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Backlash against Kony 2012: Where are the voices of Ugandans?

Since the Kony 2012 video about atrocities in Uganda went viral, there has been a backlash and counter-backlash over the campaign by Invisible Children to stop Joseph Kony and his rebels. Lost in the debate: the need to include the voices of Ugandans.

By Patricia Taft and Nate Haken / March 19, 2012

Residents of the Lira District in northern Uganda watch the premiere of Kony 2012 on March 13. The YouTube film was created by the nonprofit group Invisible Children to raise awareness about Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, which ravaged Lira and other areas for 20 years. Many viewers were offended by the video, saying it was foreigners talking to foreigners about them.

James Akena/Reuters

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No doubt: The crimes of Joseph Kony are monstrous. And now, thanks to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, millions more know about how he and his rag-tag forces destroyed communities and lives throughout northern Uganda and large swaths of East and Central Africa. The forcible conscription of children, the amputations, the sexual violence, and the pillaging of villages are Mr. Kony’s calling card. The predation began over 20 years ago. It continues to this day – though no longer in northern Uganda. It must be stopped.

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Since the Kony 2012 internet video went viral, there has been a backlash and counter-backlash.

The backlash criticized Invisible Children for oversimplifying the issue. Certainly for those of us who have lived in Uganda and who have spent years working on these issues, it is difficult not to cringe at the missing nuance and the fast-and-loose treatment of history.

Details overlooked in the video include the fact that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army was finally pushed out of Uganda by government forces in 2005. The border is sealed between northern Uganda and where the LRA currently carries out its atrocities. There have been no significant incursions into Uganda in six years.

The counterinsurgency against the LRA was brutal. The violent group is now quite small and made up primarily of Sudanese and Congolese. These missing details leave the viewer with many false impressions.

The counter-backlash pointed out that oversimplification is what advocacy does. Advocacy bundles a complex issue to reach a wide audience. It is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment or a rich historical retelling of the facts. It is meant to get attention. In this way, advocacy is an effective and important tool, particularly in a war that has not been a cause célèbre drawing in the likes of Angelina Jolie or George Clooney.

To its credit, Invisible Children has done more than just advocacy. It has raised funds to support education, wells, and economic growth in Uganda. Primarily, though, it is an advocacy organization. It is not fair to criticize an advocacy organization for not being a development organization. A primary mission of the organization is to make the invisible visible, to give a voice to the voiceless.

But here’s where it gets tricky: giving a voice to whom? True, northern Ugandans are not a monolithic group. But does the video attempt to represent the perspectives and opinions of the people depicted on the screen?

It is evident that the video does not have Ugandans in mind as the intended audience. Last week, in Lira District, word had spread that a video depicting this horrible war was suddenly the most popular video on the Internet. A public screening in that district of northern Uganda was held by a charity organization so that those directly affected by the conflict could see what the world was watching.

People came from miles by foot, bicycle, and boda boda (motorcycle taxi). When they saw it, many were offended. Some threw rocks. The screening was halted.

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