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Simplification and child soldiers: Turning victims into victims

By Kelly-Jo Bluen

Watching violence on TV screens does not sensitise viewers to the reality of the conflict. Rather, it serves to numb viewers, to instill within them a sense of fatigue and, most pertinently, from the vantage point of passive observer, to allow for oversimplified ethical polarisations of good vs. evil. These are the sentiments of Professor Colin McInnes in Spectator Sport War, writing in response to the televised nature of war since the cacophony of violence that affronted us in the Gulf War.

If McInnes is right, then Kony 2012 is spectator sport war on steroids. The viral video which has had over 80-million views on YouTube depends on two interlinked factors for its effectiveness: an oversimplification of a highly complex and nuanced conflict, and a polarisation of good and evil.

Designed as an emotive discussion between a quixotic Jason and his adorable blonde son Gavin, the video has no qualms about this reality. Indeed, when Jason asks his tiny interlocutor what he thinks daddy does for a living, Gavin responds, “You stop the bad guys from being mean.”

The question that its supporters ask is whether, in an age of social media, a little oversimplification is that bad in light of the potential positive consequences. If we can save child soldiers from the villainous Kony, what’s the harm of a little light simplification in the name of marketing? Awareness is thus a good thing in itself, regardless of the verity of the subject thereof.

This is a fundamentally problematic approach. It assumes the Kony situation exists in a vacuum. And that decapitating the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) will miraculously cure the region of its ills. This is not only factually flawed, but dangerous. The obfuscation of nuance in the name of marketing has egregious consequences.

First, in polarising good and evil as the video does, Invisible Children (IC) makes the assumption that Kony alone is bad, that everyone views child soldiers as hapless abductee victims, and that America (and we, the Facebookers) are good by providing a way to solve this problem.

That Kony is a violent leader is undisputed. However, the ahistorical and monocausal approach to the conflict betrays a dangerous ignorance. The very notion of tribes and indeed the construction of the Acholi people is an invention of the colonial administrations. A series of repressive regimes entrenched tensions. Museveni has instituted a programme of forced displacement of Acholi people into camps where thousands die and many have lost their land. The land from which Acholi people have been relocated remains a contentious issue in contemporary Ugandan politics. Indeed, the LRA was not formed as a bunch of crazed bandits but as a result of grievance with the government. Both the LRA and the government have committed atrocities. And both have played a part in reproducing the problematic political patterns in the region. The point is that the conflict is complex, and is not the product of a one-man-show.

Removing Kony will do little to address the problems of the displaced people, nor will it address the systemic conditions that result in conflict. Invisible Children would have done well to include some Ugandan voices in a more humble approach that recognises what local actions are being taken, what more subtle realities ought to be encompassed for the violence to end and, most pertinently, how IC’s proposal may erode these efforts.

Beyond this, and here lies the danger of polarising, in creating villains (Kony) we also create heroes (Museveni, the West). By implication, and through its plan to militarise the Museveni regime as a means of getting rid of Kony, the video in effect legitimises the government and undermines the plight of its victims. In defining enemies, victims and heroes as such, the video invites us, lulls us, seduces us to forget about the ultimately harmful effects of its suggestions. We are told that eradicating Kony is a solution without consequence. It is sanitised and discursively appealing. It is also not true.

Let us assume for a moment then, that IC really doesn’t care about this, but that its sole goal is the liberation of child soldiers. The flaws in this assumption are obvious; perpetuation of war through replication of structural conditions means more child soldiers inveigled in war. But let’s suspend disbelief for a second and assume none of this matters. Let’s turn, then, to the potential impact on the child soldiers.

That we as media consumers may see the innocent AK-47-bearing child soldiers as tragic victims of a crazed rebel leader is at least partly valid. However, assuredly, not all of those whose faces were mutilated, who were raped and whose families were murdered at the hands of 12-year-old gun-toting kids see this in a similar light.

The process of post-war reconciliation is complex and ought to involve both return and healing for the child soldiers and the objectives of national reconciliation. The assumption that child soldiers, newly liberated after an exuberant Kony removal mission by friendly Western forces, will be returned to smiling communities is fallacious. Indeed, in Sierra Leone, many child soldier returnees have faced violence and ostracisation from communities in response to the perception that those who committed atrocities were being rewarded by stipends and aid linked to DDR programmes. Whatever one’s perception of the causes of child soldiery is, it is important to note that some Ugandan communities may not share the same victim-based view. The immense complexity of the reconciliation process is incompatible with the kind of plug-and-play returnee plan IC advocates.

Finally, IC’s plan threatens to entrench the conditions that led to child soldiery in the first place. Many scholars have argued that one of the most significant explanatory variables in the proliferation of child soldiery is the existence of cheap and light weaponry. Africa was flooded with surplus weapons after the Cold War, and continues to be so through arms trade. Borders are porous, arms control is light and weapons can move from hand to hand for the price of a goat. IC’s plan means militarisation of not only Uganda but its neighbours which are home to many of the world’s child soldiers. If the militarisation of the region goes according to IC’s plan, one of the key causes of child soldiery is legitimated and entrenched. This is a very concerning reality from an organisation bent on its removal.

Ultimately thus, the argument that raising awareness is a good thing in itself is flawed if the awareness being raised negates the complexity and allows for greater entrenchment of conflict. We need to recognise the nuance and multiplicity of factors at play in a conflict if we are to do anything serious about an end to its violence. Haphazard addressing of issues in silos without cognisance of the potential consequence, the causes of violence, or what it may erode does more harm than good. As does the assumption that agency-free Africans need the benevolence of American saviours to solve their problems.

Most importantly, we should be wary of being seduced by partial pictures like this one which denude militarisation and intervention of its ugly reality and abhorrent consequence.

Kelly-Jo Bluen is a Jozi girl and a masters student in international affairs at the London School of Economics. She previously studied in Cape Town and Beijing. Her interests lie in African politics, conflict and the politics of intervention.

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    • Peter Joffe

      Kelly-Jo Bluen:- I have spent a lot of time in Uganda and despite all that you say the monster that Kony is cannot be justified under any circumstances. Child Soldiers are only part of the problem as the LRA in general and Kony in particular derive great pleasure in the mutilation of men, women and children by cutting of their lips and ears. He forces the girls into prostitution. Kony professes to be fighting for the very people he attacks and defaces. I have always wondered who finances this monster and why? He does nothing else but cause death and misery.
      The camps that you so widely condemn where created as a safe haven for people at night to offer some sort of comfort when the sun goes down and the ‘heros’ of the LRA are out doing their evil.
      Yes perhaps people lose their land and their possessions but the camps should at least save their lives. Do bad things happen on both sides? I suppose so but I have never heard of the Ugandan Forces committing the atrocities’ that Kony is guilty of. Why does he do this? I have no idea because he does not seem to be fighting for a justifiable goal? Blame Colonialism or bad borders or whatever you like but Uganda has been ‘free’ from these things for a long time and just like Apartheid it will be an excuse for decades to come. Death, destruction and looting seem to be his sole objective. The world will be a better place once the LRA and their ilk are destroyed forever.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      EVERY losing side in history eventually strts using child soldiers – Napoleon in his last days, the White Russians fighting the Communists, and Hitler and the Nazis in their last days were using 14-16 year old armies.

      And the British would never have been able to man their navy without press-ganging labour.

      Neither forced soldiers nor child soldiers is new or unique to Africa.

    • Lesego

      Peter Joffe, I dont know but I wonder how come I never agree with nor believe anything you ever say. You always come off as someone quite shallow who never think things through and always dependent on made up info. Seems like you think you can just utter things without naming your source of information. Whether its true or not that you lived in Uganda doesn’t make your hear-say any genuine.

      Like I don’t get why would Kony be “fighting for the very people he attacks and defaces.” and you also say you dont know why he would do that and you seem to not have a problem with not understanding things.

    • Peter Joffe

      @lwsego, I know what I am talking about and have been to Uganda many times and some of my best fiends live there, and believe it or not they are black. They too do not know why Kony does what he does. I have never lived there but have been a regular visitor, on business since 1994.Some people just like killing for a living.
      I can assure you, though it makes no difference to me what you think, I think about these things a lot. Are you looking for reasons to accept that the slaughter that goes on in Uganda, and perhaps many other parts of Africa are necessary? I wonder if you too think that Mugabe is a “hero”?

    • Peter Joffe

      @lesego. Please Google Lord’s Resistance Army to see for yourself what monsters these people are, but then you most probably won’t believe them either?

    • Lesego

      Peter, thing is the way you say things makes me think that there are many things you dont get. Mugabe is a hero by taking some of the land and give it to blacks but I dont understand why you should think that I’m looking for reasons to accept the slaughtering of people as necessary.

      People don’t just like killing for a living, how do you make a living out of that? There must be a reason and I think only you can be as gullible as not able to think beyond what you say here.

    • Lesego

      I read about LRA on Wikipedia and it’s said there that they are being accused of this and that, of which it doesnt prove anything. For you to say that they just like to kill, when their movement is actually based on Christian beliefs mainly the Ten Commandments just makes me worry about your mental well being.

    • Rejoice Ngwenya

      I have listened, watched and again listened to the Kony 12 debates. For the bulk of the ‘African responses’, I sense a feeling of denial, tinged perhaps with envy. Denial that we Africans are really pathetic at solving our own problem. Being Zimbabwean, I’ve lived under the shadow of a dictatorship that is ‘bankrolled’ – for want of a better term – by both the SADC and AU. So don’t you ever tell me Africans can solve their own problems. Envy? Yes, here’s a couple of ‘whitees’ who have, for once, ignited the plight of children under abuse in Uganda, DRC or wherever Joseph’s LRA hideout is. Instead of appreciating, we throw mudballs at IC and accuse them of ‘oversimplification’. Really, it’s simply – Kony is a thug who abducts and kills children. Just like Mugabe, Bashir and company. We need more Kony 12s.

    • Lesego

      “Really, it’s simply – Kony is a thug who abducts and kills children. Just like Mugabe, Bashir and company. We need more Kony 12s.”

      Rejoice, for you to repeat what has been said over and over again wont change the myth into a fact. Its like those other people who were hammering the lie of Sadam and Weapons of Mass Distraction or those who like to say the lie that Ahmedinejad once said he wants to erase Israel of the map. A lie is a lie is a lie, no matter how many times you repeat it.

    • Rejoice Ngwenya

      “….to repeat what has been said over and over again wont change the myth into a fact…” Lesego, I don’t know whether you know anyone who has been a victim of Joseph Kony, Robert Mugabe or al Bashir. Well, I know thousands – having gone to college in East Africa and also being a Zimbabwean who was born in that country and came back home in the ‘middle’ of Gukurahundi genocide. Please Google up these names and read a bit about them. You remind me of clowns who claim Adolph Hitler’s Auschwitz is a ‘myth’ and a ‘lie’. You might also be from the school of thought that the war in Syria is ‘fueled by Face Book and other social networks controlled by the West’. Read first, then argue more intelligently. All I am saying is Invisible Children is not to blame – they are simply highlighting the thuggery of Joseph Kony and vulnerability of children. Sadam Hussein, like Gadaffi, like Ahmadenajad – behave [d] suspiciously. If you open up your country / system to public scrutiny, there is more room for diplomacy than military intervention. The number of children orphaned by Mugabe’s electoral violence, Murambatsvina and gung ho politics is too ghastly to mention.

    • Lesego

      “You might also be from the school of thought that the war in Syria is ‘fueled by Face Book and other social networks controlled by the West’.”

      Not I but you said it as I never claimed to be from that kinda school of thought. I see you’re trying to duplicate my line of argument of which I said “Its like those other people who were hammering the lie of Sadam and Weapons of Mass Distraction or those who like to say the lie that Ahmedinejad once said he wants to erase Israel of the map”. I dont have a problem with that but I dont appreciate you lying that you know Kony’s victims. You cant possibly know thousand of those people, its not realistic. And what did you say he did to them? pray for them maybe?

      See, anybody can come here and claim that he has seen such and such doing this and that.

    • Peter Joffe

      @lesego. The world is clearly crazy and full of lies. The Criminal Court wants to get hold of Kony but they also must be misguided? There are reams of photos of unfortunate women who have had their lips cut of and or their ears but these must be Photoshopped by the opponents of Kony. Many Germans prior to the IInd World war simply watched as their country went to pot and then The normal German had to pay the price for not seeing what was happening. You are a denialist and you are very good at hitting out at people who have valid things to say. Next thing you will be telling us that the ANC “government” fat cats are doing a good job and that there is not one corrupt minister amongst them. Limpopo is a river so clearly all the wealth of Limpopo got sucked into the river and disappeared. All the books written and pictures taken of the ‘holocaust’ in Zimbabwe are anti Mugabe who is obviously the greatest man that ever lived. Blair and Bush destroyed the country whilst poor Mugabe manage to get a few billion out of the country into his own private bank accounts. There are none so blind as those who will not see and you Lesego are the best candidate for this that I have ever seen. I am sure that you think that the 3,000,000 refugees that have fled Zimbabwe were just looking for a sl Bashir only killed people who were attaching his army. Any more??? Wake up.

    • Lesego

      Peter Joffe, it depends on how you look at it. The ANC are certainly doing a good job, at least better than the white government. The ‘holocaust’? I understand that you are white and you dont have a problem with 10% of white people owning 90% of land but the blacks there dont look at it that way.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Actually the blacks were given more than 50 percent of all the agricultural land, which at the time of division included Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana.

      But they want the Brown Homeland of the Western Cape, which was never black land, added in to their calculation.

      AND the ANC has sold off the 22 percent of the land that belonged to state, municipalities, and parastatals.

    • Lesego

      Lyndall Beddy, if youre referring to the race of bushmen then youre talking about blacks. No need to twist and turn when youre regarding this issue. Who gave blacks the 50 percent anyway? Was it a god or something?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      According to our AA/BEE policy coloureds are NOT blacks – which is why they can’t find jobs in the Western Cape and why Jimmy Manyi said “there are too many coloureds in the Western Cape”.

      Unfortunately for the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines the God of the white Americans and Australians gave them no land at all – except left over desert, the whites did not want, certainly not half the agricultural land.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Come to think of it – when did the God of the Blacks give them the right to kill off the original Browns of Africa as they migrated into their land?

    • Lesego

      Lyndall, theres a difference between Hottentots and coloureds of which the latter is a mix between a black and a white person.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      WHERE are your sources for coloureds being a mix of white and black? In America and Australia they are – but in South Africa they are NOT!

      I have quoted many sources for my facts – you have quoted none for your prejudices.