Net activism: The “Kony 2012” phenomena

Seldom before has an idea spread so quickly across the world. Within days tens of millions watched Invisible Children’s “KONY 2012” video as it went viral across the internet and social media. Shocked at the story of killing, rape and child soldiers, demands multiplied that “something must be done” against Joseph Kony and the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) he leads in eastern and central Africa.

For a moment Invisible Children (IC) seemed to be setting the agenda as support rapidly mounted for its call for action against Kony. Within a few days this video engendered a surge of outrage, particularly amongst young people in the US. It appealed to the idealism of many young people who want a better world, one free from oppression and poverty. The video encouraged many young people to ask what could they themselves do? However soon it became apparent that Invisible Children’s campaign was not all that it seemed at first sight. Amongst other issues questions were raised as to why, in its last financial accounts, IC, a charity which is meant to aid Ugandan children, spent only 37.14% of its income in Uganda itself

Last year the “Occupy” movement against the “1%” spread rapid across the US and the world, encapsulating the widespread distrust and hostility towards the elite ruling classes. Anti-Kony anger has spread much, much faster. However Invisible Children are not against the US elite, the logo for their “KONY 2012” campaign features the donkey and elephant symbols of the US Democrat and Republican parties. Amongst Invisible Children’s major sponsors are fundamentalist Christian groups that have their own right wing, pro-capitalist agenda.

This is not to denigrate the millions who were enraged by the video’s story and want to urgently do something, but these events are another example of how the ruling classes, the 1%, try to utilise, even manipulate, genuine popular anger for their own ends.

In this case the reality is that Invisible Children are calling on the US to maintain and deepen its military intervention against Kony and the LRA. Jason Russell, the video’s producer and narrator, claims that Obama’s decision, last October, to send 100 military personnel to central Africa to hunt Kony “was the first time in US history that the American government took action not because of self-defence but because people demanded it.”

This position is a centrepiece of IC’s campaign, something which is reiterated in its official response to the criticism which the “KONY 2012” video and campaign has received.

“Invisible Children’s mission is to stop LRA violence and support the war-affected communities in East and Central Africa … The goal of KONY 2012 is for the world to unite to see Kony arrested and prosecuted for his crimes against humanity.”

“The KONY 2012 campaign is calling for U.S. leadership to address both problems. It supports the deployment of U.S. advisers and the provision of intelligence and other support that can help locate and bring Kony to justice, but also increased diplomacy to hold regional governments accountable to their basic responsibilities to protect civilians from this kind of brutal violence.” (From the IC official statement posted on the Critiques section of their website)

IC’s arguments were laid out in more detail in its March 7 letter to President Obama:

“Your decision to deploy U.S. military advisors to the region in October of 2011 was a welcome measure of further assistance for regional governments in their efforts to protect people from LRA attacks …

“However, we fear that unless existing U.S. efforts are further expanded, your strategy may not succeed … we encourage you to sustain the deployment of U.S. advisors until the LRA no longer poses a serious threat to civilians …

“The Congolese government, in particular, has sought to actively downplay the LRA’s presence and impact on Congolese communities. Moreover, Uganda withdrew more than half of the forces initially deployed to pursue LRA commanders and groups, and their forces are no longer allowed to operate in Congo, where the LRA is committing the majority of attacks on civilians. We implore you to engage directly with the Presidents of each of the four countries – in partnership with the African Union – to enhance regional cooperation, increase the numbers and capabilities of troops deployed to LRA-affected areas, and boost efforts to encourage defections from the rebel group.”

But the US government’s policies in Africa do not start with what is in the interests of the vast majority of Africans. Only a few days before this letter was sent General Carter Ham, commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), opened his annual statement to the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, with the following words: “Our operations, exercises, and security cooperation programs continue to support U.S. policy objectives in Africa, strengthen partnerships and reduce threats to America, Americans, and American interests emanating from Africa.”

Despite Africa’s current relatively high, largely raw material based, economic growth rate the majority of its people are gaining hardly any benefit. In many countries real living standards are hardly growing, often high inflation in fuel and food prices is actually cutting them.

Nigeria is currently being presented as one of capitalism’s ‘bright hopes’ in Africa but only last month its official National Bureau of Statistics reported that while “in 2004, Nigeria’s relative poverty measurement stood at 54.4 per cent but increased to 69 per cent or 112,518,507 Nigerians in 2010”. This is despite official figures showing that Nigeria’s GDP grew by an annual average of 7.35% in the six years between 2004 and 2010. And the situation is continuing to worsen. When announcing these figures Nigeria’s Statistician General added that “using the relative, absolute and dollar-per-day poverty measures, NBS estimates that poverty may have further risen slightly to about 71.5 per cent, 61.9 per cent and 62.8 per cent respectively in 2011.” (Guardian, Lagos, February 14, 2012).

It is Africa’s continuing failure to develop which is a root cause of the continual upheavals, oppression and wars that seem to mark out the continent. This is not something inherently “African”, the world’s other continents have not enjoyed a war or oppression free history, but today in an imperialist dominated world the scope for a capitalist road to development in Africa is severely limited.

This is the background to the repeated upheavals in the continent.

Uganda’s history

The bloody history of Uganda and the countries surrounding it are a sad example of this.

Over the past decades Uganda has seen one dictatorship after another as competing ruling elites have attempted to retain power in a situation where democratic rights are crushed or limited because the local capitalist economy is too weak to be able to afford any meaningful, lasting concessions. Only last April and May protests against rapidly rising fuel and food prices were met with police repression and censorship by the authoritarian Museveni regime. Inflation running as high as 44% meant that Uganda’s poverty rate had started to rise again.

Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2012, condemned that in Uganda “during demonstrations in April (2011), following February’s presidential elections, the unnecessary use of lethal force by Ugandan security forces resulted in the deaths of nine people. Opposition politicians and hundreds of supporters were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and incitement to violence, and state agents beat and harassed journalists covering the unrest.” (January 22, 2012).

But these clashes are not only over economic issues; national conflicts, clashes of rival elites, sometimes in collusion with different, and rival, imperialist powers, are also involved.

In Uganda the current ruler Museveni came to power after the 1985 overthrow of Milton Obote. During his rule Obote had the support amongst Acholis in northern Uganda, and they suffered after his overthrow.

Human Rights Watch, which supports the current campaign against Kony, had to admit that “The Lord’s Resistance Army began fighting the government of Uganda in the mid-1980s partly as a response to the government’s marginalization of the people of the country’s north.” (March 9, 2011)

Kony himself is an Acholi. IC, in its ‘History of the War’, describes what happened to the Acholis: “Starting in 1996, the Ugandan government, unable to stop the LRA, required the people of northern Uganda to leave their villages and enter government-run camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). These camps were supposedly created for the safety of the people, but the camps were rife with disease and violence. At the height of the conflict, 1.7 million people lived in these camps across the region. The conditions were squalid and there was no way to make a living. Thus a generation of Acholi people was born and raised in these camps.”

It was estimated that around 80% of northern Uganda’s population were forced into these camps or “protected villages” and while most have apparently left the camps the returning refugees are now increasingly faced with disputes over whether they can return to the land that they once lived on and farmed.

But while the LRA’s origins at least partly lie in what happened to the Acholi from the mid-1980s onwards it is beyond doubt that the LRA was not in any way a liberation movement protecting the Acholi, in fact it was another oppressor.

The LRA left Uganda in 2006 as peace talks started, but eventually these failed to result in an agreement. This led to a military attack on the LRA, the first operation organised by the then recently created AFRICOM. This attack, which the IC supported, is explained as follows in its ‘History of the War’ statement: “In December 2008, when it became clear that Kony wasn’t going to sign the agreement, Operation Lightning Thunder was launched. It was the coordinated effort of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States.”

It is clear that with its silence about what is happening now in Uganda and its open support for US military intervention that the organisers of Invisible Children are, intentionally or not, mobilising support for actions that while possibly finally crushing the now very small LRA will not end the cycle of violence against children and adults.

Invisible Children cannot even claim that the Obama administration is serious about one of its main demands – stopping the use of child soldiers. Only last October the Obama administration signed waivers to allow US military funding to continue to go to Yemen, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) despite their continued use of child soldiers. This was meant to have been stopped by the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which Obama voted for when he was a Senator. But now as president Obama signs waivers which were justified by “national security interests”. (ABC News, October 5, 2011). The US government is totally hypocritical about child soldiers, while Kony is denounced for using child soldiers, the country the LRC is currently based in, the DRC, is not!

All this goes only to show that, despite all the humanitarian gloss, it is “national interests” (in reality the interests of their “own” capitalists) which determine the policies of the US and other ruling classes.

Tragically, given huge support it has gained in the past weeks, Invisible Children is following the foreign policy of the US government and is very selective in what it denounces.

While denouncing Kony Invisible Children is silent about Museveni’s abuses within Uganda, something which fits in with the US government’s view of him as a key regional ally.

This silence on the real situation in Uganda leads to Invisible Children highlighting the International Criminal Court issuing of arrest warrants for Kony and two other LRA commanders but remaining silent about the Ugandan government ignoring the December 2005 decision of the International Court of Justice that it must compensate the DR Congo for rights abuses and the plundering of resources between 1998 and 2003. Currently the DRC is claiming $23.5bn from Uganda in reparations for its military operations in DRC.

This questioning of Invisible Children’s motives and policies does not in any way serve to deny the brutality and savagery of the LRA, but is to challenge the attempt to mobilise support for Obama’s cynical African policies.

IC mobilises support

Invisible Children say they are “inspiring America’s youth to ‘do more than just watch.’”. There can be no doubt that millions have felt that they can ‘do something.’ The “KONY 2012” video had a huge effect. The speed of its impact has never been seen before. On 3 March just 4 people viewed the video on YouTube, on 4 March 4 people, on 5 March 58,000 views which then exploded to 2.7m on 6 March and 6.2m the next day. Now it is well over 80 million views.

Many US youth have donated to Invisible Children, others are buying its $30 action kit while its action day on April 20 could generate wide support.

But, given Invisible Children’s politics, there is a grave danger that this energy will simply be diverted into providing support for the Obama administration’s drive to strengthen its influence in Africa at a time when other powers like China and Brazil are also competing in this latest version of a carving up of Africa.Despite its fine words against Kony and the LRA the Obama administration, like its predecessors, is completely hypocritical in supporting its “own” authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, like in Uganda. While understanding the wishes of the LRA’s victims for outside help against Kony, socialists point out that outside capitalist governments have their own interests. The BBC is now reporting people in the DR Congo calling on Obama to intervene against the LRA, but this no lasting solution for the Congolese people. It should not be forgotten that for decades both Democratic and Republican US Presidents backed the looter Mobutu’s brutal rule in what is now the DR Congo.

The only way to really act in the interests of children, the poor, the oppressed and working people in general is to help to build their own independent movements in Africa that have no trust in capitalist governments or foreign intervention, but which strive to struggle to change society.

Despite the horrors of war in east and central Africa we have already seen this year mighty mass movements in African countries against oppression, poverty and for change like the general strikes in Nigeria and South Africa.

The speed that anger at Kony spread is a real inspiration. The labour movement must strive to ensure that the tremendous idealism and wish for change displayed in the exponential explosion of interest in the “KONY 2012” campaign can be mobilised as part of a genuine struggle against exploitation, poverty and war.

The challenge for socialists is to help link young peoples’ anger at crimes like those of the LRA and their desire to do something with building movements that can remove the capitalist system that distorts and poisons the lives of so many, rather than supporting those who seek to challenge anger into channels that do not begin to question the existing capitalist order.