Archive for LRA

Clicktivism, slacktivism and the alternatives

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 April, 2012 by Virgil

Kony 2012 poster in Australia. Photo by David Ward

The recent Kony 2012 campaign led by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children to draw attention to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, was supposed to have culminated in an event held on 20 April to ‘cover the night’ – an event that aimed to “blanket every street in every city” with Kony 2012 posters and messages.

On the whole, it appears the event fizzled. A handful of news outlets noted the failure of the Cover the Night campaign to bring people in any numbers to the streets or to leave much of a mark, but perhaps more significantly, most major news outlets did not report the events at all. Invisible Children’s own website reported the participation of “thousands of people”. It was a far cry from the more than one hundred million people who watched the initial Kony 2012 video designed to promote the event, and the more than three million people who pledged to “stop at nothing” to get Kony.

In all fairness, this was largely inevitable. The act of watching a video (assuming those who began watching it actually finished it) or clicking on a pledge, however powerful, was never going to translate into a comparable level of real-world action. And the fact that the campaign did manage to attract such levels of attention and the participation of thousands of people in response to a conflict in central Africa was certainly an impressive feat. But the drop was quite pronounced nonetheless. This cannot simply be attributed to the barrage of criticism the video attracted, or the public meltdown of the group’s founder and video’s ‘star’, Jason Russell, although these certainly played a large part.

More importantly, it was inevitable because the very factors that made the campaign work so well as a piece of propaganda, were also its undoing. Invisible Children was well aware of the limited breadth (in global terms) and length of the attention span of the youth it was targeting, as well as the need for grandiose spectacle to attract that attention, and they developed their campaign accordingly. The campaign broke everything down into a simple and urgent ‘get the bad guy Kony this year’ message, called for what looked like a clandestine and rebellious (read cool) poster campaign, and in a very self-aggrandising manner, spoke of a ‘Facebook world’ changing ‘everything’, of revolution, of changing history. It was designed to be cool and give youth a sense of empowerment. Although it claimed to be “turning the system upside-down”, the campaign essentially worked within the ‘system’ of fleeting interest in grand spectacle and cool clicktivism. It was a fad of sorts, and fads inevitably fade away.

It is also important to note that the arrest of Joseph Kony, when/if it happens, will not in itself be something revolutionary. While the video claimed, presumably for dramatic effect, that “arresting Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules”, examples of this clearly already exist. Thomas Lubanga, another warlord formerly active in the DRC also responsible for mass atrocities and forcibly recruiting child soldiers, for example, had already been arrested in 2006 under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and interestingly, was convicted of war crimes (after a lengthy trial) less than ten days after the release of the Kony 2012 video.

The Thomas Lubanga case was an important moment, not just because it marked the first time someone was convicted by the ICC, but because, for all the shortcomings of the process, it happened without massive and passionate pressure from the masses (and largely without their knowledge). The ICC itself, which is becoming an increasingly important tool in deterring war crimes and crimes against humanity, was developed and brought to life not only in the absence of large-scale public outcry, but also in the face of vehement opposition from the powerful US government. It is a systemic attempt to reduce and prevent conflict and conflict-related suffering, and it was made possible not by uninformed (or suddenly informed) passions, but by years of hard work by large numbers of people who were very well informed and were measured and realistic in their approach.

Newborn emotive pressure from the masses tends to be an unwieldy instrument, and unfortunately does not form the basis for a system capable of addressing the world’s many injustices and problems. It can, in the short term, serve as a form of pressure for policymakers to ‘do something’ (primarily to relieve the political pressure) – but not necessarily ‘the right thing’ or ‘the most effective thing’. If it ‘works’, the Kony 2012 campaign, for example, will boost the level of military action against the LRA, but will this do more harm than good? If the answer is yes (and there certainly are precedents), then are we not confronted with the uncomfortable possibility that doing nothing may have been better than doing ‘something’? Does not the existence of such a possibility then suggest the need for great care when generating and wielding this type of emotive pressure, particularly when there will be large-scale life and death consequences in a complex and volatile environment such as that in the DRC?

Some form of engagement from the rich and powerful actors/sectors of the world is certainly one of the necessary components in bringing peace and stability to this region. But this engagement needs to be very carefully planned and implemented. Would it not be better to have thousands of well-informed and dedicated people able to contribute to focused debate and serve as a political force in effectively promoting the necessary long-term comprehensive policies, than millions of people with loud voices calling for simplistic and instantaneous solutions? I would say yes. Will the rousing of millions of voices eventually boil down to these thousands of well-informed voices? Possibly. But at what cost? Will the millions of voices already have contributed to hasty decisions that may make things worse? And will the disillusionment felt by many of the millions when confronted with the complex and harsh realities on the ground serve to damage future activist efforts? Only time will tell. Is there a better way to build up these thousands of well-informed voices? This may be a good time to seriously start considering how.

I would suggest that, while working to dazzle and emotively rouse people into immediate action has its place, much more effort needs to be put into reforming the systems of day-to-day newsgathering and transmission as well as education, to provide a more solid basis for informing and educating larger numbers of people and getting them involved in some form in the development and implementation of effective measures to bring conflict and conflict-related suffering to a lasting halt.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).


Kony 2012: The simple solution?

Posted in activism, Africa, Uganda with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 9 March, 2012 by Virgil

Dungu, DRC. Photo by Oxfam International under a CC Licence

Kony 2012‘ – the viral video/campaign by the non-profit group Invisible Children targeting Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony – has rapidly attracted a great deal of attention in the Western world. It appears to be an example of how resources and attention can be successfully mobilized for an issue on a continent that suffers from chronic marginalization. In this sense, this campaign is an issue of interest for this blog.

But the campaign has also very rapidly attracted a great deal of criticism (see, for example, here): that it was dumbing down the conflict, exaggerating the crimes of the LRA, supporting military intervention (and claiming credit for the US decision to send 100 military advisers), perpetuating the misleading and naïve notion that Africa needs the West to save it, making the campaigners themselves the ‘heroic’ centrepiece of a ‘historic’ story, and finally, that the organisation was somewhat shady with its use of funds.

I think it is the first point – the simplification, the dumbing down – that worries me the most. The LRA operates in a complex and murky environment in which good governance, stability and the rule of law are in short supply. These rebels without borders, having long left Uganda behind, have been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and (South) Sudan. Apart from the LRA, the populations in each of these countries are faced with threats from a variety of other armed groups that are often able to act in a culture of impunity: rebels with causes, rebels without causes, predatory elements of national armed forces, and opportunistic bandits.

The LRA is a part of this environment. Solving problems is not simply a matter of taking one armed group out of the equation, and certainly not simply focusing on taking the leader of one armed group out of the equation. It is never about just one person. It is about power structures, resources, group survival, cultures of violence and impunity, and politics, politics, politics. Nor can the regional context be separated from the global. Powerful corporations and governments also have their own interests in the region, and act accordingly.

The eventual capture (or killing) of Joseph Kony would most certainly be greeted with great fanfare and celebration, not unlike George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ ceremony on an aircraft carrier after the occupation of Iraq. As was the case in Iraq, bringing down Kony would not be a solution to a much broader set of problems in the region, but unlike Iraq, the other problems (that would be ‘inconvenient’ to a happy ending) would undoubtedly remain off the radar.

Invisible Children has responded to some of the criticism mentioned above on its website (see here), where its aims and methods appear at least to be somewhat more thoughtful than the video campaign. But it doesn’t really address the crucial ‘dumbing down’ problem, and it is clear that the video campaign is intended to be simple, and to keep people focused on a simple ‘solution’.

Other defenders have employed ‘at least they’re doing something’ and ‘attracting attention is better than having none’ type of arguments. While such perspectives are certainly worth considering, there is obviously a major problem when what is painted so vividly as a clear-cut ‘solution’, is, in itself, hardly a solution. Such moves may, in isolation, simply change the dynamics on the ground and bring about a host of unintended consequences. In this sense, it is important that we not forget the relevance of the ‘first, do no harm’ principle used by medical practitioners, when considering measures to counter violence and armed conflict.

I am certainly not advocating a ‘do nothing’ policy, but in this complex world, and in this complex case in particular, in which one armed group is operating in the presence of several other armed groups, across several armed conflicts across at least four countries, isolating and vigorously targeting the individual leader of one of these groups, with little regard for the broader context, the environment and the underlying issues on the ground, is not a viable strategy. A more nuanced and comprehensive strategy, while less heroic and less romantic, needs to be given greater attention.

Successfully grabbing the media/public spotlight inevitably means bringing the issue down to the lowest common denominator. It is a sad reality that simplistic solutions attract attention where comprehensive and more nuanced solutions that would likely be more effective are unable to do so. Maybe the short-term simplistic campaigns eventually lead to more long-term levels of attention (though I am not particularly optimistic). Perhaps it is necessary to strike a balance between the two.

I do believe that much more effort is needed to get more people interested in more of the world in a general sense. The internet is a big place, and so much information about the world is out there. It is not so much the sudden grabbing of people’s interest that is needed here, but more a matter of getting people into the habit of being more informed about certain issues, particularly where the human needs are the greatest. A greater awareness of the broader issues among a greater portion of the population means a larger base of people that are able to watch issues for the long haul and develop a deeper understanding. It means more people in a position to influence policy in a way that leads to more effective and long-term solutions.

It is certainly not as glamorous as the ‘act now, get the bad guy, and make history’ message, and the scale would be much smaller, but we shouldn’t underestimate the long-term value of a smaller number of highly informed and committed people in contributing to the realization of solutions that are better suited to the conditions on the ground, and thereby more viable and effective.

Still the deadliest

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 16 February, 2010 by Virgil

Don’t let the media’s silence fool you. Conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remain at horrifying levels.

When Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) stepped up its offensives in eastern DRC in late 2008, positioning itself to take the city of Goma, and making grandiose statements about heading for Kinshasa to take over the running of the entire country, the Western media paid some attention – not much, but at least a few murmurs that could be distinguished from the usual silence. This all came to an end when Rwanda did an aboutface, making a secret deal with its enemy in Kinshasa that saw the arrest of Nkunda and the ambiguous adoption of the CNDP by the armed forces of the DRC. For the Western media, the show was now over and it was time to go home. Besides, much more ‘important’ things were happening in Gaza.

The official international phase of the conflict (the nine-nation continental war) had ended in 2003, and now with the largest remaining rebel group having been dismantled (and Rwanda being ‘friendly’ with the DRC), one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the violence in the DRC was at last coming to an end.

But alas, this was not to be. In spite of military campaigns against remnants of the FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – a group including, but certainly not limited to, some of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide) and Uganda’s LRA, these groups have not been reigned in, and revenge attacks (for being hounded) on the local civilian population remain rife (international boundaries don’t seem to matter all that much in this conflict). As many other observers have noted, in the absence of serious political measures, a military solution simply does not exist. Several other armed groups have continued to be active in eastern DRC, and the actions of some sections of the armed forces of the DRC mean that they remain seen by many as a threat to the security of the civilian population.

Recently released figures are reflective of just how damaging this conflict still is. More than 1 million people have been driven from their homes in 2009 (see here). I doubt there is another conflict in the world that produced such a high number of freshly displaced persons in 2009. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has recently estimated that more than 8,000 women were raped by warring factions in eastern DRC in the same year. While these figures are undoubtedly conservative, as they are they should be seen as a serious reason for concern. More recently, in one series of attacks by the LRA on 13 January this year alone, 100 people were reportedly massacred.

Speaking of figures, the Human Security Report has attacked the death toll figures (5.4 million by the latest count in 2007) for the conflict in the DRC produced by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), declaring that they have been considerably overestimated. I am in no position to verify which figures are closer to the reality (see this analysis), but given the highly misleading presentation of some of the Human Security Report’s conclusions (the apparent ‘paradox’ that “nationwide morality rates actually decline during periods of warfare” (p.17) – simply explained by long-term decreases in mortality rates due to general improvements in health), I find their motives somewhat suspect. I get the impression that they are determined to prove that the damage from conflict throughout the world is decreasing, and the IRC’s death toll figures for the conflict in the DRC were proving to be a major challenge to this notion.

Nicholas Kristof (the New York Times’ chief salesman of humanitarian indignation) has also recently made his own contribution, taking the liberty of using his calculator to update the IRC’s death toll in the DRC, putting the current toll at 6.9 million.

Unfortunately, we will never know the real death toll from the conflict in the DRC. But whichever figures we choose to use, I think it is probably safe to say that this conflict remains the deadliest of our times, and is still very worthy of our attention and concern.

And yet the Western media are, as usual,  missing in action. The conflict in the DRC remains the ‘greatest’ stealth conflict of all time.

Israel-Palestine and contagious journalism

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 January, 2009 by Virgil

Forget the series of Christmas massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in eastern DRC that left more than 400 dead (including more than 45 killed in a church) and the coalition of countries in the region trying to hunt them down. Forget the deadly clashes with Congolese rebels poised to take over the city of Goma. Forget Somalia, where the Ethiopian forces that invaded (with US assistance) two years ago are being forced by local resistance forces to pack and leave. Forget all of these conflicts, because violence has broken out again in Israel-Palestine.


The latest conflagration of violence in Israel-Palestine continues to dominate international news around the world. The details of who is attacking who with what, how many people have died (down to single digit figures), and how many of them were women and children, together with in-depth political analysis and a touch of humanitarian concern are all fed through the newspapers, television, radio and internet news outlets on a daily basis. And all with the utmost care to avoid displeasing lobby groups that will rain down thousands of e-mails, telephone calls and letters (flak) upon the unfortunate media corporation suspected of even the slightest bias (and possibly revoke their advertising contracts).


The Israel-Palestine conflict is a ‘chosen’ conflict. It always is. It has the rare privilege of being the focus of saturated attention every time there is a conflagration (despite the fact that the conflict is not occurring in a ‘white’ Western country, and despite the fact that the USA is not a direct belligerent in the conflict – always sure factors for a conflict to attract soaring levels of attention). Explaining why this is so would take a book or two, but let’s just scratch the surface here. Politicians in much of the Western world obsess about the issue, largely because a significant amount of their election campaign contributions seem to depend on their favourable attention in many cases. Politicians in much of the Muslim world do likewise, because standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of Israel is much more popular than standing up against the oppression of Muslims at the hands of anyone else. The fact that the conflict region is considered the ‘Holy Land’ by Muslims, Jews and Christians helps cement this process.


For media corporations, providing saturation coverage of the conflict is nothing short of automatic. What is considered important by media corporations is based largely on what the policymakers at home consider to be important, almost by default. Keeping reporters close to those making foreign policy at home is much cheaper than sending them all over the world to independently gather news. In the competitive media business, budgets are better spent on packaging and presenting news than actually gathering it. Furthermore, for media corporations that have little newsgathering capacity (and oddly, even for those that do), the news value of a story is often determined by what leading media corporations (like the New York Times) think it should be. In this environment of follow-the-leader (policymakers and leading media corporations) and pack journalism, having a reporter in Africa is optional, having one in Israel-Palestine is not. Once the reporter is stationed there, ‘fresh’ coverage of the issue on demand is cheap and easy (far more so than actually sending someone to far-away and logistically challenging Africa to cover something after it happens).


Because of the combination of follow-the-leader, pack journalism, and lack of newsgathering capacity, this state of affairs can be seen spreading to the rest of the world as well. Japan has no cultural or religious affinity with Israel-Palestine, and its politicians are not reliant on campaign contributions from pro-Israeli lobby groups, yet its media corporations follow the Western leaders in devoting heavy coverage to the issue. Even locally-focused news programs that rarely have any time for foreign affairs issues make sure to include news of the latest conflagration in their bulletins. With little budget for foreign newsgathering, Zambia’s leading newspaper (the Post) buys its world news from foreign news agencies. The result is that it gives more coverage to the situation in Israel-Palestine than it does to the eight countries on Zambia’s border combined. In the year 2004, for example, it devoted 9 percent of its foreign coverage to Israel-Palestine, but only 4 percent to all of Zambia’s eight neighbours.


On top of this, things have always been this way, so they tend to stay that way. Israel-Palestine has always been considered important, and ‘important’ people think it is, so it must be important. Groups (interest/lobby) and individuals with a special interest in the conflict in Israel-Palestine are also well-positioned to continue the process of drawing copious amounts of attention to the conflict, in political spheres and in the ownership of prominent media corporations. Africa, on the other hand, has not been considered important (for a variety of separate reasons that will be dealt with in another post), and therefore no one knows about it, and therefore it is not important. It becomes a vicious cycle.


The public, who remain largely at the mercy of the media corporations in obtaining morsels of information about the outside world, seem to end up with the same distorted view of the world. In a simple classroom survey conducted of 37 Australian university students (studying in a course on war and peace no less) in 2003, the conflict in Israel-Palestine was the most common answer (9 respondents) to the question of which conflict in the world they thought had been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War. Only one of the 37 could even name the conflict in the DRC as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, and that was at third place behind Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. In a similar survey conducted of 151 university students in Japan in 2008, not a single one could name the DRC as the world’s deadliest conflict. Fourteen students, on the other hand, thought that the conflict in Israel-Palestine was world’s deadliest, coming in at third place behind Iraq and Kosovo.


This is despite the fact that the virtually unknown conflict in the DRC is 1,000 times deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. And I don’t mean that figuratively, it is literally 1,000 times deadlier – the death toll from conflict in the DRC since 1998 is roughly 6 million, while the death toll from conflict in Israel-Palestine since 2000 is roughly 6 thousand. At least 38 conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been deadlier than that in Israel-Palestine. Put simply, while these surveys are limited in their scope, they suggest that collectively, the general public has no idea about the state of conflict in the world. Their perspective on which conflicts are the largest and deadliest is so skewed that the reality is unrecognizable. But who can blame them, considering the horribly unbalanced diet of media they feed on. I invite you to try out simple surveys like this (“Which conflict in the world do you think has been the deadliest since the end of the Cold War?”) with those around you.


In some ways, I almost regret writing this post, because I am becoming part of the very bandwagon that I am discussing – by writing about why the issue is important, I am inadvertently boosting the attention it receives… But some discussion of the issue of ‘chosen’ conflicts is also necessary in order for the discussion of ‘stealth’ conflicts to make sense.


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