In the wake of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 viral video frenzy and the cataclysmic meltdown of the organization’s leader Jason Russell, it is worth deconstructing the phenomenon beyond mere criticisms of the producers’ failure to contrive a holistic narrative about Joseph Kony’s reign of terror. The film is arguably the most nefarious piece of propaganda we have seen since the days of Leni Riefenstahl, in particular because it targets a youth audience, as did the Nazis.
Promoted as a grass roots charity, Invisible Children is anything but. It is so in bed with government policy makers and corporate donors, that “charity” seems rather a misnomer, and whether they were aware of it or not, the organisation has turned out to be nothing more than a public relations tool for US corporate interests and their government accessories.
Did you know? January 2012 was 21st Century Statecraft month. If you don’t know what that means, it’s the State Department’s new tool for reaching out to civil society groups and activists to further US foreign policy goals. The State Department’s website describes it as follows:
“Technology and new innovations are changing the world in which we live. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is responding to these challenges by adapting our foreign policy agenda to leverage new innovations in service of our diplomatic and development goals. This is 21st Century Statecraft — complementing traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.”
Under the cloak of 21st century statecraft, the Alliance of Youth Movements was spearheaded by Jared Cohen, Google Ideas Executive, former State Department employee and close advisor to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Invisible Children was among the first groups to be sponsored through the Department of State program in 2008. They were asked back the following year and touted as a great success story for others to follow.
Cohen’s brainchild later rebranded itself as Movements.org. Benefits for members like Invisible Children are described as such:
“Activists who are members of Movements.org’s network receive support for their campaigns and initiatives by Movements.org and their fellow Movements.org members. They receive exclusive invitations to member only events and have access to sponsorship opportunities by Movements.org’s supporters.”
In theory, extending statecraft to the greater public could be a welcome development, but let’s be clear about one thing: this is not about unfettered people power.
Invisible Children has since its early days been supported by John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, itself funded by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a powerful Washington think tank which refuses to disclose its donors and played a key role in selecting cabinet members and forming US foreign policy goals in the transition from Bush to Obama.
In 2009, Mr. Prendergast spoke in Washington at one of Invisible Children’s events called How it Ends. Regarding Kony, he said, “We don’t have an economic interest in the place. We’re not trying to get oil out of the place. We don’t have particular mineral interests. We just want to see a solution to one of the world’s worst conflicts.”
Sorry, what was that?
China recently signed a $10 billion Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) to exploit oilfields on the Lake Albert basin. France’s Total and China’s National Offshore Company (CNOOC) joined the UK’s Tullow Oil Plc in the landmark deal, which could see Uganda becoming one of the world’s top 50 oil-producing countries in the world.
Wikileaks’ State Department cables paint an interesting picture — one of a United States eager, if not desperate to get a toehold in the emerging Ugandan oil market, and very anxious about China’s growing presence on African soil.
A 2010 State Department cable illustrates the sentiment regarding China’s footprint in Africa:
“The rapid expansion of Chinese involvement in UGANDA that began five years ago has resulted in China providing the country’s second largest source of incoming foreign investments for 2009. Uganda’s Investment Authority (UIA) announced in January 2010 that new Chinese investments worth $213 million were second only to Britain’s $267 million. According to the UIA, these Chinese projects created 6,117 jobs versus 3,958 jobs created by British investments.”
“There is great potential in UGANDA for greater cooperation and collaboration between China and the U.S. and other major Western donors. At the moment, however, tangible examples of such collaboration are virtually nil…It is unlikely that collaboration with other donors will increase unless the Chinese change the way they do business.”
Critics of the organisation pointed to some interesting background details. In 2006, a young American start-up named Ben Keesey had just completed a 9-month internship at JP Morgan Chase when he took the position of CEO at Invisible Children Incorporated, which incidentally, received a 1 million dollar grant from Chase in 2010. Keesey later went on to serve on the bank’s Community Giving Advisory Board. Chase, for what it’s worth, is an investor in Tullow.
But questions about the true nature of Invisible Children’s work stemmed largely from what many of it’s leaders have said publicly.
Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children’s Director of Ideology is quoted as saying “the truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don’t intend to be. I think people think we’re over there delivering shoes or food. But we are an advocacy and awareness organization.”
Speaking at the evangelical Liberty University, Jason Russell said “most people view us as a non-profit, as a charity. We view ourselves as a business, as a company.
In another video, Mr. Russell says of the Kony 2012 movie they had just finished, is “literally the best piece of propaganda [they’ve] ever made.”
The film does seem rather to fit the bill. Not only is the movie low on facts and replete with emotional triggers, it is riddled with subliminal images that appear for a fraction of a second on screen — a mind control technique that is generally considered hitting way below the belt, and is banned in the UK and Australia. Take a look at the slide show below and see if you can remember seeing any of the images.
Some of the facts omitted from the film are not minor details. They are key to understanding this story. Despite the reductive narrative of Invisible Children’s film, it is worth noting that in August of 2006, Kony signed a truce with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, just two months after Hardman Resources announced it had struck oil flow for the first time on the Lake Albert basin. Under the agreement, LRA forces left Uganda and set up base in the Garamba National Park area of northern Democratic Republic of Congo. In exchange, Uganda agreed not to attack. LRA violence inside Uganda ceased as oil exploration flourished.
Then there is the glaring fact that Museveni himself has killed more ethnic Acholi people than Kony could have dreamed of, and his atrocities both in his own territory of Uganda and that of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) merit an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of their own.
In fact, DRC president Joseph Kabila went to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in April of 2004 to ask for an investigation into the mass murder of his people by Ugandan forces. An anonymous source alleged that Museveni asked then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to block the investigation. Annan denied the allegation, saying he had no power over the court, but in point of fact, the United Nations is the only body that can halt ICC indictments. Either way, no case materialised.
A year later, however, the United Nation’s own International Court of Justice found Uganda guilty of invading the DRC and committing human rights violations during the 1998-2003 war, in which Uganda backed anti-government rebels and plundered its resources in the East. Uganda was to pay billions in reparations, which never happened.
By contrast, the July 2005 ICC indictment of the top five leaders of the LRA derailed the Juba peace process, and Kony cited it as his main reason for not signing the peace agreement. Acholi leaders petitioned the court to drop the case, and despite having petitioned the ICC to indict Kony, Museveni himself agreed it was a blockade to the peace process, and went so far as to ask the United Nations to halt the indictment, but to no avail.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo had promised a “sexy court” when he took the position in 2003. He wanted quick showroom trials, with slam-dunk verdicts broadcast worldwide. But his investigations have been sloppy and partial at best, causing many of his staff to resign over the years. The 2009 indictment of Sudan’s sitting president Omar al-Bashir was wrought with inconsistencies and shoddy investigation standards. Andrew Cayley, Co-Prosecutor for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia, said of the genocide charges against Bashir that “it is difficult to cry government-led genocide in one breath and then explain in the next why 2 million Darfuris have sought refuge around the principal army garrisons of their province.”
Many Africans regard the ICC as a kangaroo court, used only to further the goals of western predatory capitalists, rather than as a tool for universal justice. The fact that all those indicted by the ICC are Africans is proof of hypocrisy, they claim. And for observers and human rights defenders around the world, many have pointed out that we would do well to prosecute our own war criminals, such as George Bush and company, for their war of aggression against Iraq, and crimes against humanity in the expanding theatre of wars.
THE BATTLE FOR RESOURCES
By most accounts, today Joseph Kony has at best three to four hundred fighters scattered across three countries. He’s hardly a threat anymore. So why the big push to catch him now? The US has known about Kony for years. Hillary Clinton said in 2010 that she had “been following the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 15 years.” So why make a stink about Kony now, when he’s hardly a threat anymore?
And why did the African Union announce last Friday that they would be sending a 5,000-strong brigade comprised of Ugandan, Congolese and South Sudanese forces to hunt Kony down?
Oil always changes the equation.
South Sudan’s independence cut Khartoum off from vast oil reserves, and the sharing of resources has not gone well. Currently the industry is at a complete halt after a dispute between the two countries over export taxes, and news today that Khartoum bombed the border between the two countries does not bode well for the future of the region.
In January of last year, Al Jazeera investigated the possibility that Khartoum was rearming the LRA, as it had previously in response to Kampala’s support for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the South Sudanese rebel group that fought for and eventually gained independence for its people. They found credible evidence that Kony had travelled to the Sudanese border for a meeting just before the South Sudan referendum.
It is in the interest of the US and its Western and African partners to root out the LRA, lest further violence disrupt oil and mineral exploration as it did previously in Sudan when Chevron had to pull out as a result of the civil war in 1990.
Since 2008, the US has been trying to convince African leaders to allow them to pepper their continent with military bases under the unified Africa Command (AFRICOM) program. With the exception of Liberia, no African leader welcomed the idea. Perhaps the echoes of colonialism were deafening, or perhaps the historical record in other parts of the world served as an example no one wanted to emulate. And yet, little by little AFRICOM manages to insert itself on the continent. The 100 Special Forces being sent to Uganda under AFRICOM is just the most recent example.
In an attempt to assuage public outcry against their film, Invisible Children launched a Twitter campaign with the hash tag #askICanything, and professed to answer questions in a series of videos. But the organization largely used their video responses to promote their own awesomeness, and failed to address the most pressing questions, like why they have a Cayman Islands bank account, why they have refused to submit to an independent audit by the Better Business Bureau despite six years of requests, or why they took large donations from openly anti-gay evangelical institutions, or why they have deleted over 50 videos from their Vimeo account since Kony 2012 went viral, or why they are supporting a military campaign in Africa that has everything to do with oil and nothing to do with children. None of these shortcomings would be as damaging to Invisible Children’s image, however, as the video that emerged over the weekend of Russell prancing around naked in the streets of San Diego, screaming abuse at the devil in what has been deemed a stress-induced psychotic episode. That, likely will will be the organisation’s only true legacy.
As a footnote, the world-famous war photographer James Nachtwey might like to know why Invisible Children used his picture from the Rwandan genocide to illustrate the crimes of Kony in Uganda in one of their videos.