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Up Front

Five Myths about Africa (StopKony)

Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Andrew Westbury

Over the past few weeks, the online campaign Kony2012 by the charity Invisible Children has brought unparalleled attention to international efforts to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the perpetrator of horrific crimes throughout parts of central and east Africa. Despite the traction the movement has gained, Invisible Children has also come under intense criticism for a number of issues, including its inability to accurately identify the current location of the LRA and uncertainties about the group’s finances. Much of this criticism is valid, however, certain arguments both for and against Kony2012 are built on misconceptions about Africa and modern life on the continent. We’d like to explain what life in Africa today is really like.

1. Africa is and will always be a violent place

Efforts to end the LRA’s atrocities are no doubt a noble pursuit; however, a focus on the Joseph Kony should not suggest that violence and war continue to be the norm in Africa. In the past 10 years, Africa’s largest and long-running conflicts have come to an end, with peace now reigning (however tenuously) in many countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, and between North and South Sudan. Even the LRA is on the run at the moment, driven from northern Uganda in 2006 to remote hideouts in the jungles of the Central African Republic, DRC and South Sudan. Today, more often than not, news of foreign investment in Africa and strong continental economic growth are much more common than reports about the abuses of rogue groups like the LRA.

2. Africa isn’t plugged into technology

Some critics suggest that Invisible Children’s use of social media makes Kony2012 particularly inaccessible to Africans. While shaky Internet connections are commonplace across Africa, social media, mobile technology and the Internet are revolutionizing people’s lives across the continent. In fact, Gallup recently reported “mobile phone subscriptions have grown faster in Africa than any other region in the world.” In many ways, Africans are leading the world in leveraging cell phones to enhance everyday life. Money transfers using mobile technology called M-Pesa in Kenya are now almost more common than cash, with nearly 13,000,000 users throughout the nation. Internet penetration is still less extensive than in other parts of the world, but studies show that the Africans who are online regularly use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. Far from being inaccessible to Africans, the Internet, social media, and cell phones are shaping Africa’s future.

3. Western intervention undermines African efforts

Critics believe that the lack of African voices and African agencies working against the LRA featured in Kony2012’s online video reinforces outdated beliefs that resolving African problems requires intervention by outsiders. This concern suggests however that African agency is now somehow fragile while current events throughout the continent indicate otherwise. From Nigeria to Malawi to Uganda and South Africa, new trends in local activism are dramatically changing Africa’s political dynamics and public life. Indeed, just last month, while international actors considered responses to stop Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade from seeking a dubious third term in office, voters and youth-led movements across the country organized vigorous opposition and against the odds beat the aged leader at the ballot box. African citizen action is alive and well, and unlikely to be upended by online campaign in the U.S.

4. Youth can’t make a difference in Africa 

Detractors of the StopKony campaign cite concerns about Invisible Children’s outreach to youth, believing that a campaign channeled through celebrities and t-shirt wearing college students will lead to simplistic responses to a complex situation. This fear however neglects the unbelievable success youth have achieved in African public life. From the socially conscious rappers on the streets in Dakar to both the OccupyNigeria and South Africa movements, Africa’s youth are dramatically changing the dynamics of the continent. And, rightly so, today, nearly 45 percent of Africans were born after 1995. Africa is a decidedly young continent and outreach to this demographic – whether domestic or international— is a requirement for any successful advocacy effort.

5. StopKony will lead to more U.S. military involvement in Africa

A similar concern about Invisible Children and StopKony is its call to increase support for the ongoing American military operation to find and capture Joseph Kony. While many see the need for some type of military intervention, critics are wary of the U.S. army’s presence on the continent and increased militarization in Central Africa. However, African leaders have a long history of skepticism toward U.S. armed forces, a stance which is unlikely to be changed by Invisible Children or its supporters. In 2007, the U.S. government established the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) — a unified military command center designed to address security issues on the continent. However, to date, no African country has offered to host the entity, so it remains based in far away Stuttgart, Germany. Just this past year, President Obama ordered a mission of 100 non-combatant U.S. military advisors to remote parts of central Africa to support local forces in pursuit of Kony. It’s unlikely that the United States, and especially Africa, desires anything further.

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