The viral video Kony 2012, a call by the U.S.-based group Invisible Children to “make famous” the brutal African warlord Joseph Kony and capture him through military action, has been seen by an unprecedented 87 million people, according to YouTube.
The video has come under fire for inaccuracy and for what many see as a white savior mentality. This is an important discussion shining a light on a lingering Western neocolonial and paternalist sensibility. But what might be Kony 2012’s real impact on the troubled region? That’s a point left out of most corporate media coverage of the controversy. Emira Woods, an expert on U.S./Africa policy and the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, spoke with CounterSpin about the story.
CounterSpin: There have been some good mainstream reports looking at the accuracy of Kony 2012. Just to briefly recap, what are some of the most important inaccuracies in the video, in your view?
Emira Woods: The most important inaccuracies are, first, that Kony is somehow still very active and very much a threat. The operations of the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony peaked perhaps a decade or over a decade ago. In fact, there have not been ongoing conflicts for the last six years now. And I think there is also this myth that Kony is somehow still in Uganda and that there needs to be this all-out search for Kony in Uganda.
The myths are many, but perhaps the greatest myth is this notion that military intervention is the answer, ignoring the fact that military interventions had actually been tried in the past and have failed, leaving civilians in harm’s way. So there are a lot of myths; it’s layered. Perhaps the greatest, I think, is the oversimplification of the crisis.
CS: That military issue is a really important one, and I want to get back to it in a minute. But before we go there, there have also been criticisms for the video’s point of view, its assumption that white Westerners are needed again to bail out Africans. Now, there are many misapprehensions in that mindset, not least is the way it misses how ravenous Western appetites for African resources play a large role in the conflict. What struck you about the outlook, about the point of view of Kony 2012?
EW: There is almost this rendering invisible of Africans and African agency, however you want to describe it. You have had Africans at the forefront, Ugandans at the forefront, pushing for peace. It is actually these efforts that are credited by many as having pushed this demobilization of soldiers, this falling out of soldiers from the ranks of the LRA. It is efforts of people on the ground—religious leaders, women’s peace activists, peace activists of all stripes in northern Uganda and throughout the country, throughout the region—that is almost ignored, completely rendered invisible in this video.
The video [has a] notion of “change history,” “play a role in changing history,” with- out recognizing that from Tunisia to Egypt, throughout the continent, you have people who are at the forefront of seizing their destiny with their own hands, at the forefront of making change happen, changing history. But there is an assumption in the video that it has to be Americans who are leading this charge to change history.
It is, at the very core, a colonial history that actually divided northern Uganda from the rest of the country, that in this divide-and-conquer, divide-and-rule mentality pitted one part of the country against the other, excluded those in the north from opportunities, from economic development. It is at the root of the crisis that you have to really recognize opportunities to bring about long-lasting structural change. And that is where many in Uganda are focused today. They’re focused on those long-term needs: How do you rebuild communities impacted by decades of war? How do you rebuild the fabric of society, a particular society where children and women have been victimized by the war?
CS: You mentioned “military” a few minutes ago, and one of the aspects of this story that hasn’t received much coverage—I think you’re one of few people out there in the media that is mentioning this—is how the video plays into U.S. designs to increase its military presence in Africa. Without getting conspiratorial, by inflaming emotions about Africa and calling for military action, the video would be almost tailor-made for boosting the case for AFRICOM or the U.S. militarization of Africa. You’ve talked about previous plans to get Kony, military plans. Tell us about that, briefly.
EW: Absolutely. I think we have to recognize that the previous government, under George Bush, created this new military command called Africa Command, AFRICOM. It was launched in October 2008, and a few months later, in December 2008, was its first foray. It was this operation, “Lightning Thunder” in Uganda, launched by the U.S. military with basically the same objective, to apprehend and/or remove Kony from the battlefield.
I think we have to understand that at its core, AFRICOM came into being to control and access oil, which is increasingly being sourced from Africa. As of 2008, the very same year AFRICOM was launched, Africa overtook the Middle East as a supplier of oil to the United States. Over a quarter of the oil coming to the United States now comes from Africa. And, increasingly, it will be places like Uganda, particularly in the Lake Albert region of Uganda, where oil discoveries have been found, where the oil will be sourced for the U.S. and other parts of the world.
So it is controlling and accessing oil; it is also countering China. These are the rationales for the creation of AFRICOM. And I have to say, it started under Bush, but it continues under the Obama administration.
So what we had, December ’08, after the election of Barack Obama but just before the inauguration, this first foray, this first adventure of the Africa Command was this operation “Lightning Thunder.” You had, according to the New York Times—it’s very rare that U.S. military adventures will be covered in the New York Times in real time; this time it was. There were New York Times reports of over a thousand civilians killed, 200,000 forced from their homes, when U.S. boots on the ground—U.S. military officers, together with U.S. private military contractors, using that same language of apprehending and removing Kony—went into Uganda.
So we’ve been there before, when the military option was seen as the only option. It was tried and it failed, miserably. And the civilians actually paid the heaviest price. And what we have now in 2012, reinforced by now these young people through Invisible Children and other organizations, galvanizing young people to get involved, to do something—the “do something” seems to still be the military intervention. The “do something” seems to still be sending U.S. arms, U.S. trainers, U.S. private military contractors, as well as U.S. military officers on the ground in Uganda, increasingly expanding the footprint of the U.S. military in Africa, continuing this path, then, of militarizing U.S. engagement, in an effort to access and control resources vital for the global economy.