NB: This post is an expanded version of a piece recently published on the African Arguments site.
The ‘Kony2012‘ documentary film was put online on March 5, by the US-based organisation Invisible Children. Within days the film raised $5m and within a week attracted 70m viewers worldwide. The film calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Acholi region of Uganda. Although the film shows the acute suffering of LRA victims, especially children, what really remains invisible are wounds of a society years after the LRA left.
Since its release, the film has been surrounded by social media hype and the film and the organisation behind it has been subject to much criticism. Concerns have been raised about Invisible Children’s finances; how the ‘slick Hollywood style’ plays straight into the emotions of the (American) audience when seeing children suffer; and how the simplicity of the story doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the war. Critics have made an effort to give details about the style of the campaign and have challenged the notion that a ‘US solution’ would be the right solution. Quite a bit has been said about problematic video advocacy and manipulation. But here is the real story for after Kony2012, as told in the recent film The Governance Gap to stop Kony does not put an end to the suffering of people.
The Governance Gap demonstrates the enduring – often invisible – legacy of the LRA war through the story of Nighty, a 44 year old Acholi woman. First of all, the Acholi developed a ‘survival mindset’ to cope with decades of violence, from both the LRA and the Ugandan military. Food and safety were people’s priority, not the ordinary governance processes. The conflict undermined the capabilities of the Acholi as citizens and their confidence to re-engage in democratic processes after war. Having lived in a militarised environment, people are still reluctant to raise issues they perceive to be sensitive. Moreover, they have little experience with a developmental state. For years, all they asked for was security and now that they have it, many won’t ask for more. This undermines the ‘demand side’ of governance; Acholi lack experience to actively engage in the reconstruction of their region and in decision-making. Nor are they actively invited to.
Second, it shows the gap in how Acholi perceive themselves as part of the country. ‘We are like slaves being brought into Uganda‘, Nighty says. The role of the Ugandan state is key in this. Acholi feel treated as second-class citizens. Current post-war reconstruction efforts do not sufficiently target these feelings.
Third, it shows the gap in post-conflict interventions in Acholi, which was one of the reasons to make The Governance Gap. Existing recovery efforts by the government and international donors focus on ‘hardware’; rebuilding physical infrastructure and services. This is important. Poverty in the Acholi region is far worse than in the rest of the country due to the war, and clearly visible. What is not visible is how the past experiences of war and life in the camps are carried on into the present. Interventions should therefore also focus on the ‘software’; building citizen capacities to re-engage in decision-making and democratic processes. And as The Governance Gap shows, reconstruction should include a process of national reconciliation in which the state acknowledges the atrocities committed by the military as well as its failure to end the war. Up to now citizens have few opportunities to have voice in the reconstruction process.
A campaign film such as ‘Kony2012’ may not be expected to provide the detailed nuance of a story. What it did, was remind the world of a ‘forgotten conflict’ where injustice had been done to thousands of people since the late 1980s (and don’t forget, not just by the LRA but also by the Ugandan government, and as some would argue… even by failing humanitarian actors). And true, Kony and his LRA continue to cause suffering. Every victim is one too many. They need to be stopped. They also need to be brought to justice, whether through the International Criminal Court or local forms of justice that seem more culturally accepted and appropriate.
But; if Kony is captured, the objective of Kony2012 campaign, this might solve a forgotten conflict, but not its aftermath. Since Kony left Uganda five years ago both the tangible and invisible consequences are still very real. And deserve as much attention as capturing Kony.
Marjoke Oosterom is a PhD candidate in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at the Institute of Development Studies. She works on citizenship and participation in (post)conflict settings. The film The Governance Gap is based on her PhD research in the LRA affected areas of Northern Uganda, where she spent a year in a rural village just 10km from the border with South Sudan.