A Note on Defection Messaging

Most of my blogging from this trip will be more about research than traditional travel-blogging, but I’m doing a short e-mail newsletter for friends and family. If you’d like to be included on that list, feel free to comment or e-mail me at scootles7 [at] gmail [dot] com.

So, I’ve been in Uganda for a week now. My research has been slowly progressing, which already puts this trip as wildly more successful than my last sojourn to this country, which I deemed “a failed attempt” at an internship. I’m nervous about the Congo portion of the trip not least because it’s the Congo and all of the associations, realistic and overblown, that come with that, but also because I don’t speak a bit of French, Lingala, or Zande and because the schedule is very, very up in the air. But, for now, it’s nice to be back in Uganda and be (somewhat) active in my work.

So far, I’ve interviewed the head of radio for Invisible Children and the program director for Mega FM, one of the biggest stations in the north. These interviews have all been about defection messaging, also called come-home messaging (dwog paco in Acholi). The messages include former rebels telling other rebels that it is safe to come home, encouraging them to take advantage of the amnesty law. You can find out more about these messages here and even hear some samples clips in different languages at The Voice Project.

It is widely agreed that the radio messages are extremely effective. This isn’t just coming from the people who work in radio, it has been labeled by aid workers and peace advocates as an effective means of encouraging LRA escapes and surrenders for some time now. Mega FM was started with a large amount of funding from DFID with come-home messaging in mind, USAID’s policy on the LRA includes capacity-building on radio defection efforts, and this programming has recently been a primary thrust of Invisible Children, which states that 89% of returnees cite the messaging as one of the reasons they returned.

But not everyone agrees. I met with Tim Allen, professor of development anthropology at the London School of Economics and long-time (like, long-time) follower of the LRA, a month ago and he said that he thought that the role that radio played was vastly overstated. Indeed, in his and Mareike Schomerus’s report on reception centers [pdf] in 2005, their team found that:

Hardly anybody from the sample heard about the amnesty while still in the barracks and reception center staff have confirmed that most who arrive in the center do not know about it.

[…]

Of those who had heard about the amnesty, many had a negative impression of what it actually meant. In the bush, LRA commanders tell combatants that the amnesty is actually a government ploy to lure people out of the bush and kill them. Commanders deny their soldiers access to radios and make every attempt to suppress information.

Many reception centers say that, anecdotally, returnees say that they try to sneak around and listen to radios when they can to hear news from home, and that is how they find out about the amnesty.  This report was written in 2005, so perhaps things have changed between then and now, or perhaps some center staff had different experiences. Allen and his team raise some concerns about the reliability of returnee anecdotes, citing that one of the jobs of reception center staff is to teach returnees how to talk about their experiences in constructive ways. Some returnees may be picking up that they should cite radio regardless of their personal experience, either as an unintentional side-effect of the rehabilitation process or as part of the belief that it will get them better aid packages.The point remains that there is some ambiguity over how much access to radio the lower-level members of the LRA have.

My research is predominantly on how the messaging works, which may or may not assume that it works. I’ve been an ardent supporter of messaging, but Allen and Schomerus provide some important arguments to keep in mind. The biggest spike in returns occurred during a time of both heightened radio programming and a major military attack in the early- to mid-2000s, so it’s hard to figure out which event had a bigger impact. No doubt both played a role, and I’d much rather advocate for radio messages than military action. And so that’s what I’ll be studying, and we’ll see how it goes as I move forwards. See update below.

With two interviews down, I’ve traveled back to my old stomping grounds in Lira today. Tomorrow morning I’ll be visiting Radio Wa, a Catholic radio station here that also did come-home messaging, called karibuni programming, which is inexplicably a Swahili word in a region where few speak it. I might ask about that. I’ll be back in Gulu tomorrow to round out my radio-in-northern-Uganda interviews, and then be moving onto other things. Besides that, I’ve been doing a lot of things most expats do: using the internet, eating street food (although there’s a disappointingly small amount to offer in Gulu), avoiding eye contact with other expats, while also making friends with some expats. Same old, same old, here in Uganda.

Update: Friend of the blog and Director of Civic Engagement at Invisible Children Lisa Dougan had this to say on Facebook:

Question for you: Tim and Mareika’s points (at least the ones you’ve mentioned in your blog) were specifically about whether or not AMNESTY messaging was encouraging defections. That can be differentiated from come-home/defection messaging more broadly. We’ve found that several recent LRA defectors have referenced defection messaging as having a role to play in their surrender/escape, while they might not necessarily specifically mention Uganda’s amnesty policy. Some LRA seem to just need assurances that if they surrender, they will have a safe place at which to defect, where they will not be hurt by the FARDC, FACA, or local community, and they want to know that they will be able to go home. We’ve also been the degree to which reintegration programs/packages are actually more important to LRA defectors than an amnesty certificate itself. The distinction between amnesty (as legal protection from prosecution) and a more comprehensive reintegration program might be something you’ll want to look into. Thanks again for your work.

To which I responded:

I think you’re right to differentiate between amnesty messaging and general come-home messaging, and the first portion of Tim & Mareike’s report that I quoted was specific to amnesty and how the UPDF treated it… but the latter section questioned how often lower-level rebels actually listened to the radio at all. I know a lot of people have told me that rebels sneakily listen in when they can, but the report gives a few reasons to be wary about returnee anecdotes.

I do want to restate that, broadly, I’m on team radio on this topic. I really do think it’s done a lot of good, and I think it’s a positive way to bring about more escapes and surrenders. Looking at some of the data, I just wonder if it’s playing as big a role as we think it is. I think flier drops and aerial loud-speakers are a great addition to this that may indeed improve upon the radio method.

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