Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have been terrorizing civilians in central Africa for more than 25 years. But their crimes have suddenly received prominence due to one of the most successful social media campaigns in history.
On Monday, a nonprofit group called Invisible Children uploaded a video onto the Internet that has already been viewed nearly 40 million times on YouTube. Many viewers are young people, and the topic is dominating discussion on social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit.
There’s no question the video has directed wider attention to a far-away matter like Kony and the LRA than any congressional debate or set of policy papers.
“It’s had a dramatic effect,” says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “We’ve been talking about him for a long time, without anything like this response.”
But Invisible Children has been criticized for oversimplifying the issues involved. Capturing Kony – which has been the goal of multiple governments for years – is going to take a lot more than sharing a video online or putting up posters and purchasing bracelets from the group, as the video suggests.
“Activism always involves sparking attention –- getting people to take up and notice this problem, as opposed to the six million other problems they could be mad about,” says Jeremi Suri, author ofLiberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama.
But awareness and activism aren’t always enough to achieve the outcomes desired in a complex, real-world situation.
“This video is making a moral plea, but it doesn’t leave much space for the unintended consequences that might result from intervening,” Suri says.
‘Evil In This World’
The LRA was one of the armed rebel groups that emerged in northern Uganda following the rise to power in 1986 of Yoweri Museveni, who remains the country’s president.
The LRA has committed countless atrocities, hacking off limbs, noses, ears and lips from its victims in order to instill fear. More than 400,000 people were displaced or living as refugees last year as a result of the LRA’s activities, according to groups that have tracked the organization.Over the years, the LRA has metastasized from a group resisting the government to a force that seems to have little purpose outside its own survival. As the video points out, the group has killed and disfigured thousands of people and abducted thousands of children.
“If you ever had any question if there’s evil in this world, it’s resident in the person of Joseph Kony,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, said last year.
Getting Kony Was Already A Policy
The capture or killing of Kony is already official U.S. policy. Prodded by Invisible Children and other human rights groups, Congress in 2010 passed a law requiring the president to devise a strategy to eliminate the LRA.
Last October, President Obama detailed the administration’s plans for doing so, including the announcement that 100 U.S. troops would be deployed to Uganda to provide intelligence and logistical support.
There are still snags. The LRA now roams through densely-forested land along the borders of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republican of the Congo.
The U.S. is trying to work with all those armies, but they have failed to come together in an organized or effective way, says Mark Schneider, a former Peace Corps director who is now with the International Crisis Group, which supports conflict-prevention efforts.