When I wrote my novel Virus, I invented a corrupt Ugandan government leader, a rogue NGO and a web of conceit, deceptions, untruths and PR spin that revolved right up to, and inside, the White House. Little did I know that actual events would so closely mirror broad aspects of my fictional story. The “Kony 2012” documentary/advertisement says a lot about how ideas work, how misconceptions get established and how a seemingly good idea can carry enough poison to infect the very people it is trying to help. But, most of all, it says a lot about us. And it isn’t a pleasant view.
First to look at the misconceptions. It’s been widely stated that the video, at best, fails to cover, and at worst is utterly wrong about, the myriad disputes in the region covering Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and, Southern Sudan. This much is by now pretty much beyond dispute. The NGO behind the video, Invisible Children (IC), has admitted that it purposely dumbed down the content so as to make a point that the psychopathic mass murderer who is the subject of the video, Joseph Kony, should be hunted down and made the face the wrath of (Western) justice.
This cute PR exercise pushes all the emotional buttons and pulls all the shifty tricks from the grab bag of the most shonky “Mad Men”. In failing to note, for instance, that Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army are isolated, under-resourced, under-trained and on the run in the jungles of central Africa; or in leaving out the bit that press ganging of child soldiers is rife in the region with its proponents including the President of Uganda, Yoweri Musevini, or in forgetting to mention that the LRA emerged in reaction to very real grievance among the persecuted Acholi people in northern Uganda at the hands of its own government, or in not factoring in the bit that international investors in the region have stirred various pots for their own vested interests, creating waves from which Kony appears to have occasionally benefitted, or in being uninformative of the fact that the very International Criminal Court indictment IC seems to invoke is one probable reason Kony hasn’t actually given up and sought a peace deal, “Kony 2012” actually undermines its own expressed intentions.
Beyond that, the funding base of the IC organisation is claimed to be heavily dependent on American fundamentalist Christians. If true, this is another detail the IC forgot to include in its 30 minute indulgence. Invisible Motives rather than Invisible Children perhaps.
Building a statement of apparent fact on a range of half truths, vacuums and bending light is not an action isolated to the “Kony 2012” producers. But, its hit rate suggests few have done it so well.
How might this campaign actually harm the former child soldiers and victims of violence it seeks to help?
For one, as noted, the ICC arrest warrant hanging over Kony’s head is a barrier to him ever coming in from the jungle and seeking peace. It may seem counter-intuitive that he would do such a thing, but some LRA fighters have already done this some years ago and the ICC has suggested to Mr Musevini that he set up an independent peace and reconciliation body within Uganda. Kony is intelligent. He has played the complicated, changing landscape in the region deftly and he has survived against all odds. He would know that should he simply give up and come in, his probable reward would be the rest of his life in jail. Why would he give himself up for that?
Secondly, by portraying Kony as some kind of black hat cowboy in an old John Wayne Western, IC risks drawing much needed resources to his capture, and away from other areas that will actually help many of those suffering. More indirectly, shaping a campaign of clear misinterpretation sows the seeds of confusion in the wider global public and militates against a wider understanding of the region’s ills and, therefore, undermines any real chance of the kind of useful global mobilisation IC is seeking.
So, what does this say about us?
For one, the fact that we have to have our information so packaged and polished raises questions as to whether even the economically developed world can ever really grasp the issues it has the responsibility to face. Few had heard of Joseph Kony prior to “Kony 2012” and fewer still even knew that the border region had been mired in internecine wars and cross border spillovers for decades or that the DRC, for one is the world’s major centre for tantalum, a prime component in mobile phones, DVD players, game consoles and computers, such as, ironically, the one I am writing this article on and that oil was recently discovered in Uganda.
Without this knowledge few have been able to join the dots between international business interests, the cost of consumerism, political power plays, tribal rifts and alliances, cultural components, corrupted governments and big power arms sales to arrive at an educated position on just what a miniscule role Joseph Kony plays in all this, and, more importantly, what to do about the bigger picture.
But, perhaps most alarmingly, “Kony 2012” tells us that we still give credence to the old White Man’s Burden line of the colonial era. We still believe that Africa’s problems are the creation of doltish, backward Africans who need a white knight to ride upon its idealist steed and vanquish the evil doers. We ignore the fact that those evil doers and the white knights are often in bed together. It’s more than just a bad visual.
“Kony 2012” has made my fictional take on problems in aid, Africa, big business and politics more real than I could have imagined. The YouTube phenomenon’s remarkable popularity is nothing less than a sad indictment on a world too full of guilt and ignorance to give due shape to the good intentions many of us citizens hold regarding the myriad problems that confront us.