A Ugandan reflection on Kony 2012 by Stephen Oola

This post was written by Stephen Oola, the Ugandan Local Correspondent for Insight on Conflict. Insight on Conflict is Peace Direct's global resource on peacebuilding. Showcasing the work of hundreds of local peacebuilding organisations worldwide.

In a globalised world, it’s become more difficult to label an organisation a “local – indigenous” or an “international-alien” in peacebuilding than ever before. Yet, past experiences have demonstrated that imposed solutions, out of context and without local leadership, are less sustainable and more often disastrous. In Africa, this is especially true for international organisations with headquarters in North America but offering “solutions” to global problems in all corners of the world.

Invisible Children does not fit the category of international organisation exactly, but it has some semblance. It is registered both in Uganda and the USA. It is very active on the ground in northern Uganda, yet less visible in its campaigns than it is the USA.

The question is how come, despite the very good work they do within northern Uganda, Invisible Children is more pronounced and well-known in the USA and Europe? The same could be said of many such movements that build on young Americans and celebrity endorsement like the Save Darfur Campaign. Who do we trust for solutions?

One blogger Jennifer Lentfer cautioned us that; before supporting Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, please do consider

  • The lack of context and nuance;
  • Invisible to whom?;
  • The disempowering and reductive narrative;
  • Revival of the white savior;
  • The privilege of giving; and
  • The lack of African leadership.

It is true that these questions are important for understanding local solutions to local problems; but the bigger question for me is why launch such a campaign in American when people on the ground,within Uganda, are totally ignorant about it?

Is it about the dollars or a false belief that unless Americans know about it, no solution comes our way? Could it be that we are leaving the real change agents in oblivion as we search for solutions elsewhere?

For example, the Juba Peace Talks 2006-2008, which restored stability and paved way for the end to abductions in northern Uganda, was not an American invention. It was local civil society and peace actors like the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiatives (ARLPI) who pushed for a negotiated solution.

In fact the moment America got involved, we witnessed “Operation Lightening Thunder”- a military operation with disastrous effects as the LRA eluded air strikes, and scattered into DR Congo and the Central African Republic where they continue to commit atrocities in retaliation.

So what’s wrong with Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign?

First, it is important to acknowledge that Invisible Children is a great organisation. It has done a lot to make the victims of the atrocities of the LRA conflict more visible internationally. It has built and renovated a number of schools in northern Uganda that were destroyed by the conflicts. Its scholarship programme has benefited a whole range of children hailing from the war-affected districts and so many more.

These are all very noble goals. But so long as its primary constituent remains outsiders, without mobilising local constituents within Uganda where the LRA problem emanated from, it is a non starter. There are over 1,000 local peacebuilders within northern Uganda alone, all very concerned with the LRA situation - none of whom has been partnered with in this latest campaign.

The campaign was launched in the USA without even informing people in Northern Uganda. Personally, I only got to know about the launch of the campaign through a text message news alert - “American pop artist Rihana joins the war against LRA leader Joseph Kony” which I of course immediately deleted. Only after logging into facebook, and finding a long list of comments following the video Kony 2012 and did the text message I had deleted make some sense.

I write now from Gulu, Northern Uganda, and apart from celebrations for women’s day, no one is talking about the LRA and Kony. Everyone is talking about the nodding disease and government impunity over corruption.

A campaign like this would be much better launched at home in northern Uganda and expanded to the rest of the world for collaborative actions. That way, Invisible Children would have appreciated that, beside Kony who is a thousand miles away, over 300 children remains invisible as they die slowly with a mystery disease whose syndrome is constant noddingbut whose causes remains unknown. And anger grows toward especially with a government which seemingly doesn't care because it is busy swindling billions of dollars from a nascent oil prospects.

After all, there is an old adage that “charity begins from home." There is no way Invisible Children is going to make Uganda's children visible in America when they remain invisible in their own country. Also having watched the video, I certainly understand why it has raised so much debate. Some blogger described it as “selling an old newspaper.”

It is a good documentary for fundraising but it misses a lot of contexts. Kony remains a problem and so are the over 2000 children dead and over 300 busy dying in northern Uganda today nodding with an unknown "nodding disease" without any government actions.

To find out more about the work of local peacebuilders in Uganda, visit Insight on Conflict.

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Comment by Hope Tichaenzana Chichaya on March 12, 2012 at 9:30am

This is a great provocative reading indeed! Weldone. Thanks Insight on Conflict for sharing with through PCDN.


Comment by Joe Bazirake on March 11, 2012 at 1:05am

This is interesting... I have just submitted my MA thesis that looked at Northern Uganda as a post conflict area. I have also been part of a peacebuilding research team in Northern Uganda for the Last three years!!  It surely seems like a clip  from an old newspaper, this video!

If there is anything i have seen for sure, we need more actors working together in the region, visible to eachother and working with the people's aspirations.

Good intentions are not enough: authenticity, clarity and support in due regard of the context in the region would be a starting point

Comment by Roxana Negoita on March 10, 2012 at 6:12pm

Stephen, your article surely raises some critical questions towards the campaign against Kony. While I strongly agree with you that any change must come from within the community and with local participation and awareness, in the same time I think  advocating at an international level is also a good approach. I don't know if the ideea is to pose as the " white saviour" as you say...I think when you are driven by a cause, when you want to change something...it doesn't matter from where you come.  Still, I see this type of criticism as you did as being very constructive...and it should be read by the members of Invisible Children in the first place.

Comment by Robert Kibaya on March 10, 2012 at 1:11pm

Stephen, this is good and thank you so much. I will never and never agree with the operations of Invisible Children based on the fact that they corrected US$8.9 and only sent 3M. at least they would have used 40% on their own interests and leave 60% for the children. US$ 8.9 is very much money to create a very great change on the lives of poor suffering people in Northern Uganda. Just have a look at what I have just done with just a very small donation from a church in Texas and just wish if I had a Million dollar in my possession. http://wp.me/pHagH-5w

It is really unfair that so many have used this conflict to achieve on the expense of suffering and poor people in the northern Uganda

Comment by Tom Ogwal on March 10, 2012 at 12:46pm

Stephen, that's a good insight. My kind advise is that Invisible Children should research more about the SIGNIFICANCE of PRIMACY OF LOCAL ACTORS in peace-building especially using nonviolent approaches which is very cost effective.UNARMED CIVILIAN PEACEKEEPING might be a more cost effective approach to this LRA issue. Like Stephen said, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative made a good impact in Northern Uganda.Concerted efforts should still be made to bring peace to the Great Lakes region of Africa.

I am happy with their support for bright needy students (war affected) but they should use the rights based approach in programming. How about those children affected by armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG) who are not academically bright but can do very well in vocational skills training to promote their reintegration into communities in Northern Uganda? Please, use rights based programming and also consider slow learners and those other CAAFAG (Article 39 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) clearly states the right to rehabilitation and reintegration of war affected children.

Comment by Ameny Daniel on March 10, 2012 at 3:19am

Thank you very much for your efforts.. Our prayer is that this comes to an end one day

Comment by Fiona Ngarachu on March 10, 2012 at 2:50am

Thank you for this Stephen! As i have been saying in other forums "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." As you noted in your post some of these "good intentions" have led us into a worse situations because of a lack of context. I say...thanks but no thanks...stay out of it!

Comment by Nancy Abwola on March 9, 2012 at 9:00pm

Stephen, i couldnt have said it better than you did. I appreciate the good intention of Invisible children, but being a native of Northern Uganda, i acknowlegde how inappropriate the campaign is. I am also curious what our governments response is to it? or are they too unaware of the whole thing?

Comment by Sheunesu Hove on March 9, 2012 at 7:16pm

I totally agree with Stephen's concerns raised in his commentary. I also share his view of situating peacebuilding intiatives on the ground ...where it matters most. The issue of local ownership is crucial in order to achieve the long-term goals of a project like Invisible Children. It is therefore a cause for concern if what Stephen said is true that the intiative is not known by the locals who are meant to benefit from it. That raises questions about the purpose of the intiative and how its going to achieve its goals without local ownership and participation. But at the same time, I personally feel that the LRA problem cannot be left to the the regional players only. This has been the case for the past 20 or so years and yet there seem not to be any solution up the sleeve. While there is need to localise the campaign and education that we have seen in the USA and Europe, I still feel that the campaign to contientise the world is also relevant. Infact the money that is being raised could be used to deploy troops under the AU banner to hunt down Kony and his inner circle. This would also include the USA army advisor who are already working with the local armies in the four countries in which the LRA is operating. I appreciate the fact that everyone is concerned about the LRA and the trauma it brings to the locals, but at the same time there is need to bolster the local capacities with international help. I believe that the Invisible Children organisation, while it has been pitched at the international level, can also be localised and still persue its goals. Its not too late. It has had a tremendous impact in terms of advocacy and lobbying, what remains is to operarionalise the same at local level.

Comment by Eric Ham on March 9, 2012 at 12:18pm

what a provocative read!!

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