The Invisible Story Behind Invisible Children

An article I wrote earlier this year:

I was once an overzealous single, but in 2009 my current wife, Suzan Abong of Oyam District, Northern Uganda, changed my mind fairly quickly. We fell in love at Uganda Christian University, and consequently I spent much of my time since then living in her village and collaborating with various faith-based and non-profit organizations throughout Northern Uganda. For whatever reason, providential or not, I find myself back in the US with her three years later with virtually no outlets to continue speaking Luo, eating malakwang, or planting nino. I am grateful to be in my native land, but I deeply miss my friends, my in-laws, and the activist community of my wife’s region. And I would like to see them again someday.

But that might not be a possibility, given the recently viral KONY2012 video, created and released by San Diego-based group Invisible Children (IC).

Suzan and I are close with many who have lost family, friends, eyes, and limbs at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army, reported to be under the direction of madman Joseph Kony. We don’t really like him nor the atrocities the LRA has committed against the people of Uganda and its geographic neighbors.

Because the violence committed by the LRA is a personal issue for me, I find myself naturally drawn to the psychologically-abusive charm and Hitler-like reductionist propaganda infused into Invisible Children’s recent video release. Its rhetoric, images, and lack of information affirm the almighty American consumer identity embedded in my worldview. I am told that by hanging a poster up, I can “change the course of human history.” How convenient! Finally, a way to end the suffering in Northern Uganda (while conveniently overlooking the plight of my own neighbors of Harrisburg, of course).

Fortunately for me, I did not lose myself in the terrifying KONY2012 film. Somehow, I managed to recognize the inherently violent and militaristic overtones, flawed assumptions, cultural insensitivity, historical omissions, and political and economic nuances intentionally overlooked in the barrage of emotional-roller-coaster montages I was viewing.

Much of history is remembered as “that’s not what we meant to do.” Just consider our urban public housing projects. Helping the powerless, or at least those who people at the top deem powerless, sounds like a great idea, but it tends to be ineffective unless approached from a tactic of solidarity.

The millions of participants in the KONY2012 efforts will undoubtedly use the same phrase in the coming years if they succeed in their mission as described in the film. This is due to either a lack of understanding or voluntary ignorance about history, culture, and present realities.

Let’s begin with history. The makers of KONY2012 have regularly failed to identify President Yoweri K. Museveni for who he is, a nearly three-decade dictator ruling under the façade of democracy, one of the most corrupt politicians in the world who consistently gobbles up US foreign aid for his own personal benefit, buying luxurious vehicles and unnecessary fighter jets. Museveni is a brutal tyrant who uses force to silence all opposition members and critical voices, such as those who have participated in the Walk to Work efforts. He also utilizes institutionalized economic tactics to keep victims of the horrors in the North (a part of Uganda he has no interest in liberating due to historical and socio-political differences) trapped in IDP camps.

Decades ago, Museveni got together with a few of his friends and a few guns. They fought their way to the government and have lived by the sword ever since. You can’t tell me that a tiny rebel group who once overthrew the Ugandan government and now has the monopoly on military equipment and intelligence in this corner of the world cannot militarily handle Joseph Kony. Coupled with the countless stories I have heard from Acholi and Langi people concerning the mysterious “escapes” of Kony following his numerous captures, there is no way the UPDF is unable to control the LRA if they want to. The problem is just that. They don’t want to. Historically, Museveni has opposed the people of Northern Uganda on various fronts. Why should he, as commander in chief of the UPDF (the Ugandan army that Invisible Children has encouraged US policymakers to partner with), begin catching Kony?

Al Jazeera recently reported on some of the violent governmental land theft occurring in Amuru District (Acholi territory) which has left many children homeless and many people without their ancestral land and crops on which their survival is dependent. A reporter noted the common consensus that the Ugandan government has no interest in catching Kony, as it would end US funding. Museveni’s conclusion: give us the funding for our personal bank accounts, but don’t catch Kony as it would mean an end to such funding.

Meanwhile, agencies across Uganda have reported uncountable incidents of the UPDF committing the same atrocities as the LRA, and sometimes worse ones! In a Campus Journal article in 2011 (one of the few truly un-censored publications in the country), Yahya Sseremba, a personal colleague of mine, cited Mahmood Mamdani by saying, “It took a (Ugandan) government-directed campaign of murder, intimidation, bombing and burning of whole villages to drive the rural population into I.D.P. camps.” By encouraging collaboration with the Ugandan Government and UPDF, KONY2012 effectively funds a terrorist group that is already more armed and dangerous than the LRA in present Uganda without the help of the US.

In the same issue of The Campus Journal, Sseremba cites Northern Ugandans as Museveni’s primary group of victims, but quickly follows it up by saying the brutality suffered by Northern Ugandans at the hands of Museveni’s forces is dwarfed by the reign of torture authorized by the UPDF in eastern Congo, where 80% of some of the world’s most important minerals for making cell phones and other electronics lies. The LRA is also said to have made recent attacks in this area. This is another nuance of the issue. If you want to help, don’t subscribe to the methology of KONY2012. Instead, boycott cell phones! But of course, no extreme personal transformation is required of true American activists. Who could live without a cell phone? Let me just wear this cool bracelet.

Culturally, Invisible Children has dehumanized the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa with its images of white privilege and imperial dominance. By saying “International support could be removed at any time” if we don’t continue to pressure our politicians to arm the UPDF, they are saying Ugandans and other Africans can’t handle their own problems. Policymakers in the US, they say, are “the ones who have authority to see Kony captured,” implying LRA victims have no dignity, agency, power, or hope for themselves. Such ethnocentrism reeks of neo-colonial language, and it is backed by the wanting assumption that capturing one man ends a complex problem that I, as an American taxpayer and electronics consumer, incited in the first place.

KONY2012 also reveals a lack of sensitivity about how justice is understood in the non-Western world, particularly Northern Uganda where restorative practices like Maro Oput, Kayo Cuk, and Culo Kwor continue to be implemented, even for the most tragic crimes such as murder. Indeed, these traditional practices of paying restitution and healing a broken community are preferred to this day. The vast majority of Northern Ugandans categorically oppose US governmental interference, as well as the Western assumption that “an eye for an eye” is the only virtuous and practical way to justice. Simply look at American prisons and crime trends and you will see that the US has one of the worst justice systems of any nation on this globe. Why must we project our understanding of justice onto a region which, historically, has done much better without the influence of our worldviews?

IC also advocates for the use of technology, and indeed we can use technology in a positive way. However, their fundamental assumption is that technology is inherently neutral, or even positive. This oversees the aforementioned nuance of conflict minerals. There is nothing socially or environmentally neutral about how technology is produced, and KONY2012 provides absolutely no outlet for reflecting on global technology-power imbalances. In fact, it either intentionally or unintentionally pushes viewers toward desensitization of these issues.

Finally, let us consider the information which is less known, the present realities of Northern Uganda and Central Africa. As I write this letter, Suzan gently reminds me that the people of Northern Uganda can now return home. They can now decide, more or less, where they want to live. Their society, though facing infrastructural challenges, is thriving. Proponents of IC will respond, “but Kony (Luo for “help,” pronounced almost like the English word “cone”) is now outside of Uganda, in South Sudan, CAR, and DRC.” My response is that IC does not know the first thing (or conveniently ignores the first thing) about culture, politics, and society in Uganda. How can IC then know what is best for a region even more marginal to their maps? How can it expect to appropriately advocate for the arrest of Joseph Kony without prompting the type of collateral damage and devastation that we recently saw in Libya? What makes us assume that a humanitarian agency from the West understands what it takes to restore justice to any region in sub-Saharan Africa?

So what do we do? IC has asked that any critics of their work provide positive alternatives. Let us turn to the fundamental change-makers of this part of the world, people that toppled well-established regimes by planting trees (Wangari Maathai of Kenya). Let us practice the nonviolent tactics of the Liberian Women who effectively ended the second civil war in their nation. Let us look to the Ugandan NGOs, non-profits, churches, and activist groups such as Action for Change, Alternative to Violence-Centered Organization for Humanity, Refugee Law Project, and The Campus Journal that have put the most risky and powerful foot forward in the pursuit of justice. Our global class privilege and power is silencing the efforts of agencies which actually understand the complicated mess that we have reduced to a single soundbite: “Let’s get Kony.”

So where does that leave me, as an American? It’s an important question. Kony is a tiny branch on an infested tree, but we are at the root. We taxpayers are funding violence and terror (In Uganda, yes, but also across the globe). Our consumption patterns enable rebel forces to do what they do in sub-Saharan Africa. Let us begin with ourselves. Find a socially and environmentally just electronics company when you make your next purchase, or simply don’t make a next purchase. What makes us so entitled that we believe we don’t have to sacrifice something or undergo difficult transformation for these systems of ongoing oppression to change? The blood is on my own hands, and that is where I begin.

At the very least, do nothing. It will help a lot more than plastering a cool poster on a wall in a random city. And at least don’t convince your policymakers to keep up the efforts of militarizing northern Uganda. Otherwise, when those close to Suzan and I return to a life of dodging bullets, you’ll find yourselves saying, “That’s not what we meant to do.”

I.C. folks getting close with the UPDF

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