Interview | Javie Ssozi – Helping Ugandan voices reclaim the legacy of the LRA war

Think Africa Press recently published a very thorough, balanced and well-written analysis of the Kony2012 furore and what it means for humanitarian organisations and their future campaigns – read it in full here. There was one section that really got my attention,

Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)

While I broadly embrace the sentiment that, long-term, the ‘success’ of the campaign will be seen in an entirely different light I think that this point of view misses a very important part of the video’s audience – Ugandans.

The website was set up in the aftermath of Invisible Children’s campaign. As the Think Africa Press article points out, the film had very little Ugandan input, focusing much more on the IC director, Jason Russell. For obvious reasons, many Ugandans were incensed by having their narrative, their issue, taken off their hands and presented to the world as a problem that revolves around the actions of North Americans. The founders of UgandaSpeaks wanted to combat that.

I caught up with Javie Ssozi, one of the co-founders of the site, to get some more information on the project.

Javie Ssozi

UgandaSpeaks was prompted by the KONY2012 phenomenon, a topic which has garnered an unbelievable amount of attention as well as a huge backlash from the development blogosphere and Ugandan journalists and activists. What do you think UgandaSpeaks can add to this discussion?

What UgandaSpeaks adds to the topic is not only valid arguments about the subject but also voices of Ugandans who have more experience in the legacy of the war in the North.  

There seem to be quite a lot of people involved in founding the site: who are they and how did you all come together?

The people who are involved in UgandaSpeaks are:

  1. Javie Ssozi
  2. Rosebell Kagumire
  3. Maureen Agena
  4. Echwalu Edward
  5. Ole Tangen

All of these people have had experience covering news stories or doing social work in Northern Uganda where Joseph Kony and the LRA committed terrible atrocities.

Who is running things, day to day?

We all work as a team even though myself (Javie) does most of the work related to the website. 

How many submissions have you had so far? Are Ugandans excited about this initiative?

Yes, many Ugandan journalists, storytellers and social workers have strong interest in the initiative. In fact, many young people who have just started their careers in storytelling and journalism have asked to join the UgandaSpeaks team. Many other Ugandans have shown support through retweeting and sharing our stories on Facebook and other social networks. 

A lot of the people behind UgandaSpeaks a fairly well known journalists and activists – who will be overseeing the film production aspect of your project?

 Javie Ssozi and Maureen Agena oversaw the production of the film.

Recently, there has been something of a backlash (see here) against the rhetoric of ‘telling positive stories about Africa’ – does a project like UgandaSpeaks go beyond a marketing/advertising push? How?

Actually the approach that UgandaSpeaks takes is more personal story driven. Our narrative takes shape from the experience of the teller. For example we do want to tell positive stories about Africa but also we realize that people have challenges. So, we allow for people to show both sides of their stories. 

Is your aim to place Ugandan authored stories about Kony in the international press or the national press?

I think we have already done this. But our aim is to share the stories of the people who have first hand information about what happened in Northern Uganda. Eventually we shall cover stories about all sorts of people and things around Uganda depending on our budget. 

Who is your audience and why are they your audience?

Our Audience on the KONY2012 topic is mainly people from the west because they know so little about Uganda. We just want to educate them and perhaps in doing so we shall recapture the narrative that KONY2012 video puts across. 

Have you had any approaches by Ugandan political figures? If not, do you think they staying away from this topic because of pressures from international aid/development organisations?

Eventually the Prime Minister of Uganda (Amama Mbabazi) did two YouTube videos on the topic. I  think our government officials are not technically agile as we (UgandaSpeaks/ independent netizens) are but also I think they have to follow some kind of procedure.

How do you feel about aid/development? Does it have it’s place or is it time to replace it with large-scale trade initiatives?

Aid is good because in one way or another it ends up helping someone somewhere. However, aid is NOT sustainable. Promoting entrepreneurship and trade would be a more sustainable way of supporting people in the developing countries. 

Is there a middle ground in the aid vs trade debate?
Since (most of) the aid is always ending up in the hands of people who will either miss use it or embezzle it, I think trade would be the way to go. And there are already a number of initiatives promoting trade between Uganda and the rest of the world. I believe more of these initiative would bring the ultimate change we need – and perhaps one day we shall be like China! This country has the potential to supply 3% or even more than that of the world’s food.

Business First, Human Rights Later – Why the disconnect?

I know that the answer is 'the egg'. I'm just trying to illustrate a point alright, give me a break a break.

Source: 24expo via Stephanie on Pinterest

I have recently been writing reports on the state of freedom of expression in four countries in the Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. As you can probably guess, things aren’t amazing there. The GDPs are low, the governments are stupendously powerful, corruption is high and the whole region seems to be on a knife edge in terms of both food security and the ever present threat of invasion (from within and without). Things like the right to free speech or free assembly are pretty much on the back burner.

Many people would argue that human rights necessarily need to be ignored for development to occur. They can come later, once things are established and the economy is moving – then we can worry about voters’ rights and other silly things like that. Harvard professor Calestous Juma is a high profile proponent of the ‘infrastructure first, human rights later‘ model, arguing that concerning oneself with human rights before the infrastructure necessary for economic success was in place is, at best, a needless distraction; at worst, willful neglect. A few weeks ago, an English man in a Nairobi bar, on hearing that I worked for a human rights organisation, jabbed his finger at my chest and declared that I was “the fucking devil”. Obviously, a rights-based approach has its detractors.

Some people would suggest a less hardline position: while sometimes useful, rights based programming can be counter productive when applied to certain field situations. A recent post by Weh Yeoh of – ‘When talking about human rights is irrelevant’ – outlined an example where he felt this to be the case. He was working in China and felt that his colleagues were too culturally and educationally disconnected from the whole notion of rights based programming for it to be useful. The situation, the context, didn’t fit the solution – how often have we heard that complaint regarding a ‘international development’ intervention?

These are fair points, particularly in a strictly not-for-profit, development paradigm. But few people would argue that such a model seems likely to be the story of Africa this century. It is booming. Of the 10 fastest growing economies of the next five years, 7 are predicted to be African. The title of the Ernst & Young Africa attractiveness report of 2011 was ‘It’s time for Africa‘. China and India have long since moved in, Brazil and Russia are looking to do so. Everyone is.

Now look at that Ernst & Young report again – turn to page 23 – and check out the list of factors that dissuade potential investors from pouring capital into Africa. Lack of infrastructure is on there with 17% of responders (large potential investors from all over the world) choosing it. However, above infrastructure concerns come corruption, 22%, and unstable political environment, by far the most concerning factor at 41%. The link between the latter and a promotion of human rights is well documented – liberal democracies have fewer wars and less famine, cases argued very famously by smarter people than me. But what about corruption?

A quick look at Corruption Perception Index 2011 – a ranking of how corrupt a variety of stakeholders perceive countries to be, very much related to the chances of foreign investment – shows that 9 out 10 of the worst countries are also ranked ‘Not Free’ by Freedom House’s Press Freedom 2011 report. There’s a reason people protect the free media and the right to free speech. Acting as watchdogs, as whistleblowers against the excesses of government is a vital role. Without it, countries not only become worse in terms of standard of living, they also become less attractive to investment. This is no moral issue: huge corruption makes the costs of investment larger because of all that unavoidable greasing of palms involved in working in very corrupt countries. At a certain point, corporations don’t stand to gain so much from such deals and take their business elsewhere. Why wouldn’t they?

Of course, corruption can be fought, effectively, by non rights-based policymaking. I hear you, detractors, I hear you shouting ‘Rwanda’ or ‘China’ for places attracting investment without human rights underpinning their performances. Cursorily, I’d reply that both are too early in their respective booms to have reached the ceiling where it starts to hurt them. Failing that, essentially, I would argue that, if you can combat corruption by promoting human rights and thereby improve people’s individual liberties, why wouldn’t you?

You have growth, you have improvements in people’s lives, you have freedom. It is at this point that I lose the plot a little: is the desire to create the most powerful economy so great that you would willingly choose to emulate China (regardless that it is probably not possible in most places) and all the abuses against your own citizens that that entails?

Human rights and business don’t have to be incompatible. It seems to me that a dogged pursuit of the latter at the expense of the former is ideological, a decision that ends in people suffering despite profits increasing rather than being able to enjoy their prosperity. Why choose that?

Telling Positive Stories – The backlash

Also published by Generation C Magazine and Development in Action

Telling positive stories about Africa - The memo

Does anyone really understand the logic behind this PR campaign? [Created using]

A fair amount of hand-wringing has been going on lately regarding a narrative in aid/development that has been pretty prevalent for at least as long as I’ve been interested in it (around 5 years) – ‘telling positive stories about [Africa/Sub-saharan Africa/the developing world etc]’.

J. (previously of Tales From The Hood) recently posted this link on Aidsource before making the following points:

1) The aid industry has been getting advertising makeovers for, oh…. FORTY YEARS. It’s time to take off the makeup. Can we stop “advertising” and just “tell the truth” already?

2) Telling the public great stories about ‘what works’ is fine, I suppose. But the real messages that they seem to be missing are the ones about what DOESN’T work. (just sayin‘)

The article he was replying to – read it – highlights this position:

“Communication about development aid has long focused on making the case for its need,” says Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “There is a huge opportunity to talk about how it works and what it does – to tell the real success stories that exist.”

This was referenced in the discussion about this article on Aidsource as absolutely not being a new idea. I’d definitely have to agree with that one – since starting my first NGO comms job about 10 months ago I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard speakers at events or read articles by influential comms types telling us that ‘success stories’ are the main way forward. While I think there is a lot of use for this approach – the advocacy done by ONE on supporting better aid budgets for example – it is, first and foremost, an advocacy tool and one that might go some way to explaining how NGOs distort the issues and, in the long run, disappoint their public.

Elliot Ross over on Africa Is A Country also recently posted an article responding to a new campaign by Mama Africa aimed at combating ‘Hollywood stereotypes’ of African men (video below). While giving some praise to the work of this organisation he condemns the video for both being a little forced/not funny as well as tying into the idea of PR being the answer to the problems of Africa:

Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.

Here’s the video:

While these critiques are interesting and certainly worth thinking about, it strikes me that they are very much from a ‘development’ point of view. A rather brilliant article on Ugandan media site about police and government pressure on the way in which journalists report the news showcased a slightly different angle on why the ‘positive stories’ narrative could have negative consequences – it is worth quoting it at length (HT @Natabaalo):

[An anonymous police officer] says journalists should do what the police order them to do during demonstrations, after all “when journalists are injured by demonstrators, it is still the police to blame”.

But recent trends show journalists are more likely to be harmed by the police and other security agencies than by protesters. Especially since Walk to Work protests started in April last year, sections of the media have been singled out as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” by President Yoweri Museveni.

For publishing pictures of opposition leaders and supporters being roughed up by security agencies, Museveni has argued that sectors like tourism and investments from abroad would be negatively affected. He has called for a different approach to reporting so that the media depicts a different side of Uganda – as a great investment destination and tourism hub.

This type of journalism, a lot of times misinterpreted as development journalism, is what is preached by most leaders in poor and transitional countries. Some have argued that in poor countries, the government of the day needs support. They add that the government in such a country will probably have to take decisions which are based on the common good but which harm individual liberties.

The idea that fair, free journalistic reporting could inhibit both Government and development aspirations is one that showcases a worrying marriage of convenience. Aid skeptics and jaded development workers have long supported oppressive regimes as a justified means-to-an-end – Kagame in Rwanda, Park Chung-hee in South Korea or China, in general, are oft-cited examples of ‘bad guys doing good things’ in terms of economic development. But this betrays a double standard – as outsiders looking to help, we cannot condemn one thing (i.e. civil liberties) for ourselves while condoning it for others without weakening our position.

While the idea of ‘telling positive stories’ might end up patronising Africans, it also might end up supporting those regimes that systematically undermine human rights, particularly those regarding the freedom of expression and the activities of the media. Without mechanisms of domestic accountability these governments are much more likely to revert back to being ‘bad guys who do bad things’. As an industry and as an international community, we cannot be complicit in that process. Particularly because you know that, once these governments do revert, our governments will condemn them publicly, only to be further undermined when it is pointed out that they had aided such leaders in attaining such a position.

And then the cycle continues. Or should I say ‘downwards spiral’?

South Sudan – Another Biafra?

This post originally appeared on the Development in Action blog.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant 2007 novel Half of a Yellow Sun details the plight of the brief, doomed breakaway of Biafra from Nigeria in the late 1960s. It follows the interweaving narratives of three main characters, all of whom have a personal stake in the success of the Biafran secession and so stay until the exhausted end of the war with Nigeria they couldn’t hope to win. It is a beautiful read. Well paced and populated with characters whose personal emotions give you access to the hope felt by those first (and last) Biafrans and their stubborn refusal to accept the destruction of their secessionist dream in a brutal war.

This was a war in which more than a million people died, mainly from starvation, as the world watched – it was the war that saw the birth of modern humanitarian aid and Médecins Sans Frontières. It was a war in which old colonial interests were writ large, as the UK and France took up opposite sides, continuing to meddle with the affairs of the region the best part of a decade after it had been declared independent. Amongst the historical, regional, political and religious divides  that fuelled this conflict, the machinations of the new world powers, the USA and the Soviet Union, recognising another chance to recruit more allies to their ideological Cold War, fought by proxies all over the world.

Biafra was dominated by the largely Christian Igbo people whereas the Nigerian military government of the time was dominated by the Muslim Hausa people. The split separated two groups with historical ethnic, cultural and religious differences – ones that had caused friction for many years. So why not let them go? As Kainene, an important supporting character in the novel, puts it,

‘It’s the oil,’ she said. ‘They can’t let us go easily with all that oil.’

Thousands of miles across the continent, forty years on and again it is oil that underpins the story of a young country’s secession from a larger nation, established by colonial rule and dominated by one ethno-religious group. South Sudan became an independent state, almost exactly six months ago, on July 9th 2011. The split from the government in Khartoum was a historic and popular step, symbolically splitting the South from a state that had seen two civil wars and millions of deaths in the previous sixty years. In the official referendum in January 2011, around 98% of voters voted in favour of independence.

The Western media headlines might have been grabbed by the drought further west in Somalia and Kenya, but that didn’t mean that international organisations, large companies and governments from around the world didn’t keep their eyes firmly on South Sudan.

Now that they have their independence they have a few other assets that the global community would like to access. Most important of those is oil – the rising price of which is driving protestors to the streets in Nigeria as I write, just as it helped to spark Uganda’s ‘Walk to Work’ protests throughout 2011.

With the desire for investment and profit that inevitably surrounds such an under-developed oil-rich area comes enormous tensions, not least from the International Criminal Court indicted government of Sudan which has repeatedly been accused of meddling with the petroleum resources it no longer owns, most recently using foreign companies to sidetrack crude from the South to refineries in the north.

On top of the clamouring for oil comes human suffering. The UN has warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in the world’s youngest country. Ongoing conflicts with rebel groups, an influx of  Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees escaping neighbouring conflict zones, and the general lack of infrastructure and stability have made the last six months something of a baptism of fire. It has left hundreds of thousands of people in an extremely vulnerable situation, cut off from vital food supplies being delivered by humanitarian organisations.  As with Biafra, it seems that South Sudan will face a crisis almost immediately after independence.

Regionally, there are several East African states, that make up the Southern border of this new country, with vested interests in keeping it intact. The links between Yoweri Museveni’s NRM government of Uganda and the South Sudanese government are particularly well established because of the high profit potential of trade links between the neighbours and their mutual animosity with Khartoum.

An unspoken part of what makes so many Western countries interested in the future of the country is the looming spectre of growing Chinese investment, just as it continues to grow over much of the rest of the continent. Europe and the USA are increasingly seeing African investment as a way to stabilise their own weakened markets, but they are aware that Asia – and China in particular – have gotten there first, particularly in terms of infrastructure links.

The state of Biafra lasted just under three years before it was torn apart by economic and geopolitical interests from parties both home and abroad. Let us hope that South Sudan does not continue to remind us of a place that became perhaps the most notable humanitarian disaster of its time. We would do well to listen to what Adichie reminds us of in the postscript of her devastatingly harrowing novel,

May we always remember.

Follow Paan Luel Wël, a South Sudanese writer based in Washington DC, for interesting news on South Sudan. He blogs here and tweets here.