Kony 2012 and coming to terms with neo-colonialism

I know embarrassingly little about the history and politics of Africa in general – never mind that of specific countries. However, I’m addicted to stories of the politics of influence, international policy, social media marketing gimmicks, and real controversy (i.e. having nothing to do with Kardashian weddings or how many Cadillacs Romney’s wife drives).

So of course I got sucked into Kony 2012. In case you missed it, earlier this week a nonprofit called Invisible Children released this video manifesto with the stated goal of pressuring the US government to help capture Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the #1 most wanted man by the International Criminal Court.

Over years of fighting in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, Kony has kidnapped tens of thousands of children, forced them to kill or mutilate their parents and siblings, and then trained the boys to fight and turned the girls into sex slaves.

Arrest this horrifying thug? Um, duh. Of course we should. So I was quite perplexed by the wave of backlash against Kony 2012. I was particularly taken aback by detractors’ shouts of “neo colonialism.” As it turns out, the story is much more complicated than I originally thought.

To give context (and again, I’m far from an expert), the way Africa and its people are portrayed in Western media is invariably condescending and de-humanizing. Check out this wonderfully ironic post on Granta about “how to write about Africa.”

This condescension also is reflected in how Western relief and development efforts are conceived, deployed and managed. The narrative is: “only white Westerners can Save Darfur!” Just think of all the “poor African babies” “saved” by Hollywood celebrities and you get the idea. No wonder Africans are telling us to piss off.

But let’s zoom back in to this particular video. Granted, it is emotionally manipulative, self-serving, and narcissistic: The campaign is personal vengeance by filmmaker and Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell for a wrong against his friend Jacob, a former LRA soldier who Russell met years ago in Uganda. (It kinda reminds me of the theories that Bush II invaded Iraq because Saddam tried to kill his daddy.)

The video’s power is fed from this personal agenda. And I do think Russell’s video is well-meaning, though its calls to action are goofy at best (bracelets and spamming Oprah? really?).

But the most distressing thing I’ve learned while reading all the Kony 2012 backlash is that the goal of the action – to arrest Kony – is a foolish and probably counter-productive one. (If you read nothing else (including the rest of my own post) PLEASE read this thoughtful, informed piece of journalism by Ethan Zuckerman.)

But neo-colonialist? What I heard from the film is, “We are all human beings, and we should help each other if we can.” A man saw a huge injustice and wants to marshal efforts to stop it. That’s all. Nowhere does the film say this will “save Africa.” It doesn’t claim that Africans can’t do it themselves. He says simply, “This needs to get done. America can help. So let’s do it.”

Think of it this way: during the Bosnian war, when so many atrocities were happening on all sides, the international community howled and howled until Clinton finally got involved. So my question is: If American involvement to halt genocide in Serbia is OK, why is a similar effort called “neo-colonialism” in central Africa?

The answer, I think, lies in history – a build up of local resentment after years of condescension that is still happening today. Evidently it has spawned a sort of isolationism on the part of some African activists. In a scathing blog post about Kony 2012, TMS Ruge, Ugandan-American activist and co-founder of Project Diaspora, wrote: “Africa is our problem, we hereby respectfully request you let us handle our own matters.”

The source of the backlash also lies in Africans’ hope for their future. The bloggers I read seem united in wanting to put the past quickly behind them and focus on what good is happening on the ground, right now. Ruge continues,

“It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes. We, Africans, are sandwiched between our historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence.”

Put more succinctly by Frank Odonga, Kampala-based poet artist and computer engineer, such campaigns “exploit our past and paint it as our present!”

So finally we get to the neo-colonialism. While I still disagree that video is neo-colonialist in the context of presenting Africans as helpless creatures, what it does do is wipe out the hard work that Ugandans have done since Kony left (years ago!). Right now, they (Africans!) are reclaiming, reasserting, and sharing their pride in Uganda. They are optimistic about their future, and rightfully get frustrated when a man on a self-serving mission presents their country in the context of its history.

As I myself try to escape the gravitational pull of a past life, a history – these themes resonate for me.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ve taken a wee little step towards a better understanding of post-colonial Africa.

One round-up of African voices on the topic:

Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices:

NYT round-up of the controversy:

Response by Invisible Children:

and an IR person interviewed on Good by the always-great Cord Jefferson: