Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

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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.

The High Costs of Microcredit

I’m in two seminars this semester – Anthropology of Development, and Capitalism and Neoliberalism – which often overlap in, as you can imagine, some pretty depressing and enraging ways. From the complicity of NGOs in reinforcing the social networks in Rwanda that were mobilized in the genocide to the ways that U.S. bases employ migrant workers in slave-like conditions [pdf], development and neoliberalism have their share of horror stories on their own, and it’s no surprise that the neoliberal mindset makes its way into the development apparatus.

In my class on development, one of the ethnographies we read was Aminur Rahman’s Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh, which outlines how microcredit programs such as the Grameen Bank actually send their clients into cycles of ever-increasing debt as interest mounts. In typical microcredit schemes, peer pressure acts as collateral as peers in microcredit groups ensure debt repayment in order to continue qualifying for loans. Other forms of pressure, from women of higher status trying to form lending circles or from husbands who want access to capital, also force women into the system and into debt in the first place. Rahman outlines how a program seeking to empower women by providing them with loans actually uses patriarchal mechanisms to enroll them and then ensure debt repayment at all costs.

One of many aspects of neoliberalism has been how people increasingly view things in neoliberal, economic terms that had previously been outside of the market. My class touched on a variety of these issues, one of which was the growing black market for kidneys, where the world’s poor are turning to sell organs in exchange for meager amounts of money and poor health while the wealthy jump over everyone waiting on a donor list, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ work to try to document and stop it. As this trade continues, the poor who are scammed into selling a kidney (or who do so out of desperation) wind up with poor health, little money to show for their troubles, and sometimes the stigma of having sold a kidney.

These two specific topics came together in a recent episode of Vice. Featuring anthropologists Scott Carney and Monir Monirauzzaman, the second half of the episode focuses on the kidney trade in Bangladesh, where there are many towns or even families where numerous people have sold kidneys to get by (the first segment, on LBGT rights in Uganda, is also worth watching). The segment, titled “Kidneyville,” features interviews with some the residents of the town of Kalai who have sold kidneys out of desperation. And here’s the connection:

We weren’t surprised to find out that people regretted giving up their kidneys, but we were shocked to hear many say it was to pay off serious debts from microfinance loans which were given to them by local non-profit organizations.

“I took one loan,” one man says, “but that loan wasn’t fully repaid so I took another loan. I became deep in debt.” Another man describes how a non-profit literally took the roof from over his house since he was behind on payments. He then sold his kidney and then bought his roof back from the NGO. One woman describes how the NGO came after her when her husband killed himself because of his indebtedness.

Development programs that send people into debt in the name of helping them get out of poverty, instead committing them to debt cycles that lead them into another incredibly asymmetrical exchange. And selling a kidney still doesn’t get people out of debt to the microcredit groups, but it could cause health problems, making it harder for the poor to then find work and pay off what’s left of their debts.

On Sensitization and Safe Reporting Sites in LRA-Affected Regions

A few days ago, I tweeted a flurry of late-night thoughts on sensitization in LRA-affected areas that I’d like to flesh out further here. I should start by stating that, while the topic struck me with great interest while I was in the Congo this summer, I didn’t really get to do in-depth research on it, so this is really just brainstorming, or maybe a call for further research.

My research in Uganda and Congo centers around the use of radio. One such use is that of defection messaging: FM radio stations broadcast messages that encourage LRA rebels to surrender. These radio messages are accompanied by leaflets dropped via airplane and messages played over loudspeaker on helicopters. They are also accompanied by sensitization in LRA-affected communities.

When encouraging rebels to surrender, humanitarians/militaries/civil society actors also have to ensure that surrenders can happen successfully. This means sensitization: making sure that communities know that some LRA will (hopefully) try to surrender, that they will help facilitate that (by directing rebels to reception centers, not attacking rebels trying to surrender, etc.), and that people understand why facilitating surrenders is important.

But LRA fighters who surrender are not brought to justice. Acholi traditional leaders and civil society organizations have long-pushed for forgiveness and amnesty as a way to end the war. They pressured the Ugandan government into passing an amnesty law in 2000, and have worked closely with organizations in DRC and CAR to promote forgiveness for the LRA. This is largely because so many members of the LRA were forcibly conscripted, and are therefore both victims and perpetrators.

That’s where my research leaves off, and where another gap in the literature appears.

A potential starting question is, how effective are these sensitization programs? But this misses that gauging effectiveness in terms of compliance/acceptance might miss the dynamics of the sensitization process in the first place. Another question might be, how do Congolese understand and interpret the message these programs put forward? More fundamentally – what do these programs mean for the victims of the conflict?

It’s a lot to ask a victim of conflict to forgive his or her attacker, even if the perpetrator suffers too. When I was in the Congo, I talked to some people about this, and it was hard to get any real answers. On a long bus ride through Garamba, several people told me they would be willing to forgive the LRA if it meant the war would end. Some others suggested that the LRA should face some kind of justice, even if it wasn’t jail (maybe an acknowledgement of abuses, form of payment, etc.)

One example gets at why it’s so difficult to tease out the answers: one informant told me that he absolutely supported amnesty, citing an end to the suffering as well as Christian tenets of forgiveness. Later, my research assistant, who has known the informant for a long time, said that he thought he was lying to me. He had heard the informant talk about killing the next LRA that came through the town, about making the LRA pay for what they’ve done to the people.

It was tough to determine whether my informant had changed his mind or changed his story. Was he lying to me? And if he was, why? Did he think this was what I wanted to hear? Did he think that I was affiliated with groups performing these programs? Did he think he would get something out of it? I don’t know, but exploring this interaction – and others like it – is something I’ll be working on over the course of the next couple of months.

*   *   *

Many of the sensitization programs are implemented by Invisible Children and its partner organizations (a number of local NGOs and religious organizations have worked with IC in the region). There is definitely some Acholi influence at play as well, in addition to pressure from militaries to establish safe reporting sites to which rebels can go to surrender. These groups carry some weight in these communities, as they are actively working on ending the rebel group that preys on these people. This raises the question of how who says the message can change how the message is perceived.

The topic of safe reporting sites is particularly worth exploring. These communities have been asked to serve as a reception point for LRA who want to defect (blue diamonds on the map below). This does two things first and foremost: it allows the community to play a part in the effort to stop the LRA, and it makes the community a potential target to LRA retaliation. The LRA has a long history of retaliating against civilians for collaboration (real or perceived) with the government (see Branch). It’s a tough position: radio messages identify which communities defecting rebels should go to, helping facilitate surrenders, but they also make it clear which communities are collaborating with counter-LRA forces and should therefore be targeted should the LRA retaliate.

Again, the role of the organizations promoting these sites is important. Given their central position to counter-LRA activities, Invisible Children, the Ugandan military, and U.S. military are primary actors in supporting, implementing, and protecting reporting site communities. They also have a lot of leverage in some of these towns, as they provide either protection or development programs. So, when communities decide to participate, it is difficult to gauge just how supportive these communities are. Do they want to participate? Were they pressured into accepting reporting sites? Or were they simply convinced by the argument for participation?

In a report from Discover the Journey [pdf], a short passage is telling:

Each community said they would be willing to allow their community to become an intentional defection point. Of the research locations, all except Duru, DRC, have received previous sensitization around the defection/safe reporting site principles. (29)

The report takes this as affirmation that the sensitization programs are working. People are being convinced that this is the right way to go. And it very well might be – as I mentioned, not only will defection messaging help shrink the size and fighting capacity of the LRA, but these types of programs allow the local communities to be involved directly in the process. They could be given agency in being a part of the effort to stop the violence.

But they could also be denied agency if they feel pressured to agree. If a community is approached by the military or aid groups to participate – will they say no? Might it be implied that, by saying no to reporting sites, they say no to protection, aid, and rehabilitation? And if that’s the case – is that right or wrong? If it’s for the greater good (ending the LRA, supporting infrastructure, ensuring protection), maybe it’s worth it.

Again, these exploratory questions are based on a very, very small experience in working with these communities. Has anybody studied the defection sites in South Sudan or Central African Republic? Or has anybody worked on sensitization/implementation and want to shed some light on the process? I’d be curious to hear more about how these programs are working, how they were implemented, and local opinion on the matter.

Bad News and Good News from CAR

There has been a lot of bad news coming out of the Central African Republic as violence across the country has spiked. The Red Cross announced that almost 500 people had been killed just in Bangui. The French are already on the ground trying to mitigate violence, the U.S. is airlifting a Burundian force to the area, and the African Union is trying to beef up its presence there as well.

For those interested in understanding or examining the violence more, there are two things worth reading: Louisa Lombard wrote an insightful piece explaining whether or not the violence constitutes a genocide or genocide-in-the-making, as the French have claimed. International Crisis Group also has a report on the situation in CAR, as well as a short post on Bangui. Peter Bouckaert at Human Rights Watch wrote a dispatch detailing just one of the many incidents that have happened there.

With all of this bloodshed going on, it was uplifting to hear news of a large defection of LRA fighters in the east of the country. Separate from the anti-Balaka/ex-Seleka fighting (for the most part), the LRA has been active along the periphery of CAR. On December 6, a group of nineteen LRA fighters went to a small village west of Zemio and surrendered, agreeing to demobilize and return home.

According to Invisible Children, the group decided to surrender after hearing a number of radio programs that promoted surrender and defection. This is a big boost to the defection messaging program, and also a small glimmer of hope in a country that’s going through a pretty rough time right now.

What Invisible Children is Doing Right: Protection and Knowledge

In case you haven’t read my last dozen posts about Invisible Children, we’ve been having a very back-and-forth relationship for the last few years. On Saturday, I joked that, if we were on Facebook, our relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” That’s because, at the time, I was waxing nostalgic about how much of an impact Invisible Children has had, both in my life and in the lives of the Acholi people that benefit from their development programs, while I was simultaneously typing up this recent post on how Invisible Children and Samantha Power both advocated for military intervention that might be making things worse.

This love-hate thing I’ve got going on runs deep, and it’s because Invisible Children does a lot of work. Like, a lot of work. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. And in the past seven years I’ve seen a lot of their work first hand. As you know, my thesis is on radio’s role in the LRA, but while I was in the DRC I also caught a glimpse at some other aspects of IC’s work in LRA-affected areas that I’m still digesting. Here are some roughly hewn thoughts on Invisible Children’s work in the region:

The LRA Crisis Tracker, a joint operation run by Invisible Children and the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, tracks LRA incidents and is just one part of a network that includes the radio stations I studied, local military attaches in villages, and aid organizations operating in the area. This network is part of a broad effort to track LRA movements, coordinate military responses to the LRA presence, and facilitate aid to those in need. Whether or not it works is a whole other story, as several aid agencies have closed up their Dungu offices, the FRDC military attaches frequently choose not to engage with LRA forces, but do choose to intimidate, rob from, and attack the civilians they’re supposed to protect, and LRA tactics have rendered some of the advantages of the HF radio network obsolete.

But the effort to better understand the LRA has increased our knowledge of what the rebel group is doing by leaps and bounds. The Resolve’s most recent report [pdf] has included really essential research findings including the existence of intense divisions within the LRA leadership and identifying groups that want to defect. It also includes estimates of current LRA numbers, including composition of combatants versus non-combatants.

Some of my research on the HF radio network included some questions about the defection process. For a member of the LRA trying to surrender and come home, the process has traditionally included a debriefing with the UPDF [pdf, section 3.2]. This served to give the military up-to-date information about LRA activities from those with insider knowledge, but it also served as a tool for the UPDF to hold returnees longer than they were supposed to, sometimes in an attempt to forcibly recruit former LRA.

In the network that Invisible Children has helped create, debriefings have also occurred (although I don’t know how involved the military is, nor the type of support returnees have during their transition from LRA to home). The information gleaned from these interviews with recent returnees has shaped IC’s actions on the ground, directing flier drops and influencing the programming of radio messages. In the coming months IC is planning a large-scale defection messaging effort (funded through their current #ZeroLRA campaign)  including dropping leaflets about defection, flying helicopters with messages on speakers, and broadcasting messages over FM radio, all in targeted areas where LRA are known to be living, along with establishing safe reporting sites for defectors and providing comprehensive rehabilitation for them upon return. A lot of this has the potential to bring more LRA abductees home, and (hopefully) without relying too much on the military, a group historically responsible for more bad than good.

In addition, IC (and Resolve) are pushing for research to help piece together a clearer understanding of the LRA command structure. For a long time, most people only know the LRA leadership as far as the ICC indictments go. For the most part, many hadn’t heard of Caesar Acellam before he was captured. That’s slowly changing as IC supports efforts to find out who is in charge of the various LRA groups and what they are doing. Ledio Cakaj, one of the co-authors of Resolve’s report mentioned above, has written a paper about the LRA command structure that I’m eager to read in the coming months. IC’s staff in DRC and CAR are working on the same thing: building a clear picture of the LRA. This serves a lot of purposes. It will help in shaping radio programming that can target specific individuals with the potential to cause large-scale defections. It will serve as evidence in the event that those responsible for attacks are brought before courts to face justice. And it will help paint a clearer picture of where Kony and his two remaining ICC-indicted commanders are operating, helping direct efforts to bring them specifically to justice.

You can learn more in this interview with Adam Finck, IC’s International Programs Director. He sat down with a couple of IC staff during the Fourt Estate live stream this weekend, and he shed some light on LRA activity and how IC is responding, including several of the things I mentioned above. Broadly speaking, I think many of these efforts are solid steps towards protecting civilians in LRA-affected regions and hopefully an effective way to get us that much closer to ending this conflict.

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.

Catching Joseph Kony

This Monday, Invisible Children released its newest film – the thirty minute Kony 2012. I’ve been involved with IC since early 2007, and my relationship with them is almost always in flux – ranging from being inspired and truly believing in the work to being a critic of the trendy oversimplification. After helping Resolve and the Enough Project gain support for the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010, IC has embarked on a new mission of trying to effectively end the war in 2012, with this video as a part of the broader campaign.  The video is centered on Jason Russell, one of the founders of Invisible Children, explaining Joseph Kony, the war criminal in charge of the LRA, to his son.  The take-away from the video is that the goal of the next two months is to teach people who Kony is, thus leading to more change and ultimately his capture.

Through most of Monday evening Facebook and Twitter were slowly ramping up in my world. I have met scores of people in my work on the issue, and many of my friends are on the staff at IC, so the hubbub was expected.  By Tuesday afternoon, some staff members were tweeting that, in the first 24 hours, the video had been viewed 800,000 times. Late Tuesday evening, the campaign took up six of the top ten trending topics on Twitter, and “Kony” and “#KONY2012” accounted for 3-4% of all tweets.

The last 24 hours (checked at 7:45am, MST today) of Twitter traffic, from trendistic.

Like many who are aware of the crisis in central-east Africa, I would love to see Joseph Kony brought to justice as soon as possible. Kony is the leader of a highly centralized rebel group comprised of abducted fighters – some of them children. Kony is among the first criminals indicted by the International Criminal Court, and his arrest would go a long ways towards ending the Lord’s Resistance Army as we know it and reinforcing an essential international institution like the Court.

”]As I mentioned, I’ve been a supporter of varying tenacity, and I have disagreed with Invisible Children here and there over the years. I support many of their programs on the ground in the region – granting scholarships for students to attend rebuild schools, teaching displaced people employment skills, and building a radio warning system among them – and am one of the many that first got involved in human rights and activism through their work here in the States. I’ve always felt that there is a huge disconnect between the great work being done in the region and the simplistic, sexy, and purely PR work Stateside, which is a shame. I’m not as much of a critic as others, but I do have a few qualms with the current campaign that’s launching right now.

Invisible Children continues to oversimplify the message of how to get rid of Kony. I understand that advocacy groups need to take really complex problems and boil them down so that it can be disseminated among supporters. As the movement grows, however, the leaders should be better educating their followers.  Being involved for five years, I have yet to see IC expand on its very simplistic history of the war, which is critical to understanding how best to approach ending it.

Something needs to be said about the narrative that IC creates, but I’ll leave that to everyone else.  IC has been running programs in northern Uganda for several years – ineptly at first but more recently they operate like any other aid organization there. Meanwhile, their PR campaigns in the States aim to address the LRA, who left Uganda – which has been in relative peace and experiencing slow recovery – in 2006. The videos blur the lines between the countries, and simplify everything to Kony roaming Africa abducting kids. That’s not to mention that there is no evidence of the 30,000 children figure endlessly repeated by IC and other NGOs, and no discussion of how to define abduction (which is important, since some are forced to help transport supplies before being set free, while others are forced to kill their own family members before being conscripted for life). The story IC creates will drive policy, and it needs to ensure that we have a dialog about the peace-justice debate, the accountability of the Ugandan military, and ways to move forwards without losing momentum.

IC’s campaign for the next two months is heavy on awareness. We supporters are to tell all of our friends and put posters everywhere, and then write messages to 20 cultural leaders (who control public discourse) and 12 political leaders (who are involved with real change). This build up is to April 20th, when we’re supposed to plaster our cities in Kony 2012 posters to “make him famous.” There is footage of “Kony 2012” – to make him as popular as possible – a sort of Public Enemy #1.

When I first got involved with IC, I attended an event that included learning about displacement camps in northern Uganda – an eye-opening experience that really pushed me to start a student organization in college. This year’s big event is to put up posters. This is all in the name of garnering more name recognition for Kony to make him (in)famous, but when you get the most bipartisan congressional support for any Africa-related bill in history and you claim hundreds of thousands of youth support you, you’ve gotten the word out. Claiming that nobody knows about Kony (the video says “99% of people” have never heard of him), is absurd. There is enough attention that we can move from awareness to action now. It’s time to pursue real change – front and center. E-mailing the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should not just be a side-note to hanging up flags and tweeting at Oprah, who is probably sick of IC distracting her from her work in South Africa anyways.

As Daniel Solomon notes (and you should definitely read his post), if people are tweeting at me to watch the video and aren’t reading the ICG report to learn more, then a vital part of the campaign has missed the mark. Mark Kersten also calls out the campaign in a post you should read, and here’s a critique of “crowd-sourced intervention.”

After six years of building a massive youth-led base in America – including raising millions of dollars in record time and directing masses of young people – we have passed the deadline for moving forwards. In the film, IC tells us the Kony 2012 campaign expires at the end of the year – a movement has an expiration date alright, and it’s important to freshen up the whole IC movement.

Update: The list of related links has moved to a new post, as it continues to grow.