At ASA!

This year I’m a commuter over at the African Studies Association’s annual meeting, as it’s in Washington today through Saturday. If you’re around. let’s meet up! In particular, I’m promoting two social events in addition to the panel I’ll be speaking on. Check them out!

Friday night the good people of Twitter will be congregating off-sit for our annual #ASA2016 tweet-up. Join us at Perry’s in Adams Morgan, a short hop away from the Marriott, starting at 6:00.

Also Friday night, the newly founded Institute for African Studies at George Washington University will be hosting a reception back at the Marriott at Wardman Park. As the institute is new, there won’t be tons of alumni hogging all the drinks and snacks – come hang out, meet people affiliated with the institute, and celebrate the opening of the new institute! 7:30-8:30, Virginia A.

Lastly, and most academically, I’ll be presenting on a panel alongside several scholars of Uganda on Saturday at 2:00pm, in room Washington 3. The paper I’ll be presenting on is a little bit of a departure for me: it will be less about radio, less about justice, and more about the work that words do in how we talk about the LRA conflict. Here’s a snippet below the cut.

Dominic Ongwen is desribed as “one of the highest profile defectors,” but Ongwen is not in the bush helping track down Kony but is actually sitting in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen is a returnee, an alleged criminal, a former child soldier, a victim of LRA abduction – he is many things, but defector is probably not the most appropriate term. That the word is used to describe him calls into question who the rest of these defectors are. Also telling is the fact that the very next few paragraphs highlight the role of amnesty in encouraging rebels to come home – even though Ongwen received no such amnesty.

This seems to be evidence that defection, as a concept, is evacuated of its usual meaning as it is applied to any LRA fighters who surrender. But this broader application imposes the word’s two-sided framework, with militaristic consequences. Some of the LRA fighters who come home may integrate into civilian life, but some may choose to help fight their former captors. If we think of them as defectors, these are sensible outcomes. But if we were to call these returnees former child soldiers, would we be so quick to accept their new role in continued warfare? This is the work that the word does – a militaristic lexicon urges us to accept military roles for defectors, when a more thorough reflection may lead us to conclude that former child soldiers should demobilize. It is important to juxtapose defection and demobilization. While both acknowledge that one is leaving ranks, the paths lead in different directions. Defection implies a changing of sides – a shifting of ideologies, but a continued fight. Demobilization, quite literally, signals an exit from the battlefield.

In an article about military humanitarianism, Sverker Finnström (2012) quotes a New York Times article from 2010 in which a U.S. officer states that “these ex-LRA guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to re-integrate… But one thing they are very good at is hunting human beings in the woods” (132). Finnström rightly discusses this in the light of the fact that, that same year, President Barack Obama issued a waiver of enforcing the Child Soldier Prevention Act to the Congo and South Sudan, two countries where the LRA had been active, in the name of national security. As Finnström argues, we should feel uncomfortable about Obama’s implicit (or maybe explicit) claim that the use of child soldiers is tolerated in the Global War on Terror, especially as former LRA fighters who escape conscription go into UPDF ranks rather than home to civilian life. The linguistic slippage of using “defection” to describe what should actually be demobilization is part of a larger global and militaristic process that normalizes warfare. I must admit, however, that “demobilization” itself also calls into action a technocratic and bureaucratic model for post-conflict realities, one that universalizes the LRA conflict to the logics of a global humanitarian regime, and both of these terms run the danger of either misrepresenting or flattening LRA returnees’ lives. Acholi efforts to encourage rebels to defect or demobilize are, at their core, efforts to encourage children to come home. Dwog cen paco.

Hope to see you at ASA!

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