By Yvonne Su & Raluca Besliu Contributors April 23, 2012

How have countries reacted since the release of the controversial film?

In March, the U.S. non-profit organization Invisible Children launched a 30-minute Internet film, Kony 2012, to advocate for the arrest of the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and indicted Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. The video went viral. It has been viewed over 88 million times on YouTube as of April 22, and captured the attention of citizens and politicians alike. The video’s tone and purpose have sparked vehement debate—critics have called the film misleading and naïve— but its actual political impact remains largely unaddressed. While the United States and African Union (AU) supported the campaign and used Kony 2012 to catalyze political and military action, the Ugandan government addressed the video’s misrepresentations and used it to promote the petition for foreign aid and encourage tourism. In both cases, broader national interests were promoted alongside the international plan to capture Kony.

Both White House and AU representatives cited the Kony 2012 campaign as motivating a renewed action to arrest Kony. The campaign received praise from President Barack Obama, and a bipartisan group of 34 senators introduced a resolution condemning Kony and the LRA. The following day, the AU initiated a U.S.-backed military mission of 5,000 soldiers to join the search for Kony. Although the mission is a coordinated effort by the governments of Central Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the U.S. has played a pivotal role in providing equipment, intelligence and training. Despite the controversy surrounding Kony 2012, the campaign elicited significant political responses from the U.S. government and the AU that led to concrete actions.

The Ugandan government, overlooked in the film, responded more critically by releasing an official statement and a direct video reply from Amama Mbabazi, the prime minister. Though Ugandans applauded the campaign’s efforts to raise awareness, official responses emphasized that Kony is not present and active in Uganda and the people living in previously LRA-affected areas are in the process of rebuilding their lives. Ugandan officials corrected some of the video’s misrepresentations and affirmed the government’s ability to protect its people. The government’s response also emphasized Uganda’s efforts to achieve sustainable economic development: the prime minister encouraged countries and NGOs to continue providing it financial assistance and highlighted Uganda’s tourism potential.

Why did these political actors feel the need to respond to a campaign conducted by a relatively small U.S. NGO? Primarily it was due to the enormous positive response that the campaign generated as millions of people, coming from all paths of life around the world, took up the banner against Kony. Interestingly, the political responses were addressed to a Western audience instead of the Ugandan people. The U.S. government was demonstrating its commitment to U.S. citizens, while the Ugandan officials strove to inform Westerners about Ugandan realities. Even the AU’s mission seems to stem more from a desire to convince the international community and Western public that it is doing all it can, rather than from a genuine commitment to protect African citizens.

Overall, although Kony 2012 has called attention to the need for international justice, at the political level it has served chiefly as a vehicle for countries to promote their national interests. Many Ugandans fear that the United States has used the hunt for Kony as a pretext for sending military advisors, whose real job is to secure a stake in Uganda’s emerging oil industry. Uganda, for its part, has taken advantage of the international spotlight to advertise to investors the country’s tourism potential and, to foreign donors, the need for aid. Although the film is gradually losing social and media attention, its political consequence may be just starting to unfold for Uganda and its central African neighbors.

Image courtesy of G4GTi.