Northern Uganda, 2012: #Kony2012 and Northern Uganda. Recipients of Humanitarianism Speak Back

The community center in northern Uganda had hosted large events before, but this particular evening drew crowds from across the countryside. It was not an ordinary “screening” by any means. Since its release weeks earlier, Kony 2012 (Film, YouTube / Internet Archive) had animated conversations echoing from local radio stations, church sanctuaries, home gardens, and roadside bars. People across the region wanted to know what made it an online sensation—what drove millions around the world to view and like the video in unprecedented fashion. Word even spread that celebrities and politicians rushed to endorse the “most viral” video’s moral message. But what really drew people to see the video that night was quite obvious: it was about them. Their African suffering served as a plotline in a grander story crafted by a handful of white Americans. War had devasted their homeland for twenty years, so it took an electric generator and a rare internet connection to finally project the video for its central characters to see.

Yet the crowd’s anticipation quickly turned to disappointment and outright anger. Despite being about them, the story told was clearly meant for others. It portrayed the people of northern Uganda as vulnerable prey—helpless victims unable to defend their children from the crazed barbarism of the warlord Joseph Kony and his cultish following, the Lord’s Resistance Army. It explained to audiences that in order to save these innocents from imminent abduction, an American military intervention was necessary. It was a bold rhetorical strategy, but one presumably required for confronting a tragedy that eluded mainstream media outlets. To stop a menace likened to Hitler and Osama bin Laden, the rest of the world needed to set aside political differences, push past cynicism, and mobilize a campaign that promised to “change the course of human history.” It was a clear-cut problem that demanded a clear-cut response.

But was it? Viewers at the community center that night balked at how their experiences had been portrayed (Al Jazeera, YouTube). Others yelled and threw stones at the screen. Just as the war was long over, so Joseph Kony was long gone. With the signing of peace agreements in 2006, the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army had fled to remote corners of neighboring countries. A time of attempted healing was now underway in northern Uganda, and the last thing these people wanted to see was the rebel’s face plastered on posters, T-shirts, and Facebook profile pictures.

Kony 2012 Posters in Warsaw, Poland, ca. 2012. By Mateusz Opasiński, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons

Also, the civil war refused simplification. Many groups committed egregious crimes during the political crisis. And as infamously demonstrated by INGOs in prior decades, attacking one violent force by supporting another failed to bring about meaningful change. Western organizations touted the government of Uganda as a valuable ally, and yet this very regime had violently confined northern citizens to state-run “displacement” camps for decades. In this respect, Joseph Kony was neither a sudden phenomenon nor an incomprehensible bogey man. Rather, he was one part of a much bigger armed movement that grew out of deep-seated regional unrest and explicit political grievances. Their tactics were unquestionably cruel and inhumane, but the LRA was not alone in tearing northern communities apart.

Perhaps what aggravated Ugandan viewers most that evening was the video’s familiarity. Contrary to the creator’s revolutionary claims, Kony 2012 was an old story made to look new. The technologies used to spread its message may have been unique, but its core tenets remained the same. This was not the first time munu (foreigners) had mobilized imagery of captured black bodies to legitimize imperial presences, satiate Christian impulses, and further capitalist interests. Such practices in fact ran deep in the region. The people who watched Kony 2012 that evening recognized its deceits and reacted accordingly.

It was difficult to ignore just how loudly the past echoed in the present. Long before a few evangelical Americans took it upon themselves to save northern Uganda’s children, agents of the British empire took it upon themselves to abolish regional practices of slavery. Though separated by nearly 150 years, their respective missions looked eerily alike: to rescue Africans from themselves, foreign forces were to be augmented on African soil. Between 1869 and 1873, that is exactly what justified Samuel White Baker’s military campaign on the outskirts of present-day Gulu.

Baker was one of the most celebrated explorers of his time. Like those before him, his ultimate goal was to find and annex the source of the coveted Nile River. On one of his initial treks to the region, he perceived the perils of what he and many other Europeans called “Arab slavery.” To Baker, benighted Africans stood no chance against racially superior Muslims from the north. In capturing black bodies for sale, these raiders not only disrupted a seemingly changeless society, but also exposed impressionable minds to the scourge of Islam. It was a moral injustice that threatened to undermine global Christian progress.

Baker’s narrative enjoyed enormous purchase in mid 19th century British thought. The anti-slavery movement had become a cause célèbre amongst those loyal to the Crown. What began as a niche campaign organized by radical Quakers had quickly turned into a popular wellspring for humanitarian sentiment. Politicians passed legislation to end its cruelty and common folk purchased products to reflect their reformist leanings. Appearing “woke” in mid 19th century Britain entailed drinking tea from abolitionist chinaware, wearing anti-slavery medallions, and boycotting sugar manufactured on slave plantations. Signing petitions was one thing, but to adorn yourself in materials of emancipation was to make others aware of your identity, your status, your conscience. In this world, Baker’s mission easily found support.

But making inroads demanded forging alliances, sometimes even with known adversaries. By the 1860s, the Ottoman Khedivate of Egypt was one of several imperial forces that sought to harness the riches of the upper Nile region. In Baker it found an ambitious proponent of an even greater empire, one which could mobilize unmatched force to control the rebellious area and open it up for “legitimate” exploitation. For these reasons, the freshly knighted explorer was commissioned by the Khedivate to crush slavery in the region by any means possible. Ironically, in executing this mission, Baker supported an expansionist Turkiyyah state well-known for plundering black bodies. It was far from unique for nineteenth-century Europeans to parade under the banner of humanitarianism and, at the same time, reinforce the very structures of power driving commercialized slavery onward. What constituted illicit activity was always in the eye of the beholder and largely determined by economic incentive. So was the case of Baker, who fought one kind of slavery while emboldening another.

Ultimately, Baker’s anti-slavery campaign had much more to do with widening imperial and commercial interests than bringing about substantive emancipation. Some people were released from slave caravans, but many more faced the cascading consequences of imperial violence. The region’s riches in ivory quickly became the fixation of traders near and far. Local hunting parties traded elephant tusks for prestige goods ranging from cloth to cattle. More effective weapons of destruction also circulated, and longstanding relations of dependency shifted under the weight of novel resources. Those who could navigate this volatile landscape attracted dependents and led wars against competitors. But most importantly for Baker, British influence now flowed from Cairo to Lake Nyanza. Certain manifestations of slavery had been overthrown and replaced with forms of oppression that veiled liberty in economic liberalism. Civilization and Christianity had been spread; the early seeds of British colonialism had been sown.

By tracing these historical precedents we better appreciate Ugandan responses to Kony 2012. Just as 19th century Britons raced to buy abolitionist teapots and broaches, so 21st century Americans hurried to purchase bracelets, posters, and “Action Kits.” In both cases, Christian imagery melded with political priorities to strengthen an imperial presence on African soil. And, in both cases, seemingly benevolent actors supported violent regimes to get the job done. Despite disguising itself in new technologies and fashionable language, the viral story’s recycled tropes and timeworn imagery could not have been more obvious to Ugandans.

It is in this respect that the Kony 2012 campaign offers valuable lessons for the history of humanitarianism, a quickly-growing subfield that, in the words of Kevin O’Sullivan, “remains overly focused on the global North and on donor narratives of aid.”1 The experiences of aid recipients in the Global South have largely been ignored as a result, their role in grand narratives of humanitarianism commonly reduced to “some bland, over-simplified version of the Third World ‘other’.”2

Needed now are histories that flip this script. As Tehila Sasson argues, “aid was never something that was simply imposed: local populations often shaped it.”3 Scholars would therefore do well to heed Emily Baughan’s call for research that illuminates how “the work of aid organizations has been shaped, altered and, at times, resisted by its ‘beneficiaries.’”4 Of course, writing such histories requires using different methodologies and accessing neglected sources, not least the words of recipients themselves. After watching Kony 2012, many Ugandans made their reactions known (YouTube). But beyond just listening to these individual voices, we as historians must take seriously the complex pasts and social worlds they continue to rise from.

Further Reading

For 18th - 20th Century Humanitarian Sentiments and Abolitionism

For Uganda’s Northern War, 1986-2006

For Responses to Kony 2012

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Mitchell Edwards is a 6th year PhD student in Northwestern University’s African history program. Titled, “Brought by the Sound of the Mortar: Cultivating Refuge in North-Central Uganda, 1720-2006,” his dissertation explores local traditions of emergency relief in a region that has served as a perennial backdrop for interventions deemed “humanitarian.” Mitch was a participant of the GHRA in 2019.

  1. “History and Humanitarianism: A Conversation.” Past and Present (2018) Vol. 241 (1): 1-38. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid.