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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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