Whatever happened to Kony 2012?

The Kony2012 filmmakers have failed in their purpose of bringing justice to the warlord’s young victims.

invisible children posters
It is now apparent - in spite of all the posters imprinted with his face and splattered across cities in the developed world - that the hunt for Kony has failed, writes author [AP]

And so, 2012 came and went and Joseph Kony was never captured. Weapons and troops were deployed, politicians and celebrities from Europe and the US made statements and offered their public support to the campaign launched by the Invisible Children organisation, which featured one of the most popular films of the year, Kony2012, and yet, Kony somehow managed to remain at large.

The failure to achieve what the Kony2012 filmmakers had aimed for – capturing Joseph Kony and bringing him to justice – raises some important questions about the effectiveness of foreign meddling in African affairs. It equally warns us of the concealed dangers behind the export of “good will” from the West towards other parts of the world. As the ancient aphorism goes: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Western condescending attitudes towards Africa and other parts of the world are nothing new. They are embedded in centuries of colonialism and postcolonialism, and a large and almost uninterrupted sequence of military interventions, of which the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most obvious examples, although by no means the only ones.

 Villagers in DR Congo fearful of LRA attacks

Another enduring failure in the West is the underestimation of the resourcefulness of African warlords. Only twenty years ago, US marines were routed at the battle of Mogadishu by the men – both military and civilians – loyal to Mohamed Farah Aidid, who at the time was terrorising the Somalian capital and taking the lives of men, women and children for fun.

Unfortunately, and in spite of all our supposed Western superiority and technological advantage, we have continued to make the same mistakes time and again. Not even a Hollywood blockbuster like Black Hawk Down, where the errors of the US military commanders were laid bare, has taught us anything.

Enter Joseph Kony

For those who don’t know who Joseph Kony is, here is a brief introduction to his shining career as a warlord, mass murderer, rapist, and child kidnapper.

As many other serial killers with a profound religious belief, Kony became the leader of the good-naturedly-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), founded in Uganda in the 1980s as an indirect result of the activities of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. Over the years, Kony, who like Tony Blair and George W Bush, has the frightening “gift” of listening to the voice of God and following His commands,has led his followers into militarised conflict. As a result, Kony has terrorised and displaced around two million people, and kidnapped tens of thousands of children to be used as cannon fodder or soldiers.

Cruel and deviant as Kony is, nevertheless, he is hardly an exception. A quick look to East and Central Africa reveals so many armies and warlords that we would need an entire book to discuss them all. Suffice to say here that Kony’s massacres pale in comparison with the genocide carried out by the Janjaweed militias in Darfur between 2003 and 2009, and are not that different from the actions carried out over the past years by Thomas Lubanga and Bosco Ntaganda in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Singling out Joseph Kony and making him famous, as the Invisible Children filmmakers wanted, may have impeded Kony from frightening his own people, the Achuli, but has hardly stopped him from killing, raping, and kidnapping other peoples in South Sudan, the DRC, and the Central African Republic. No wonder a coalition of NGOs working in the area claimed last month that progress towards achieving the core objectives of the UN-led campaign against Kony and the LRA had been slow and had left the situation on the ground largely unchanged.

In other words, Kony is still at large, causing chaos throughout East and Central Africa, and extending his area of operations as his hunt intensifies. Additionally, he has developed a new business model in order to finance his struggle: Selling ivory from the elephants that he and his men have been forced to target.

So, what now?

That the hunt for Kony has failed – in spite of all the posters imprinted with his face and splattered across cities in the developed world and the bracelets carrying his name – is apparent by now. The whole idea of the film was to arrest him and bring him to justice in 2012, thus the Kony2012 title. Not even a viral video with one of the documentary creators masturbating in public did the trick. 

The makers of Kony2012 did not question why the governments in the area, especially the Ugandan government, have failed for decades to do something meaningful about this man.

There are various reasons why Kony2012 might have failed so spectacularly. In first place, while the film played out all the expected stereotypes – children as innocent victims, a black man as an evildoer, etc – it failed to address the most important issues that needed to be brought to the public’s attention: Those that really deserved to have been printed in posters and splattered all across the world.

The makers of Kony2012 did not question why the governments in the area, especially the Ugandan government, have failed for decades to do something meaningful about this man. Significantly, it also failed to look beyond Kony and his murdering men, and by doing so it took attention away from other warlords operating in the region who have been quick to take advantage of these new freedoms. Think, for instance, of Sultani Makenga and Bosco Ntagani and their M-23 rebels, who very recently took the city of Goma in eastern Congo under the watchful but impotent eyes of UN peacekeeping troops.

The atrocities perpetrated by Kony and the LRA are repulsive and deserve a response that so far has been found wanting. Having said that, Kony, Ntagani, Makenga, and many others like them are themselves in the midst of a much larger struggle that involves a scramble for natural resources, especially minerals, in these areas.

Without the coltan and the cassiterite obtained in eastern Congo, we wouldn’t have GPS systems, mobile phones and personal computers. Without the wolframite, also found in this region, the West would not be able to make state-of-the-art armour-piercing ammunitions to sell to those same rebels and despotic governments across the world. The list doesn’t end there. This area, extremely rich in natural resources, also holds other minerals such as gold and diamonds. In many ways the exploitation of these conflict minerals, is one of the main reasons why Kony and his killing buddies can exist and carry out their brutalities. They obtain minerals and sell them to profiteering middlemen that then ship them to East Asia, North America, Europe, or wherever else they are needed.

“Africa and their people are so quintessentially associated with poverty, war, hunger, and need, that no story about the continent or its people as a source of wealth can be ever imagined or told.”

Beyond this ongoing exploitation of the African soil and people, which is never mentioned by the Kony2012 filmmakers, the documentary also showcases the recurrent belittlement of Africa and the Africans by the West. This patronising attitude can be seen virtually everywhere. From Kony2012 to the new Spielberg movie about Lincoln, black men and women can only be redeemed by the superior intellectual and humane capabilities of the white man.

Africa, in particular, is always portrayed as an unhappy and violent place, full of dangers and starving children, and in need of constant charity. Thanks to this portrayal, Africa and their people are so quintessentially associated with poverty, war, hunger, and need, that no story about the continent or its people as a source of wealth can be ever imagined or told. 

Ultimately, Kony2012 has been nothing more than another gimmick, focusing on the obvious and ignoring the real problems that need to be solved if the problems of war and the kidnapping of children is to be eliminated in this region. Maybe by now the creators of Kony2012 have realised that 2013 has arrived and their campaign failed. Although a quick look at the Invisible Children online store reveals a few Kony2012 items still for sale, maybe they haven’t and maybe they won’t recognise their failure. Maybe they will prefer to focus all their efforts in say, another documentary entitled Kony2013, instead of raising awareness about foreign companies pillaging the region and fuelling war so that they can get their hands on some precious minerals.

The Kony2012 creators have now a magnificent platform to expose and examine not just the story of a religious nut mass murderer, but also some deeper issues that have contributed for centuries to the spread of violence and bloodshed in Africa. We can only hope they use it.

Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.