Q&A: Does #Kony2012 do more harm than good?

Firoze Manji, editor of Pambazuka Online, says the campaign plays into western constructs and prejudices about Africa.

Jason Russell, co-founder of non-profit Invisible Children and director of "Kony 2012" viral video campaign, poses in New York, March 9, 2012. The director of a viral video that calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of Lord''s Resistance Army militia group in Uganda, agreed on Friday with skeptics who have called the film oversimplified, saying it was deliberately made that way. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT MEDIA POLITICS PORTRAIT)
Jason Russell's campaign aims to build an online movement dedicated to the arrest of LRA leader Joseph Kony [AP]

On Thursday March 8, internet users around the globe woke up to a rebel African leader named Joseph Kony pasted across their facebook walls, tilting the trends on Twitter and kicking up a virtual activist storm over an issue few had ever heard of: The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the strife of children in the jungles straddling east and central Africa.

Within hours, the online world was seemingly fit to burst at the seams with righteous indignation over Kony and his alleged war crimes, with users beating the war drums over the possibility of social media ushering in an international movement to bring Kony to justice.

The social media soiree and the fact that the campaign has brought attention to an otherwise obscure topic nothwithstanding, the organisation behind the campaign group “Invisible Children“, co-founded by Jason Russell, has since drawn severe criticism over the financial and ethical underpinning of its ambitions.

Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa spoke to Firoze Manji, the editor of Pambazuka News, a pan-African online news magazine, about the intrinsic value of the #Kony campaign exploding across the internet – and why it has drawn such scathing criticism.


Firoze Manji, Editor-in-Chief, Pambazuka Magazine

Azad Essa: What are your impressions of the #Kony2012 campaign? Is it driven with the ‘right’ ambitions to forward meaningful change?

Firoze Manji: Like all seemingly charitable initiatives, the #Kony2012 campaign uses emotional appeal and a characterisation of Africa as somewhere that can only be redeemed by the West (and in this case, a white man). It presents the situation not as a political one, but one that plays to all the prejudices of white people about Africa and Africans.

Most importantly, it is based on the assumption that the people of Uganda have no agency, as if they have been silent and have done nothing but await the call of the white saviour to rally the troops. Far from being an act of solidarity with those who have engaged in years of struggles against both the LRA and the Ugandan state’s militarisation of the northern Uganda, it is premised on the ideology that Africans have no agency.

What meaningful change will this bring about, other than reinforcing prejudices about “the African savage”, someone who needs to be civilised by the white man?

What difference will it make to those villagers and farmers who have been locked up in protected villages? What meaningful change will this bring about to the grabbing of vast territories of land for oil exploitation by multinational corporations?

What this story will legitimise is the greater presence of US troops on African soil seemingly to deal with the LRA, an already defeated entity.

And I have little doubt that the US intelligence community know exactly where to find Kony: but he serves their interests greater by being free, since that justifies greater intervention.

AE: But Invisible Children has taken an obscure topic and turned it into tens of millions of hits on YouTube. A small country in East Africa has been thrust into the spotlight – as opposed to the centre of popular attention focusing on a viral video starring a popstar on drugs. Surely, this is a good thing?

FM: Letting people know about violations is clearly a good thing, but what this does is distort what is going on in Uganda and what the international response should be.

This is a simplistic story fit for a four-year-old, but in presenting Ugandans as either children who are victims and adults who are demons, it plays into the Western construct and prejudice about Africa and Africans.

Why, when the LRA is virtually a spent force? [The] survival [of the LRA] is only necessary to justify the interring of masses of Ugandan citizens in the north – in what are effectively strategic hamlets, protected villages or concentration camps – to justify the militarisation of northern Uganda, to justify the so-called “war on terror” that enabled the US Special Forces to be invited by the Museveni government.

“Why is this happening, just as international oil corporations are speculating in the same areas?

– Firoze Manji

Why is this happening, just as international oil corporations are speculating in the same areas? And shortly after the dispatch of US Special Forces into the same zones? Why has there been such [previous] silence about the atrocities that were carried out by both the LRA and Ugandan forces?

It should be pointed out that it was not merely the graphic nature of the video that allowed it to go viral. Just as with the Darfur campaign, celebrities have played a significant role in popularising the video – and in this case, it was Oprah Winfrey who had that dubious privilege. 

AE: How has this campaign managed to grab the attention of the world? Surely it has achieved what African journalists have been trying to achieve for years? 

FM: It could be argued that the agenda that it sets is to divert attention from the crimes committed by the Ugandan army in northern Uganda. Vast sections of the population have been interned, supposedly for their own protection. The army has operated with impunity.

There have been numerous reports of these crimes. There is a long history of Ugandan human rights organisations, journalists, and newspapers who have reported on both the crimes of the LRA and the crimes of the Ugandan forces against its own people.

What we have here is the reduction of a disastrous political situation in Northern Uganda to a sensationalist story. The world, including Oprah Winfrey, has remained silent in response to such reports.

AE: Criticism levelled at the organisation Invisible Children has mainly revolved around financial and ethical credibility of their work. What about the manner in which they have manufactured the narrative? Is this a progressive or a regressive form of activism? 

FM: There are remarkable parallels between this campaign and the Save Darfur campaign which was the subject of damning critique by Mahmood Mamdani in his book Saviours and Survivors.

“If the message being amplified is to play to the prejudices of the West about Africa … then this could hardly be portrayed as progressive.

– Firoze Manji

If the message being amplified is to play to the prejudices of the West about Africa, to convey the impression that Ugandans and others have remained silent about the crimes of the LRA or those of the Ugandan state, then this could hardly be portrayed as progressive.

The manufactured narrative is one that allows people in the [global] north to portray themselves as the saviours.

A constructive campaign would be one that made alliances with the many who have raised their voices, not only against the atrocities of the LRA, but also against the crimes of the Ugandan state, against the Acholi people.

It would support and strengthen the voices of those who have been active on this situation for decades and would offer solidarity so that their voices get heard.

Instead, we have – as so often happens with Africa – people in the global north speaking arrogantly on behalf of the survivors, without seeking their involvement at all.

AE: The discussion has remarkably failed to gather much response from ordinary Ugandans. Why is this case? Is it a technology issue or is their absence from the debate revealing for other reasons?

FM: I’m not convinced that this is the case. There have been a number of videos and statements put out by Ugandans. But if the volume is not great, it is perhaps a reflection of the approach of this campaign to reduce the survivors to a passive role with no agency, no history, no actions against the history of violence.

We should also recognise that there is repression in Uganda, and it is not that easy for people to speak out. The campaign should be offering protection to those human rights defenders who have been courageously fighting for justice, and enabling them to speak out without fear of repression.

Kony and his allies need to be brought to justice. But will this campaign bring justice to those in northern Uganda, who have suffered the violence of both the LRA and the Ugandan state? I doubt it.

[Despite the repression], Ugandans have not been silent over the past decades. And whatever the outcome of this campaign, they will not remain silent.

Follow Firoze Manji @firozem and Azad Essa @azadessa on Twitter.

The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera