Intervention – Kony 2012: Violence as evil, war as contest, intervention as benevolence

Connor Cavanaghby Connor Cavanagh, The Nordic Africa Institute (Nordiska Afrikainstitutet), Uppsala, Sweden

By now, you’ve seen or heard of the video. You’ve probably also read some of the debates (see, for example, the BBC, Foreign Policy, and CNN). In the process, you’ve likely formed a position about whether Invisible Children’s newest film, Kony 2012, will help or hinder the search for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Joseph Kony.

Whatever you make of it, this film is a resounding success from a distribution point of view. As of Monday, 12 March at 12.50pm in Stockholm, the video has received nearly 74 million views on YouTube, and almost another 17 million on Vimeo. According to impact monitoring firm Visible Measures, this means that the film was disseminated faster than any other in Internet history. In case you missed it, I’ll emphasize that point: faster than any other in Internet history. Quicker, even, than dramatic gopher or stormtrooper dancing. Notwithstanding the mass of substantive criticisms that academics, researchers and political analysts have levelled at Invisible Children since the release of this video, these basic statistics indicate that new ground has been broken in the ‘awareness raising’ domain, however problematic or partial that awareness might be.

Accordingly, the point of this post isn’t to engage in another tit-for-tat analysis of whether Invisible Children offers an accurate representation of the LRA insurgency (but for the record, I concur with Alex de Waal that they do not). Nor do I intend to critique this organization’s fundraising practices and the allegedly dubious uses to which these finances are put, as asserted in this recent infographic from The Guardian. Instead, I want to reflect on how this film [i] discursively constructs the spaces and places through which Joseph Kony and the LRA operate, and [ii] imagines these to exist in relation to Western governments and publics. In doing so, I’ll suggest that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Kony 2012 tells us more about the worldview of Invisible Children’s filmmakers than it does about the LRA insurgency or potential means of resolving it. Yet, far from simply and churlishly deconstructing the purportedly well-intentioned motives of these individuals, I want to suggest that this debate raises valuable questions about the ethics of advocacy in complex political emergencies (cf. Duffield 1996), and the problematic ways in which these efforts intersect with imagined geographies of difference and superiority. Further, I’ll do so by examining three distinct and problematic themes in the film.

Problem #1 – Violence as Evil

The word ‘evil’ arises quite early in Kony 2012, and it’s clear who the alleged source of it is: Joseph Kony. In case it wasn’t obvious from the film’s title, this man apparently personifies most of the violence and predation ongoing in ‘Central Africa’, to which we are informed Uganda belongs (rather than the East African Community, of which it is formally a part). Indeed, after reviewing lengthy segments from Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell’s home videos, the film quickly sets out the details of exactly how evil Joseph Kony is. To do so, the producers rely on video footage from Gulu, at the peak of the LRA-related internally displaced persons (IDP) crisis in the early 2000s, in addition to video and photographs of the mutilations that are characteristic of LRA violence. Such associations are misleading, given that – according Wilkerson (2010; 2012) – Kony and the LRA have not held a sustained presence in Uganda for more than half a decade. Accordingly, as noted by the award-winning Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama:

“To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement. While it draws attention to the fact that Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, is still on the loose, its portrayal of his alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era.”

Indeed, these portrayals are misrepresentative. But I’m not sure it’s exactly in the same sense that Izama implies; that is, a temporally incorrect sense. Rather, the film’s implicit assertion is that these abductions, killings, and mutilations are meaningless outbursts of diabolic angst, orchestrated by the presumably maniacal leader of a terrorist organization. The proposed solution is an incredibly simple one: Evil Kony must be stopped.

This is a dangerous misrepresentation, as it obscures the functions of violence, and the ways in which they have repeatedly served the interests of both the LRA and several of the region’s governments (cf. Allen 2006; Keen 2008). As noted in both Wilkerson’s (2010) and Schomerus et al.’s (2011) summaries of past military engagements with the LRA, the group essentially rose to prominence as a proxy for the Sudanese government in Khartoum, who objected to the Ugandan government’s support for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in south Sudan, and was eager to reciprocate (also see Allen 2006: 49). Though officially ended before operations to quash the LRA in 2002 and 2008, informal Sudanese assistance to the LRA likely ensured that the group remained one step ahead of US and UN backed forces in both operations (Wilkerson 2010). Conversely, many analysts have asserted that the continued existence of the LRA remains attractive to Yoweri Museveni’s regime in Uganda, as it justifies the government’s enormous defence budget, and helps the regime attract foreign assistance (Mwenda 2010). This leads us to the second problem.

Problem #2 – War as Contest

Indeed, the balance of power that allowed the LRA to elude capture simultaneously challenges a conventional view of war, and undoubtedly the one asserted in Kony 2012, as a contest between multiple belligerents. As noted by Keen (2008), one can perhaps more accurately view conflict as a system – one that may reach an equilibrium state in which the various parties remain satisfied with upholding the status quo. A large body of research on conflicts in East and Central Africa, geographical and otherwise, suggests that this can indeed occur, and especially so when either resources and/or political capital continue to accrue to all belligerents (Le Billon 2001; Gettleman 2010).

More disturbingly, it also appears that violence can also be used as a means of sustaining conflict, rather than as an attempt to ‘win’ or end it. In particular, the LRA’s gruesome tendency to mutilate its victims arguably existed in a cyclical relationship with media coverage of the consequences of such activity. In other words, the more attention that the media paid to a certain tactic, the more enthusiastically it was pursued by the LRA. Indeed, Autesserre (forthcoming 2012) notably argues that, in the case of north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – where the LRA also operates – mass  media coverage of rape as a weapon of war has actually increased the use of rape as a weapon of war. Such unintended consequences of media coverage and advocacy campaigns thus raise the following question: To what extent should the promulgators of such narratives be held accountable when their activities result in no concrete action, but instead actually catalyse negative, on-the-ground consequences for those that they represent?

Problem #3 – Intervention as Benevolence

Here, Kony 2012’s message is again very clear. The only way in which violence in ‘Central Africa’ will cease is if American military advisors remain in Uganda and tactically support the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in their mission to capture Joseph Kony (see Kony 2012, 21:00-23:00). Further, you must give as much of your money as possible to Invisible Children, so that they will be able to continue pressuring American politicians, policymakers, and celebrities to prevent the military advisors from being withdrawn. Never mind that the US State Department responds that they do not, and most likely will not, face any incentives to remove these advisors.

Further, these advisors must contribute to a final, military solution to the LRA insurgency. Never mind, also, that militarily capturing Joseph Kony will likely involve violent strikes against the very same children that you claim to empathize with, especially if they again take the form of the jet fighter strike that was attempted in late 2008. Nor that doing so could undermine peaceful, diplomatic attempts to resolve the situation, which very nearly succeeded in 2007-2008 (see here), and which indeed lacked only Kony’s own signature.


In short, David Keen (2008) could have been describing the narrative of Kony 2012 when he so eloquently wrote that one

“reason why moving beyond condemnation of atrocities to explanation is uncomfortable is that it diminishes the distance between ‘them’ (who suddenly cannot be so easily labelled as evil or mad) and ‘us’ (who conversely cannot so readily reassure ourselves that we are, by contrast, good and sane). If we accept the existence of the psychoanalytic concept of projection, part of the point of condemning ‘barbarism’ of others may be precisely to ward of discomfort with our own aggressive or even sexual desires.”

In sharing this quote, it really isn’t my intention to psychologise about the motives of Kony 2012’s producers. Rather, I simply want to draw attention to the ways in which the initiatives of advocacy groups sometimes intersect, rather uncomfortably, with imagined geographies of difference, morality, and superiority. In Kony 2012, we are told that violence is evil, that war is a contest, and that benevolent American intervention is needed to rectify said contest in ‘our’ favour, seeing how the locals are allegedly incapable or unwilling to do it themselves.

Needless to say, I find this narrative difficult to accept. Not primarily because I find it ill-conceived, manipulative, or dishonest, but because it obscures decades of local activism and grassroots campaigning by Ugandans themselves that has sought to offset the damage inflicted by the LRA. Given that this film is the eleventh instalment in a series produced by Invisible Children, this narrative has now repeatedly depicted Ugandans as passive victims, rather than effective agents of their own recovery, which they are. Further, Ugandans all too clearly and thoroughly understand the problems that actually now afflict the northern regions of their country, such as recurring drought and the unprecedented outbreak of ‘nodding disease’ (Batanda 2012). Conversely, though, it remains unclear whether Invisible Children could simultaneously communicate a narrative that effectively deals with these interrelated complexities, and still retain the ability to raise funds for its activities at the present scale.

Moving forward, pertinent arguments and counter-arguments will continue to emerge from the debates surrounding Kony 2012. Doubtlessly, these discussions will negotiate the tensions between simplification and misrepresentation, between complexity and utility, as well as between simple awareness and holistic understanding in the representation of atrocities. Accordingly, the present topic nicely synergizes with a tradition of scholarship that examines the role of NGOs in ‘complex emergencies’ (cf. Keen 2008), as well as work that examines political geographies of violence and barbarism (cf. Springer 2009). Hopefully, though, the contentious debates surrounding both Invisible Children and Kony 2012 will also inspire more informed engagement with the LRA insurgency and similar crises, which are committed to the principle of peaceful conflict resolution.


Allen T (2006). Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord’s Resistance Army. London: Zed

Autesserre S (forthcoming 2012) Dangerous tales: Dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences”. African Affairs

Batanda J B (2012) The real battle in Uganda. Foreign Policy 9 March (last accessed 12 March 2012)

Duffield M (1996) The symphony of the damned: Racial discourse, complex political emergencies, and humanitarian aid. Disasters 20(3):173-196

Gettleman J (2010) Africa’s forever wars. Foreign Policy March/April,1 (last accessed 12 March 2012)

Keen D (2008) Complex Emergencies. London: Polity

Le Billon P (2001) The political ecology of war: Natural resources and armed conflicts. Political Geography 20:561-584

Mwenda A (2010) Uganda’s politics of foreign aid and violent conflict: The political uses of the LRA rebellion. In: Allen T and Vlassenroot K (eds) The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality. London: Zed

Schomerus M, Allen T and Vlassenroot K (2011) Obama takes on the LRA. Foreign Affairs 15 November (last accessed 12 March 2012)

Springer S (2009) Culture of violence or violent Orientalism? Neoliberalisation and imagining the ‘savage other’ in post-transitional Cambodia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(3):305-319

Wilkerson M (2010) Why can’t anyone stop the LRA? Foreign Policy 19 April,2&hidecomments=yes (last accessed 12 March 2012)

Wilkerson M (2012) The LRA is not in Uganda (and other complicated things). Foreign Policy 7 March (last accessed 12 March 2012)


  1. Kim H.

    Thanks for this well-researched piece, Connor. I’m an intern with Witness and our director, Sam Gregory, referenced your blog in the one that he wrote about the Kony 2012 issue. Your stances are interesting and a good complement to his; he focuses on respect toward and empowerment of victims, and ‘how simple is too simple’ when telling a complex story like this. He also looks at the role of action in a campaign, and whether IC should be regarded as a model in those respects.

  2. Connor Cavanagh

    Hi Kim,
    Thanks for your comment, and for your kind words. I’ve read Sam’s piece – it’s very interesting. Truly, I appreciate his pragmatic focus on moving forward, extracting lessons, and designing better-conceived advocacy campaigns. In that sense, I suspect that both he and I appreciate the role that #Kony2012 has played in kick-starting public discourse on important humanitarian issues.
    Like Sam touches upon in his discussion of simplicity, though, I hesitate to conclude that the ‘end’ of raised awareness justifies the ‘means’ that Invisible Children has utilized in the production of this film. Indeed, as Séverine Autesserre has recently argued in an important paper on advocacy campaigns to end violence in the DR Congo (, such infantile, Manichean narratives can sometimes result in horrible consequences for local populations. Good intentions notwithstanding, I think we are right to question the ethics of an organization that sustains its own operations through the promulgation of narratives that might inadvertently harm, rather than ‘help’, those that it claims to represent.