Why Africa Doesn’t Want Us Anymore

I’ve found that every comment piece that mentions Invisible Children’s ‘Kony 2012 campaign’ starts with a nervous defence of character, and I’m afraid I’m no different. I will say this – I detest the continual human rights abuses committed by the LRA and Joseph Kony, I want to see him put before a court, I want to see child soldiers returned to their homes, I want to see that region of central Africa at peace. It seems like such a blatantly obvious thing to say, yet we’ve arrived at the ridiculous point where those who have criticisms of Invisible Children (IC) are accused of apathy towards those affected by the LRA, as though we just don’t care enough.

However, the Ugandan reaction to the campaign has been ambivalent at best. This is precisely because the Ugandans, who are genuinely informed on the conflict, can immediately see its glaring discrepancies and inconsistencies. The social critic Timothy Kalyegira said of the Kony 2012 campaign: “There is no historical context. It’s more like a fashion thing.” There couldn’t be a more apt assessment.

The most disconcerting aspect of the IC campaign is their clearly intentional admission of the wider issues surrounding this conflict. In particular, the substantial role of their partners, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and the armed forces he commands. In an otherwise well-written response to recent critiques of their organisation, IC is surprisingly brief on this most important of issues, devoting just three lines in their explanation. The gist of it seems to be “We don’t condone their actions, we don’t give them money, but we’ll work with them anyway”.

The flagrant human rights abuses that have been committed by the Ugandan government and its army, the UPDF, during this conflict, the Ugandan Civil War and the subsequent Congolese Civil War are just as real as those committed by the LRA. I was working in North-Eastern DR Congo at the time of the civil war, and saw at first hand the atrocities that Museveni’s troops had committed. As the vast nation collapsed in on itself in a disastrous civil war, the sinister body of the Ugandan Army moved in to take a stake.

Murder and sexual violence were widespread at their hands. There was a considerable use of slave labor in primitive mines to rob the DRC of its mineral wealth at the barrel of a gun. This profiteering ran to the highest levels of the Ugandan leadership. Away from the eyes of the international community, the Ugandan Government was able to get away with all of this. I don’t doubt that if the media team behind Kony 2012 had been active in the DRC back then, we would now be watching and arguing over a video called Museveni 2012.

The pathetic excuses offered up by Museveni as to what happened in the DRC are the same offered up by Kony when questions have been put to him about atrocities committed: “It wasn’t us, I wasn’t in command, I’ve been set up.” To get himself into power during the Ugandan Civil War, Museveni was partial to the use of child soldiers himself, commanding thousands. Yet, this is the man to whom IC says it must ultimately work with. Forgive me, but when does a war criminal stop being a war criminal? Through the logic of the IC, it’s when he wears a suit, commands the armed forces of a sovereign state and supports their agenda.

The IC argue in favour of the use of the forces of one war criminal to wipe out the forces of another. By that logic, you could argue for American support of Kony in order to overthrow the Ugandan government. Sound ridiculous? It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but that is the reality; there is absolutely no moral differentiation between the two. Yes, Kony is an evil man, but Museveni has proved himself to be an equally evil man, just an evil man in a suit.

Now of course the crimes of Museveni do not negate the crimes of Kony. However, if you accept that we have a moral imperative to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony, as IC claims, then you must accept that we have a moral objective to stop all war criminals, without exception, including Museveni and a number of members of his armed forces. If we do not do this, then we are active rather than impartial players in this conflict. I wonder how many of those who support the idea of military action to stop Kony would support the idea of regime change in Uganda. This is the moral dilemma.

Wars and conflict are what the media make them. The problem is that IC has presented one simple piece of a convoluted jigsaw and used it to draw people into the conclusion that their stated aims are the only beneficial option. They have boiled down one of the most complex African conflicts of the modern era to this: one insane mystic traipsing around the African jungle stealing children. It plays up to the heart of darkness stereotype that so many have. It stinks of a latent racism and almost messianic belief that in some perverse way Africans need to be saved from themselves.

The conflict has its origins in tribal division; indeed, the LRA is an offshoot of a hugely popular Acholi tribal movement, which had considerable grassroots support. We must ask ourselves why the conditions for warfare had been so rife in Northern Uganda; it doesn’t take much research to realise that the blame doesn’t lie entirely with Kony.

I take issue with IC for having presented this conflict so unbelievably simplistically that even the three year old child in the video could understand it. When a war is being shown in this way, then alarm bells should start ringing in our heads. Yet, this tactic of simplification and misrepresentation by aid organisations is not a new phenomenon. It works to play to stereotypes. To play to the gallery by projecting an image of Africa that people expect to see, rather than the actual reality on the ground. People start to reach into their pockets.

The debate revolving around the Kony 2012 campaign naturally leads to a far bigger issue; the role of western aid organizations in Africa and the influence they wield. Having worked in central Africa in this very industry, I can say in all truth that I came up against many more problems and hostility to Western involvement (no matter how well minded) than positivity.

In the last terrible days of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, it became clear that the genocidal Hutu government had lost control, and that the Tutsi rebels would seize control of the country. Over one million Hutu refugees, fearful of Tutsi reprisals, fled into neighboring DR Congo. Whole families, communities, towns, fled east and an entire country was emptied. In their midst, however, were the very perpetrators of the genocide, the interahamwe. Many were genuine refugees, but many thousands were the mass murderers, the child rapists, the genocidaires. Western media outlets, which had ignored all coverage of the genocide up until now, were finally latching onto the issue, and this mass migration made wonderful television. Perversely, the story became one of pity for the misrepresented masses of refugees and murderers huddled into the Congolese camps, not for the victims of the genocide themselves.

Aid agencies began to pile into DR Congo. In the west, people were shocked by the genocide; horrified that such devastating inaction on the part of their governments had allowed it to happen. Without physically travelling to Rwanda, their guilt could be allayed by donation to the aid organisations on the ground. The competition between these aid agencies for media coverage (and by extension public funding) combined into a cocktail of exaggeration and lies about the situation in the camps. The cash from the ‘Save Rwanda’ appeals poured in. Not to the victims – but to the perpetrators. The camps were flooded with food, which was swiftly taken by the genocidal interahamwe and sold for guns and ammunition.

When I arrived in DR Congo to that same region fifteen years later in 2009, the interahamwe militia had become a serious problem. They were still armed, and committing intermittent but heinous attacks against the local population. Their activity still fuels continued unrest in the region to this day, unrest in which thousands of people have died needlessly. Their continued activities can be traced back not to the Rwandan Genocide, but the narrow-minded and downright irresponsible activities of the Western aid organisations.

Did the aid agencies know what was going on during their ‘Save Rwanda’ appeals? It’s questionable; they were warned in no uncertain terms about what may have been happening and it certainly didn’t stop them. Did the people who donated to those aid agencies know what was happening? Of course they didn’t, they quite rightly expected their money to end up in the right place. Sadly, this couldn’t have been further from reality.

It is so critical to remain mindful of this example when looking at the stated aims of the Kony 2012 campaign. We all want to help, but not all help is good help. If you feel the urge to donate, then I can’t state strongly enough that I’m not warding you off – but give to a Ugandan charity working in the region (of which there are many), not an American one that advocates flooding a highly unstable region with yet more guns.

The blame for many of Africa’s modern problems have been laid, rightly or wrongly, at Western doors. With this in mind, I don’t think we should fault any African for not wanting our often particularly patronising brand of intervention. Do we honestly believe that the American Special Forces can apprehend Joseph Kony? He is hiding in undeveloped, primeval jungle the size of Western Europe. He has avoided capture for over a quarter of a century through tactical skill and a far greater knowledge of his environment than those chasing him.

The last time special forces were drafted in to find him there were Guatemalan, hardened jungle warfare specialists, the perfect candidates for the job. Having disappeared into the jungle, they were ambushed by the LRA and their decapitated bodies were found a few weeks later. Aside from the practical difficulties in actually seizing him, every time there is a concerted effort to catch or kill Kony we see a spike in LRA child abductions and attacks on civilian populations as recompense. Foreign military intervention is a weak option, regardless of the arguments if it’s a morally objectionable one or not.

It is to African solutions that we should look. Traditional Acholi (the tribe of Kony and many of the LRA fighters) forms of justice have been presented as the most favorable option. Many former fighters have already been welcomed back into their communities following judicial cleansing rituals. Kony continues to fight because he has nothing to lose; he will fight until his last breath to avoid deportation to the International Criminal Court. If there is a viable Ugandan alternative to military conflict, then it should be taken, or at least explored. It should not be forgotten that the African capacity to forgive is truly remarkable, far beyond anything we could understand in the west.

The ‘Kony 2012’ campaign argues that apprehending Kony has not worked as of yet because there is not enough of a public interest in the issue. I don’t think so. Awareness will not apprehend or kill Joseph Kony; as mentioned previously, it is my belief that any military option is doomed to failure. But of course an increasingly widespread knowledge of the conflict is not a bad thing, as long as you don’t adhere to IC’s particular brand of ‘awareness’, or indeed the type of awareness spread by the aid agencies in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide.

If we really want Africa to grow, then we must leave it to resolve its own issues. It can be done, it is already being done, not by Westerners but by Africans themselves. We must stop making the mistake of dashing in like a very well-meaning but also very misinformed older brother. I think it’s fitting to leave the final words to an African, Zamo Mkhwanzi, whose words echo the sentiments of many I met whilst working on the continent: “No to aid, no to intervention. Leave Africa alone. That’s what we really want. Stop stealing our raw materials, stop coming here to trade your guns, stop using us to provide employment for your own people who come here as aid workers. No thanks UNICEF and Amnesty International and Angelina Jolie. Stop sending food packages that put our farmers out of work. In fact leave, leave Africa, never come back here again and we will be ok. We like you, so we’ll come and visit you if you like. But we can live without you. Every time you come here you leave us worse off, so thanks – but no thanks.”

Alex Tweedy

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5 Comments on this post.
  • Alexander Brooks-Sykes
    13 March 2012 at 04:30
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    A fantastic article. Well written and extremely current. Good job.

  • Henry Sharp
    13 March 2012 at 13:53
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    Elucidating, emotive and enlightened.

  • Eric John
    14 March 2012 at 00:56
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    Excellent article. A lot of my *cough*Caucasian*cough* friends get a little bit high-and-mighty when it comes to Western involvement in Africa. There is always that sense of “you’d be a wreck without us” and “you have us to thank for clean water!”, and that’s the danger that comes with learning about the plight of an entire continent from the at times overly saccharine and simplistic rhetoric of Western charities. Africans are grateful for the help, but let’s not forget that only a few decades ago, the very countries that are now being flooded with aid workers and middle-class students, were being pillaged and subjugated under Western colonial rule. I don’t believe for a second that the West is entirely or even largely to blame for Africa’s problems, but we just can’t ignore the fact that colonialism has left behind a rotten legacy…

  • Dave J
    14 March 2012 at 11:49
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    Great article.

    I don’t know too much about African issues, but I know that in Afghanistan the issue of local pride was a very important one. For example, we would sweep in and build a shiny new hospital to Western standards, but because the community had no stake in it there would be no appreciation and it would either be used improperly or not used (or seen as a target for militants).

    It was better for the hospital to be built to worse standards but by Afghans, with Afghan leadership in consultation with Western forces, because then the community felt that it belonged to them and should be used and protected as such.

    How would you feel if you were completely reliant on somebody’s charity to subsist? You’d feel pretty crap, wouldn’t you? So why is it that we expect foreign people to feel any different about it? These are real people with real pride, and the only way they’ll survive and lift themselves out of poverty is by genuinely lifting ‘themselves’ out of it. Just like domestic welfare, we can help them along the way, but the impetus has to be behind the people themselves, not the Western meddlers who see themselves as the cavalry riding to the rescue.

    While it would be remiss to ignore the impact of Western colonial rule on Africa, it is also wrong to continually blame the countries that oversaw that rule – I don’t feel guilt for white colonial rule, and nor should anybody in this generation. We’re not empowered to apologise or make amends for the sins of our forefathers (if indeed our forefathers sinned, mine were probably all working down the pit in Yorkshire), just as much as the citizens of former colonies are not empowered to forgive us for them.

    Our nation’s efforts to promote international development, be it in Afghan or Africa or anywhere else, should be grounded in a desire to stop conflict, prevent human suffering and cultivate prosperous nations with whom we can trade culture, knowledge and goods. It shouldn’t be a penance, but sometimes the rhetoric of organisations like Invisible Children tiptoe on either side of the line.

  • Helena Smith
    23 March 2012 at 11:01
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    Excellent article, a refreshing and interesting read. If only this got as much exposure as the Kony 2012 video, so that those thinking about getting involved in the campaign may at least think twice before getting caught up in the Kony hoopla.

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