Monday, March 12, 2012

Trying to Make Sense of Kony2012, Invisible Children and Regional Politics.

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I throw myself into the "Kony2012" debate somewhat late. At first, I was unable to comprehend the whole viral phenomenon. What could possibly explain how a conflict that has been going on for more than two decades finally becomes an international sensation at a time when civilians in Syria are facing imminent slaughter? Have human beings finally discovered the importance of human rights? I kept trying to grapple with these questions to no avail.

As I previously observed in a post last year, I have quite some history with Invisible Children. Perhaps this is an obvious fact for any college-going student with a heart for activism to mention. Moreover, I have had the privileged of organizing for several of their events at my current institution. If my post seems super critical, it is not one that is driven by an "anti-Invisible Children agenda"--whatever that means. I admire the organization's zeal, but I am also skeptical of the direction they are choosing to take.

On a personal level, issues of northern Uganda are very dear to me. I am a survivor of Africa's two deadliest conflicts: the Rwandan genocide and subsequent war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Both tragedies have left in me an indelible quest for social justice. As such, issues of war and genocide are not just a part-time preoccupation for me; they are part and parcel of my life.

Some five years ago, I visited Northern Uganda along with a group that was assisting internally displaced persons. The overcrowded camps were a breeding ground for both diseases and hunger. Children were not going to school, and the families survived on the little food they got from UNHCR. Even for someone of my background, what I saw there was a scene from hell.

At the same time, despite the choking suffering in the northern region, the rest of Uganda was experiencing a period of rapid economic growth. New construction projects were sprouting up in its capital, Kampala. I couldn't reconcile the contradiction. Later, several of my conversations with activists in Uganda seemed to imply that the problems in the north were the direct result of a deliberate system of political exclusion. I share the same view.

So here come the questions: is Invisible Children capable of addressing these complex political problems? Will the killing of Joseph Kony fix what is essentially a rotten political system?

To be sure, it is hard not to admire the Kony2012 campaign. Invisible Children has helped ignite an international debate on issues that go beyond the LRA and its leader. Moreover, their campaign has sparked the consciousness of an army of high school and college students. To that extent, they deserve a lot of praise.

However, the very campaign appears to be deeply flawed. First, it has been argued that they rely on expired facts--one blogger has described this as the (unacceptable) selling of old newspapers. At the same time, others have raised the fact that Invisible Children uses most of its funds on administrative costs--with very little going to the ground. These are all legitimate criticisms, and hopefully, they will help reform the organization. They have no choice but to do so in order to survive what is a tough charity market.

As someone concerned with human rights, my main contention is that the campaign has the (perhaps untended) consequence of legitimizing one of Africa's longest-serving and brutal dictator, Yoweri Museveni. Mr. Museveni is approaching the end of his corrupt and ruthless career, and he desperately needs re-packaging. He is an old dog that desperately years for new tricks. Just to put this into perspective: a member of Museveni's parliament is the sponsor of the infamous bill anti-gay bill--that champions capital punishment for homosexuals. Yes, this is the sort of regime that we are dealing with!

We also know that Museveni is the first rebel leader to use child solders in the region. The likes of Joseph Kony learned this deplorable trade from him. He might have been Kony's role model. However, Museveni's crimes, though well documented, have been silently ignored.

The Ugandan political activist and a highly respected international figure, Olara Otunnu has accused Museveni of committing genocide against the people in northern Uganda. However, it is in the DRC where the effects of his brutal military maneuvers have been felt the most. In the past, he has sponsored several DRC war-lords including Jean Pierre Bemba and Thomas Lubanga who are both currently under the custody of the International Criminal Court. Despite all the uncomfortable facts, Museveni is still a necessary evil for the United States, a useful criminal in the inglorious war on terror.

My impression is that most of Invisible Children supporters are peace loving individuals who genuinely want to do good. It is therefore important that they are aware of the consequences of extending US military support to a morally corrupt octogenarian. The last thing that this region of Africa needs is another highly armed tyrant who enjoys the full support of the democratic world. It is another paradox that might come back to bite. If we've learned anything from history, we must avert that at all cost.

In principle, I am personally unconvinced that a military solution will address the problems in the region. At the same time, I do recognize that the way Kony's narrative is presented leaves little room for doubt on the legitimacy of such an action. Vestiges of colonialism in the West reinforce the notion of African conflicts as being devoid politics. The image of savages running amok is widely and readily presented to those who care. While I am not sympathetic to Kony, I believe this depiction of him as the epitome of evil is rather misleading. Kony is the product of his society. His political message makes him something less of an ordinary bandit.

In fact, it has been said to be the case that Kony enjoyed systematic support from the Acholi people during the early stages of his rebellion. No rebel group can last for several years without some form of collaboration with the local communities. The problem here is that, in favor of a more simplistic narrative that splits the world into good vs. evil, the reality of the political struggle in northern Uganda has been acutely obscured. Such simplification may make Museveni happy, but they probably won't hold.

Yet, if Kony, even in the slightest way, represents some of the struggles of his people, it is unlikely that killing him will bring the conflict to an end. It may just end up postponing the inevitable. 

Invisible Children now claims that their intervention mandate has spread beyond the Uganda frontiers. They want to apprehend Kony wherever he maybe. What started as an advocacy group to enlighten the world on the suffering of the children of Uganda is now entangled in a war without borders. What's next? I wouldn't be surprised if they start calling on the US military to utilize predator drones in their Kony hunt.

If, indeed, they are concerned about the DRC or the Central Africa Republic, then they are in the right place. It is true that the suffering in both countries fails to get widespread international coverage. In the DRC, over five million people have died since the transnational war that started in 1996. As I have mentioned, Museveni was one of the war's chief architects.

Politics aside, one can convincingly argue in favor of any action that reduces the suffering of people in this region. The problem here is that past joint military offensives by both the US and Uganda have failed to protect the people they sought to protect. It is difficult, on the other hand, to agree to a policy that sparks more and unjustifiable violence. Kony and his rat-tug army are like a swarm of bees. You encroach on them and they start to sting indiscriminately and in every direction.

Throughout, I have noted that the African Diaspora and middle class has been on the forefront of criticizing the Kony2012 campaign. This is hardly surprising. Many Africans, no longer trapped in the misery of poverty, do not understand why the world continues to project a singular view of the continent. For instance, when I am out at a restaurant with my white friends, I sometimes feel insulted when the picture of an emaciated black child pops up on the TV screens often as a commercial for some aid organization. The conversation will immediately changes, as my colleagues prompt me to update them on what is going on in Africa. Needless to say, this can be very exhausting!

At the same time, I am of the view that poor people in Africa, or elsewhere for that matter, do not give a hoot about my image issues. As privileged Africans we can talk about the (ill) motives of NGOs all we want, but those who are suffering on the ground do not care. The reality is that poverty and conflict are still a reality in Africa that cannot be overlooked simply to satisfy our egocentric desire for more positive stories. What is crucial is that, we continue to insist for the accountability of charities. If my suffering is used to attract donations, then it would be unethical for the money to go elsewhere. It is important for the money to reach the ground!

I come from a country, Rwanda, where the hunger for positive stories has brought a dangerously skewed narrative. After the genocide, most journalists have been eager to write about the Rwandan recovery. Some have even called it the Rwandan miracle. However, this has only served to mask the realities of one of Africa's most repressive regime. Ironically, due to the flattering media reports, many people think of the Rwandan system as the most progressive on the continent. Clearly, positive stories on the continent could be just as dangerous. As difficult as it may be, we have to strike a balance.

3 comments:

Stephanie D said...

So very well written.

Clear, concise, informative.

I want to know more of your personal story... going to read more of your posts.

Nkunda said...

I haven't written much about myself. But you can always send me a message via Twitter or my personal email. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Very well written ...first article on Kony that caused true pause and deeper thought on the very important points you address!
Amahoro!
Tara