Watching the Kony 2012 video I was reminded of an evening in mid-2006, when a fellow graduate student asked me to join her at the screening of a new documentary that was making waves across the US. I was known in my department as an activist type and was working on Africa, which is why I believe I was invited. The documentary, ‘Invisible Children’, was a view of the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, where a few American fraternity-boys had stumbled upon hundreds of Internally Displaced People (IDPs), and were struck in particular by several young boys and girls who were fearful of being drafted into a violent war. This was the conflict between the Ugandan state and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), where a tactic of the latter had been to use child-soldiers on the frontlines. The issue was serious, but I thought the documentary was not. It purported to be–like many of its genre–about the issue at hand when it really was about three white boys ‘finding themselves’ in the war-torn ‘heart of darkness’. After it ended, there was a Q&A session where volunteers proposed a call to arms; there were to be coordinated lobbying actions targeting elected representatives around the country in a few days/weeks and viewers were asked to add their contact on the sign-up to participate.
At around the same time, another campaign that I consider to be of the same genus, also swept across the breadth of the American heartland. This was Save Darfur, and its message was very clear: right underneath the nose of the world community a genocide was taking place in the western Sudanese province of Darfur. Nomadic Arab tribes–led by the notorious fighting machine called Janjaweed–were wiping the native African Fur tribes off their lands. The Save Darfur campaign had the backing of several celebrities, including George Clooney, who made an impassioned speech in Washington DC calling the American state to intervene in Sudan to put an end to the ‘genocide’. But the real force to the campaign was provided by high school and college students, who organized meetings, film-shows, and protests at multiple locations. Young men and women were clearly affected by the images of murder and arson, shamed by their own life of relative comfort, and angered at the perceived inaction of their state. They now sprung into action.
In many ways then, the narrative (one-sided violence), audience (young Americans), and proposed action (US intervention) of the Kony 2012 video mirror those of Save Darfur, and therefore what we have learnt from the latter is of importance.
In his book on the Darfur conflict and the politics around it, Mahmood Mamdani calls the student volunteers in the US the ‘child soldiers of the West’. This is of course a play on the phrase used generally to signify innocent Third World children unwittingly drafted into wars. But if the underlying objective of Save Darfur was an armed intervention in Sudan, then the young people mobilized by the campaign were also child soldiers. Kony 2012 is also a call to arms, and its power too lies in the fact that in a matter of days it has mobilized hundreds of thousands of child soldiers on its virtual frontlines.
Mamdani’s larger point about Darfur though was that its naming, terming it genocide i.e., took it outside the realm of politics–and hence messiness–even as it presented a seemingly simple choice–either you were with humanity or with evil! Deeper analyses though showed that Darfur was a situation of civil war precipitated by several factors such as colonial and postcolonial governmentality, climatic shifts, and regional militarization. And the US was not a bystander that one needed to convince to enter the situation, but alongside the Soviet Bloc, a party to the armed nature of the conflict. In any event, the story was much more complicated than was constructed by Save Darfur, and a call for intervention was a political choice in support for one side in the civil war. Now, it is understandable and often unavoidable to pick one side in a messy situation, but this must be an informed and studied decision. It must not be one based on a false dichotomy (killers/victims; or in the words of the Kony 2012 narrator, ‘good guys’/’bad guys’).
In Uganda, and despite the self-evident violence of LRA–and it is the LRA that is at issue here and not just Kony–this is a historical, geographical, and political matter. Northern Uganda is not any place; it is one that has been in the middle of conflicts that are regional in nature, and in which the state of Uganda has been a party. Led by ‘President for life’ Yoweri Museveni, this is the same state that the US backs in these regional wars–including the ongoing battle over Mogadishu–against other agents. Again, this is a political action by the US administration, and not simply an act of backing a self-evident group of good guys. LRA though is now largely marginal to these conflicts and according to many at its weakest. It is not even operating in Uganda, but in parts of neighboring Sudan and Congo (so should the Ugandan army invade sovereign countries to nab Kony?).
If this critique has been about what Kony 2012 does not do, then we must also ask what the video actually does at this precise conjuncture?
It of course brings in donations to Invisible Children, the NGO. But I wish to get beyond the overt purposes of the video. Some have argued that it is part of the larger ideological edifice for greater American intervention in the region, including through the territorial expansion of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which has faced trouble in most of the continent. It also adds credence to the message of the ongoing War on Terror, where too the US is supposed to be engaged in running battles with ‘bad guys’ around the world.
To me, and most of all, the video is an intervention in the debate on the place of the US in the contemporary world. Ever since the disastrous Iraq War, Americans have been rethinking the Cold War imaginaries that represented the US as the sole leader and enforcer-in-chief of the so-called free world. The mounting expenses and toll in Afghanistan have also fanned the introspection, which I consider to be a positive reflective exercise.
Invisible Children and Kony 2012, however, ask Americans to suspend the introspection and retrieve the disastrous Cold War imaginaries. The US is, once again, portrayed as a benevolent force that would surely back the ‘good guys’ and go after the ‘bad guys’ if only its citizen knew the ‘truth’. In its simple message therefore lies Kony 2012′s most damaging upshot.
During the documentary, and talking about the effects of war on children in Uganda, the narrator says that ‘this would never happen in America’. Sure, but there is a question that Kony 2012′s makers and supporters must answer: ‘is this something America has done to others’? And if it has, then should we be disregarding history and politics to facilitate another military intervention?
To those who clearly want to ‘do something’, may I suggest joining initiatives that seek to reimagine the world as a more equal place, such as the anti-war movement in the US, and to a lesser extent the movement against Wall Street and foreclosures. But if you must take the formal route of petitioning your representatives, why not ask them to make US a productive contributor to the International Criminal Court system–on which Kony 2012 draws heavily–, rather than one that aims to weaken it at every level.
Rohit Negi, Assistant Professor, AUD.