KONY2012 And The "White Man's Burden" Revisited

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Is it reasonable for individuals who barely champion the rights of their disadvantaged fellow citizens to care about the rights of Africans?

[Global: Commentary]


A Historical Perspective on Kony 2012

The slickly-produced video titled Kony 2012 and its recently released sequel, have, for better or worse ignited debates about the role, if not motive, of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in Africa and other regions of the world.

On the positive side, the producers of Kony 2012 should be commended for dramatizing to the attention of the world the grotesque human rights violations in the northern part of Uganda and other parts of Africa committed by the pathological warlord Kony, with the apparent connivance of the Uganda government and other malign forces in the region.

However, the manner in which the producers of the video have gone about their business, suggests a level of sophisticated coordination for a grand scheme in the continent. For one, it cannot be coincidental that once the video was released, various outstanding media outlets such as the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Voice of America amplified the message. For another, the swift actions by the political establishments in the USA and Africa raise many more questions than they answer.

For those with some historical knowledge of Africa, the strategy in Kony 2012 seems eerily reminiscent of nineteenth century’s approaches by European non-governmental organizations of the era in presaging the formal colonization of the continent.

A few broad and relevant examples of how the nineteenth century’s NGOs operated may be necessary to provide a historical backdrop. In the middle nineteenth century, when there was insatiable desire in industrializing Europe for raw materials and material resources such as rubber, cotton, gold and diamond from Africa, a number of non-governmental organizations were formed to open up what was referred to by Eurocentric writers as the “dark continent.” The European NGOs of the period, such as Christian missionaries, chartered commercial companies and geographical explorers, astutely manipulated the ignorance and sense of compassion among Westerners to evoke pity for Africans and in the process provided pretext, justification and support for European powers to intervene in the continent.

The gist of the potent public relations strategy used by European NGOs in the nineteenth century was that European powers needed to intervene in the continent for humanitarian reasons. One compelling “humanitarian reason” retailed at the time was to abolish the slave trade and ameliorate its evil impact.

David Livingstone, for example, regarded as one of the most enlightened European missionary-explorers of the period, said he and his compatriots were going to the continent as a race of civilized people to uplift the down-trodden heathen Africans from the evil impact of the slave trade with the gifts of Christianity and commerce.

Another European who is projected positively in history as benevolent was Sir Samuel Baker, who was appointed by the British government to spearhead the fight against the slave trade in the River Nile basin. In his writing, Baker, who displayed racist tendencies, asserted with contempt that the character of Africans was lower than that of dogs.

In their campaigns, both Livingstone and Baker referred only to the evil of the Arab slave trade. Curiously, Livingstone and his compatriot, while emphasizing Arab trafficking in Africans, conveniently neglected to indicate that the conditions of instability and misery in the continent had been brought about in no small measure by the commoditization and dehumanization of Africans by European merchants when they trafficked in Africans from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.

It should be noted that the trafficking in Africans by European merchants for over three centuries, what is euphemistically referred to in most history text books as the “Triangular Slave Trade,” did not only place African lives at a heavy discount and contributed massively to conditions of instability in the continent, but also led to the deindustrialization of Africa while it boosted industrialization of Europe and the Americas.

What, of course, transpired as a result of the various campaigns by European NGOs in the nineteenth century was that European powers met in Berlin Conference from November 1884 to February 1885 to work out the ground rules for dividing up Africa among themselves, without due consideration of the interests of African peoples. After the Berlin Conference, European powers used the gun and the Bible to conquer and control Africans. As an old man in the middle of the twentieth century summed up the process crisply, “Europeans conquered us with the gun and left us with the Bible to control us.”

To what extent, in the context of the twenty-first century, is the strategy in Kony 2012 analogous to the nineteenth century campaigns by European NGOs that were a precursor to formal colonization of the continent? 

Although the producers of Kony 2012 might not have done it consciously with the benefit of historical knowledge, nonetheless, there are a number of apparent parallels in strategy with the approaches used by the nineteenth century’s European NGOs.

What are some of the similarities, though in different contexts? To begin with, both misdirect their searchlight onto victims rather than the main sources of suffering. Just as in the nineteenth century there was focus on the evils of Arab slave trade without ever admitting the contribution of the three centuries of European trafficking in Africans, the producers of Kony 2012 draw our attention to the evil of the warlord Kony without examining the major contributing factors to the rise and continued existence of Kony.

The historical fact is that Kony emerged on the political scene in the late 1980s when despair hung over the people of northern Uganda like a permanent nightmare. The state of despair had been brought about first by years of military dictatorship under Idi Amin, followed by five years of protracted guerilla warfare conducted by Yoweri Museveni against the democratically elected government of Milton Obote, and crowned by the gross mismanagement of Tito Okello's short-lived military junta at the end of 1985.

The military dictatorship of Amin that set into motion the process of socio-political and economic decay in Uganda was brought to power in 1971 by the active collusion of powerful foreign forces who had been alienated by Obote’s mobilization of African leaders against Western countries that were providing economic and political lifelines to the minority apartheid and racist regimes in South Africa and in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). At the time of the military coup that brought Amin to power, the countries that were collaborating with the two obnoxious regimes that treated Africans as third class subjects, praised Idi Amin as a "gentle giant", as opposed to the intellectual Obote. At the time of the praise, Amin was killing Africans in the thousands; but the external forces did not care a damn. It was much later when Amin changed his tenor and threatened Western interests that he was called a dictator.

The second point of similarity is that the producers of Kony 2012 prey on the ignorance and sense of compassion of people in the West in order to profit from the misery of Africans. It seems that the producers of Kony 2012 have cynically predicated their campaign upon the fact that there are a good many Westerners who would genuinely like to help suffering people but who are at the same time ignorant. It is the combination of genuine sense of compassion and ignorance that the producers of Kony 2012 have capitalized on to beam the image of poor Africans who need White people to help them. It reminds one of the notion of the “white man’s burden,” which became the staple justification of European colonial imperialism in Africa in the twentieth century.

Another thread in the campaign to “save suffering Africans” is the fact that the various parties concerned do not mention their self interests, but give us the impression that they are motivated by altruism. Yet most of the so-called humanitarian campaigners for Africans have scarcely done anything meaningful about the plight of poor and marginalized people in their own countries. One is led to ask a simple question:  is it reasonable for individuals who barely champion the rights of their disadvantaged fellow citizens to care about the rights of a people whose dignity and self-worth they do not regard as equal to theirs?

And most ominously, however, is the fact that the producers of Kony 2012 have used the demonized image of Joseph Kony, coupled with that of suffering Africans, to call upon the US government to send the military to the continent to capture Kony. This is particularly disturbing for a number of reasons.

First, since the Bush Administration, the US has been providing military assistance to Uganda government, ostensibly for the purpose of defeating and capturing Kony and bringing him to “justice.” If after more than a decade of providing military assistance for this purpose we cannot be given any evidence of positive result, why should the US continue in the same vein? Moreover, those who advocate for “justice” seem to be unaware that it a remedial virtue, secondary to peace and reconciliation, which the people of the region have been clamoring for.

Second, at one point, when the US government was providing the Uganda government with military assistance, the latter government occupied and plundered one-thirds of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Uganda should pay DRC $10 billion. A pertinent question is this: how come Uganda could occupy one-thirds of DRC but could not/cannot defeat Kony? Could this be construed as an act of commission or omission?

Third, it should be remembered that it is the basic function of any government to provide security and welfare to her citizens. Once a government cannot fulfill these two fundamental functions, it forfeits the title to govern. Surely, the call to the US to send troops to Uganda should be regarded as an indictment of the Uganda government for its failure to fulfill the fundamental functions of a government.

And fourth, most critical observers of Africa know that at the roots of most problems in the continent is the militarization of politics. For a so-called humanitarian organization to advocate for military solution to what are essentially socio-political problems is baffling. But it makes sense, if as in the nineteenth century, the beefing up of US military in Africa is intended as a demonstrative vanguard to cow Africans into acquiescence and to protect and advance external geo-strategic and economic interests, as a prelude to formal exploitation of natural resources in the continent.

Circumstantial evidence, combined with historical insights, incline us to suggest that the producers of Kony 2012 and its recently released sequel have more than mocked the grotesque suffering of Africans in northern Uganda. It is fair to surmise that they have also manipulated the good will and ignorance of well meaning people in the West so to advance the economic and geo-strategic interests of forces that care less about African humanity than profiting from their suffering, more or less as their nineteenth century European predecessor did.

In the final analysis, although the producers of Kony 2012 should be applauded for providing powerful though partial exposition of the inferno of hell on earth that the people of northern Uganda have suffered in the past two decades, from a historical perspective, we are entitled, to ask critical questions and wonder whether this is not a case of history repeating itself.

More than this, if we are to avoid becoming complicit in the grand scheme of exploitation and dispossession and the fracturing of human solidarity, whose formula have not changed much with the passage of time since the nineteenth century, we should not only learn relevant lessons from history, but also sharpen our intellectual and moral consciousness, as antidote to cynical forces that mint our compassion for profit maximization.


Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights & Professor of History University of Connecticut, USA


"Speaking Truth To Empower."



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