In the course of my fieldwork this summer, a question arose that I was unable to answer, and it concerns the inconsistent response of the LRA to the work of radio stations in northern Uganda. My research focused on the use of defection messaging, which several radio stations engaged in during the conflict, especially in the early 2000s. But there were other ways that radio was used during the conflict, and of particular note is Radio Mega’s attempt to foster dialog between the rebels, the government, and the civilian population.
In her essay [pdf] on the government-imposed limits that radio actors encounter at Mega FM, Maggie Ibrahim chose as a case study the Ter Yat (“Under the Tree”) weekly dialog program at Radio Mega. In December of 2002, LRA leader Joseph Kony called into the program to discuss why peace talks had failed – other panelists included an army spokesman and a local government official. This was just one instance of many in which members of the LRA called into the radio station on various programs to talk about the conflict or send messages to others. After three months of this type of communication, security forces informed the radio station that rebels would not be allowed to call in again. This was couched within the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was criminalizes interviewing alleged terrorists.
In the interviews that I conducted in Gulu, it became apparent that in the early 2000s there was a lot of contact between radio staff and the rebels. The rebels’ only source of news was the radio, and so the radio stations were frequently used to disseminate information and to communicate with the broader community. This, of course, was happening while Mega FM was simultaneously carrying out its defection messaging, which served to sap rebel strength and encourage escape attempts among disillusioned or abducted members of the LRA. The fact that the rebel leadership continued to engage in dialog with an entity that was also actively undermining it seems illogical.
And then we turn to Radio Wa, a radio station in Lira, southeast of Acholiland in the Lango Sub-Region. Radio Wa began running defection messaging in 2002, and was very effective in encouraging defections during the early 2000s, especially as rebels moved through that area after a UPDF offensive in 2002. Unlike with Radio Mega, there was no contact with the rebel leadership except for rumored threats against radio staff. In September of 2002, the rebels made good on these threats and destroyed the radio station, attacking early in the morning and burning it down.
Both radio stations actively encouraged LRA fighters to escape and take advantage of the amnesty. Both radio stations saw themselves as supporting community efforts to achieve peace by bringing the LRA home. And yet the rebels chose to engage in public dialog with one radio station while burning down the other.
There could be a lot of different reasons for this. In 2002, as I mentioned, the rebels were reorganizing from an attack by the military, moving into new areas in which they had never been active before. The LRA has its roots in Acholi territory, and many of the top fighters are familiar with some of the Radio Mega staff from early attempts to bring the war to an end. Lira has little history with the rebels, and this lack of connection may have led to the rebel attack.