Kampala, Uganda – Invisible Children show their hand early in Kony 2012: Part II, the group’s attempt to defend themselves from the storm of criticism brought down by their first film. They mount their defence less than a minute into the second film when they enlist Norbert Mao, a Ugandan politician who flips-flops between promoting and criticising the group, to make their case for them. It boils down to one word: awareness.
Clearly, in the month since Invisible Children’s movie was released, tens of millions of people around the world have been made aware of the existence of Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Uganda. The movie’s supporters cite its viral spread as proof of massive success; even those wary of the movie’s misrepresentations or the organisation’s ethics tend to admit that raising awareness among usually apathetic Western youth is an unequivocal good.
However, when awareness is not accompanied by the capacity for critical reflection – when reflection is, in fact, disparaged – awareness morphs into propaganda and becomes dangerous. Kony 2012: Part II, therefore, should not be judged in terms of how far it further raises awareness. Instead, the new film and Invisible Children, should be judged by a different word, one that the movement so notably dismisses: accountability.
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Africa tends to be seen by Westerners as an accountability-free zone, where they can say and do what they want without facing any consequences. Therefore, it must have been a shock to Invisible Children when Africans spoke back and denounced the falsehoods of Kony Part I.
But, while Part II corrects the first film’s most obvious misrepresentation by admitting that the LRA has indeed left northern Uganda, its own falsehoods are no less pernicious. For instance, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, erroneously proclaims that the LRA has engaged in peace talks only as an excuse to regroup and rearm, it allows the film to conclude that military force is the only solution and to condemn those calling for peace as allowing the LRA to continue their atrocities.
The lack of accountability in what the West says about Africa can be extremely damaging when it leads to a lack of accountability in what the West does in Africa. Kony Part I gave unambiguous support to US military intervention. Part II is less bellicose – perhaps someone let the filmmakers know that, in many parts of the world, US special forces might not be seen as agents of peace and justice – and instead, mentions US support to regional strategies led by the Ugandan military.
But this shift raises more problems than it answers. How Kony posters in American suburbs are supposed to translate into regional military efficiency in central Africa remains murky. More important, the new strategy ignores the Ugandan military’s abysmal human rights record in neighbouring countries, of great concern if Uganda is to take the lead role in the campaign. And it also forgets that, for “African solutions” to be meaningful, they must be accountable to Africans – not to US funders.
Kony Part II aligns itself closely with the ICC’s Moreno-Ocampo, who has shown himself nothing if not unaccountable to the victims to whom he claims to bring justice. Moreno-Ocampo has been perfectly willing to offer impunity to the Ugandan government in order to secure the government’s co-operation in the ICC investigation of the LRA, ignoring the demands from Ugandan human rights activists that the ICC indict both sides, instead of taking sides.
Kony Part II also invokes the so-called Responsibility to Protect to justify intervention against the LRA; Responsibility to Protect (R2P), of course, was deployed to justify the NATO bombing campaign of Libya, a campaign that refused accountability for its widely destructive consequences.
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Invisible Children’s rejection of accountability has found its way back home as well. In the years since its founding, Invisible Children has apparently shifted its target age group to younger and younger children – from college, to high school, and now to junior high school. The group seeks to recruit children old enough to send money (or their parents’ money), to put up posters, or to appear in a video, but young enough that they are not yet capable of questioning either the story or the solution that Kony 2012 feeds them.
To convince 13-year-old children that peace can come only through war, and that US violence is the solution to the world’s problems, is morally contemptible. But it is also strategically savvy – just as Invisible Children’s young recruits find it hard to question Kony 2012, so do adults find it hard to question these well-intentioned children as they feed Invisible Children’s publicity machine.
Even the event that Kony 2012: Part II is building towards – the April 20 “Cover the Night” campaign, when hundreds of thousands of children are supposed to take to the streets and put up posters and stickers in public places – reflects the group’s dismissal of accountability: maybe Earth Day on April 22 will end up being “Clean up Invisible Children’s trash day”.
But even when accountability is systematically evaded by those with money or power, people still find ways of making their voices heard. We caught a glimpse of this a few weeks ago, when Kony Part I was shown in northern Uganda and people responded by throwing stones at the screen and stopping the show.
Even the Ugandan government, normally a strong ally of Invisible Children, stated that it “in all ways condemns turning Northern Uganda into a mere playground of irresponsible non-governmental organisation activity”.
The government is right – northern Uganda has been and continues to be treated as a playground by Invisible Children and other international NGOs. Because they claim to be saving helpless victims, NGOs categorically refuse to listen to supposed victims and refuse to be held accountable by those whom they claim to help. Invisible Children is by no means an exceptional case. Throughout Africa, Western NGOs have left people feeling that there is only one way to force their self-proclaimed saviours to listen – to throw a rock at them.
Adam Branch is senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Uganda, and assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University, USA. He is the author of Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda (Oxford, 2011).