting with our laptops far away, all we need to do is spend 30 minutes watching a video and then send the link to our friends (thus “taking part” in the campaign). We don’t need to think about politics, or about whether the way we live our laptop-enriched lives contributes in any way to the global injustice whereby boys like Jacob can have their lives potentially ruined because of poor governance and security where they happen to live.
And this is a pity, because the beauty of our inter-connected world is that we do have the technology and mechanisms to communicate a more complete and accurate picture. The beauty of our educated world is that more and more people have a level of education which allows them to understand a more sophisticated and nuanced analysis of poverty and political fragility, if we only chose to share it with them instead of feeding them simplistic versions which frankly insult their intelligence.
I have no qualms in recognising there is a military component to solving the Joseph Kony problem: it’s always been pretty obvious that he’s nothing much to gain by giving himself up. And that he continues to enjoy support and protection from others. If the Ugandan army wants US military assistance, that too makes sense to me. After all, they have the technology and know-how. The ICC like any justice system needs to be able to arraign those it indicts: it needs some teeth. (It is somewhat ironic that the US, which regards itself as above the jurisdiction of the ICC, is providing this service regarding Kony.)
But please, let’s not reduce it only to that. The problem is one of poor governance, insecurity and under-development, and it will take a concerted effort over many years to resolve. Even after Kony is arrested and taken off the scene, it will leave a gap exploitable by other Bad Guys. Proper governance and security won’t be achieved in 2012, and certainly not just by watching a half-hour video clip.