Kony 2012: nirvana of online campaigning or missed chance?

Global and local charities say funds raised by Invisible Children should be spent on rehabilitation of child soldiers, not military action

When darkness falls across America on Friday night, blood-red posters are expected to appear across the country demanding that the US government take action to stop the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Before last month, few Americans had heard of Kony, who believes he is sanctioned by God to rape, pillage and abduct children to recruit into his Lords Resistance Army (LRA). But today Kony is the villain in a slick Hollywood drama that stars an American charity as central Africa's hero.

Friday's "Cover the Night" protest is the first offline action by the US charity Invisible Children, which last month became an internet sensation after its film about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda – described as a "perfect" production by one film expert – was viewed 90m times in its first week.

Since then the US congress has signed two resolutions pledging support for the capture of Kony, and the African Union has announced a 5,000-strong brigade – backed by US intelligence support – to target the LRA. George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have declared their support.

But experts in international advocacy are still split as to whether this remarkable mobilisation against an African war criminal is the nirvana of online campaigning or a missed chance that could backfire against the children it was supposed to protect. Global and local charities in the region will voice their concern on Friday that military action, as proposed by the campaign, risks more lives than the dwindling LRA force itself.

The Invisible Children film was born on Facebook on 5 March and had been viewed several million times before the mainstream media noticed. YouTube ratings show that the film has been most popular with teenagers and the under-24s; even the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, first heard about the campaign in a text message from his student daughter.

However, while the internet can make a campaign, it can also break it, and there was a furious backlash against Invisible Children's depiction of the conflict, led by Ugandans and the country's diaspora. The key charge was that it was an outdated, over-simplified version of their history. While the film dwelled heavily on Uganda, Kony is now operating a much depleted army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with conflict straying over the borders with Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist who was one of the leading voices of that backlash, said the reaction in Uganda was first bewilderment, then irritation. There were reports of anger at public screenings. "In terms of the country's reputation, there were fears for the tourism sector and that's why the government was coming out so strongly to make sure people know this is not a war zone and that these areas are safe," she said.

"I don't think this will last for long because people said firmly and strongly that [what the film claimed] is not what's happening on the ground. If we hadn't, God knows how many people would still have believed there was a war here … This film isn't true."

Invisible Children has been accused of being on an evangelical mission and its finances have been heavily scrutinised. Pictures surfaced of the founders of Invisible Children posing in Uganda with guns, along with footage of them proselytising at Christian events. One recording of the co-founder and star of the film, Jason Russell, in 2005 has him describing Invisible Children as a "Trojan horse" going into the secular realm of US high schools to spread God's word.

In the US, events are planned in most major cities for Friday's action but it is not expected to reach the heights predicted after the campaign was launched, when 3.5 million signed the Stop Kony pledge. In both in the US and UK, Twitter streams and Facebook pages dedicated to setting up Cover the Night events are dominated by questions about whether anyone will actually turn up and continued debates over the film's controversies.

Despite this, development experts have been in awe at IC's tactics, which have seen awareness of Joseph Kony in the US go from virtually nil to 58% of the adult population, according to one poll.

Invisible Children issued detailed rebuttals to the criticisms. At one point, Jedidiah Jenkins, IC's "head of ideology", said: "Our films are made for high-school children. We make films that speak the language of kids … Our films were not made to be scrutinised by the Guardian."

Nevertheless, Invisible Children produced a second film on 5 April addressing the criticisms. Fronted by Jolly Okot, head of its programme in Uganda, the film explained more fully the current activities of the LRA and went some way to appeasing critics. However, Google stats show that this film got just 2% of the internet traffic of its predecessor.

Some argue the campaign's impact has been curtailed by the criticisms. Others say the scale of support in the US is so huge that the criticisms didn't register.

In terms of US political impact, 42 senators and 62 representatives have co-sponsored Kony 2012 resolutions. Congress has agreed to increase its aid to the region from $5m to $10-15m to spend on more early warning systems, encourage LRA defections and help with integration.

The most dramatic intervention came on 24 March, with news that the African Union had agreed to deploy a 5,000-strong brigade to hunt down Kony and his army, apparently meeting the campaign's key demand. But this, it is argued, was in train before the Kony film was released.

Patrick Wegner, an academic at the International Max Planck Research School on Successful Dispute Resolution in Germany, claimed it was "plain wrong" to suggest the African Union action was prompted by Kony 2012. "The first reports of news media on the planned joint brigade of the four central/eastern African countries date back to 13 October 2010. BBC and AFP reported about the plans. The idea is a lot older than the Kony 2012 video," he said.

On the ground, development experts say the film has made little difference to their work. Arthur Larok, the head of Action Aid in Uganda, said: "Apart from reminding people that Kony is still an issue – especially the second video, which at least had some voices from the DRC and Congo, where Kony is still active – I don't think anything has changed. I think there has been a lot of debate about that situation not being showed properly. In terms of real change? Not much. The impact is more pronounced for the Americans."

Now there are concerns that the military action advocated by Invisible Children – which was being planned before their film came out – could trigger reprisal attacks of the kind seen after the last offensive against Kony in 2008, where his army retaliated with a massacre. Over three weeks starting on Christmas Eve 2008, 865 people were killed and hundreds more abducted in DRC and South Sudan. The attack was a response to Operation Lightning Thunder, a joint military campaign by the Congolese, Ugandan, and South Sudanese armies, supported by the US.

Ten agencies, including major aid organisations such as Oxfam, Cafod and Christian Aid, as well as local community NGOs in the region, have signed a joint warning against military action without additional civilian protection.

"We really question how any military intervention now will help to protect all these people against retaliation attacks from the LRA," said Ernest Sugule, president of the Congolese organisation SAIPD (Solidarité et Assistance Intégrale aux Personnes Démunies), one of the signatories. "The LRA is a guerrilla group mainly comprised of ruthless commanders and forcibly abducted children. The new military offensive cannot discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and will only result in further loss of innocent lives."

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary-general's special representative for children and armed conflict, has called for the considerable sums IC raised through sales of its $30 protest packs of posters, T-shirts and wristbands to be directed towards rehabilitation for child soldiers rather than military action.

Meanwhile, figures from the UNHCR show that the number of LRA attacks in the DRC has gone up markedly this year. Richard Nunn, Oxfam's protection programme manager speaking from the Dungu region of DRC, said the severity of attacks has decreased. It was becoming an army pillaging in order to feed and clothe itself rather than one terrorising people on a daily basis, he added.

But the effect is still significant. "The impact of the LRA is still there psychologically. At the beginning of March there were rumours of an attack. A huge number of the population was panicking and running everywhere. The LRA … still has the power to displace people," he said.

"Kony and his fighters have a core of 150 to 200 members. That's the fighting force. Around them is a huge number of women and children and they keep them around where they are. Military action will have collateral damage on people who are kidnapped, or kept for sexual slavery. The African Union will have to take this into account."


Polly Curtis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kony 2012 campaign: Oprah and bracelets won't solve problem | Michael Wilkerson

Michael Wilkerson: You could forgive eager tweeters crying out to stop the non-existent violence in Uganda

Michael Wilkerson

08, Mar, 2012 @11:22 PM

Article image
Joseph Kony: African Union brigade to hunt down LRA leader

Force of 5,000 troops from central African countries to be formed to 'stop Kony with military hardware', envoy says

Conal Urquhart

24, Mar, 2012 @4:09 PM

Article image
Hunt for Joseph Kony will kill more innocent people, charities warn
Military plans to capture LRA leader will trigger retaliatory attacks on civilians and endanger child soldiers, say NGOs

Polly Curtis

19, Apr, 2012 @3:03 PM

Article image
'We don't know of any Kony video': villagers tell of reality of violent attacks

As world attention is drawn to their plight, victims of the Lord's Resistance Army say their situation is getting worse

Pete Jones in Dungu

03, Apr, 2012 @6:25 PM

Article image
Child abductee featured in Kony 2012 defends film's maker against criticism
Ugandan Jacob Acaye says world needs to know about war waged by Joseph Kony that is still going on elsewhere in Africa

Julian Borger, John Vidal, and Rosebell Kagumire in Kampala

08, Mar, 2012 @8:46 PM

Article image
Joseph Kony kidnapped 591 children in past three years, UN report reveals
Ugandan warlord used some of under-age recruits as fighters, human shields or spies for his Lord's Resistance Army

David Smith in Johannesburg

07, Jun, 2012 @2:59 PM

Article image
Central Africa fears return of LRA after hunt for Joseph Kony ends
Decision by US and African allies to call off hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army leader may give fighters chance to regroup

Jason Burke Africa correspondent, and Alon Mwesigwa in Kampala

01, May, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Kony 2012 puts child soldiers back under the spotlight | David Smith

David Smith: The video on the Lord's Resistance Army and the international criminal court's guilty verdict on a Congolese warlord have put the issue of child soldiers back on the global agenda

David Smith

16, Mar, 2012 @11:42 AM

Article image
Kony 2012 and the politics of sending a brutal villain viral | Nicky Woolf
Nicky Woolf: You told us: A video highlighting Uganda's Joseph Kony and the LRA has attracted ideological criticism, but it is undeniably powerful

Nicky Woolf

08, Mar, 2012 @3:00 PM

Article image
Talk point: Does Kony 2012 offer the right solutions for child soldiers?

In this month's Global development podcast we sought your thoughts on what can be done to stop the Lord's Resistance Army and what's needed to address its legacy in Uganda and the region. Review reader comments, listen to the podcast, and add your own thoughts

Jaz Cummins and Claire Provost

17, Apr, 2012 @12:31 PM