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Daniel Howden: Kony2012 video strikes a chord with children because it doesn’t deal with complex realities


Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda

YOU are always likely to remember your first assignment in a new job. In my case the self-appointed task was to get from my base in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to the border between southern Sudan and northern Congo, to follow up on reports that one of Africa's most feared guerrilla armies was on the move again.

Thanks to a furious rainy season that churned dirt tracks into torrents, the journey from South Sudan's fledgling capital, Juba, down into the rainforest took three days and four vehicles. The final leg was driven by a former child soldier, now 17, who had learnt to pilot the rivers of mud while driving for another army in a different civil war that there's no time or space to explain here.

What I found on the other side were villages like Sakure, suddenly overrun with refugees and runaway girls and boys like Neima Kumbari, 15, and Philip Charles, 16, telling stories of burnt homes and bodies littering the forest floor across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Lord's Resistance Army, with its cultish leader Joseph Kony, had abandoned peace talks and was on the warpath again, killing, looting, and abducting children.

When I borrowed a satellite phone from a Catholic missionary to phone the story into London, there was bad news. Hundreds of miles south, in another part of the vastness of DR Congo, a different rebel army with a different acronym and its own warlord, Laurent Nkunda, had advanced on government forces and was threatening to overrun the city of Goma. UN peacekeepers were hiding in their barracks and aid workers were being evacuated from the main hub in the region. In short, there was drama.

That was four years ago and there was something in the moody pictures of refugees fleeing the path of a rebel army down the slopes of a volcano that caught the attention of news editors and audiences. It came just as there was a lull in the otherwise ceaseless battle for the US presidency and Goma was suddenly part of the rolling news agenda. The result was the most intense media focus on DR Congo since the aftermath of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda had washed across the border 14 years earlier. Or as a colleague of mine in London put it to me: "You are covering the wrong Congolese war."

These bubbles of interest that inflate so suddenly around single events and issues regularly confound the people who work hardest to either promote or interpret them. The most obvious effect of these bubbles is the way they distort understanding of what is going on by forcing events or issues inside them to be understood as all-important. Many Congo-watchers were left bemused by the sudden hype surrounding a threat to Goma that never actually materialised – Nkunda's forces didn't enter the city – even if they were pleased that some attention was finally being paid.

That bemusement is back in force in response to the extraordinary impact of the Kony2012 video. And along with it is the question of what happens to the events and issues on the edge of these bubbles? The answer is an even more severe distortion. There are several dozen armed militias active in DR Congo. In terms of numbers of people displaced or killed, or in terms of sexual violence, the situation in Eastern Congo is worse than that in the areas affected by the LRA. But for the time being they may as well not exist.

The distortion created by Kony2012 will translate into policy. The lesson of Goma in 2008 was that the LRA was relatively unimportant and now that situation will be expensively reversed. The African Union has vowed to launch a new 5,000-strong force to be sent to the area around Sakure in South Sudan to hunt down Kony "for as long as it takes". The venture won't be short of funding offers.

Meanwhile, the video, by the US group Invisible Children, estimated to have been seen by up to 90 million people, is being gleefully picked apart for its simplifications and misrepresentations by the expert community. They rightly point out that its Manichean world view of good and evil, easily recognisable to a young child, is hopelessly ill-equipped for dealing with the complex reality of central Africa.

But the bubble is there. Whether misinformed or not, a constituency has been created around the genuine need to do something about the LRA – whether it's in DR Congo, South Sudan or Central African Republic. That constituency will be courted by interest groups pushing bad policy.

The experts' debate ought to be moving on to what policymakers should be doing. Questions such as, is there any future in the peace process, or would the LRA continue to be a threat without its leader, need to be answered. And those of us who knew about Joseph Kony before we had a link shared with us by someone's child on Facebook need to let go of that lingering sense of annoyance.