KAMPALA, Uganda-The documentary Kony 2012 may go down as the most viral video in history-with 100 million views on YouTube and other social websites in the first six days after its release-but popular Ugandan columnist Timothy Kalyegira refers to the film's makers as "Western backpackers."
While the 30-minute film shot by Jason Russell, cofounder of U.S.-based nonprofit Invisible Children, continued its romp in America, Africans quickly viewed with dismay its portrayal of the reclusive rebel leader Joseph Kony in Uganda-now six years after he fled the country for neighboring Congo.
Anthony Oliam, a social worker born in Eastern Uganda, captures the suspicion of some: "That documentary is simply misleading the world. Kony is no longer a threat to Uganda. I don't want to judge the makers of the film, but if they had a motive with financial ends, I regret that. Their efforts should have focused on the rehabilitation [of northern Uganda]. Instead, this documentary is actually too late."
Joseph Kony launched the Lord's Resistance Army 25 years ago allegedly to topple the Ugandan government and install the Ten Commandments as the rule of the country. Many in the LRA's early leadership were leftover fighters from previous Ugandan wars, including those who served under notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Over the years the group became known for indiscriminate killing and raids, including the kidnapping of children and other locals. By 2004 the LRA had abducted at least 20,000 children ages 10-14 and forced them to serve in its militias. In 2005 the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four deputies for crimes against humanity-and those warrants remain outstanding.
But since the time of the indictments, most military experts say Kony retreated, first to Sudan then to Democratic Republic of Congo-and now is believed to be hiding in Central African Republic with a force U.S. officials, including Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, believe has been reduced to about 250. Sporadic raids still take place, but not the mass attacks that once threatened northern Ugandans as portrayed in the film. Oliam says that as the raids ended in the mid-2000s, an influx of NGOs came in the area. Many have provided needed assistance to recovering Ugandans, but Oliam questioned the operations of Invisible Children, which he said has produced 11 films about the same war.
As pressure and controversy over the rampantly popular video mounted, Russell succumbed: He was detained in what authorities called a "psychiatric hold" after an alleged breakdown at a San Diego intersection near his home on March 15. The 33-year-old director, only weeks before a Facebook celebrity, "was detained after indecent exposure, vandalism (pounding on cars with his fists) and alleged public intoxication," reported Reuters, noting that his antics had been caught on an also viral video.
But none of that changed reality for victims of the Kony insurgency, like Jimmy Okello, who hails from Gulu district; he lived in an internally displaced camp between 1990 and 1996, and now works in Kampala as a copy desk editor for the Daily Monitor. Okello and his wife are part of an upcoming new church planned near Gulu University, and they are preparing to move back north by next year as part of an effort to plant the church and rebuild the region.
"I feel that attention needs to be drawn to more pressing needs. Bringing Kony to an end would be a desired accomplishment but it has been long overdue," said Okello. "If it happens, people will rejoice ... something above capturing Kony needs to be done and I don't see it in the movie." Okello said more pressing needs in the region include a concerted effort to fight nodding disease, with 3,000 cases in northern Uganda reported in the last year.
Bernadette Nagita, another former war victim and resident of the northern district of Lira, worked as a communications officer for Invisible Children in 2010. Her reaction to the video is mixed: "People have not traced their [Invisible Children] history because this is the most powerful video produced. They are just reacting to the video, but don't know what is on the ground. There are other programs like [Invisible Children's] 'legacy scholarship program' and the 'schools for schools' program that are targeting people affected by the war, and the public is ignorant about these."
Invisible Children, she said, didn't realize the film would get so much global attention, and they should have accompanied it with a video of their other programs: "The 'behind the scenes' work was not presented."
In addition to rehashing old material, another reason Ugandans are complaining about Kony 2012 is that it suggests that if average people take action, Kony can be caught and brought to justice. Kampala communications specialist Jack Seruwo said Invisible Children should "stay focused on what you were initially doing best," and let the armies that have been fighting Kony (reportedly now including 100 U.S. military advisors ordered to Uganda by President Barack Obama last October) continue the hunt. "We might even suspect that you are soon going to ask us for more money," said Seruwo, "to do what else-raise an army of invisible children? The ones we know, Kony has already seen and they have seen him too. Their job was to survive him and become visible again. Best way you can help: Don't give them their bad memories. Help them keep their hope."
Ugandans say a problem with the viral video is its opening old wounds affected by the war. Grace Angee, raised in Kitgum District in the north, experienced LRA torture as a young teenager and herself was kidnapped by the rebel group three times. "Bullets, burning huts, death everywhere," she said of the attacks. Her father, a driver for the Ugandan army, was killed brutally by the LRA. She learned of his death later, but saw many others die and breaks down when she tries to describe them: "The feeling of seeing someone killed ... It's very traumatizing."
Angee would like to see Kony captured, and she prays for him every day, but her life in the north is very different now: "I can sleep without fear, I can even walk in the night without hearing any gunshots." She thinks good may come of the interest from Kony 2012, but said, "During the war, that was the time we needed help most."
Asked how her family in Kitgum would react if she showed them the video, Angee said, "Some would be so aggressive, some would still demand that Kony is destroyed because they still have the anger, the reaction, some would ask why the voice wasn't heard earlier ... support was needed much earlier when we were helpless."
Puzzled by its timing, many Ugandans believe the release of Kony 2012 has more to do with events in the United States than a war in Africa: "This grossly illogical timing and statements on [Invisible Children's] website-'Click here to buy your KONY 2012 products'-makes me believe that the timing has more to do with your commercial interests than humanitarian interests," wrote Ugandan blogger James Onen. "With the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and the waning interest in Invisible Children, it seems to be perfect timing to start a crusade." From their vantage point, it looks to many Africans like a U.S. group has tried to commercialize a conflict in which thousands of people have died, and thousands more want to heal and move on.
-Eddie Ssemakula is a 2012 World Journalism Institute/Africa fellow and a writer living in Kampala