For over twenty years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, has terrorized civilians in its attempt to overthrow the government of Uganda. The group’s activities have affected the entire region, as throughout its history, the LRA has established bases or been active in several neighboring countries, such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group is perhaps most infamous for its abduction and recruitment of child soldiers.
A new report, published by the Resolve, LRA Crisis Tracker, and former Invisible Children offices — the latter rebranded Africa Non Profit Chore (ANCHOR) — warns that despite some gains, the Lord’s Resistance Army is still a danger to civilians and its leader, Joseph Kony, still at large. The report states that while LRA attacks were on the decline in 2012 – 2013, they were on the rise again in 2014. In 2012, an online media campaign known as #KONY2012 was launched by the American NGO Invisible Children to raise awareness about the LRA and rally international support for the capture of Kony. The campaign, particularly the video that went with it, however, was widely criticized for misleading and inaccurate information as well as for what many saw as its paternalistic tone. In late 2014, Invisible Children closed its doors.
So what has been the overall effect of the #KONY2012 campaign? Are there any lessons to be learned, here? I talk to Ugandan human rights lawyer and professor Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire about the legacy of #KONY2012 and Western activism around the LRA. Mwesigire is an Assistant Lecturer of Human Rights at Makerere University and co-founder of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE), which hosts the Writivism initiative.
Gallo: How does the KONY2012 campaign continue to influence Ugandans after the closure of Invisible Children? What are the lasting effects of the campaign?
Mwesigire: To be honest, it seems what skeptics [of the campaign] predicted has come true: That there would indeed be more of a lasting impact on how people, especially in the West, perceive Uganda than on the attainment of justice for victims of the LRA conflict. For the first time in a long time, some other monster was connected to the country than Idi Amin, and questions about a Kony experience pop up in spaces where they are least expected. Imagine you are Ugandan, at a youth conference somewhere in the West, and the conversation icebreaker is whether you are a former child soldier! Invisible Children may be closing but I think many Ugandans will continue to be asked about Kony and whether they are one of his victims. The simplifying of the narrative has just added a new layer of stereotypes for Ugandans. This will take a while to wear off. You may have seen a campaign on the Guardian website, led by the Ugandan government, comparing Uganda and Spain as tourist destinations [here]. Such are necessary because no one wants to visit a place where they may be entangled in a war they are not interested in. The image of Uganda and Africa as a permanent war zone was no doubt strengthened by the KONY2012 campaign.
Gallo: Where were you when the video came out? What was your impression of it, and what kinds of conversations did it provoke among you and your peers?
Mwesigire: I was a student in Budapest. I learned of the video from Facebook, and I read both the praise and criticism before watching it. When I finally I watched it a few hours later, I was angry. I would later be disappointed when it became a conversation point with classmates. Despite spending over six months with them, some of my classmates came to me, to talk about the video, and the need for support. Being students of human rights, you can bet that we had indeed talked about transitional justice, international justice, international criminal law, and other such topics both in class and out. My contributions to these discussions were largely informed by the northern Uganda situation. Indeed, my illustrations always were from northern Uganda. It was KONY2012 that exposed me to the voluntary ignorance about Africa and indeed the rest of the world common to a number of populations in the West. Suddenly, a kid called Jason had fired these students with so much passion, through the video’s simplified narrative.
All nuance, which I imagined they had attained in our discussions, vanished. This misappropriation of narratives was hitting hard. Suddenly, I and my fellow Ugandan student became victims. Never mind our own guilt because we hail from the south of Uganda and therefore were never direct victims of the war anyway. Suddenly, we were meant to give authentic performances of the sufferings; narrate our night commuting experiences. We had none. People asked us to explain to them how it was living in terror, and we had to respond by declaring our lack of direct experience of the conflict. Growing up shielded from the violence, due to the country’s divisive north-south politics, by this point I was already too guilt-ridden to talk about the conflict. Now, I was being invited to assuage people’s pity buds by performing as “the victim.” I could not. I was more disappointed than angry in the lack of trust in African voices and opinions on African matters. Suddenly, my work in promoting international justice in Uganda — which my classmates would have known because we introduced ourselves quite elaborately at the beginning if each module — did not matter. Or maybe only I listened to their introductions and they really did not hear mine. There were many non-conversations. The video exposed the illusion of communication between Africa and the rest of the world. Africans can shout as loud as they want but the West tells itself whatever it wants. My nuanced understanding of the conflict did not matter in the face of a powerful, simplified narrative fitting the stereotypes my classmates had already internalized about Africa.
Gallo: Before Kony 2012, what did you know about Invisible Children and their work in Uganda? What sort of effect did they have in Uganda before Kony2012?
Mwesigire: Truth be told, places like Gulu in northern Uganda were already teeming with small and large NGOs. There were too many for Invisible Children to emerge as a major player. I had done some work with the Uganda Law Students Society, and I interned at the Refugee Law Project and Advocates for Public International Law Uganda. This was from 2007 to 2010. And Invisible Children was not a major player at this point in the advocacy circles. So in Uganda, in Kampala where much of the advocacy was based, they were unknown. Now we know, from their responses to criticisms that followed KONY2012, that they were paying school fees and helping in other ways. But there were and are simply too many NGOs doing this work for Invisible Children to be noticed. In fact at some point, Nobert Mao, chairman of Gulu Local Council V, threatened to outlaw many. I can’t say that Invisible Children had an impact that can be talked about in the way we can talk of World Vision or other international organizations active in the same area at the time. I can bet that without KONY2012, Invisible Children was going to remain invisible. And after KONY2012, they continued to be invisible except to mention the adverse effects of the campaign. Jason’s Invisible Children may be closing, but how do we Ugandans close the chapter that has branded all of us child soldiers?