Ugandan People’s Defense Force Issue a Lingering Question in Kony 2012 Part 2

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely heard of the KONY 2012 video and campaign that took the internet by storm last month, and fizzled out just as quickly. The first video, viewed over 100 million times across the web, enjoyed a lot of support mainly from young people, but also elicited a lot of backlash and criticism, much of which I agreed with (for a nice reader’s digest see here).

Yesterday, the people behind Invisible Children released a second video, KONY 2012: Part II – Beyond Famous, which is partly a response to criticisms of the first film, an explanation of the motivations behind it and a call to participate in Invisible Children’s April 20th Cover the Night event. Overall, Kony 2012 Part II is a tremendous improvement over the first video; but it still leaves a few questions unanswered.

What’s New in Part II?

Accuracy and Refocus: Critics of the Kony 2012 Part I argued that the video was factually inaccurate. Using old footage, it gave the impression that the LRA was still active in Northern Uganda; the danger being that such misrepresentation, by sending people after the "bogeyman" Kony, could distract away from the problems currently confronting former LRA victims in Northern Uganda (such as the mysterious nodding disease). This video more accurately focuses on LRA activities in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Part II also attempts to refocus the nature of the support being given to Invisible Children. The first video drew criticism for what was seen as attempts to profit off the suffering of others by selling t-shirts and bracelets. Part II moves away from this and highlights the more important programmatic aspects of IC’s work, such as the "early warning system," which deserve support.

Local Input: In response to the criticism that the first video sidelined African voices, and thus smacked of neo-colonialism and the White Man’s Burden, Kony 2012 Part II makes more of an effort to allow Africans to tell their own stories, in their own words. Further, whereas the first video falsely gave the impression that it was up to the Western world to save Africa, the second video reminds us that Africans have not been dormant in the fight against the LRA. It does well to highlight efforts by community groups, religious leaders and African political leaders who are certainly more important to ending LRA violence than Madonna and Justin Timberlake.

Humility: The first video was arguably as much about Jason Russell, his organization and his (admittedly adorable) infant son as it was about the conflict in central Africa. Part II is much less narcissistic. Ben Keesey, the CEO of Invisible Children makes the important observation that “Invisible Children is not the only organization on the ground; and we were not the first. He encourages viewers to get involved in any way they find appropriate, asking them “to go wherever your story takes you.”

Nuance/Balance: This is perhaps the most important improvement of the new video. The first video presented this complicated issue in very black and white, good guys vs. bad guys terms. It gave the impression that simply arresting Kony was the panacea to all the problems of the region. This second video importantly acknowledges that a military-only approach has not worked and that the last effort (Operation Lightning Thunder) resulted in scores of reprisal killings by the LRA. It argues for a more comprehensive approach that combines a military approach with local civil society efforts and post-conflict rebuilding. Also, whereas the first video fell prey to traditional portrayals of Africa as war torn, helpless, and disease ridden, Part II manages to also highlight some of the success stories in LRA affected areas (such as the economic regeneration of Northern Uganda).

Kony 2012 Part II however still leaves a lot of lingering questions. One of the major criticisms of the organization is the fact that it has, in the past, supported the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (Uganda’s National Army) which has itself been accused by the UN of committing war crimes against civilian populations. This new video credits the UPDF for "drastically reducing the LRA’s capacity" but again conveniently ignores the fact the UPDF is also a part of the problem.

The video also fails to deal with complicated issues of sensitivity and justice for LRA victims. One survivor of the conflict states in this video, “If people in those countries care about us, they will not wear t-shirts of Joseph Kony for any reason. That will celebrate our suffering.” This raises questions about the effects making Kony’s name and image "famous" will have on those who are trying to forget. Further, the video asks for "justice" while remaining vague about whether it still wants Kony arrested and taken to the ICC, or if it wants him dead. It is unclear whether either solution would represent "justice" for LRA victims. There are those in the region who would prefer a locally-based trial process to the ICC; a view supported by the Ugandan government.

Overall however, Kony 2012 Part II is a much better video. It is a recognition by Invisible Children that they have an incredibly powerful platform, and it is an earnest attempt to use it responsibly. I for one, wish this video had come out first. On the other hand, I doubt that Beyond Famous will enjoy the same level of popularity as KONY 2012 Part I. By being more nuanced and level-headed, it loses some of its flash and emotiveness. So while I think the first video was a mistake, I can’t help but wonder whether the millions that will eventually see the improved Part II would have bothered, without the controversy created by the first. I wonder also if, in the end, the positives of the Kony 2012 campaign will outweigh the shortcomings of the first video. The basic mission of Invisible Children, to get our generation active and involved, is a noble one. Ensuring that this engagement is responsible and well informed is just as important. Invisible Children is finally trying to do both.