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The Trouble with #StopKony

If your Twitter and Facebook streams look anything like mine, you have probably become acquainted with the hashtag #stopkony over the last 48 hours. That’s Joseph Kony—rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from Northern Uganda and center of a campaign by non-profit advocacy group Invisible Children. For the last three decades, the LRA has terrorized pockets of East Africa, most notoriously abducting children to staff the ranks of an army that long-ago ceased to inspire voluntary recruits.

The US-based charity is broadcasting a simple message: If more people know about Kony, know that he’s a bad guy, and call on their governments to go after him, someone actually will get him, and peace and stability will return to Uganda. So please, everyone, retweet.

This is the kind of story that leaves me incredibly morally conflicted. It’s hard not to be touched by the documentary filmmaker who has devoted his recent years to the task of raising awareness about the pain and suffering in this corner of the world that many have never heard of. It’s hard not to applaud everyone who shares the message. It’s a good reminder to all of us that we can’t ignore the things that happen on this planet, no matter how far away or buried they are.

I do, however, have some serious concerns about this campaign and what it is intended to do. The LRA’s violence, like most conflicts, is far more twisted than it appears. It’s not just one guy who, if decapitated, would make the entire rebel army fade away. And in fact, the world is going after Kony already in a US-assisted military operation that is, at best, moderately ineffectual. I’m not sure knowing about this alone will help at all; particularly given that there are serious flaws with the story that Invisible Children is telling you.

My first critique would be with the way that the original documentary inspiring the #stopkony movement is being built. A white-guy with little knowledge of Africa arrives and discovers a terrifying world of violence that inspires him to drop everything and try to “save” those affected. (“Buy a bracelet, soothe some guilt”, journalist and Uganda expert Michael Wilkerson put it.) Don’t get me wrong, I’m white and I work in Africa. I’m not saying aid, or outsiders can’t do any good. But the story of fighting back against the LRA isn’t about this campaign or this man. It’s been going on for decades internally, where countless fearless communities have been working to overcome the violence and offer help to the victims. If we tell a story about stopping the LRA, that’s where it should begin.

I am also particularly frustrated with the way that the victims of the LRA—traumatized children—are filmed here. I’m not sure they are in a position to consent to their being shown this way—particularly as a sort of marketing tool. Sure, what you’re marketing is a humanitarian appeal, but I’m not sure that changes the issue here. Exploiting a story—no matter your end point—is still a means to an end. (For more on the morality of writing about trauma, a must read piece by Jina Moore on “How Not to Write About Rape").

Once we know the victims and the bad guy, the video announces proudly that it will explain exactly how we are going to get of the bad guy, Joseph Kony—the man who is apparently single-handedly responsible for the violence. There are just a few problems here.

First, in recent years, the LRA has fractured hugely—in response to international efforts to go after Kony. In incredibly violent starts and stops, the group now rears its head in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic. It actually hardly exists in Uganda anymore. Having been chased out by that country’s military, it has sought the more lawless terrain nearby. In the no man’s borderlands and the depths of the jungle, it continues to mete out victims. But it is not, by most analyses, a centralized organization anymore, or one that any leader’s removal could stop. We passed that point at least a decade ago. There are also a host of other problems with the facts in the video—including the number of children soldiers that the organization cites. (Responding to these critiques, the charity says it is only relying on UN figures.)

So let’s talk now about the feasibility of actually catching Kony, which is exactly what the Ugandan military, with the recent help of the U.S. military has been trying to do. If only it were so simple as man- and willpower. One reason it’s so hard to “get” Kony, militarily, is that his army is still stacked with ranks of abducted and coerced soldiers. Bomb the area he’s living in, and you kill everyone. Are those forcibly recruited soldiers guilty or innocent of the crimes they have committed in an army they never wanted to join?

On the ground the LRA is adept at running and hiding in jungle terrain that no one knows better. The Ugandan military, teamed up with other regional militaries, have so far proven ill-trained and equipped for the task of hunting them down. This was one of the reasons that U.S. military expertise was supposed to be of such great use when an American military advisory mission was authorized in 2008. But so far they have met little success. One of the most elaborate plans to try and catch Kony in the Congo failed in 2008—apparently when someone in the Ugandan military informed on the operation, allowing rebels to vacate a camp hours before the assault was set to begin.

This alludes to one of the biggest, unmentioned problems in the Invisible Children’s campaign: the Ugandan government itself, and particularly, President Yoweri Museveni. The quasi-democratic president has often rallied support by going after Kony—but many Ugandan analysts suspect that the LRA is actually useful to the president’s political machine. Take away the enemy of the state, and perhaps people would start asking strong questions about the state itself, which isn’t functioning terribly well and is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Regardless what you think about Museveni, it’s just plain crazy to think that any solution to this problem can be found without involving the Ugandan state. Here’s what Ugandan columnist Musa Okwanga wrote in the Kampala-based The Independent:

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. Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora. It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.

A final point about politics that complicates the desire for Washington or other Western powers to “do something.” The West needs Uganda. That country’s troops are, together with tiny Burundi, the only country that has been willing to staff a UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Even fellow African countries have viewed the undertaking as a suicide mission. Uganda has gotten military and other support from the Americans for their willingness to step up. The governments are also close when it comes to intelligence sharing on the region, particularly on Sudan and Somalia. All this means that when the United States does “something” it can’t operate with its hands untied. That’s just the reality of politics.

So wait a minute, we’ve actually been at this point before: on Darfur. The idea of this campaign is that if everyone knows, and writes their congressmen, and hammers their leaders, we can get good policy on the ground. But actually, that didn’t happen, as journalist Rebecca Hamilton writes in a powerful recent book, Fighting for Darfur. Her story shows us, she writes, that “outcry is not sufficient… the way in which the outcry is generated matters. Mass mobilization, as successful as it can be at getting a crisis onto the government’s agenda…can also have perverse effects on policymakers and ultimately on the crisis itself…if pressure their pressure on government to ‘do something’ leads politicians to preference quick and visible actions over actions best suited to resolving the crisis.”

Simply actions like, say, going after one man, named Joseph Kony.

So here’s how I see it: as outsiders, our powers to affect change are limited. We can and should be morally outraged. We should care about far-flung places. But we have to be humble. We have to operate on the most basic principles first: Do no harm.

As I wrote recently on this blog, simple narratives like this one can actually do harm. They get international attention—but sometimes they push for answers that make sense from outside but get muddled on the ground. If we devote all our energy to catching Kony, what will we have achieved at the end of the day? There won’t be peace; victims will perhaps see justice of a sort, but there will be no local-level mechanisms for compensating victims, ensuring they have access to health and psychological care. We will have gotten a bad guy, but we will have left a system in place that let all this happen in the first place.

What would really help? Probably more than anything: supporting the communities that are already fighting to recover on-the-ground. Our humility about the ability to bring about change cannot justify inaction. We can do something to help--it's support for the individuals who have suffered. It doesn't sound as exciting or earth-changing as anything that #stopkony proclaims. Which is also maybe why it hasn't caught on: It will take more than just a retweet.

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