We can come to quick consensus that Uganda’s Joseph Kony is a bad man. And while we’re not looking to separate the world into friends and enemies, we can probably get just about everyone to agree that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been doing some pretty heinous things — crimes against humanity, in international legal terms. The question, then, in this interconnected, faster-than-the-speed-of-Internet world, is what to do about him and the conditions which enable him to continue?
In the viral video “KONY 2012” by the US-based non-governmental group Invisible Children, filmmaker Jason tells his young son Gavin — and the audience of over 100 million who have now viewed his slickly-produced half hour infomercial — that our electronic, Facebook-age “greatest desire” is to belong and connect… to share the love.” I am also a US-based father with a son only slightly older than Gavin, I too have traveled to and long worked for peace and justice in Africa, and I agree strongly with Jason that the only appropriate answer to the every-person question “Who are you to end a war?” is: “Who are you not to?” We are, as Jason suggests, every last one of us shaping human history nearly every day. What, then, will be the world’s new shape?
One urgent task that seemed obvious and evident to me early in my work in solidarity with African people’s movements was to give voice to Africa’s own self-defined and self-determined grassroots struggles. One of the priorities of the peoples of the Global North must be to help provide platforms, showcases and support for our African colleagues such that their priorities, and their power, would be clear in every act of assistance. More than any material or political aid, this sensitivity to unequal power dynamics, with an ultimate goal of equitable power balances (economic, social and otherwise) would best serve the freedom struggle. The idea that our main work in the North would be to spotlight evil African wrongdoers, making the masses of African stakeholders invisible, seemed antithetical to what was needed. One of the best things about Mary King’s Waging Nonviolence essay on “What ‘KONY 2012’ is—and is not” is its reliance on African activists for information and insights on what must now be done in the region for the creation of real peace. But we must go further.
Uganda’s peace practitioners themselves have been outspoken about the needs of their own movements. Ugandan correspondent for Insight on Conflict Stephan Oola, for example, notes that there are over 1,000 local peace-builders in the northern region of his country where Kony and his LRA had been most active. Insight, an extensive network of indigenous organizations working in areas of the world most affected by violence, lists no fewer than 69 grassroots peace groups working in Uganda alone, and—as Oola poignantly states—“none of them have been partnered in this latest campaign.” Though Oola commends Invisible Children’s efforts in building and renovating schools and providing scholarships for Ugandans in need, he correctly critiques them for not even citing the vital work of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiatives, whose efforts to pursue peaceful means to end the causes of conflict in their region have been noteworthy, effective and in need of additional support. Without key local input, attempts for lasting peace will be, in Oola’s words, nothing but a “non-starter.”
Many Ugandan and central African commentators have written and spoken about the one-sided and oversimplified nature of the “KONY 2012” video. Reporting from Uganda’s capital city Kampala, Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza noted that former United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Olara Otunna has long accused the Ugandan government itself of committing acts of genocide, in part using Kony as an excuse in its policies against the rural north. Otunna, himself a member of the Acholi ethnic group and a leader of the Ugandan Peoples Congress, has termed the decades-long forced relocation of Acholi and other northerners “the secret genocide,” where huge portions of the population have been housed in poorly-equipped internment camps, with up to one thousand perishing weekly.
Black Star News editor Milton Allimadi, speaking at New York’s Left Forum on March 17, also suggested that the Ugandan government shares much of the blame, imploring us that “when you allow Kony to be the focus, you exonerate someone else even more responsible.” By taking Kony and the LRA out of their historical context, the best that can be hoped for are simplistic and ineffective solutions. A more holistic approach has been documented in the work of Uganda’s Raising Voices, whose co-director Dipak Naker has worked extensively in the development of broad-based, child-centered interventions.
The reasons for the recent mainstream flurry of interest in Uganda, Kony and children in conflict may be many. Though some assert pure humanitarian concern, others suggest more suspicious motives, such as the 2005 discovery of oil in the region (and the funding of Invisible Children by those who seek to benefit from the pumping and international sales of the petrol). One thing, in any case, is crystal clear: the message of the “KONY 2012” video, the Invisible Children organization, and their many bi-partisan politician-supporters is that continued U.S. military might is needed. Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, who also serves as director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, stated that U.S. military and geopolitical designs in all of central Africa is the real reason behind the 2012 crisis about Kony. AFRICOM, the arm of the U.S. military in Africa which has met with tremendous continent-wide resistance and has been in much need of public “rehabilitation,” may have more to do with the current media campaign than many are willing to admit. “Rather than the reason for accelerated military mobilization in the region,” Mamdani asserted, “the LRA is the excuse for it.” Along these lines, Makerere Institute senior fellow Adam Branch asks: “How often does the U.S. government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources?”
Any sensitive, long-term or balanced observer of events in the region will explain that Kony continues to survive and draw strength because of the militarized nature of the region. With every side (except for the unarmed peace-builders at the grassroots) agreeing wholeheartedly that there must be no negotiations, that mediation and conflict resolution shouldn’t ever be tried, and that low intensity war is the best possible strategy for “winning,” the LRA, the Ugandan Armed Forces, and many other armed groupings carry on with impunity and no end in sight. It is only the local population who suffer.
Though just over four years old, AFRICOM (the U.S. High Command on the continent), has had a checkered history at best. As Syracuse University professor and noted pan-Africanist Horace Campbell pointed out in Pambazuka News, AFRICOM’s first field mission last spring in Libya displayed a “new vigor of imperialism” but was a “catastrophic failure” in that it could not take credit for a smooth, clean or quick transition of power away from Gaddafi and towards a more palatable, Western-approved government. Likening AFRICOM to the racist South African apartheid regime and the murderous, tyrannical reign of Mobutu over the Congo (Zaire), Campbell asserts that AFRICOM’s plans for the remilitarization of the continent will also ultimately fail. To quicken that defeat, Campbell suggests, peace movements the world over must understand and work against an effort designed by private military contractors — in collusion with African elites — to maintain the economic plunder of the richest regions of the planet. Conscious that it is this exploitation, in fact, which serves as the root cause of instability and security challenges in war-torn locales, it is the unification and demilitarization of the continent which is needed, along with an “alliance between peace forces in Africa and beyond [to] ensure that this new round of the scramble for Africa will be resisted.”
Africa specialist Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, agreed that AFRICOM’s actions in 2012 have revealed “the fist of the military and its dominant role in U.S.-Africa engagement.” Though AFRICOM was established under the Bush administration, it has been President Obama who has expanded it and put it to direct use, despite its rejection by African governments, scholars and human rights advocates. Since AFRICOM’s inception, Priority Africa Network coordinator Nunu Kidane, also writing for Pambazuka, noted that U.S. military planning was nothing new, “simply a new initiative to ensure ‘command’ of land and resources that in the past was called just plain ‘colonialism.’ As the competition for global resources tightens, not only for oil and minerals, but for basic rights to land and water,” Kidane continued, “we can expect increased focus on Africa as the new frontier.”
Campbell traces the focus of Invisible Children and “KONY 2012” through the studies of “innocent” narrator and father Jason, who is in fact a trainee at a U.S. Army-initiated institute specializing in technology and communications. Furthermore, Ugandan Black Star editor Milton Allimadi has indicated that the U.S. embassy in Kampala was in direct consultation with Jason and others during the making of “KONY 2012.” The extent of Jason or his organization’s collusion with the U.S. military industrial complex, however, is hardly the issue. The issue, I think, is that so very many U.S. citizens, out of genuine concern for African peoples but a no less genuine history of imbedded racism, paternalism, and a white-man’s-burden sense of “here-we-come-to-the-rescue”-ism, flock to a video as misguided as “KONY 2012.”
That anyone in this information age can believe for a moment that people cannot and do not take care of their own problems in their own neighborhoods on their own terms is a scary one; the problems where this is not the case are always more complex than a Hollywood-style video can convey. That anyone in this age of violence can believe that the U.S. military will hold the solution to violence — and not exacerbate the problem — is equally frightening. That Africa in particular, with so much creative energy and grassroots solutions to teach the rest of the world, can still be viewed as in need of rescuing shockingly shows how backwards our own thinking is.
Jason said to his young son Gavin and to the rest of us: “Turning the system upside down … it changes everything.” With the use of an inverted pyramid, he suggested that power dynamics may be turned on their heads. A local leader, already chased out of Uganda by his own people, and leading a motely group of a couple of hundred at best, might be captured and brought to justice. In my own organization, the War Resisters League, we had an old poster with a pyramid on it as well, and the words emblazoned: “We must have order … but must it be the present order?” We have never been afraid, however, to resist all armies, small and large, and to resist the idea that any army (especially imperial ones) could solve the problems of militarism, violence and injustice.
Gavin said to his proud father that he wanted to grow up to be like his dad: “I’m going to come with you to Africa.” My own son has twice been with me to the continent, which is much less scary than portrayed in viral videos and imagined by most Americans. And it is there, more than anywhere, we have learned the lessons of humility and peace.
A new generation of antiwar veterans is beginning to set itself apart in its opposition to America’s wars abroad and at home.
As K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, joyful, powerful movements draw more people in and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.