Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading

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Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a look, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.

Shameless Self-Promotion: ICC Justice at Warscapes

Hello – brief note that I had a piece go up last week at Warscapes on the Dominic Ongwen trial at the ICC, now underway. It builds off of my first article for them last March, and parts of it are visible in this post I wrote the day the trial began. Here’s the article, and here’s an excerpt:

The courtroom is thought to be a site of justice, but critics have pointed out that justice often lies beyond the confines of law–that transitional justice, social justice, and a just memory can be attained not only in the courtroom but in  everyday public life. As Giorgio Agamben once claimed, “law is not directed towards the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth. Law is solely directed toward judgment.” The ICC case is arguably about judging Ongwen, regardless of what that judgment might mean. The LRA conflict is a good example, as Ongwen will likely be the only person to stand trial, and the four attacks for which he is charged are merely the ones with enough evidence to make it into court. This is shocking considering that the war has ravaged northern Uganda for the better part of three decades, resulting in thousands of killings and abductions and the displacement of millions at the hands of both the army and the rebels. The infamous rebel leader Joseph Kony is still in hiding; most other rebel commanders are dead or have been granted amnesty as part of a counterinsurgency demobilization effort. The Ugandan military has never been investigated for its role in the conflict. As such, Ongwen and the four attacks he is being tried for bear the weight of the quest for justice for countless victims of untold violations.

International criminal law has little room to acknowledge Ongwen’s unique position as both a war criminal and as the victim of war crimes. He himself was abducted as a child and forced into the rebel army in the late 1980s. Charged with the very crimes of which he was a victim, Ongwen’s personal history sheds light on the limits of international criminal justice in complicated situations like the war in northern Uganda. Ongwen has had to live his life in the context of everyday violence. His actions, whether he found himself reluctant or enthusiastic about the beatings, rapes, murders, and abductions he carried out or ordered, were shaped by this environment, making him what Erin Baines, professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, calls a “complex political perpetrator.” Growing up in such traumatic times, how does one pursue a moral life? And to what extent is one held responsible for failure in that pursuit? While admitting that “the evidence of many of the child victims in this case could, in other circumstances, be the story of the accused himself,” Chief Prosecutor Bensouda argued that “having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification or an excuse to victimize others.”

The uneasy act of prosecuting a victim-turned-perpetrator, and the continued failure to hold the Ugandan state accountable, are some of the reasons that justice here is seen as a fiction, or as justice only partially realized. For victims of other attacks–for victims of Ugandan state violence, and for victims in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo–justice still seems out of reach. The pursuit of justice, after all, is the quest to establish a fair and equitable society for all. In northern Uganda, where the president whose ascendancy provoked the LRA into existence is still in power thirty years later and increasingly authoritarian, there is little in the way of justice. The people of the other three countries have fared even worse, both in terms of justice and peace, as each state has seen numerous crises and wars in recent years. If, as anthropologist Kamari Clarke claims, “justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability,” then revealing the truth of what has happened in the war is as important as finding new ways for people to understand and reconcile with one another. This requires much more than a single trial.

Click on through to read the rest. Big props to the Warscapes team and the critical edits that got the piece out rather quickly. Ongwen’s trial will continue into the spring, so I’ll be keeping an eye out as everything moves forwards. I’m sure there will be more.

The Prosecutor vs. Dominic Ongwen

Today, the trial of Dominic Ongwen is continuing at the ICC. Opening statements were heard in early December, and the remainder of the trial, starting today, will be held throughout this spring. The case is an important one, both because it’s one of the earlier cases to be heard at the ICC, because it is the first (and potentially only) case to be heard regarding the LRA conflict, and because of the unique fact that Ongwen was kidnapped and forced to join the rebel group as a child about thirty years ago, making him a former child soldier being tried for crimes conducted while conscripted.

There will be a lot written about the trial as it happens and in its aftermath. I wrote about the Ongwen trial last year, focusing on the debate over whether he should stand trial or not, and I’m working on another piece now (update: here it is!). The blog Justice in Conflict also held an online symposium that includes some really good, short posts about different aspects of the case. And back in 2008 Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report about Ongwen and the complicated issue of victim-perpetrators that gets at some of the complexities involved [pdf]. It is the uniqueness of this case and the crucial debates around it that put it at the center of conversations about the ICC and the search for justice in the LRA conflict.

The case has been an interesting one so far. During the confirmation of charges hearings last January, the prosecution laid out its evidence for the case, comprised of numerous witnesses as well as the radio conversations of several LRA commanders, recorded by Ugandan security forces. The facts of the case will address four different attacks on IDP camps – at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok camps – as well as “thematic” crimes concerning sexual and gender-based crimes as well as crimes against children. All told, Ongwen faces seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, more than any other person. In the transcript of the opening day in December, the reading out of the charges took up seven pages.

The trial will produce a narrative about the conflict. How much this narrative follows the “official discourse” of the war that Sverker Finnström once laid remains to be seen. As Adam Branch notes, the presentations of the prosecution and defense during this preliminary stage of the trial at times followed this dominant narrative but at other times ruptured it. Over the course of this trial, an archive will be produced by the arguments, evidence, and testimonies. This archive has the potential to shape the broader way that the conflict is understood.

But the trial is just part of the way people will find justice in the aftermath of this conflict. Ongwen is but one man, and his trial will principally be about the four attacks he is accused of committing or ordering. This war has lasted thirty years and spanned four countries, including attacks by both the rebels and the state. There is a lot of accountability that has been deferred. But can a trial bring people justice?

“Law is not directed toward the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth,” Giorgio Agamben writes in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. “Law is solely directed toward judgment, independent of truth and justice” (18). The law is about trials, so international criminal law leads us to the ICC, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get closer to justice, especially if we are talking about something beyond criminal justice. Transitional justice requires changing the politics that led to the violence in the first place – but Uganda has seen little transition since 1986. Social and political justice requires reshaping society to address people’s grievances – but the more we focus on the trial of one man, the further we get from the reform necessary to prevent future outbreaks of violence. A just memory requires acknowledging the responsibilities of all parties involved, but much of the discourse around the LRA conflict still glosses over state violence and humanitarian complicity. Justice at the ICC may indeed be a good thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

If a trial is merely about judgment, and criminal justice becomes the only avenue through which the victims of the conflict can find justice, then we will be left at an impasse. Agamben, again, can be guide us here. In his discussion of the Nuremberg trials and the trials of Barbie, Eichmann, and others, he says that such judgments “are responsible for the conceptual confusion that, for decades, has made it impossible to think through Auschwitz. Despite the necessity of the trials and despite their evident insufficiency (they involved only a few hundred people), they helped to spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome” (19-20). The Ongwen trial will shed light on the specific attacks, victims, and witnesses, but much will not be acknowledged. What will become of those victims? Those perpetrators? Those memories?

As the trial begins, it will be important to pay attention to the narrative being created. It will also be important to not attach too much to this narrative, because it will inherently be insufficient. If the trial is a necessary part of fostering justice in Uganda and the international stage, it is also necessary to remember that it is not the only place where justice can be found.

Conflict after Peace? News from South Sudan

One of the paradoxes of studying insecurity and conflict is that, when your topic of research happens too much, you can’t actually do the research. Five days before my flight to Yambio, South Sudan, I just had to cancel the whole trip as news comes out about increased tension near Nzara (a nearby town and my other field sight) and the potential spread of violence. I’m unhappy about my research prospects, for sure, but really the news of renewed violence in this region is bad news for everyone there, especially as South Sudan stumbles towards what was supposed to be a peaceful resolution of its civil war. This and other news from South Sudan seems to also fit right into an increasingly frequent pattern of violence that comes after peace treaties are signed and disarmament begins.

* *

In the late 1980s, when unrest first began in northern Uganda, the government signed the Pece Agreement with the rebel UPDA forces (see Caroline Lamwaka’s report here [pdf]). Overtures had been made to include the Holy Spirit Movement groups (including what would eventually become Kony’s LRA), but in the end government forces attacked HSM before talks could begin, and the they were excluded from the Pece Agreement. As Lamwaka says, “the failure of these initiatives was to have lasting consequences. Fighters loyal to Kony resumed their raids on civilian and NRA targets” (31). While many of the UPDA soldiers were either disarmed or integrated into the national army, the LRA remained in the bush and at war. As Adam Branch notes [pdf], “Kony stepped up attacks in reaction to his exclusion from the agreement. Setting a precedent that it has followed since, the Ugandan government had begun negotiations with Kony in early 1988, only to sabotage the talks at the key moment, provoking a outbreak of violence from Kony” (15). This cycle has repeated itself often, most recently in the 2008 Christmas Massacres that the LRA carried out in the Congo after failed peace talks and a government attack.

The LRA’s increased violence after being excluded from a peace process is not unique. Just in this region alone, rebels who have felt slighted by peace agreements, or armed groups who did not get an adequate share of the spoils after war, have turned to more war as the solution in Congo, CAR, and South Sudan. Several anthropologists and others have looked at how peace processes actually lead some actors directly to taking up arms again or reconstituting themselves as an armed group to gain legitimacy at the table.

Even after the peace treaty is signed and demobilization programs get implemented, things aren’t guaranteed to work. Danny Hoffman has described the labor that goes into being or seeming violent in order to claim participation in DDR (Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration) schemes in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the conclusion to their edited volume on Central African Republic, Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis briefly describe the failures of DDR programs in a place where the state has never had a monopoly on violence and self-defense groups, while predatory, can also at times be a line of protection. Lombard’s forthcoming book promises to delve even further into these processes.

* *

The peace agreement signed recently between the SPLA and the rebel SPLA-IO in South Sudan has given many some hope for some semblance of a way forward to peace, but it’s a rough road, and not everyone’s on it. Last week, news came of large-scale violence in Wau, where an alleged new rebel group killed 43 people, mostly civilians. Apparently, the peace agreement did not address the grievances of these groups – or perhaps even exacerbated them. If reports are to be believed, the new group includes a motley combination of former government soldiers, LRA, and Janjaweed militia fighters – all of whom likely have unique, localized reasons for taking up arms, but have perhaps consolidated or collaborated in order to effectively threaten the state. Sometimes peace deals bring some people together, but not all, and those left out turn to violence, or those who see the spoils of a peace agreement want to take a share as well.

The southwestern part of South Sudan that I am trying to do research in largely kept out of the civil war that wreaked so much destruction and tragedy in the country for the last two years. But, since the initial peace agreement was reached in August, violence has flared up in Western Equatoria State in a manner that runs tangential, but connected, to the national civil war. This International Crisis Group report highlights the predicament that fighters in the area find themselves in:

Though they were not then a battleground, South Sudan’s civil war created the conditions for new conflicts in the Equatorias. After fighting broke out in December 2013, old suspicions about Western Equatorians’ commitment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) seemed vindicated, as the region struggled to meet a government recruitment quota, and many sought to keep out of what they saw as a “Dinka-Nuer war”…. Determinations over whether Equatorian armed groups are eligible to join the ARCSS cantonment process [part of the peace agreement DDR program] as “forces previously in combat” at the time of signing have been complicated by the warring parties. The SPLM/A-IO has claimed the Equatorian rebel groups and operations as their own, though they sometimes have not been. The government denies the SPLA-IO is active in the region, which would make Equatorian combatants ineligible for the cantonment, but some still allege SPLA-IO ceasefire violations in the Equatorias. Mutual obfuscation is compounded by the failure of ceasefire mechanisms to investigate peace agreement breaches in a timely fashion and identify armed groups’ relationships to the SPLA-IO. Failure to find a solution for forces which joined the fighting after the agreement was signed in August 2015 could lead to continued combat, a rift within the SPLA-IO and decisions by forces not deemed eligible to continue to fight in response.

After several months of fighting, this spring I got word that I might be able to do fieldwork in this region as things had calmed down. But, as the fighting had occurred largely after the August peace agreement was signed, many of the armed actors in the region have now been excluded from the benefits of peace. In turn, some of them seem to have taken up arms again, with additional grievances.

While unrelated, the potential uptick in violence near Nzara and the killings in Wau may be derived from the same peace process which failed to account for violence at the margins of the war. In an effort to stake their claim that they are to be reckoned with, some of these actors have continued war. Here, Louisa Lombard’s other work, on threat economies and armed conservation efforts, provides a useful analytic. “Threats and confrontations can be a useful means to position oneself,” she says (221), and this applies to armed anti-poaching efforts as well as rebellion. “The rebels who emerged in CAR over the last decade have mostly sought not to unseat the president but to threaten him or her enough to force concessions and be included in largesse in new ways. Rebellion violence is more visible than that of armed conservation, but it relies on the same threat and hiding encounters, and the same claim to entitlements and an income” (224).

As South Sudan attempts to navigate its way out of civil war, it has left behind a string of armed actors that were excluded or otherwise marginalized from the path to peace. This has already had negative consequences in different parts of the country, but only time will tell just how far these consequences will reach.

“We do this for peace”: Former Rebels on the Air

A lot of questions remain about the shooting in Gulu town two weeks ago. Unnamed attackers fired on the central police station in town on the 12th, about a month after a group raided a local defense unit outpost in Opit, a small village in the district. Things have been quiet ever since, but the attack left lingering worries about insecurity and concerns about whether the attackers were a new rebel group or criminals. The government’s narrative is that it is mere banditry, a group of criminals trying to free an opposition politicians who was jailed there. Some news circulated of a new group claiming responsibility. Again, it’s all unconfirmed guesswork for many people watching.

For their part, many former LRA commanders have been proactive in denouncing violence. In the weeks since the attack, several of them have taken to the airwaves to speak against violence. This week alone, several have been on the radio more than once. Monday, for instance, several well-known former commanders were featured on the radio speaking about the attack.

The former LRA field commander “Maj. General” Caesar Acellam, says it is very unfortunate that former LRA fighters are being named as those who were behind the recent attacks on Opit army detach and the Gulu Central Police Station.

Speaking over a local radio station on Monday evening, Acellam said the attacks has led to a rise in sentiments against LRA fighters… Acellam cautioned former LRA fighters against being lured into rebellion saying it will drag the region into anarchy.

[…]

“Brig” Kenneth Banya, also a former senior LRA commander, in the same radio programme urged former LRA fighters already reintegrated into their respective communities to resist the influence of those who want them to carry arms and fight the government.

I recently spoke with a returned LRA fighter who also took part in one of these recent radio broadcasts. He expressed concern that these recent attacks might be used to try to “provoke” former LRA fighters to “mobilize,” and that their presence on the radio was to help oppose armed conflict. “We do these interviews for peace,” he said. “We wasted our time in the bush, without education; we want a better future for our children.”

These radio broadcasts have a lot in common – not least of which are the stations, presenters, and guests involved – with the come home radio programs that I’ve studied in the past. Using former rebel voices to speak against violence is a frequent occurrence on the airwaves here. Even though war left northern Uganda a decade ago, insecurity looms – these incidents are just the most recent examples (here are some older ones). Radio messages pertaining to bringing LRA fighters home continue, and get relayed in central Africa where those rebels remain. But locally, the program continues within different contexts – with former rebels coming together to speak out against violence, in an effort to stave off war, but also demonstrate their commitment to peace after having been in the bush for much of their lives.

Demobilization as Defection, and Other Thoughts on Blurring Categories in Conflict

A big chunk of my MA thesis was on radio demobilization projects in the LRA conflict (shameless self-promotion: new [gated] article about it in ASR!), and I’m hoping to do some more work on it this summer as I sort out my next project (The Dissertation). A common theme that came up throughout my research – both in the field and in looking over documents and videos from groups working in the region – was the frequent blurring of different categories. I’ll illustrate by thinking my way through and around this recent article in the Daily Beast, “Joseph Kony’s Former Bodyguards Are Now Helping US Troops Hunt Him” by Kevin Maurer.

The article is centered around a recent incident in which LRA leader Joseph Kony’s guards fired on his house before escaping to a distant U.S. base where they surrendered, and since then they have been assisting the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts. This incident is definitely worth talking about – as several interviewees note in the article, this is an incredibly bold move by the abductees, and it only reinforces the continuing story that the LRA is shrinking and its command structure collapsing – but beyond just this incident and even beyond this article, I want to tease out some of the blurring that’s happening in the conflict and in how it gets represented.

Blurring Demobilization with Defection

The first thing worth lingering on is something frequent in how several people talk about the conflict – the conflation of demobilization with “defection.” The radio program is, at its heart, a demobilization campaign. Messages encourage rebels to surrender, to go home, to reintegrate into their communities, to receive amnesty, to give up on war. It is different from most DDR programs in that it is not post-conflict, nor is it en masse, but it is a demobilization campaign nonetheless. But, starting in 2011, some began to call this program and this process “defection.” In my thesis I tied this to a broader shift in linguistic and programmatic practices that signaled the militarization of humanitarianism:

LRA who escaped and turned themselves over to be reintegrated were no longer just “returnees,” but also became known as “defectors.” The leaflets that MONUSCO had been dropping became “defection fliers,” and come home messaging also gained the moniker “defection messaging.” This more militaristic jargon seems to serve little purpose except to align Invisible Children closer with its narrative as forming an “army of peace.” By 2013, there was even a department within Invisible Children called “Counter LRA Initiatives.”

[…]

This latest shift in discourse, paired by a shift in programming on the ground in the region, puts Invisible Children on new terrain. Where most NGOs operate in a place of aid and development, they rarely endorse military action or engage in collaborations with military forces. Even in Uganda, where humanitarian organizations were complicit in the government’s violent displacement policy (Branch 2008 [pdf]), NGOs did not endorse military action nearly as explicitly as Invisible Children has. By using an early warning network that relies on FARDC, assisting the UPDF and U.S. army advisers in establishing a military presence in the region, and using come home messaging as an effort to disrupt LRA activity, Invisible Children has moved into uncharted territory in its contribution to the militarization of humanitarianism. Quoted in a recent news article, the organization’s Program Manager for Counter-LRA Initiatives Sean Poole stated that “Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides” (Gonzales 2014).

I think an aspect of this linguistic shift is creeping militarism in humanitarianism, writ large – a problem bigger than Invisible Children or the LRA conflict, but rather a part of the post-9/11 securitization of (Western?) society. But, linguistic analysis and militarization critique aside, the fact of the matter is that some of the former LRA fighters who come out of the bush do actually help counter-LRA forces, effectively defecting to the other side in this conflict. Defection is happening. I don’t think that negates my argument, which has to do more broadly with humanitarianism, militarization, and ways of speaking and thinking.

Still, the linguistic practices are still doing a lot of work in Maurer’s article. When Maurer refer to these former child soldiers who have demobilized as “defectors,” the logical point of progression is that they will assist the U.S. in helping track Kony – that’s what a defector would do. If we started by calling them returnees or formerly abducted child soldiers, we might have a different perspective; maybe we would stop and wonder whether they should still be engaged in warfare at all, regardless of which side.

Blurring Child Soldiers with Soldiers

I do think that the presence of actual defectors is worth staying with for a bit, because it raises a lot of questions. In Maurer’s article, he focuses on the “Kony 7” – seven bodyguards who turned on Kony, tried to kill him, and fled to escape LRA captivity. They have since joined up with counter-LRA operations and are helping the U.S. Special Forces pursue Kony. In the article, Maurer notes that “Roland [one of the returnees] is now over 18 years old, as are his fellow Kony 7 members, Alex and Simon… The former bodyguards already completed reintegration training in Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda, and were looking forward to starting a new life. But first they wanted to help the Americans free their comrades.”

If they’re going to help the U.S. fight, it’s good that they’re over 18 (child soldier laws, after all!) – but it’s not like the second you turn 18, years of abuse and trauma go away. Should these former child soldiers really be continuing to carry out war? (Again, if we start with calling them “defectors,” the answer is a more quick yes than if we start with “former abductee.”) In an article on military humanitarianism, Sverker Finnström explains that:

The American military intervention, promoted by Invisible Children as essential to any solution, has itself been described by a US army officer on the ground this way: “These ex-LRA guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to reintegrate,” he said to the New York Times. “But one thing they are very good at is hunting human beings in the woods” (10 April 2010). With a statement like this in mind, we ought to be more uncomfortable than ever with President Obama’s waiving of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for some of the very countries where the LRA is active.

The use of former child soldiers to help track Kony has been happening for a long time now, but should it? Does completing reintegration training do anything if you immediately head back into the bush with a gun, just under a different flag? Is that really reintegration? What does it mean to demobilize if you stay in a state of war? Is that really demobilization? Will these child-soldiers-turned-soldiers ever truly disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate?

The use of former LRA to go back into the bush where they spent recent years might have negative consequences for the returnees themselves, but it also feeds into other forces at play. How do victims of LRA violence feel, knowing that former LRA fighters are now coming back as counter-LRA fighters? When I was taking a break from interviews in northeastern Congo, one of the men I was with accused the UN of helping the LRA. Another interviewee told me that one of the issues the radio demobilization programming ran into was that locals that it was actually a coded message the Ugandan military used to coordinate with the LRA to attack civilians. Does actually using former LRA fighters do anything but exacerbate such beliefs?

Blurring Forms of Accountability

In the same instance, it’s worth noting that employing (deploying?) former child soldiers as soldiers pulls us away from the question of accountability. There’s a lot of ongoing debate over whether child soldiers – particularly ones that grow up to become adults and therefore legally responsible for their actions – should be held accountable. Much ink has been spilled on the place of child soldiers in justice after atrocities, and the issue continues to be debated (most recently in this symposium and my article on ICC-indicted LRA returnee Dominic Ongwen). Even from the perspective of LRA victims, it is often debated [pdf].

Child soldiers can (and should) be seen as victims too. Sometimes that leads to sympathy or solidarity between different victims, sometimes that leads to a perceived hierarchy of victimhood, sometimes it gets rejected completely and people see child soldiers as perpetrators instead. Often this depends on how the individual is portrayed – some get more sympathy than others.

When child soldiers grow into adult rebels, this gets murky enough. When the now-adult abductee rebels surrender and then take up arms as former abductee, former child soldier, now state soldier, things get even messier. How should local civilians interpret their change of uniform? Part of the reason even adult abductees and former child soldiers can be seen as victims rather than perpetrators is that every decision they make is shaped by the environment they find themselves in, and therefore the level of accountability or responsibility might change. For returnees who may not be able to imagine life after war, is choosing to switch sides rather than disarm still a decision in a wartime environment and a wartime mentality?

Blurring Returnee Experiences

And on the subject of accountability, there’s a lot of justice, accountability, and amnesty discussion absent from this article (either for space or because it didn’t really fit the narrative). In heralding the successes of radio demobilization programs, Maurer notes that:

One of [the] highest profile defectors was LRA commander Dominic Ongwen. He surrendered in January 2015. He was one of five high-ranking LRA officers indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. After Ongwen’s defection, military officials had him record a message urging his fighters to defect. The U.S. soldiers said many of the defectors said hearing Ongwen or other defectors on the radio convinced them it was safe to leave Kony.

“We try and let them know what is available to them,” the soldier said.

[Brownyn] Bruton [of the Atlantic Council] said there is some indication that LRA fighters listen to the radio and get the leaflets. The promise of amnesty is tempting.

“The people who go get amnesty, that is not a small thing,” she said. “To be able to wipe the slate clean, that is a very tempting offer.”

But Ongwen wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. He received no amnesty. He demobilized and then was arrested and is now on trial. Ongwen might be an example of the success of the radio come home messaging, but to say that he defected – and then to equate that with amnesty – glosses over a lot of detail. It makes demobilization programming explicitly counter-LRA and a tool for fighting rather than a tool for not-fighting, a tool for demobilization. It also obscures the fact that Ongwen was sent to The Hague and has now been charged with more war crimes than anyone in history, surprising for a child soldier (again, see the JiC symposium or my Warscapes piece for more).

On the ground in the LRA conflict, returnee experiences are in the plural. Some returnees were never abducted, though most were. Some returnees received amnesty, while many enjoy freedom (or impunity, depending on how you look at it) but without official documentation. Two men are actually in jail cells, one in The Hague and the other in Uganda, both pending controversial trials. Many reintegrate into their old homes, some reintegrate into the army, some don’t reintegrate at all and move away to escape ostracism. Much of the literature on the LRA sees one process, but there are many, many ways that demobilization and reintegration occur. Blurring these together obscures that, and blurring them into defection obscures even more.

Blurring Agency

But, in this very blog post I’m also blurring some representations of the actors involved. Child soldiers, inherently through the act of abduction and conscription, lack a certain level of agency in the legal sense, but also in scholarly and journalistic and humanitarian discourse. A lot of the back and forth in discussing the actions of abductees (and, me above, returnees) is shaped by this refusal to grant/recognize agency. But former child soldiers (or even active child soldiers) can be said to make their own decisions – decisions structured by the violent circumstances they find themselves in, of course, but decisions nonetheless.

The question remains whether, upon demobilization, taking up arms against the LRA is a decision shaped by structures of conflict or structures of post-conflict. Some post-conflict agreements include not necessarily demobilization but reintegration into the national army, after all. Is that what’s happening for these fighters? It’s not clear how long they will continue to act as soldiers, or if they’re role in helping Uganda and the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts may end up taking them as AMISOM soldiers in Somalia or as riot police to Kampala or contractors in Baghdad.

So, my own hesitation against turning demobilization into defection and turning former child soldiers into soldiers also steals away a certain agency for these individuals. Child soldiers could become soldiers, and they could defect. Who is to say they can’t take up arms? Can former LRA returnees still desire regime change in Uganda at the barrel of a gun? Can they desire to end the LRA once and for all, even if it means staying in the bush a little longer to help the U.S.?

Questions of agency in wartime are hard ones to answer, but they are questions worth asking again and again. But, in asking them, I’m trying to avoid blurring different categories together. As this erasure keeps happening, language and representation obfuscate what’s happening on the ground. In doing so, we may be closing off possibilities and asking the wrong questions.

Shameless Self-Promotion: at Warscapes

Short post to link you all to a new piece I have up at Warscapes: “Dominic Ongwen and the Search for Justice.” The article focuses on Dominic Ongwen, an LRA abductee-turned-commander who sat before the ICC’s confirmation of charges in January. I explore his particular case, but also look at the ICC’s broader intervention in the LRA conflict, and how it has narrowed the popular understanding of what types of justice are possible and for whom. You should read the whole thing (please!) but here’s a preview:

When Dominic Ongwen stood before the International Criminal Court on January 21, he confronted  a team of prosecutors and judges presenting a list of his alleged war crimes.  After spending years as a brigade commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen was no longer outfitted in rebel attire, but stood in a gray suit and tie, listening to the proceedings as they were translated into his native Acholi language. He waived the right to have each of the charges against him read aloud in court, so the presiding judge, Cuno Tarfusser, summarized the seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

When Ongwen was first taken into custody last January, major rights groups heralded his capture as an important step towards justice. Amnesty International argued that “Ongwen now needs to be held to account for the numerous charges he faces of murder, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers and use of sex slaves.” Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, called Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague “a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes.” This was a sign of progress in the ICC’s first case, which was opened in 2004 and has otherwise seen little development.

But while Western rights groups were nearly unanimous in supporting Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC, the mood among Ugandans was decidedly mixed—even among victims of LRA violence. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative issued apress release regretting that Ongwen had been sent to the ICC, arguing instead for him to be brought home and forgiven through traditional reconciliation ceremonies. The statement said that the ICC, “which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides” of the conflict. Around the same time, Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project facilitated a dialogue of local leaders in Gulu, a town that was at the center of the conflict for many years. A report on the discussion found that attitudes among the Acholi people were complicated and support for Ongwen’s arrest was far from universal.

What are elections for, anyways?

There are several countries in Africa that are holding elections amidst some pretty tense circumstances. In Burkina Faso, after a popular revolt ousted long-time President Blaise Campaoré and then an attempted military coup put a brief hiccup in elections, voters went to the polls just a couple of weeks ago. Burundi has descended into violence amidst efforts by President Pierre Nkurunziza to overstay his welcome and run for a third term, with similar “constitutional coups” being attempted in Rwanda, the D.R. Congo, and other states, and similar efforts are practically routine in Uganda (where Yoweri Museveni will be moving into the 30+ Years of Rule Club with elections in April) and still others.

In many parts of the world, elections become perennial points from which both popular organizing and protest as well as intense violence and repression emerge. The Burkinabè were able to use Campaoré’s attempts to change the constitution to instead be the cause of his downfall. Burundians tried this but have since been caught in a prolonged struggle over the future of their country. Elections can be points of radical change, but they can also  be events that put the official seal on the status quo or sites of intense state violence.

Amidst this kaleidoscope of possibilities, the electoral landscape also includes the Central African Republic, where elections are scheduled to move the country from a transitional government to a newer, more “legitimate” one. Though the actual reasons for holding elections in the middle of what can only be described as a heap of turmoil raises the question: why?

In a recent post at the Monkey Cage, Haley Swedlund tackles the question of “Why donors demand immediate elections after unrest in developing countries.” She highlights a number of theories pointing out that quickly pushing through elections actually stymies the democratization process, but she argues that donors need some semblance of stability in order to carry out basic aid projects. She points out that “decision-making is often driven by the functional needs of particular agencies, rather than a sound assessment of the political situation in the recipient country. With only limited funding available, this pattern of behavior means that more fundamental democratic reforms are often sidelined in favor of the ballot box.” In other words, donors want elections not to encourage democratization or because elections could show a peaceful transition, but to serve their self-interests.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel at the United States Institute of Peace about the ongoing instability in Central African Republic. The event centered around a new book edited by Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis about CAR (which I’m reading now!), and the role of elections was a hot topic during the conversation (a full video of the panel is available here).

CAR has seen shocking episodes of violence over the last few years as rebellion led to a cycle of reprisal attacks that immersed both the countryside and Bangui in violence. During the panel, Roland Marchal argued that we need to reflect more on the types of solutions we offer to the current conflict. He listed several core issues facing the Central African people, including abuse by the state, arbitrary enforcement of the law based on religion, and said that “these are the questions that have to be discussed and it is not organizing elections that is going to provide answers.”

Faouzi Kilembe pointed out three key problems: the question of identity in CAR (and who can vote), the question of logistics and how to prepare to hold elections, and the question of security and how to hold elections in the current situation of insecurity. Two very important points he raised are that no matter the outcome, the results will be contested (likely violently) by one party or another, and he asks what miracles the newly elected government will be able to achieve that the transitional government cannot. Similar questions arise in William Clowes’ piece at the African Arguments blog about whether elections will make things worse rather than better.

When asked to respond to Kilembe’s statements at the panel, Laurence Wohlers argued for holding elections because logistics aren’t going to improve, the question of legitimacy won’t be solved by waiting, and the transition needs to end in order to place power in a government entity beyond international community, which leads him to say that “we have to have an election that is admittedly not going to be a good one.” He focused most of his response on what to do after, including a long list of post-conflict reforms. Marchal disagreed, stating that questions of accountability, religious discrimination, demobilization, go unanswered even though the international community has money for such interventions, because “the international community doesn’t do it, not because it’s bad, not because it’s ignorant, but because it’s busy on the election.” Later, Marchal pointed out that the urgency for elections by the international community don’t necessarily resonate for people who haven’t participated in a free and fair election in decades. Carayannis notes at the end that the timing of elections is tied to France’s desire for an exit strategy, stating that “we need elections tied to what’s actually happening in CAR, not what’s happening in Paris.”

The international community wants elections, partially because elections are what signal “post-conflict” status and, thus, act as a sunset provision on the French intervention there, regardless of actual improvement of the situation on the ground. As Lombard mentions in a different panel on elections in CAR, the international community “tend[s] to think in terms of ‘well, these are the Central Africans’ elections, they’re elections for the Central African Republic… and we’re just helping” but at the same time “there would be no elections if it weren’t for all of these different kinds of international players who were involved in all of this. These are our elections too.” Circling back to Haley Swedlund’s point – elections are demanded due to international community’s interests no matter what is going on in the actual country of concern.

The first round of elections occurred on December 30th amid relatively little violence, and the results will be announced soon. The voting was lauded as an “undeniable success,” but that won’t actually be known until the results are announced, the run-off is held, and whether the new government can successfully move the country forwards through the present insecurity.

Burundi’s Descent

Quick post with links on Burundi, where things have steadily gotten worse all year but may be descending even more quickly with a recent spike in violence.

Here’s Ty McCormick at Foreign Policy on recent armed attacks on military bases, and what it means for the broader political situation in Burundi. A month ago Kate Cronin-Furman and Michael Broache noted that the violence in Burundi is a political conflict, trying to steer conversation in that direction. However, as Cara Jones notes, the discourse around the conflict is changing form, and may be sign of increasing ethnic conflict:

Since the outbreak of protests against Nkurunziza’s third term, both government and opposition have used ethnicized rhetoric… The government uses ethnic rhetoric presumably to signal to the opposition the potential violence that could come their way and incite citizens to participate in violence. The opposition uses ethnicized rhetoric to push for international intervention, which has the potential of changing the makeup of government.

More concerning than the rhetoric, however, are the ethnic patterns of violence that appear to be emerging. There are reports, for example, that security forces have targeted protesters in Tutsi minority-heavy districts of Bujumbura. These individuals have been arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of violence. Weekend violence resulted in at least 87 deaths, and witness statements and information on victims’ ethnicity strongly suggest that many of the victims were disproportionately Tutsi.

Refugees International published a report [pdf] that Burundian refugees are being recruited in refugee camps in Rwanda, with negative consequences for all of the refugees involved.

In a piece at Blank Spot Project, journalist Anna Roxvall tells several stories from Burundi over the last few months. The article includes several vignettes that demonstrate the heightened levels of violence that people are enduring. This is just one excerpt (including references to murder and rape):

The water in the Kinyankonge River runs, dirt-brown, down its furrow. A few young men have set up a make-shift bar on a slope and play an edgy Afrobeat through cracked speakers. It’s hot.

This neighborhood along the river is called Mutakura and is the area where the biggest protests against the government raged this spring. Many young men were killed during the clashes there, which is considered the seat of the opposition by police and the government.

”This place used to be bustling with people who came for the clay to make bricks,” says 22-year-old Alain, balancing on the porous river bank.

Nowadays, nobody dares to begin new construction. In the ongoing conflict, the river has turned into a no-name graveyard. In the morning, the people who live here find corpses that have been dumped under the cover of the dark.

”It’s usually not people from here, so I think it’s people who have ’disappeared’ from other parts of the city,” Alain says.

The corpses are mostly men, but one time there was a woman. Someone had violated her with a stick.

Alice, who is 27, also found a dead body here two weeks ago.”It was impossible to see who it was, he was back-tied and had a rice bag over his head,” she says.

We stand there and consider the plastic bags, trash and old shoes that are swirled around and getting stuck on the river bottom. Alice puts her arm around a little girl who has joined us and then makes an irritated gesture toward the mess in the river.

”This affects our children very much. How are they supposed to be able to focus on their education if they find dead bodies on their way to school?”

Update – Dec. 15: Ty McCormick published a follow-up report on the state oppression that followed the armed attack on military bases. While the attacks did happen, a majority of those killed by security forces afterwards were not involved, but were the victims of state revenge.