What is Kony2012?

Invisible Children's controversial campaign highlights the pressing question of international engagement in conflict, which openSecurity seeks to address through our debate 'Peacebuilding from a Southern Perspective'.

Jo Tyabji
12 March 2012

The opening sequence of Invisible Children’s film Kony2012 makes reference to several major global events, highlighting the role web-based media played in them.

We see a YouTube video of a seven year old Haitian child pulled from the rubble after the 2010 earthquake, and a twitter feed featuring messages of determination and support from and for Tunisian activists, followed by news footage of the Tahrir Square uprising.

The film posits as its audience a global population that is connected to the internet, and active as participants in a global civil society, founded on ‘humanity’s greatest desire – to belong and to connect’.

Jason Russel, founder of the campaign asks a really important question at 3.42. He asks ‘Who are you to end a war?’ At 3.44 he states 'I am here to tell you ‘Who are you not to?’' The question is a central concern of openSecurity's debate Peacebuilding from a Southern Perspective, and the statement is a personal address which I have taken to heart. Who am I to end a war? How dare I not end a war?

The imperative contained in this challenge is a powerful one, that drives many men and women to travel from places of relative safety to places of intense violent conflict, attempting to help bring about the peaceful resolution of that conflict. But it prompts a further question: how are you to end a war? In answering this question, who 'you' are, your identity and what you can bring to the situation sometimes becomes relevant, even paramount.

The celebrity status of the earthquake in Haiti in the global media in some measure directed the international response to that natural disaster, which in turn impacted on the ongoing crisis in Haiti’s political economy, and made itself manifest in a violent political-criminal nexus. The impact of heavy-footprint international engagement is never a simple one, but then that's not exactly what Kony2012 is claiming to be. Rather, through visual references to the Arab Spring, Kony2012 is including us, the viewers, in a world of international grassroots activism which makes it both our responsibility and our right to 'get Kony'.

The serious, and urgent, question is: what forms of international engagement in conflict work? And what forms make matters worse?

In her video response to Kony2012, Northern Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire lays out why the campaign is misplaced, and the film calling for mass international involvement misguided. For Kagumire the core issues of what post-conflict recovery should look like, and how to achieve a regional solution to the continuing presence of the Lord's Resistance Army in Eastern DRC and South Sudan, are obscured by Kony2012's focus on the infamous leader.

Kagumire's critique is testimony in itself that actions intended to 'end a war' look very different depending on whether they're viewed from the global north or the global south. The pained comments on her blog show how hard it is for viewers from the global north to hear her critique, and often revolve around what place race holds in activism undertaken on moral grounds.

By using the terms 'global north' and 'global south' it is openSecurity's intention to include the power differentials based on class and its geopolitical manifestation in the debate. The satirical 'Call to Arms' posted on YouTube by SocialActivist4Life depicts young masked men with London accents preparing to put aside the 'beef' of gang warfare to go after 'bigger fish', the slang positioning them as the 'underclass' often cited as responsible for the London riots last year. The reference to 'police brutality' and 'austerity' places them in the same political realm as the riots, with the 'Call to Arms' depicted as a more urgent objective than any domestic political concerns.

The objections posed by one balaclava'd member of the group echo Kagumire's analysis, but the video makes a further point. Wryly gesturing towards the visual tags of terrorist communiques - covered faces, poor video quality, AK47s - SocialActivist4Life brings the viewer to the point where activism for peace meets violence. In doing this it reminds us that peacekeepers carry guns, boots on the ground have consequences, and, as the saying goes, 'one man's peacebuilder is another woman's...' I turn to Rosebell Kagumire to complete the phrase more eloquently:


 ‘It simplifies the story of millions of people in N Uganda, and makes out a narrative that is often heard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict, that only people off this continent can help.’

Rosebell Kagumire, Northern Ugandan journalist and blogger




‘This is a call for enough, cease to beef yeah, we got bigger fish to fry, bigger fish to fry… never mind the police brutality and the austerity on our streets yeah, we’re gonna go over there, sell all your gear and merk this mandem for real’

Masked youth on youtube/ satirist SocialActivist4Life

Glossary of terms in 'Kony 2012 Call to Arms'

Beef : UK English in common usage for argument, fight or ongoing lowlevel conflict.

Gear : Can refer to drugs, clothing and accessories or steroids.

Merk : To kill someone, injure someone or beat someone in a game.

Mandem : plural of 'man', or used as an amplifier with connotations of violence and disrepute

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