Much of this online fervor can be attributed to the creation and distribution of a recent viral video released by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children, Inc. (IC) a group dedicated to “disarm[ing] the LRA and bring[ing] the child soldiers home”.
The video, directed by IC co-founder and filmmaker, Jason Russell, tells the story of Jacob, a Ugandan teenager living in Gulu, Uganda whose own life has been wrought with the terror of civil war in northern Uganda, followed by an account of the conflict taking place between the Ugandan government and the LRA.
Among the many “crimes against humanity” and war crimes pinned on Kony, the actions most derided by activists and news anchors alike are the abductions of children by the LRA to act as sex slaves and child soldiers as well as the forcible mutilation of children’s faces. The IC in particular has raised its voice in reaching out to young people the world over to rally support for their case: make Kony so famous that the violence and deprivation in northern Uganda can’t be ignored. By blasting Kony’s name all over the Internet, pasting fliers in cities all across the globe and garnering support from “policymakers and culture-makers,” the IC team hopes to sway Congress to take action and the public to join the fugue of cries for American support. But the problem lies not only in the misguided cause spearheaded by the IC, but the deceptive ways in which it has tried to promote it.
The IC, given a two out of four star rating for “Accountability and Transparency” on the non-profit watchdog site Charity Navigator, has come under fire as of late for failing to make public its finances or to mention essential facts about the internal conflicts taking place in Uganda as a means of furthering its message. For instance, only about 30 percent of contributions to the IC go to Ugandans in need of aid, while a devastatingly large amount goes to travel expenses, salaries and video and camera equipment.
The video suggests that Kony’s regime is a new phenomenon, an irreconcilable enemy that must be stopped now or never. However,”combat-equipped” US forces have been in Uganda for years following the declaration of the LRA as a terrorist group after the Sept. 11 attacks and the official bumping of Kony up to Specially Designated Global Terrorist status in 2008. The US military even made attempts to capture Kony at his compound during the “Garamba Offensive” (nicknamed Operation Lightning Thunder) that same year.
Even with the generous aid afforded the Ugandan government by the US, Ugandan forces have shown an unwillingness to cooperate in the past. (American-Ugandan military cooperation is one of the primary actions suggested by the IC.) But it goes even further: in 2010, President Obama signed and Congress passed into law a bill that would send 100 military advisers to the region—an accomplishment the filmmaker traces to the public outcry of the IC’s Kony operation. The US had also been aiding Uganda with a combined $885 million for assistance in 2011 as well as directives to combat HIV/AIDS.
Perhaps there is some leniency to be shown; filming of the documentary started in 2003. Things were very different nine years ago. The US had an entirely different president, and, in fact, it has been suggested (because it came as a surprise to many when Obama authorized the deployment of US military in Uganda) that Obama’s efforts in the African region were merely political gestures made to solidify American ties in the continent. Yet it is mentioned time and again by the makers of the video that the US has been “unwilling” and unflappable in its resilience to help in a country where American interests are not directly served.
Of even more concern is the lack of understanding of diplomacy and diplomatic history on the part of the filmmaker who so staunchly believes that removing Kony will be “change that lasts forever”. First and foremost, Uganda’s actual government is a dictatorship of its own plagued by corruption and one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. (This is the same government, also, that drew international criticism for its persecution of Ugandan homosexuals.)
Reaching all the way back into the recesses of history shows us that the deposition of destructive and oppressive regimes does not guarantee a peaceful outcome. Ngo Dinh Diem was taken out in Vietnam; militaristic control still prevailed. Mubarak was toppled in Egypt; the nation is still a lopsided shell of a democracy. Qaddafi fled from his palace; Libya is still war-torn.
It is still unclear whether the IC favors peace or justice—a dichotomy of values that is sometimes hard to reconcile. Killing Kony would not stop the displacement of Ugandan families, the nation’s own government does so when it relocates entire villages, while capturing Kony and bringing him into the arms of the International Criminal Court (ICC) would force a detailed look at all the crimes he has committed. Though, images of the filmmakers with weapons and Ugandan soldiers doesn’t seem to suggest their support of the latter.
It is admirable that the IC has been able to “[get] young people to care about an issue on the other side of the planet that doesn’t affect them,” but these glaring inaccuracies and manipulated truths cannot be ignored for the sake of a cause. This is not to say that Kony shouldn’t be stopped or that the people over at the IC are malicious snake-oil salesmen, but the ways in which actions are being carried out and the questionable credibility of the people leading such actions is too dangerous to be overlooked.
UPDATE — Mar. 7, 10:31 p.m.
Invisible Children, Inc. responds to criticisms of its viral video.
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Kyle William Dunn / Editor in Chief