Critical social activism: why Kony 2012 is not quite there

“We are the motivated misfits and masses redefining what it means to be an activist.” –Invisible Children, nonprofit organization, filmmakers below.

And so begins the Joseph Kony man-hunt. (Okay, that actually began last November after Obama authorized it) But just recently, the rampant online activist campaign called Stop Kony 2012 went viral, involving a 30-minute documentary filmed by Invisible Children and its stated intent to “bring to justice” the abhorrent Ugandan guerrilla movement leader Joseph Kony. 10 million YouTube views and counting. But a closer look at the LRA’s violent trajectory will take you through a complex history of political conflict in Uganda, beginning in the early 1980s. Understanding the events of the past few decades reveals the troubling inconsistencies of the campaign and the utterly uninformed and dangerous disservice it does to Uganda, obscuring the issues most pressing to Ugandan citizens today. These factors (poor governance, economic and regional stratification, endemic violence unrelated to LRA) are not so abstract that we can’t zealously rearticulate a campaign of equal force and significance. Seriously, Mark Kersten says it all – read his piece!

So what has been prescribed for the aspiring activist?

1) sign a pledge

2) re-tweet/raise hell on the inter-webs

3) buy a $30 activist kit and complementary Kony 2012 bracelet

4) donate to Invisible Children, who will in turn pressure the U.S government to continue hunting Kony down.

Funny. A non-profit organization advocates for outdated and ineffective counterinsurgency tactics. Have we not learned anything from failed military interventions of the past? Lobbing off the figurehead of a movement usually exacerbates violence; it rarely ameliorates terrorist activity. And Joseph Kony, who hasn’t even been in Uganda for at least 5 or 6 years, must be amused by the man-hunt so championed by Invisible Children filmmakers. Ugandans, meanwhile, scratch their heads and wonder why awareness wasn’t raised a few years back during the height of civilan deaths and abductions (2000-2002). Moreover, the LRA has both shrunk and spilled over into the Central African Republic, southern Sudan, and the DRC. For purposes of self-disclosure: this post will, at first glance, seem like cynical kvetching on my part. But here’s a roadmap. We can use the Kony Campaign to discuss what James Ferguson calls “Foucauldian politics” and Ferguson’s own efforts to shift the way we think about and conceptualize African travails in the 21st century. And more importantly, how we must respond. In short, our policies need to creatively address the interrelated interests of predatory groups (the LRA and the Ugandan government) and the flaws of current free-market policies as wielded by governments to reinforce their own rule.

Yesterday, I became engaged in a great Facebook discussion (more like heated debate) about this issue and was criticized for debunking the movement entirely. That’s what made me think of Ferguson/Foucault. We can’t simply discredit Invisible Children or other overarching narratives and render ourselves forever the “antis”, the “refuseniks”. Alternative visions must be proffered. And for the record, I am very grateful that Invisible Children has initiated a far-reaching popular discussion about Uganda and the LRA within the American public. Awareness is the necessary first step. But again: misleading and oversimplified awareness is hardly awareness. It also feeds into a nasty and outdated narrative that mystifies “Africa” as the hopeless, shadowy continent while avoiding broader discussions about the status imposed on Africa in the wider global economy and the on-the-ground transnational networks already working to transform that status. In short, a policy imperative concentrated on “capture-or-kill” (yes, Kony led a movement that captured, raped, killed, and trained children as soldiers) may only serve to complicate the conflict and reproduce that muddled narrative. It may also serve other purposes, for those who harbor a more conspiratorial take on U.S interests in the region. Little lipservice is paid to the corrupt Ugandan government or Yoweri Museveni’s 25-year-long stint, in which he systematically wiped out Northern Ugandan groups opposing his rule. Giving money and technology to the Ugandan army (do the funds even make it that far?) doesn’t make them prioritize civilian protection. In fact, bolstering the national army gives Museveni the means to maintain an iron grip on power.

A little history

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was a democratic triumphalist in the 1990s, and announced that his country would join the “Third Wave” of African states pursuing market-friendly and democratic reforms. Uganda was heralded for its willingness to adopt IMF structural adjustment programs – a “success story” later impeded by civil war. Alongside the growing conflict, Museveni demonstrated the hollowness of these reforms by joining other African ruling elites in trends toward rent-seeking and corruption. Where does Joseph Kony and the LRA fit into this story, of “Afro-optimism” in the 1990s followed swiftly by a return to “Afro-pessimism”?

Well, millenarian cults such as the LRA are not new to the region. In fact, a chain of these cults have succeeded one another since the 1980s in Northern Uganda. Okay, so why northern Uganda and why such extensive participation in cults? Well, Museveni is also part of a lengthy chain of national movements all seeking to A) rebuild Uganda under one-party rule and B) militarize the state to maintain that power, while C) systematically neglecting its own people. After the dictatorship of Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979, the Obote regime came to power through insidious reworking of “national elections” and iron-fist demonstrations akin to the dictatorship he replaced. Obote’s brutal rule bred Museveni’s guerrilla campaign to remove him, and the death toll of the civil war that followed (where the government also detained, tortured, and killed) was upwards of 500,000 people. As Museveni took control in 1986, he vowed to transform Uganda’s crumbling economy into that of South Korea’s. Any good deeds he initiated regionally (helping to stabilize Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Congo in part) have been met with poor performance on the homefront. A still-deflated economy cannot be transformed with military might.

Such cruelty and neglect for the Ugandan people led many to join these millenarian cults, which promised safety and relief from suffering. In response to seemingly endless political upheaval and the spread of endemics like HIV/AIDS or the “Nodding disease”, these cults exercised their own political authority, while reorganizing villages along cult lines  according to the localization of various leaders/self-proclaimed prophets. Out of the Yakan movement’s ashes rose the Holy Spirit Movement, which beget Joseph Kony and the LRA. Defiance was directed toward the government, which did nothing to try to extend control or services to these regions that were informally but powerfully reorganized, but instead did the only thing the Ugandan government knew how to do: wage war against the barbarous LRA campaign. And the LRA inflicted atrocities of scale in the north, reaching its apex in the early 2000s.

Foucauldian politics and the “global shadow” of Africa

As is the case when you meticulously dissect most longstanding regional conflicts, the dizzying array of underlying and interconnected issues may leave you feeling apathetic. Especially as an aspiring activist. Yes, it might be better if Joseph Kony were not on the loose. But what about the man who has illegitimately fidgeted with the electoral process to extend his presidency across 25 years, squandered aid and state funds to bribe or bail out supporters, will probably do the same with pending oil revenue, and has a poor human rights record himself? I don’t think this is a matter of “choosing sides” between the LRA and the Ugandan government. We should be happy that Uganda now occupies a place of greater macroeconomic stability than ever before. And that’s why its confusing as to why this issue is being raised now. But the deeper trends should raise questions about the conservative, free-market policies being used as an instrument of state power, not to develop the economy or integrate the masses, but to maintain the rule of one man and his corrupt regime. As we’ve seen with the spread of cult violence and political authority, the “nation-state” doesn’t seem to have as much power or legitimacy within broader African regions. In an activist campaign, the slippery concept of “nation-state” must be abandoned for better tactics that work beyond government parameters.

What will it mean to rehabilitate Ugandan children and usher in sustainable peace?

Where should our “developmental focus” be? Is the nation-state the sovereign agent of development?

And in comes Foucault. Foucault critiqued at great length what he calls the “right art of government” that has gained prominence after World War II and has effectively governed the way we think about economic and social development, mediated through the “free market” but in “state” hands. We’ve decried the massive global inequalities that have followed and the rise of “underdevelopment” in countries that adopted these policies and reigned in state expenditure on public programs. Denouncement is not enough. The left failed to articulate its own “art of government”, equally appealing and accounting for the developmental pitfalls of the right (that we observe auspiciously in Africa). Instead, critics of both “free market capitalism” and of activist attempts like Kony 2012, attack and refute while not offering a compelling alternative vision for action. Obviously, we’re not opting for a military intervention alone (or at all). We’re not necessarily promoting “socialism” either. Ferguson wrote that a “Foucauldian politics” would identify positive social assistance programs working within African states and from there, identify what a new “left art of government” would look like. These would, ironically for some, draw upon market mechanisms in ways that increases the purchasing power of the people and reinforces networks of social assistance, conducted by NGOs and other philanthropic organizations. Unlike Invisible Children, we would not result to traditional “capture-or-kill” notions of justice and Western self-righteousness, but instead take a policy stance in line with Ugandan needs and interests on-the-ground.

As critical social activists, perhaps we’d like to see the American public put resources and energy into those programs that are offering real social assistance to Africans, organizations that work beyond the Ugandan government bureaucracy. These NGOs have filled the gap where government has abandoned duties of traditional social service functions. It is these organizations that are working to transform the livelihoods of Ugandans through social and economic programs, and will diminish the activities of the LRA.

Manifesto for the well-meaning slacktivist: experimentation, not denunciation

An activist with their eyes on African political issues can use social media  as a medium to creatively channel support, awareness, and funds towards organizations providing unique forms of social assistance to Ugandans, NGOs that are “pro-poor” in thrust, as Ferguson writes. These newer forms of social assistance must be observed warily, for some of them will indeed prove ineffective or cater to the interests of foreigners and not to the interests of African citizens (e.g. we can’t perceive all NGO action as beneficial/constructive). Ferguson noted this but christened this a process of experimentation. I am especially wary of Invisible Children, because while they do have excellent rehabilitation and education programs, I worry that some of these funds (which may be sorely mismanaged) are also given to the Ugandan government. Also, their focus has not been placed in these programs. As activists, we can’t tear down corrupt governments and neither can we simply reject neoliberalism and leave it at that. But we can properly inform people and start discussing what kind of programs (foreign and domestic) will work to alleviate conflict and aim for development. And with that, here’s a word from James Ferguson:

“The political demands and policy measures I have mentioned here (whether conditional cash transfers, basic income, or cash-based food aid) do not merit, I think, either wholesale denunciation or uncritical acceptance. Instead, they call on us to remain skeptical and vigilant, but also curious and hopeful. They leave us less with strong opinions than with the sense that we need to think about them a bit more, and learn a bit more about the specific empirical effects that they (our policies, our movements) may produce.”

From here, you can ask – does Kony 2012 aim for the most efficient and well-grounded policy imperatives in its campaign? Is Kony 2012 accurately representing the needs and concerns of Ugandans and creatively exercising its power to address those needs?

Do campaigns for issues associated with massive direct violence (in this case, of the past)  receive more publicity and support than campaigns working to transform equally horrific economic and social circumstances?


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