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Last Updated: 05/04/2012
Kony2012 and the legacy of the Rwandan Genocide
Atkilt Geleta

Atkilt Geleta compares and contrasts the ways in which African conflicts have been treated by "the international community", with a special emphasis on the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Kony2012 campaign. Despite their differences, Geleta argues that there are significant, and unsettling, similarities.

The international community observed a unique phenomena in the Kony2012 campaign: an online video calling for armed intervention in central Africa to capture vigilante guerrilla insurgent group Lord’s Resistance Army and its charismatic leader Joseph Kony. Founded in northern Uganda in 1986, the LRA with Kony is responsible for reprehensible crimes against the civilian population of Uganda in its protracted war against the government including rape, torture, massacres, enlistment of child soldiers, abduction of civilians and the kidnapping of women and girls for sexual slavery. Spurred by social media, Kony 2012 went viral on March 5, 2012 and generated 80 million views in a mere seven days to become the fastest growing social video campaign so far. The NGO behind the film and the movement, Invisible Children, called for military intervention in central Africa led by the United States to capture Kony.

The main principle behind the video was to make Kony famous, the assumption being that if Kony and the LRA were to enter the public discourse in the West and an ensuing global civilian campaign was launched, that politicians and policy makers would devise a plan of action to capture Kony. The video’s strategy was to target 20 “culture makers” or celebrities, and 12 policy makers. While the campaign cannot be held solely responsible, it is believed that it helped push and justify a military intervention, as the BBC announced on 24 March that the African Union (AU) stepped up efforts to capture Kony with a 5,000 strong unit, with U.S. military advice and assistance provided by the Obama administration in October, 2011.

There was a huge backlash to Kony2012 by journalists, academics, bloggers, activists, the international humanitarian and development community and the people of Uganda. However, despite the various inconsistencies and flaws of the campaign, it did manage to initiate discourse around Kony, however limited that discourse was due to the insubstantial background and context in the video.

Several questions emerge when relating the Kony campaign and subsequent intervention to the Rwandan genocide. First, why and how did the western public manage to become engrossed - in one week - with a relatively marginal and local central African figure, and by extension a conflict in central Africa, when all the efforts of Rwandans and people of conscience went ignored by virtually the whole world during the three months long massacre of nearly a million people in 1994?

Secondly, does this campaign highlight the fact that social media has, at least, the potential to mainstream social causes in Africa and to fulfill the promise of the information age by localizing international issues and conflicts?

The Silence of Rwanda

Why the complicity of omission in 1994 by the international community? Worse yet, France was knowingly collaborating with the belligerents, the Hutu elite, and only later changed its stance due to international pressure and knowledge of the full scale of the atrocities. Why the media blackout? It can be argued that the international media did not grasp the full extent of the massacres, despite reports surfacing from the international agencies - Red Cross, MSF, Human Rights Watch, US Committee for Refugees - and eyewitness accounts by expatriates who had fled Rwanda in the early days of the genocide (Caplan 65). There were gross underestimates of the numbers killed, and the genocide was mis-interpreted as a civil war.

While reports of the genocide were scant, news that did make it out of the country was oversimplified, superficial, lacked context, reproduced stereotypical or racist frames and simply failed to grasp what was actually taking place.

Reporting on the plane crash just days prior, an April 9, 1994 article in the New York Times did manage to mention the long standing ethnic hatreds in Rwanda and Burundi, and even included “genocide” in the headline. However, that was the extent of the coverage. While the ethnic hatred was acknowledged, genocide in the article was explained by saying “tribal problems exist in virtually every African country” (Gray). The Tutsi-Hutu enmity is portrayed within the ancient ethnic hatred frame, as the article mentions “the centuries-old feud between the Hutu and the Tutsi.” Also, it advances the racist myth that “a tall and elegant Nilotic people also known as the Watusi -- migrated from Ethiopia and imposed feudal rule over the Hutu, a short, stocky Bantu people living in the forested hills” (Gray). Inexplicably, and in keeping with the exoticization and neo-colonial views of Africa, the writer mentions in the middle of the article that “Rwanda is probably best known among Westerners for its gorillas and the work of Dian Fossey.”

In 1994 the presence of international media in Africa and the infrastructure of African media itself were obstacles in bringing the genocide to world attention. Nairobi was the only press headquarters, from where journalists had to rely on news agencies for stories, and were selective of stories they would cover in the rest of the continent. Aside from Kenya and South Africa, virtually all sub-Saharan African countries had insufficient telecommunications infrastructure and media frameworks, not to mention serious energy and power deficits. Most stories were understood and packaged within neo-colonial frames: conflicts were usually thought to be due to “ancient tribal hatreds” or other reductive narratives and only served to reinforce existing racist notions. The issues and problems within Africa were regarded as being on the margins of world politics. Africa was a continent isolated within itself, with news produced within the continent not making into the international arena, and with foreign new agencies selectively and limitedly covering African stories.

There were access, safety and security concerns during the genocide. There were no regular flights in and out of the country, and movement inside the borders was difficult and dangerous due to the carefully orchestrated checkpoints set up by the Hutu government and militias. With drunken and agitated Hutu gangs roaming the streets on killing rampages, safety was not confirmed. Security for journalists was only available with the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) troops, who for much of the genocide had yet to penetrate the heart of Rwanda as they advanced from neighboring Uganda. Interestingly, in trying to be objective, and while keeping within the civil war frame, international media did report on the Tutsi RPF advance while ignoring the Hutu led slaughters throughout the country in the stories that were published during the genocide.

Outside of the media, the U.S. and European governments had full knowledge that a deliberate and orchestrated genocide was taking place, as “week after week for three months, reports sent directly from Rwanda to home governments and international agencies documented the magnitude of the slaughter and made it plain that this was no tribal bloodletting, but the work of hardline political and military leaders” (Caplan, 65).

The African Union’s subsequent investigation into the genocide stated that “the obvious, necessary response was a serious international military force to deter the killers”, which shared the conviction of UNAMIR General Romeo Dallaire, who said that “it seems certain that appropriate UN intervention at any time after the genocide began would have had a major role in stopping the killings” (Caplan, 65).

While these alone do not fully account for why the world ignored Rwanda during the genocide - nearly two decades of study, research and speculation have been dedicated to it - they do illustrate the main reasons why the international community both knowingly and unwittingly looked the other way as close to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were meticulously murdered.

Kony Camaign

The Obama administration committed military advisors and assistance to AU forces who were dispatched to capture Kony shortly after the Invisible Children campaign video went viral. Did the international community learn from Rwanda? Many commentators and analysts would say no. The Kony campaign and its call for military intervention have produced a storm of criticism and backlash, which highlight the fact that the West’s relationship with and treatment of Africa is neo-colonial in nature and predicated on geo-strategic interests.

While the campaign may have been well intentioned, it lacks context and background, and provides the audience with an incomplete and irresponsibly superficial account of the conflict in northern Uganda. The background on the founding and the political aims of Kony and the LRA are not given, while the Ugandan government’s own human rights abuses and it’s role in exacerbating the conflict are absent. The narrative in the video is of an individual white male who promises to save Africans, implying that by going after Kony he needs to save Africans from themselves (Owono). The story is told by a white male - co-founder of invisible children, Jason Russell - while the two other authoritative voices in the video also belong to white males in a US Senator and ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

Kony, undoubtedly a criminal and perpetrator of various human rights abuses, is depicted within the classic colonial frame - black barbarian, savage, uncivilized African, madman and brutal killer. The video is criticized for emphasizing the prejudices that whites have about Africans, and for forwarding the notion that Ugandans have no agency and have not addressed the conflict out of their own volition (Owono). Information on the emergence of the LRA in northern Uganda in direct response to the government's harsh counter-insurgency maneuvers of the late 80’s and early 90’s, as well as the massive forced encampment of northerners is not mentioned.

Furthermore, the video was said to be spreading irresponsible messages concerning sovereignty and the rule of law on the African continent. It is unclear whether and how this military intervention will be pursuing Kony, given that he can be anywhere between Congo, South Sudan, Northern Uganda and the Central African Republic. While rumours suggest that he is in the latter, the LRA has been moving between those countries, and as a small force, is hard to track. In addition, the campaign doesn’t give any weight to the probability that clashes with the LRA would ignite a new cycle of violence, the costs of which will most likely be levied on civilians, as the insurgent group is infamous for coercion and holding communities hostage. Essentially the human, legal and geopolitical costs of such an intervention are not taken into consideration (Owono).

Kony vs Rwanda

A closer analysis and examination helps in putting the aforementioned inconsistencies into context. It was first reported in 2009 that billions of barrels of oil were found in Uganda (Albert). WIthin the next few years, oil is expected to generate revenue of up to $ 2 Billion annually, which could potentially propel the country into middle income status (Kron). Observers are charging that the United States is using the hunt for Kony as a pretext to reinforce its presence in central Africa. It is the opinion of this paper that despite the support the Kony campaign may have garnered among the western public, and despite its best intentions, it is ultimately being used as a ploy to financially and militarily bolster the U.S. African Command (Africom), which serves as a vessel for securing U.S. interests in the region. In regard to the campaign, one senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda commented that, “how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarisation with or without Invisible Children - Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier” (Branch).

While Kony and the LRA’s crimes had consistently scarred the northern Ugandan people, communities and families are moving on, and today face other issues that require attention and possibly intervention by the international community. The most pressing concerns for northern Ugandans, mostly of the Acholi tribe, are the legacy of the government mandated forced encampments, nodding disease (a fatally debilitating syndrome which affects youth and has been spreading in the north), and land grabs by elites and foreigners (Branch).

Roughly three weeks after the Kony2012 video went viral, on March 24, 2012, there was an African Union force of 5,000 dispatched to capture Joseph Kony, with military assistance provided by the United States. There is a sinister poetry at play here, as, this is the exact number of personnel estimated to have been necessary to stop the genocide, at least according to UNAMIR Force Commander Dallaire who stated that “with 5,000 troops and the right mandate, UNAMIR could have prevented most of the killings” (Caplan 65). It might be naive to expect many changes 15 years after the genocide, as the structures and norms of exchange between the U.S., E.U and Israel (Western world) and the rest of the world remains essentially the same - with the possible exception of the BRICS, who are threatening to change the status quo. While world powers continue to compete for ever-depleting resources and prepare for shadow enemies while always trying to preemptively undermine each other’s power, the plight and concerns of Africans remains at the bottom of the totem pole of international priority. The Tutsi and Hutu of conscience in Rwanda were conveniently dismissed in 1994, while the acholi and other northern Ugandans are today expected to believe that after decades of victimization by the LRA and their own government that killing a sole individual - a charismatic leader of sorts for his outfit - will cure the ills of their society. This of-course is legitimized by the International Criminal Court, whose indictment list unreservedly contains Africans and only Africans - whose crimes are apparently accentuated by the virtue of their skins overstock of melanin.

While international bodies and mechanisms - ICC, R2P - have been put in place post-Rwanda to ensure that such tragedies never take place again, they are still dependent upon the political will of the actors involved, African and non-African governments alike, to intervene and to intervene with the interests of civilians and not elites in mind. However, as long as that will serves neo-imperialist interests (oil, natural resources, etc ) and structures (patriarchy, racism, etc) Africans, people in the underdeveloped world and people of conscience everywhere will not benefit from those legal apparatuses or their application.


Gerald Caplan, Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide (2000)

Albert, Lake. “Oil find sparks new hope for Uganda's people”. The Guardian. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited. 25, August 2009. Web. 22 March 2012.

Kron, Josh. “Uganda’s Oil Could Be Gift That Becomes a Curse.” New York Times. © 2012 The New York Times Company. 25 Nov 2011. Web. 22 March 2012.

Owono, Julie. “Kony 2012: A humanitarian illusion.” Qatar Media Corporation. 14, March 2012. Web. 22 March 2012.

Branch, Adam. “Dangerous Ignorance: The Hysteria of Kony 2012.” Qatar Media Corporation. 12, March 2012. Web. 22 March 2012.

“Uganda Launches video to counter Kony 2012.” Qatar Media Corporation. 17, March 2012. Web. 22 March 2012.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Kony: What Jason did not tell the Invisible Children.” Qatar Media Corporation. 13, March 2012. Web. 22 March 2012.

“African Union force steps up hunt for Joseph Kony.” BBC © 2012. 24, March 2012. Web. 24 March 2012.

Izama, Angelo. “Kony is not the problem.” New York Times. © 2012 The New York Times Company. 20 March 2012. Web. 22 March 2012.

“Appalled Ugandans riot at Kony 2012 screening.” Mail & Guardian Online. © Mail & Guardian Online. 15 March 2012. Web. 24 March 2012.

Atkilt Geleta is an MA candidate at the University for Peace.