African viewpoint: All hype, no justice?

Ugandans watch the screening of Kony 2012, a 30-minute YouTube film uploaded by US campaign group Invisible Children, in Lira district, on 13 March 2012 Some people in northern Uganda found the Kony 2012 video exploitative but other victims in South Sudan agree with the campaign

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers whether the scales of international justice are really balanced.

It is never dull on this continent of ours: In just two weeks we have rediscovered Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in a deluxe new generation video and we have heard that, after 10 years in existence and spending nearly $1bn (£631m), the International Criminal Court (ICC) have finally delivered their first guilty verdict.

A couple of weeks back I was having an email conversation with our 15-year-old son - all about the YouTube video that has placed Uganda's dead conflict with Joseph Kony's LRA back on centre stage with the slickly produced awareness campaign Stop Kony 2012.

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It is easy to sit in any city in the world and imagine that the cyber world is as common as oxygen, and that even Mr Kony must now know how famous he has become”

End Quote

Have you seen it, he wanted to know.

It is difficult enough I'm sure to rouse teenagers from their weekend slumber to discuss a lunch date never mind a 26-year-old African conflict.

Like an old hack I dived into the debate with my man child.

"Don't believe the hype," I said. "You must learn to think for yourself - where does the money go?

"There are far more informative videos by real journalists on YouTube, including one made by your old man in Kitgum, Lira, Gulu, the Ugandan-Sudanese border which tells the real story of the LRA and I would post that on Facebook if I were you."

And, in general, that was the spine of much of the criticism surrounding the video that unhelpfully wanted "to make Kony famous" by publicising a conflict that is no longer in Uganda itself - as it has moved to the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan - and by promising to do something about Mr Kony's murderous existence, if the youth would only buy some "Stop Kony" bracelets and engage with the notion that there was "nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come".

Of course, my son disagreed. It was all over Facebook and he had no intention of appearing all "non-conformist" and rubbishing something that had stirred his Facebook friends into engaging with the real world of conflict in Africa like never before.

Potential voters

And so a divide was formed among the 80 million people or so who had watched the Stop Kony campaign, comprising those who thought it a good idea to mobilise the digital generation of 14 to 24 year olds into lobbying their governments about the need to end Mr Kony's horrific exploitation of children who were just like them, regardless of where Mr Kony now currently resides.

Thomas Lubanga Lubanga, 51, faced two counts of war crimes for enlisting child soldiers under 15 to fight for his militia

In two weeks, the Stop Kony campaign created a forest fire of mutterings about sentimental exploitation, new missionaries and the white man's inclination to play the saviour of Africa's peoples through condescending and patronising depictions of our suffering.

None of this was helped by the news that the director and voice of the campaign, Jason Russell, had suffered some kind of breakdown which led him to run around San Diego streets, in the US, acting strangely while dressed only in his underwear.

What about the people whose story is irrevocably linked to the LRA's reign of terror?

It is easy to sit in any city in the world and imagine that the cyber world is as common as oxygen, and that even Mr Kony must now know how famous he has become. Not so.

The people whose suffering gave genesis to Invisible Children Incorporated had not seen the film that was arguably fast becoming more famous than Joseph Kony and when a local charity showed it to them their reaction was surprisingly hostile - not to the devil they knew in Mr Kony - but to the people they said "were making money out of their tragedy".

And Mr Kony himself has no satellite phone that can be tracked to the outskirts of CAR or the jungles of DR Congo and the International Criminal Court has had a difficult time trying to arrest him while little was said of the scores of children still to be freed from the LRA.

But something had happened and that was that the idealism and humanity of very young people was harnessed by social media to condemn the wicked acts of a forgotten warlord.

And politicians - as they are wont to do - could only ignore these huge viewing figures of potential voters at their peril.

A beast with teeth?

The ICC, meanwhile, found a Congolese militia leader - Thomas Lubanga - guilty of recruiting child soldiers in the first conviction of the court's 10-year history.

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It is abhorrent that individuals like Lubanga will use children as cannon fodder to do their bidding in a selfish drive to control resources for personal gain”

End Quote Graca Machel Nelson Mandela's wife

Much has been said about the ICC's perceived bias against Africa - thousands of communications about crimes against humanity in more than 139 countries are known to have been received by the court's prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and yet the vast majority of investigations and public warrants of arrest are against Africans.

From Lubanga to Jean-Pierre Bemba, DR Congo's ex-vice-president, and the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir the court is accused of making great examples of Africans when the world we live in sees many war crimes elsewhere and the most powerful nations are not even signatories to the ICC's Rome Statute.

Our relationship with this court will remain complex, but should Lubanga's fate not be applauded for marking our intolerance to the practice of turning children into soldiers?

Graca Machel - Nelson Mandela's wife and a long-time campaigner in this cause - said of the verdict: "Those who engage in these practices should not only be treated as pariahs in this world but they must be hunted down, tried, convicted and given the maximum sentence. It is abhorrent that individuals like Lubanga will use children as cannon fodder to do their bidding in a selfish drive to control resources for personal gain."

And that was essentially the message of the Kony 2012 campaign which seemed to have got get lost in its own hype.

And so we learned this week not to shoot the messenger and that the ICC is a beast with teeth that can sometimes bite but we have no idea who is holding the beast's leash.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    With due respect...Mr Kony and his closest supporters claim he works in concert with the spirit medium. Could this explain Jason Russell's break down? Capturing Kony will surely help reduce this perception.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Well at least the issue of child soldiers has received some considerable attention along side other evils that war brings like displacement and loss of lives. I sincerely hope that the Kony 2012 campaign re-ignites active responses in a bid to apprehend all perpetrators of atrocities on innocent lives. The scars are healing and justice would help put to rest this evil of 26 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Thank you for your perspective. Hopefully you and other reporters will keep this and simular stories in the public view. Yhanks for posting the video on this page but you could post it on your own FB page. Hopefully your son will follow in your footsteps and step up to the plate and post it himself. Oh well another dinner time discussion. You may share this post with him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It would appear that an "entertaining" video is required for people to take notice.

    Stories of child soldiering have been in the news for as long as Ican remember.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    'Child Soldiering' as the BBC describe it, is never going to stop while sub Saharan African oppositions or governments believe that a gun solves everything. Its 50 yrs + since independence for most African states, but the respect for the rule of law is worse than ever. Until law and the gun are separated any bush guerrilla will think they can win power with child gunmen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    As usual your correspondent Mr Sevenzo eschews easy answers and brings a fresh perspective and subtlety to the one of the biggest stories of the day. Between his son and him we see two equally valid views on whether the American film-makers have helped or hindered the campaign to bring Kony to justice. i also agree with Bluesberry on the need to bring justice western war criminals to justice too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    carry on searching

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The interesting thing I find in the criticisms of Kony 2012 is the vagueness of the alternative. The diplomats, politicians, journalists, aid agencies and all the "professionals have not been able to gave Joseph Kony the kind of deserved universal disdain the video succeeded in doing. The experts" should not worry about the meetings, trips and stipend.

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    Comment number 4.

    The scales of international justice are totally unbalanced. You will never see at ICC the likes of Blair, Bush, Cheney - the mostly white but always powerful. I don't know how many Kony killed, how many lives he ruined, but I know the Iraq War effort alone was barbaric, unmerciful; followed by Afghanistan, Libya & now Syria. Do we really not know who is holding the teeth of the beast?

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    Comment number 3.

    Film maker intentions are good but there are lot of Kony in African governments. Why worrying about looking for Kony if they are turning blind eye on criminals that are in power.

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    Comment number 2.

    Why not keep looking for the bad uns, but prosecute the ones you can find in the meantime...TB and GWB are still spreading their message and noone is doing anything about it

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I have read news reports about Kony since the 1980s. The main problem is locating him in the vast African countryside (somewhat akin to locating a needle in a haystack) and the few resources of those trying to find him. Hence the amount of resources need to be increased to find him.


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