Joseph Kony 2012: It's fine to 'Stop Kony' and the LRA. But Learn to Respect Africans.

Invisible Children's viral campaign to 'Stop Kony' is a powerful use of social media in activism. But by focusing on what Americans can do, they are undermining the role of Africans.

In this July 2006 file photo, members of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army are seen as their leader Joseph Kony meets with a delegation of Ugandan officials and lawmakers and representatives from non-governmental organizations, in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the Sudanese border. Invisible Children launched a viral campaign to 'Stop Kony' on Tuesday to mobilize the next generation of young Americans to help end the conflict in northern Uganda.

This week’s biggest Africa news isn’t from Africa. It’s from a massive online and social media campaign launched by the American advocacy group Invisible Children to capture indicted war criminal and Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

As with their previous campaigns Displace Me and How it Ends, Invisible Children launched Stop Kony 2012 on Tuesday to mobilize the next generation of young Americans to help end the conflict in northern Uganda – except this time, they called on their mostly white, privileged, and educated youth followers to get involved through web-activism on their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube accounts.

It all begins with a remarkable 30-minute video highlighting the instantaneous and hyper-connected world we live in. Founder Jason Russell narrates, stating “there are more people on Facebook than there were in the world 200 years ago” and that “humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect.” He may be right. In just two days, it has been viewed 32 million times and quickly grabbed the attention of personalities such as Oprah Winfrey, Van Jones, Sean Combs and Rihanna.

It is a powerful example of how social media, art and activism can merge to mobilize privileged people into action and how open-minded Americans want a safer, fairer, and more prosperous world.

I appreciate their role. They are reaching a core constituency -- many of whom have never thought about these issues before -- and getting them to care about Africa. But caring is no longer enough.

Sadly, there are concerns that history may be repeating itself, as seen in responses from emerging African diaspora leaders Solome Lemma and TMS Ruge.

Of course Joseph Kony should be captured. But this approach is flawed. The video shows only a Western audience, without any reference to African partners or leaders. They are disempowering and undermining the role of Africans. They failed to recognize the role of individuals like Betty Bigombe, a long-time Ugandan activist, or seek partnerships with African organizations for the launch, such as Ushahidi or Africans Act for Africa.

Invisible Children and other Africa-focused advocacy organizations should deliver more sophisticated, nuanced, and respectful narratives that recognize capturing Kony is a collective responsibility and that Africans must play the primary role in bringing peace to the region.

Calling for the use of the latest technology, tools, and organizing tactics to attract millions of people who have never heard of Kony before (as they say, 99 percent of the world) into action is exciting. But for Africa’s sake, it is no longer enough. 

On its face, it’s eerily reminiscent of previous Africa advocacy movements, such as Save Darfur in its early days: grand public launches, with minimal partnership and little substance. Dangerous. Whether they meant it to or not, whatever the intentions, it ends up looking like yet another Western campaign to help Africans who can’t help themselves. Africa can’t be handled that way anymore.

Besides the most obvious concern of another “white savior” narrative for Africa (complete with a young blonde child learning of Africa’s “good guys” and “bad guys’), there’s an absence of depth and deference to the power of Africans who are standing up for themselves. There’s also a complete failure to recognize the role the Ugandan government has had and should have in protecting its citizens and ending the conflict.

Invisible Children must be careful not to sell a simple narrative, raise unreasonably high expectations of the conflict’s resolution, ignore the power and agency of Africans on the ground or rely too much on Western solutions and audiences. They must do better.

The anti-apartheid movement of the 80s, the debt relief movement of the 90s and the Save Darfur movement just a few years ago all showed us that legislation, peace agreements, foreign aid and International Criminal Court arrest warrants don’t always end suffering. For conflict zones like this, there must be global political will focused on longterm security, peace-building, development, and investment in local leadership and capacity building.

We also now know that young people’s minds are open and hungry. They should be inspired by knowing Africa is empowered, saving itself, and working with partners to remove Kony. That is the real story.  

Invisible Children must be willing to take their followers on a journey through the Africa that Africans know. They must be willing to inspire – but also to  manage – their followers’ expectations. They must be willing to use their media to amplify African voices, not simply their own. 

This isn’t about them.

Lastly, this campaign must be better at representing and working with a more accurate reflection of young America. This includes diverse voices, communities of color and new Americans. African-American organizations, historically black colleges and universities, and African diaspora groups are missing from the video. Additionally, Invisible Children’s own US-based staffing and board of directors lack the requisite diversity and representation where critical decisions are made.

I want Kony captured and I hope everyone uses their power to push our governments to act. But when I say everyone, I mean everyone – including, and most importantly, Africans.

Semhar Araia is founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network and an Eritrean-American advocate for Africa conflict resolution and stronger US engagement with Africa and its diaspora. A lawyer by training, she previously was Oxfam International's Horn of Africa Regional Policy Advisor, a congressional foreign policy staffer, and an Africa analyst for The Elders, an organization established by Nelson Mandela and eleven other world leaders. She also served as an attorney on the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission hearings.  She was born in New York City to Eritrean immigrant parents and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Follow her on Twitter @Semhar.

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