Pause for a second and imagine the reviled warlord Joseph Kony as a celebrity, on glossy entertainment magazine pages, sharing the limelight with whichever showbiz superstar that eats at your fancy; weird, right?
Kony 2012, a 30-minute online documentary by humanitarian organisation, Invisible Children, aired on YouTube last week as part of a drive to create worldwide fame for Kony, and somehow, make this culminate in his arrest this year.
The reclusive rebel leader became the centre of international conversation on the internet last Tuesday, talked about by Rihanna (R&B music star), Chris Brown (R&B music star), Oprah Winfrey (celebrity former TV host), George Clooney (celebrity movie actor and producer) and a large chunk of the world’s internet users. Uganda and Kony were trending internationally on micro-blogging site, Twitter, a rare occurrence. Tweets about the rebel fighter retold the entire story of his 25-year insurgency – his killings, his abductions, his mutilations, rape and defilement - the whole shebang.
The rest of the world, it seemed, had just come to know about Kony, 25 years after he started his rebellion, and six years after he fled Uganda.
And that is partly why as the film struck a chord with most of the world who watched it, in Uganda, it struck the wrong chord.
Joseph Kony needs absolutely no introduction. He has been the signature face of horror and terror for two and a half decades, who is now slowly etching into memory. Why then was his file being reopened when he seemed to be at his weakest?
Ugandans were angry that once again, the West had hijacked an African struggle; putting themselves at the front line of the fight against Kony and making it look like Uganda was sitting by idly as Kony murdered, abducted and raped. Many said the video had come too late, hinted at a neo-colonialist mentality where the white charity workers came off as the long-awaited saviour who finally came and stopped Kony.
It is a 29 minutes, 59 seconds video clip. By press time, it had garnered nearly 50 million views on YouTube.com, in only four days. Jason Russell, a film producer and co-founder of Invisible Children, narrates it. The film stands out for its gripping emotional appeal. He weaves together the life story of his son, Gavin, and that of Jacob Acaye, a boy he found in war-torn Gulu town, in 2003.
He draws the viewer into his family, starting with images of his son’s birth in the labour ward, and then growth into a world that he says has bad people like Joseph Kony who have tormented innocent children like Jacob, but who have to be stopped by good guys like Russell. He takes time off to describe the war, erroneously placing Uganda in Central Africa. The movie screens vivid examples of mutilations of lips and noses among LRA victims.
He later describes how he came to start up Invisible Children after meeting Jacob, and from then, his actions to get his government in the US to send military support to help capture Kony. The US sent 100 troops to help track and capture Kony in October last year.
The clips ends with the action to push Joseph Kony into pop culture, through printing billboards and stickers and bracelets and get celebrity superstars to talk about him. It also calls for US citizens to endlessly lobby their politicians so the US government does not pull the 100 troops out of Uganda. This would then allow for the arrest of Kony before this year ends.
A lot of the criticism pointed towards the personification of the war against Kony by Russell. “It must be because Kony 2012 is about Joseph Kony and not about Jason Russell that there is so much footage of Jason Russell’s young son, Gavin, worshipping Jason Russell atop trampolines and on beaches and at kitchen tables, and professing his hope that one day he might grow up to be just like Jason Russell,” wrote the Afro-centric blog, Africa Is a Country, later calling the movie “a miserable fraud.
Musa Okwonga, a Ugandan in the UK, wrote, “I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots.” Other critics said Northern Uganda, after six years of relative stability, now had new challenges like the nodding disease and unemployment, which should feature on a higher agenda than Kony. Others said raising awareness in the US would not in effect stop Kony in the Central African Republic jungle where is currently hiding, while others accused Invisible Children of used the opportunity to make money.
Responding to criticism that the organisation had over-simplified a complex issue, Invisible Children said in a statement, “In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organisation provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper in learning about the makeup of the LRA and the history of the conflict. Likewise, our work on the ground continually adapts to the changing complexities of the conflict.”
Some Ugandans were however happy about the initiative. Gulu district’s LC5 chairperson, Martin Ojara, said, “It is unfortunate to think that because the situation has improved in Northern Uganda, people should not talk about it,” adding that until Joseph Kony is brought to justice, many wounds will remain unhealed.