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Column: The way some people view African countries is inherently racist – as Kony 2012 shows

The Invisible Children campaign went viral worldwide last year – but it was deeply racist, politically motivated, and presented a Uganda that does not exist, writes Kevin McPartlan.

Kevin McPartlan

Kevin McPartlan works with Glenevin, an Irish consultancy which spent most of 2012 on a project with the Government of Uganda to improve the country’s international reputation. He was in charge of the communications team that coordinated Uganda’s official response to the Kony2012 viral video. He says:

We were hired to help improve the global perception of Uganda. We began by analysing news and social media content and comment concerning the country. With the help of Irish media analysis firm O’Leary Analytics; we were able to identify the most common reasons for which the government was criticized. Then we looked at which were fair and which were not.

Improving engagement by the authorities

It was clear the vast majority of negative coverage in the international media related to the Uganda Police Force (UPF) and, in particular, to failings in the way it managed public order situations. We told the government the only way to improve how the global press reported on UPF was to improve the behaviour and performance of its officers.

We brought a team of police trainers out from Ireland and worked with the UPF’s public order units to give them the skills to de-escalate situations and to respond in a measured and restrained manner.

To respond to unfair criticism, it was necessary to improve the way in which the government engaged with the media. We improved Ministers and officials’ interviews skills and trained press officers to operate in way that would be more effective with international audiences.

A grave threat to Uganda’s reputation

We had been working on the project for about four months when Invisible Children launched Kony2012 on YouTube. It seemed to explode across social media but, in truth, our media monitoring alerted us to it well before the likes of Oprah Winfrey got involved. We had a bit of a head start but it was clear to us it was going to get very big, very quickly.

We watched the video and realised immediately that it posed a grave threat to the reputation of Uganda. It suggested the government was ignoring Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); that it was standing idly by while young boys were being forced to take up arms and girls were forced into sex-slavery. It also painted the country as war-torn and unstable. None of this is true.

In fact, the Ugandan military (UPDF) has been fighting the LRA for many years and has reduced the fighting force from upwards of 30,000 to its current strength of about 200. Joseph Kony has not set foot in Uganda since 2006 because UPDF troops forced the LRA to flee across the border into what was then southern Sudan. Since then, they have commanded an African Union task force that has continued to pursue Kony across international borders. It was the current Prime Minister of Uganda, Amama Mbabazi who sought the indictment of Joseph Kony by the International Criminal Court.

The enormous power of social media

I alerted the Prime Minister to the Kony2012 campaign and advised him to use the same social media channels to respond. It was a tough sell initially. He considered the claims of Invisible Children to be so inaccurate as to be unworthy of response. I argued that this campaign had the potential to define the reputation of Uganda for an entire generation of people in Europe and North America. Ultimately, Mr Mbabazi agreed to reply through YouTube.

The Prime Minister recorded a video in his Kampala office soon after Kony2012 went viral. He thanked the people who had watched Kony2012 for their interest in, and concern for, Uganda and corrected the false impression which it created.

He recognised that many younger people receive “news” not through traditional print or broadcast media but on YouTube, Facebook and other social networks. He is very aware of the power of social media – regularly engaging critics and supporters through Twitter. Mr Mbabazi personally tweeted celebrities involved in Kony2012 including George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Jay Z and invited them to visit Uganda and see the facts for themselves.

Within a couple of days the Prime Minister’s video had been watched over 200,000 times. His decision to use social media to directly connect with young people was reported in more than 2,500 news reports across the world.

The only real criticism of the video related to the poor production values. What people didn’t realise was that due to poor ICT infrastructure in Africa, it took over 27 hours to upload it even in such a compressed form and low resolution.

Kony 2012: deeply racist and politically motivated

I found Kony 2012 deeply racist and very politically motivated. It was tied up in a particular branch of American right-wing Christian fundamentalism, and played on the negative ideas we often have of Africa and suggested Africans need the “good oul’ US of A of to point out right from wrong.

It was deeply patronising. Offensive, actually.

The release of the Kony 2012 video was not the first time the Government of Uganda had heard about Kony. They didn’t need a slick, well-produced viral video to inform them this man was evil. They had been fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army for years in an effort to bring Kony and his lieutenants to justice. They have had remarkable successes and continue to be engaged in the long process of rebuilding the villages and communities the LRA decimated.

The ‘West’ must be more respectful

It is important African nations are represented accurately to the western world. I consider the way some people view African countries to be inherently racist. The different ways in which Africans communicate or behave are not in any way inferior. I believe we in “the West” must be more respectful and willing to compromise.

There are issues in Uganda that need to be dealt with. But, while it is essential to address the fair criticisms by raising standards and addressing abuses of power, the Ugandan’s have a right to point out when criticism is unfair too.

Many reports about Uganda are grossly distorted or simply not true. An excellent example is the way The Anti-Homosexuality Bill currently before the Ugandan parliament is being reported. It is widely described in very reputable news media as the Kill-the-Gays Bill. While it does outlaw homosexual acts, it does not make provision for the death penalty.

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly oppose this Bill but surely our distaste for the proposed legislation does not excuse the media from its obligation to tell the truth?

Cultural differences lead to misunderstanding and suspicion

The Government of Uganda hired Glenevin because there is a very different style of communicating in Africa. Africans can be extremely direct but the style of debate – especially in politics, is not what we are used to.

Serious politicians often will not defend or argue their point of view if challenged. Rather they will personally attack their critic or question their bona fides. That looks shifty to us; as though the politician has something to hide, but it is simply a cultural difference.

As the world changes, the key audiences for African leaders now include their international counterparts. We taught Ugandan Ministers and officials how to communicate with audiences in Europe and in the US more effectively and persuasively.

Joseph Kony’s global profile may have waned over the last year, but the victims cannot forget the suffering caused by the LRA. In recent weeks the UPDF has made significant arrests of Kony’s lieutenants. His troops have diminished in number; a terrorist gang rather than an army, but they haven’t gone away. Some say Kony may be dead already, but the Government of Uganda will not stop fighting until the LRA has been entirely defeated and its leaders brought to justice.

Kevin McPartlan works with Glenevin, an Irish risk and security consultancy which primarily works with governments and multinationals. He was in charge of the communications team that coordinated Uganda’s official response to the Kony2012 viral video. You can contact Kevin by email kevin.mcpartlan@managingreputation.ie or on Twitter @kevmcp.

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Kevin McPartlan

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