Why does it take KONY to make us care about central Africa?

KONY 2012: Is there a positive side to the Hollywood fantasy?

Upon waking on the 7th of March 2012, most of the country and the Facebook-using world was greeted with a flurry of statuses and ‘likes’ about a 30-minute film called KONY 2012. The campaign comes from a group called ‘Invisible Children’ and the well-produced video is attempting to raise awareness of the terror and atrocities that have been committed for the last 20 years by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), or more specifically its leader, Joseph Kony, in northern Uganda and surrounding countries. The video has many praiseworthy aspects and undoubtedly it has been very successful in utilising social media to raise awareness of one of the troubles in central Africa.

However, the questions that I asked myself most when watching the video was: how has it taken this long for these issues to become well known? The atrocities of the LRA are the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems in central Africa. Let us take the example of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for instance, Uganda’s western neighbour, which has been a playground for around 14 rebel groups and the armies of Uganda and Rwanda since 1998. The civil war, which started in that year, is claimed to have taken the lives of 5.4 million people, and to put that in perspective, the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is estimated to be 5.9 million.

Yet attention given to this phenomenally deadly conflict was cursory at best in western media, and attention given to the on-going problems is almost non-existent. Last year President Joseph Kabila was controversially re-elected, continuing his 10 years in power in which he has allowed the eastern half of the country to descend into an anarchic free-for-all with multiple actors (notably Rwanda) pillaging the country’s vast mineral wealth for themselves. His re-election angered the Congolese Diaspora enough for there to be organized protests in the UK, Belgium, France, Canada and South Africa, but these too were only covered by a minority of media outlets.

Why does no one seem to care? Surely a country the two thirds the size of western Europe, home to 72 million, sitting on 80% of the world’s Coltan (a mineral used in every mobile phone and most laptops), which has played host to the deadliest war of this century and whose people have borne suffering at the hands of western backed foreign armies deserves a lot of press coverage and public attention.

There is one school of thought that the DRC is underreported due to omnipotent technology corporations stifling reporting on the key role that these ill-gotten minerals play in our technologically reliant economy and lifestyle. However, I refuse to subscribe to the story of so grand a cover-up. I believe that the real problem lies in apathy towards African problems – not a simplistic lethargy when hearing of continued civil wars and natural disasters, more an unwillingness to accept the lack of a good-guys vs bad-guys narrative in the problems of central Africa. The atrocities committed by the rebel groups attempting to form a separate state in the south east of the DRC were eagerly reported at the start of the civil war, and the government’s army enjoyed a good press. This was until it became clear that they too were actively recruiting child soldiers and raping women. This inability to ascribe a narrative to an international news story has meant that the whole issue has been largely ignored, with editors much more willing to stick to the clear narrative of stories like Iran being ‘bad’ or of Arab protesters being ‘good’, than of the scary truth of two evils fighting each other.

The video has been subject to mounting criticism after its release, many aspects of the story have been criticized; the fact that Invisible Children only give a third of their income to actual charity work, their support for the Sudanese and Ugandan armies, despite accusations of them being involved in raping and looting, and for oversimplifying Ugandan politics. However it is precisely this simplification that has given the video so much success: it not only boiled the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan Army down to ‘good vs. bad’, but also boiled the ‘bad’ down to Joseph Kony. The simplified story they give us in the video has raised awareness of Africa’s continued plight in two days more than 5.4 million dead Congolese, 2 million dead Sudanese and countless millions living in near slave like conditions across the continent. Those who criticize KONY 2012’s makers for their simplistic portrayal of the issues in central Africa must realize that that simplicity is the only way in which an issue like this can be digested by a modern audience.

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