I have really made an effort not to write about the Kony 2012 campaign. Mostly this is because others have written it to death – especially the debate between the starry-eyed activists and the cynical experts. There were those who celebrated the campaign’s tech-savvy ability to raise awareness of “the issue.” And of course, there were those scholarly voices who coldly pointed out those pesky facts – that Joseph Kony left Northern Uganda in 2006, that the region has been in a process of reconstruction and recovery for the past six years, that the child soldiery statistics alluded to in the campaign’s film were cumulative totals of the LRA’s history, that the LRA inflicts a far smaller human toll than many other non-“brand name” militias in the region – that the campaign seemed to gloss over so blithely. Some respectable voices, such as Chris Blattman’s, generously pointed out that, regardless of the fact-check score card, Invisible Children seems to do good work in country. But when the advocacy group’s co-founder, Jason Russell, enrobed the whole shoot-and-match in seven layers of delicious irony even as he maniacally disrobed himself just a couple of miles from here, the debate sank to the level of tabloid fodder and I fully divested.
So why bring it up at all, now? There have been reports today of forced (and uncoerced) recruitment of men and boys into an armed group presumed to be the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – and concomitantly displacing 100,000 more – in the contested Abyei region of the newly created national frontier between Sudan and South Sudan. The development threatens to bring all-out war to the world’s newest nation-state – one whose people have experienced numerous complex and overlapping conflicts over the last half century. And while this is happening literally hundreds of miles from Northern Uganda, it is an example of the same type of violence – roving bandit militias that use local populations against themselves to clear or claim territory – that has come to characterize armed conflict in the entire East-Central Africa region.
There are persistent social and economic dynamics at work in the region, including, but certainly not limited to, grinding poverty and widespread lack of employment, underdeveloped communications infrastructure, oil dependency and soaring oil prices, and a weakened social fabric. The most insightful pundits have already made the point: the Kony 2012 campaign focuses with laser precision on the vilification of a single man, while inexplicably ignoring the structural causes of violent conflict in East-Central Africa. The campaign places Kony’s stylized image alongside those Adolf Hitler and Osama bin-Laden, both of whom became personifications of unalloyed evil in the American popular consciousness, both of whom were brought low by American military might in the end. But Kony, like Hitler and bin Laden, is a product of his environment, and the Kony 2012 campaign succeeds in obfuscating reality and entrenching the American myth of the Devil Without. If you think that evoking the Devil incarnate is hyperbolic, read this. Russell himself is a passionate Christian who has spoken about his faith at a university founded by Evangelical Jerry Fallwell – and during his meltdown rant, accused a passerby of being the Devil. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Kony 2012 campaign resonated so deeply may have been the very lack of a national scapegoat in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, in the context of a protracted economic crisis, the US’ inextricable engagement in the broader Middle East and increasingly North and sub-Saharan Africa, the loss of Mexico as a Spring Break destination to the cartels, etc, etc.
We have the sense that the world is becoming less hospitable to us, and why shouldn’t it just be pinned on this dude we’ve heard has massed an army of 30,000 child soldiers and slouches toward Bethlehem? Because responsible engagement in the region is harder than arresting one man. It may even require some introspection.