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Don’t Fall for the Phony Kony Scare

March 8, 2012 3 comments
Founders of Invisible Children pose with weapons and fighters from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, an organization notorious for looting and rape.

It went viral and spread like wild fire. A 30 minute documentary about the nefarious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda pulled at the heart strings of scores of people all over the world.

It’s like Save Darfur all over again. Lots of white college liberals pretending to care for Africa, not realizing their own paternalism and colonialism, and simultaneously getting it wrong by being unwitting stooges to an imperial propaganda campaign.

In their book The Politics of Genocide, Edward Herman and David Peterson refer to Darfur as a “nefarious” bloodbath in that it was “carried out by U.S. target states.” When the U.S. carries out a bloodbath like it did in Libya and Iraq that is “constructive.” When an enemy does it it is “nefarious” and sometimes “mythical.” Herman and Peterson write about,

the obvious facts that have made Darfur a predictably well-qualified candidate for a focus on villainy: That its government is dominated by Muslim Arabs; that the Sudan possesses oil, but that it is China rather than the United States or the West which has developed a strong relationship with Khartoum; and that the United States and Israel need distractions from their own human rights atrocities and those of their allies plundering the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

On the rhetoric surrounding the conflict the writers state that,

As Mahmood Mamdani puts it, such rhetoric is also a “reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart.” In this “simple moral world,” where “evil confronts good” and “atrocities mount geometrically,” a group of “perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’”—and the “victim [is] untainted and the perpetrator [is] simply evil.”

And that,

the distinction made by Kristof, Power, Reeves, and their many allies in the Save Darfur campaign between Sudan’s Arab rulers and their black African victims falsely racializes the conflict. As the 2005 Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur concluded, any rendering of the conflicts in the western Sudan as “African” versus “Arab” mistakes political identities, which are the consequences of these conflicts, as their causes. “The various tribes that have been the object of attacks and killings (chiefly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) do not appear to make up ethnic groups distinct from the ethnic group to which persons or militias that attack them belong,” the Commission stated. “They speak the same language (Arabic) and embrace the same religion (Islam).” Contrary to Kristof et al., the government in Khartoum is comprised of black Africans no different than the black Africans in the western Sudan that oppose it. The relevant distinction in the Western Sudan is thus a political one that turns on supporting the government (“Arab”) versus opposing it (“African”). The alleged “Arab-African divide” is one that has been “fanned by the growing insistence on such a divide in some circles and in the media” (in particular the white European and U.S. media); it is a process that has “contributed to the consolidation of the contrast and gradually created a marked polarisation in the perception and self-perception of the groups concerned.” The “Crisis in Darfur” is thus a kind of blank slate upon which Western moralists have projected foreign categories that betray the nature of the interest they take in the conflict, but do not reflect the realities or genuine needs of the people involved.

Additionally, the UN Environment Program argued in an extensive 2007 survey that the “underlying causes” of the conflicts in Darfur were to be found in factors such as regional climate instability, drought, desertification, population growth, food insecurity, and over-exploitation of scarce resources; it concluded that “Darfur is degraded to the extent that it cannot sustainably support its rural population.” Referring to this report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that “Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand—an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers. Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change. . . . It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought.” Another report issued in 2007 by a “blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals” for the CNA Corporation noted similarly that “Struggles that appear to be tribal, sectarian, or nationalist in nature are often triggered by reduced water supplies or reductions in agricultural productivity.” This report added that the “situation in Darfur . . . had land resources at its root. . . . Probably more than any other recent conflict, Darfur provides a case study of how existing marginal situations can be exacerbated beyond the tipping point by climaterelated factors.”

The problem with the documentary on Kony is it is a propaganda campaign that gets so many things wrong that it isn’t funny, hence the Save Darfur comparison (and it doesn’t help that the people from Invisible Children were from that campaign as well).

(For an indepth analysis to the rise of the LRA see here.)

Like Darfur, there are some “obvious facts that have made [Kony] a predictably well-qualified candidate for a focus on villainy.”

Last year President Obama announced he was sending forces to aid Uganda in the civil war which has been going on since the 1980s, and is winding down (see here for an article I wrote on this last October). LRA forces are less than 500. So why now? One word: oil. Oil has been found in the country and foreign investors want the “stability” to hurry up and get here so they can drill, baby, drill.

Luckily, the film hasn’t gone without criticism, especially from Ugandans. The Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga criticized the film in a blog for the UK’s The Independent by saying that,

I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism. I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots.

Okwonga also noted that,

The thing is that Joseph Kony has been doing this for a very, very, very long time.  He emerged about a quarter of a century, which is about the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power.  As a result the fates of these two leaders must, I think, be viewed together.  Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video.  I thought that this was a crucial omission.

Like Okwonga noted, what the video doesn’t tell you is that the dictator of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, is a genocidal mass-murderer who makes Joseph Kony look like an angel. Estimates of deaths attributed to the LRA number no more than 40,000. While this is still a high figure it pales in comparison to the more than 7 million attributed to Museveni via the genocides in Rwanda and Congo—not to mention his butchery at home in Uganda.

While Invisible Children responded to criticism by saying that, “We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army,” it is odd that in their film they advocate further arming the Ugandan army to hunt down and capture Kony. Clearly they do defend the human rights abuses by the Ugandan government by ignoring it and calling on them to shut down another human rights abuser whose crimes are minor compared to Museveni’s.

Serious question to be asked: Why focus on Kony, and not the much bigger threat to human rights, President Museveni?

Another question: why not focus on the economic policies of the U.S. that have created the conditions for which all of Africa are suffering (see my interview with Senegalese economist Demba Moussa Dembélé for more information, or my article “The Times and the Congo: A Nightmare of Epic Proportions“)? These are much more pressing issues than the exaggerated threat of Kony.

This stinks of imperialism and another example of Western intervention packaged and presented as “humanitarianism.” Like Herman and Peterson wrote of the “Crisis in Darfur,” the “Kony 2012” slogan “is thus a kind of blank slate upon which Western moralists have projected foreign categories that betray the nature of the interest they take in the conflict, but do not reflect the realities or genuine needs of the people involved.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs last November, Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot, noted that:

During the past decade, U.S.-based activists concerned about the LRA have successfully, if quietly, pressured the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to take a side in the fight between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Among the most influential of advocacy groups focusing specifically on the LRA are the Enough project, the Resolve campaign, the Canadian-based group GuluWalk, and the media-oriented group Invisible Children. Older agencies, from Human Rights Watch to World Vision, have also been involved. In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.

And an Ugandan journalist, Rosebell Kagumire, responded to the documentary by saying,

I viewed it this morning and the first 5 minutes told me this was another effort by a good white American guy trying to save my people. In this story Ugandans are just mere watchers as Kony kills our children. In this story not much can an African do. It is the same old sensationalization of African stories and simplification of our problems to tell the western world using even his son that they should save Africa. How? by giving us money.

It’s a narrative that many of us of the continent who work in the media always look at in disbelief but such videos are easy to enter the hearts of an ignorant Western audience who do not question the narrative.

The film is void of any means like peace efforts that have gone on and it simplifies the war to Joseph Kony — a mad evil man. This war was bigger than Joseph Kony and those who will end it won’t be Americans. It’s a complex war that requires African governments of Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to work together to pacify the region. And when I heard him say that Uganda is in central Africa despite [him] having visited here I almost stopped watching.

All in all it’s a very imperialistic film trying to touch sentiments of those who can ‘save’ Africa i.e. Hollywood and the West.

The Kony 2012 campaign is a propaganda stunt. It is hard to believe the film makers have good intentions, like many are claiming. In a continent ravaged by the World Bank and IMF, or U.S.-backed dictators like Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, it is hard to believe they don’t know this, and that they sincerely think Joseph Kony and his decrepit army are the boogeyman of Africa.

Do yourself a favor and don’t fall for the phony Kony scare. Like the Rage Against the Machine song “No Shelter” (which was written for the 1998 Godzilla movie) said: Kony 2012 is “pure motherfuckin’ filler” to “keep your eyes off tha real killer.”

UPDATE: Nearly everyone I’ve pointed this out to has gotten a bit defensive. And I get it. You realize you’ve been suckered, and that’s not a great feeling. But before you say, “I believe the film makers have good intentions,” or “this will at least get people to dig deeper,” let’s be honest. It is really difficult to think they have good intentions. They have been intentionally deceptive, and their omissions are very revealing.

<sarcasm>The film makers are such glorious humanitarians with good intentions that they ignore genocidal mass-murderers, and the Washington Consensus, while posing with fighters and weapons from a terrorist army in Sudan that rapes and pillages and loots.</sarcasm>

And, no, others won’t dig deeper. What this propaganda film is doing is setting the narrative. Only those exposed to critics will have a clue that there is more to dig, and there is no reason to believe there are that many critics to counter the confusion and deception the film is creating.

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