Congo Election News Roundup

Since I was here in the Congo during the election, I thought I’d go ahead and put together a roundup of sorts for those following.

Here’s some context. Joseph Kabila’s second term as president was supposed to end in December of 2016. If elections had been held and a new president taken power, it would have been the first relatively peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. Instead, though, and following a trend of “constitutional coups” across Africa, Kabila tried to pull a Museveni-Kagame-Nguesso and change the law in order to run again. He faced widespread protests and ultimately failed to do this, so instead he simply delayed the elections, securing the ability to stay in power until a successor was chosen despite the end of his mandate. Every delay is another act of glissement, or slippage, in Congolese parlance.

Alongside the delays, several leading opposition figures were also deemed ineligible to run. After attempts by the opposition to consolidate behind one candidate (an effort which succeeded for 24 hours), there emerged two: Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi were the major opponents to the regime’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary. In the final month leading up to the elections, the state violently suppressed the opposition at every turn, with reports of the recruiting youth to instigate violence at opposition rallies, the use of live bullets and tear gas to disperse rallies, the refusal by government officials to allow rallies to occur.

My first night in Congo, I watched TV while having dinner in an Aru hotel room. The leading story was that a large fire had damaged a majority of the voting machines in Kinshasa, the country’s capital. The voting machines were already a source of suspicion for many, but the burning of them was also suspicious, as many believed it was an attempt by the state to justify yet another delay. This only made matters worse for elections that have faced logistical problems, partially because CENI, the electoral commission, rejected any foreign assitance (see Laura Seay’s twitter thread about the difficulties of Congolese elections, with or without MONUC/MONUSCO assistance). In the end, CENI announced a one-week delay of the elections.

And then, in the intervening week, CENI announced that the vote would be further delayed until March in three locations—Beni and Butembo in North Kivu and Yumbi in Mai Ndombe—due to concerns around the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the former and insecurity in the latter. This decision effectively disenfranchised over a million people, all in opposition strongholds, and for reasons that didn’t pan out. As many pointed out, Ebola has been a persistent problem in North Kivu for months, but people continue to go to school, church, and markets, they could surely vote. In the following days, protests in North Kivu resulted in several deaths. As one friend here said, “C’est un provocation.”

Heading into the election, the Congo Research Group and BERCI released a major opinion poll about the vote. You can access the full report here [pdf], but the key takeaway is this:

If elections are free and fair, an opposition candidate would be almost certain to win the presidency. According to our survey, Martin Fayulu is clearly the favorite, with 47% (BERCI: 45%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 49%) of the intended vote, ahead of 24% for Felix Tshisekedi (BERCI: 28%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 20% ); and 19% (BERCI: 20%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 18%) for Emmanuel Shadary.

With two years of delays, denying several opposition candidates the chance to run, cracking down on popular mobilizations, and disenfranchising several opposition towns, the regime still faced massive rejections by the populace. It was obvious to both observers and Congolese that a free and fair vote would go to the opposition—the question was whether or not the elections would be rigged.

During election day, it quickly became apparent that the elections did indeed turn out to be a logistical nightmare—marred by technical failures with machines, people not showing up on voters rolls, and polling stations opening many hours late—as well as problem of the polls’ security—with reports of armed groups intimidating voters at multiple stations. In Beni, activists held a mock vote in an act of resistance to their disenfranchisement, demonstrating that a vote could be held without incident. When I took a tour around Dungu late that morning, I passed by three voting stations where people were queued and the situation was calm (I didn’t talk to anyone), though I did later hear of potential issues elsewhere in the province. In the days after the election, though, reports about election day began to get more complicated.

There were reports of “systemic irregularities, particularly missing or broken machines, missing or incomplete voter lists, late openings, long waits, restricted access for independent observers, interference by armed actors, and fraud.” The day after the election, the government shut down internet in most of the country, as well as SMS, to prevent “chaos.” On January 4, the Catholic Church, which had 40,000 observers at polling places across the country, issued a statement that, according to their observations, one candidate clearly won the election, and they called on the government to publish accurate results. The next day, Human Rights Watch published a report outlining instances of both voter intimidation by armed groups and spontaneous violence in confrontations between voters and police or CENI staff. Christoph Vogel wrote a useful update focused on the Kivus – of note is that armed group intimidation was diverse, with different groups rigging the vote for the ruling party and opposition.

Jason Stearns tweeted an important note as everyone awaited the vote tally. “What happens in the next 1-2 weeks will have a huge impact on developments over the coming decade,” he wrote. “This could unfold in many ways. I find it v hard to believe that Kabila/Shadary will accept defeat and step down. I also don’t think they will be able to rig elections and move on, as we now know that the Catholic Church, opposition and civil society, will put up a fight.” Stearns noted that, in the event of a return to mass violence, especially in major cities and in the East, these weeks were a key moment on which things would pivot (see Laura Seay’s thoughts on what could be done). We are still within a critical juncture as this continues to play out).

Everybody said that they had won. Especially concerning was when someone from Shadary’s campaign said “For us, victory is certain.” A few days later pictures circulated of Shadary’s campaign preparing for a victory celebration. Many were concerned about a rigged win for the regime. But soon these worries were replaced by rumors that a deal had been made. Tshisekedi’s camp had met with ruling party officials to ensure a peaceful transition. People began speculating that he had negotiated some sort of power-sharing transition deal in exchange for beating out Fayulu. Many suspected that whatever the election “results” would be, they would be negotiated by elites rather than represent the actual will of the people.

And so the provisional results were set to be presented on January 9th at 11:00pm in Kinshasa (midnight here), and state television began broadcasting shortly before. As we “slipped” from the 9th and into the 10th, people on Twitter joked about yet another instance of glissement. After a long pre-game show of watching people file in and out of the room, CENI finally began around 2:00am my time. CENI officials then proceeded to name each of the more than 700 provincial deputies elected in the country, an announcement that wasn’t supposed to happen for weeks, pushing the presidential results until 4:00am here in Dungu, where myself and three others sat watching TV in the paillote in the compound.

Finally, in the early hours of the 10th, the results were announced.

Tshisekedi had won with 38% (7.05 million votes), followed closely by Fayulu’s 34% (6.36 million), and with Shadary’s 23% (4.36 million) a distant third. Many were releieved that the election hadn’t been rigged for Shadary, but for most it seemed an even stranger outcome: that the government had rigged the election for the opposition in an effort to deny a different opposition candidate the presidency. Reuters later confirmed that the Catholic Church had privately briefed some diplomats that Fayulu had won handily.

In the days since, there were instances of violence in a number of cities on the 10th and 11th. While over a dozen have been killed since the proclamation, and several died on election day, in the face of the potential of riots or a return to civil war, it feels like an instance of declaring it “all quiet on the front” here despite the violence. Fayulu has explicitly called the results fradulent, and may be moving forwards with a formal complaint. Meanwhile, Tshisekedi leaned into his victory, lauding Kabila as partner of democracy in Congo (really).

Some have speculated that Tshisekedi’s deal may have been arranged as far back as when he initialy bailed on the opposition coalition. Pierre Englebert reevaluated the CRG/BERCI opinion poll to show that the results were implausible, stating that “data suggests that the probability Tshisekedi could have scored 38% in a free election is less than 0.0000. There is a 95% chance his real numbers would be somewhere between 21.3% and 25%.” He ends his analysis with some good hypotheses as to when, why, and how Tshisekedi’s bid may have played out.

Regardless, the situation—expertly played by Kabila—hands power over to a constrained opposition candidate (especially with the legislative elections apparently going to the ruling party) while also pitting the opposition against itself as Fayulu tries to organize supporters against Tshisekedi’s ascendance to the presidency. As Stearns put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times: “If Mr. Tshisekedi is reduced to a figurehead president, the current system of governance will most likely continue. Millions will be displaced, thousands will be killed, and the international community will be left to deal with the wreckage.”

Many have taken this moment, rightly, to call attention to how contingent political processes, and the control that ruling leaders have, can be in the face of popular resistance. Two and a half years ago, Kabila was plotting how to stay in power for a third term. Instead, he not only didn’t run, but his hand-picked candidate lost, even in elections marred by irregularities and implausible results. While this cannot and should not be called democracy, this outcome a symbol of Kabila’s frustrated attempts to remain president, and that was achieved on the backs of (and with many sacrifices among) youth, civil society, the Catholic Church, human rights activists, and civil rights groups.

What comes next, however, is yet to be determined. Fayulu may try to contest the results, but it’s not clear if he has any leverage. The Church has decried the results as rigged, but won’t commit to releasing its numbers. Tshisekedi may become president in a relatively peaceful transition, but it is an open question if he will be able to do anything or if Kabila and his elite circle will be able to continue to run the country from behind closed doors. The official results are due in coming days, and the new president is supposed to take power by the end of the week. What this mean for Congo is unclear – we’re still in the midst of a critical juncture for the future of the country.

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Orientations

Every morning, a radio operator sits at the table in a dimly lit room at the NGO that I study. As the day begins and the morning fog clears, the operator begins the morning round by calling out to different communities over the high frequency radio. In turn, between the static and beeps so often heard on the radio, radio operators in rural communities respond with quick updates. Through this daily round, the network of radio sets are able to keep these distant communities in touch with one another, in a region where there is little in terms of communications or transportation infrastructure.

Almost exactly a decade ago, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group originating in northern Uganda, was in the middle of a stand-off with the Ugandan government. The two sides had been negotiating in Juba, South Sudan, but were at an impasse. During this time, LRA forces were gathered in a couple of positions in South Sudan, as well as a contingent camped in and around Garamba National Park in the Congo, where they had been since 2005. After months of stalled talks, the Ugandan military launched an incursion into Garamba in an effort to rout the rebels in December of 2008, exactly ten years before my arrival to my fieldsite last month (to the day, in an unplanned twist).

Several have written about why the operation failed. Much has also been written about what happened next: in retaliation for the failed UPDF attacks, the LRA launched a series of coordinated attacks across Haut Uele district on and around Christmas Day, clustered around the communities of Faradje, Duru, and Doruma. After the initial massacres on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the rebel campaign continued into the new year. Human Rights Watch’s report details the atrocities, in which 865 people were killed and 160 abducted in a span of two weeks. Almost exactly a year later, the LRA carried out another large massacre in mid-December 2009.

It was in response to these attacks that a number of local civil society organizations and international NGOs embarked on an effort together to establish the early warning network. The idea was that installing radio stations in rural communities could help provide warning to people who could get to safety or alert authorities who could respond more quickly. The network is posited as a lifeline for these communities in an area that is difficult to traverse, is home to a number of armed actors, and sits at the edge of the country on the frontier of warring states.

I’m interested in this specific origin story of the network, because it highlights the humanitarian characteristics of the network. Humanitarian intervention is intended to response to moments of crisis and need, providing relief amidst political violence (or epidemic, or weather-related disasters, etc.). But the radio network, in practice, is much more. While the impetus behind it was a response to violence, it is also a development project in that the radio has the potential to change the community by connecting it to others, with potential effects on sociality, belonging, and communication in the region. And while this iteration of the network is a humanitarian project, it is modeled after an ecclesiastical network that linked parishes in the region. And beyond these factors, there is the way that the network brings in a range of actors such as the military and park rangers, and a range of assumptions about its potential, that makes it an interesting point of entry for research on humanitarian infrastructures.

A decade after the LRA’s most destructive attacks in this country, the radio network continues to report incidents every day. Not only LRA attacks, which continue to occur, albeit on a smaller scale. But news comes over the radio waves about accidents, elephant poaching, abuses by the state, news concerning Central African refugees, and other types of security incidents. A couple of weeks ago a father used the network to see if his child would be coming home for Christmas. The humanitarian network provides an infrastruture for all of this information, some of it critical, some of it mundane, to be shared.

If this is the rosy picture post, a future post will point to some of the ways that the radio doesn’t meet expectations, or has unintended consequences. But even these are structured by the network itself and the promise of humanitarian intervention and technology.

Starting Fieldwork

Greetings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo! I’ve recently arrived to begin my dissertation research in Haut Uele province, in the northeastern corner of the country. I wanted to write up a short introductory post here as I settle in, and will follow up with a few slightly more in-depth posts outlining the research I hope to carry out over the next year.

For those not familiar, my past work has focused on various radio media interventions in the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda. My dissertation research builds on three previous trips to northern Uganda and northeastern Congo (in 2013, 2016, and 2017)—on those trips my focus was split between FM radio programming which encouraged rebel demobilization on the one hand, and high-frequency radio transmissions that were used as an early warning system on the other. Through both, I traced the use of media in counterinsurgency, the convergence of militarism and humanitarianism, and the ethical dimensions of humanitarian intervention amidst conflict, among other things. (Still working on getting those things written up—bear with me!) My dissertation has been narrowed insofar as I will set aside the FM work to focus on the early warning network, but widening a bit as I explore other facets of intervention in my field site’s past, present, and future. I’ll sketch out bits and pieces of this in upcoming posts as well as, you know, my dissertation.

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Photo of Haut Uele province from above.

Because academics tend to weave numerous objects, concepts, and arguments into single, winding sentences, I’m going to give that a go here and outline the underlying questions that are driving my research now, at the outset. I imagine some of this will shift as I spend time here, meandering my way towards findings, arguments, and answers, and some of it will harden as my research deepens. Recently, I’ve been conceiving of this project as having a sort of four-pronged approach to understanding how the radio network works. I’m interested in how the network and those who use it a) define security and insecurity, threats and risks; b) shape and are shaped by other relations of responsibility (especially governmental and international); c) operate within the affordances and limits of high frequency radio as a technology; and d) have histories of their own, both in terms of technological histories and histories of intervention.

As a neighbor just said to me this weekend, it is easy to waste time in Dungu. I hope to avoid that trap, partially by rededicating some of my time to this here blog. Without getting in the way of the actual research, life, and other obligations, I do hope to write more about my research here, as a sort of Field Notes Lite. No promises as to frequency or content, but I’ll try to start with some orienting posts over the next few weeks. Cheers.

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.

Fragments of Field Site History

I’m in the Congo for about three weeks doing fieldwork, after many more weeks of wrangling bureaucracy. A great deal of waiting eventually resulted in me hopping in a humanitarian Land Cruiser with a friend and enjoying a day’s ride that bounced, skidded, and rolled through puddles, humps, and potholes. Much of the drive looked like this, and the fact that we had no issues getting to our destination is due in large part to a skilled driver who knows the road. Along the way we stopped to call NGO headquarters to see how secure the roads were. At one point we passed a group of people with flags, palm fronds sticking up from motorcycles lining the road, as Faradje territory welcomed a ministerial visit (we weren’t it, and unfortunately one person dropped some bright flowers as he made a path for us to pass). With ministerial welcoming committees cleared and the security go ahead, we drove, and along the way we’d pass little army outposts or a truckful of park rangers. Eventually, we arrived in town.

After meeting some NGO staff I was dropped off at a sprawling UN compound, where I’m staying. The parking lot is lined with matching agency Land Cruisers and the perimeter is made up of prefabricated trailers and mobile homes. There’s also a small garden. I was led to my room, dropped my things off, and then wandered. The hallway of the living quarters is plain and sterile, but a few residents have made it their own with little signs taped to their doors, memes and inside jokes. I notice that my room number is thirteen.

A bridge on the road to my field site.

If all goes well, my dissertation research will be on high frequency radio networks that are used by rural communities to alert each other. When we stopped along the way to check about road security, it was thanks to this network. Built in the aftermath of a string of incidents in which the LRA killed hundreds of people, the network is supposed to act as an early warning system and help keep isolated communities connected. Many villages are in the middle of nowhere, stretched out in the dense forest with little road access. Getting word to people is not easy, and the radio network serves to allow operators to communicate. The road here was trying enough, and that was a decent path in an able vehicle. Some roads to villages are only footpaths in the jungle, and some villages are hardly visible through the foliage.

Four years ago I was here for a week and did only preliminary work on the same issues. I wrote a tiny bit about it, and it’s been a small section of my broader work on technology, humanitarianism, and conflict in the region. As I shift from FM radio to HF radio, from Uganda to Congo, from one research project to another, I’m facing a steep learning curve but it’s been good so far. The first week has included listening in on radio rounds, meeting folks involved in one way or another to the network, stumbling through informal interviews in French, becoming more familiar with the terrain, finding a surprise archive of letters, and filling dozens of pages of field notes. Next year, I’ll be back for the long haul, but for now I’m doing all that I can to see what’s possible in an area that I’m not so familiar with. I’m also piecing together fragments of a history.

A century ago, colonial authorities established a cordon sanitaire around the Uele region of Belgian Congo to protect the population from sleeping sickness which was a major health concern in other parts of the colony but not yet in this corner. Movement was restricted, the sick were removed and placed in prisons or quarantined villages that looked and felt like penal colonies (one referred to them as “death camps.” The colonial era letters cited in one article are rife with talking about Congolese as economic assets that need to be maximized. Even amidst epidemic and quarantine, rubber and ivory quotas were strictly enforced.

Half a century ago, some poor colonial officer stranded in the northeast corner of the colony built a large castle. According to Wikipedia, he was tasked with building a two-way bridge, but instead built a narrow one and used the rest to create a chateau. I’m sure there’s more to this story. Fifty years later the castle looks pretty beat up, vegetation is overgrown, and at the foot of it sits the UN peacekeeping office. That a colonial castle has turned into a foreign peacekeeping mission’s headquarters seems like a perfect metaphor, but for what I’m not sure. Down the road trucks rumble as they wait to clear customs and drive on up to South Sudan.

A glimpse of “Dungu Castle.”

Ten years ago this community had virtually no MONUSCO or FARDC presence. Once the LRA set up camp in 2005, things slowly began to change. The national army and the UN peacekeepers gradually deployed to the area – including a botched UN operation against the LRA that left eight Guatemalan peacekeepers dead – but they failed to protect civilians when the UPDF launched its own failed attack on the LRA, setting in motion a chain of events that include the Christmas Massacres of 2008 and Makombo Massacres a year later. It’s in response to these massacres that the early warning network was built, but it wasn’t built from scratch. It was expanded using an existing network of radios between mission stations and towns, and functions in a way somewhat reminiscent of radio networks in Kinshasa that predated the cell phone and telephone.

Technology always has a history, and an ecology. It’s also locally iterative and situated. Not just radio technologies but technologies of protection and security more broadly. Humanitarian technologies, military technologies, communication technologies. Technologies of memory, of connection, of risk mitigation, of preparation, of information. With luck, I’ll find some interesting things out while I’m here.

Making a Modern City

I left Gulu on Sunday morning to do a short stint of research and deal with some logistics for an upcoming trip. By the time I made it back to town on Thursday, it was evening and I was tired. I paid my boda driver and grabbed my bags, turning towards my hotel. The lights were off, which had been typical lately with so many power cuts, but the door was shuttered too. I noticed a small 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper posted on the door. As I read about how the hotel I had just stayed in was now closed for renovations, the owner approached me from his seat beside the building. A friend of mine since last year, he apologized and explained that they were remodeling some of the building and were temporarily closed. “You know, with city status coming, we wanted to spruce the place up a bit,” he explained.

Two weeks ago, I went to an open mic show at a cafe in town. In between performances, the emcee thanked several  notable patrons for attending the show. Among them was the owner of the new big supermarket. He mentioned, off hand, that her business gave Gulu “a real supermarket” that resonated with becoming a city.

Gulu town has been inching closer and closer to city status for years, and with it come particular notions of what a city is. I remember back in 2013, seeing news about the removal of thatched roof huts from town, also justified as part of the march to city status.

More recently, a number of buildings are marked for demolition in the name of safety but also in the name of making Gulu look like a proper city. In the Daily Monitor this week, a local division chairperson is quoted as saying, “We are taking this initiative of demolishing the dilapidated structures in preparation for a city status. We cannot have a city with this kind of dilapidated structures.” In addition to several dilapidated buildings deemed structurally unfit by engineers several years ago, several thatch-roofed buildings are slated for removal too.

I don’t know much of the details of what’s been going on in town. I’ve heard stories of how, when the new main market was built, many vendors couldn’t afford rents there but were also being pushed off of land as the old outdoor market was razed. The streets winding outside of town in neighborhoods like Pece are well-paved with sidewalks and medians. It feels like every year when I come back here town has changed quite a bit, and keeps changing.

Demolishing or fixing buildings that are unsafe is one thing; erasing traditional buildings from the urban landscape is another. Gulu will likely attain city status next year. But what does it mean to be a city? What does a city look like? And whose city is it?

Arriving Late, Studying After

Northern Uganda has been post-conflict since the 2006-2008 peace talks, during which the LRA rebels retreated into havens in South Sudan or relocated to greener pastures in the Congo. From my first trip here in 2010 until now, the region has seen steady progress.

“The guns are silent,” many Ugandans like to say. And while this isn’t totally true – insecurity and occasional bouts of violence have occurred here and there in the intervening years – the guns associated with the rebels are hard to hear anymore. The LRA are hundreds of kilometers away now, for the most part, and in northern Uganda life seems to be moving along.

Every other Monday for the last year and a half, there’s been a small reminder on the airwaves. A radio station in Gulu town hosted a program – one of the come home radio programs that I study – wherein former rebels would go on air and tell their stories. The goal was to paint a picture of demobilization and reintegration, the final steps of a story that began with violence, abduction, conscription.

After telling their stories, the returnees would be asked what messages they had for those rebels who remained in the bush, for their fellow returnees in Uganda, and for the community at large. To the rebels, these returnees invariably called for them to come home, to surrender, to demobilize. To the returnees and to the community, they often warned against problems that affect much of society – everything from violence to excessive drinking – and tried to promote reconciliation between former rebels and the broader community.

I’m here in Uganda to continue this research. It’s a sort of a launching point to start/continue my next project. But lo, on the drive up to Gulu I got an e-mail from an interlocutor saying that the radio program I studied was no more. It had ended just weeks before I arrived, amidst funding cuts. When the U.S. military officially withdrew their troops from the counter-LRA operation in Central African Republic last month, all of the associated funding streams – including money that paid for a radio program in Uganda – left with them. As recently as late May people were hoping that the funding would stay for at least a little bit after the troops left.

Uganda has been firmly post-conflict for a decade. Amidst that, there have been a number of radio stations over the last few years that reached out to rebels across the border or to returnees amongst the civilian population, calling for reintegration. The afterlives of the war were always very present on the airwaves, for better or worse. But we might be seeing the end of come home radio, at least in Uganda.

As I prepare for my next project, and as I fill in the gaps of my radio research, I’m left thinking: how does one study the aftermath of an aftermath?

Development and the Cash Economy

I spent some time this summer in Uganda with a few different undergrads, many of whom were on their first trip to a developing country. One conversation that came up several times (admittedly, I kept bringing it up) was the difference between a Western conception of development versus what Ugandans might actually want. I’ve been thinking about these conversations, and others, because I’ll be teaching a course on development this fall, and I’m likely to have these conversations with some of my students over the remainder of the year. Pardon the disjointed narrative below as I plod through a few things that are still taking shape.

In 2010, when I was on my first trip to Uganda, a friend told me that sometimes the organization she worked for had trouble keeping staff employed because, once people made enough money for the time being, they would quit. While in the U.S. one may work hard to earn a raise, and continue working to earn more, several people in Uganda, it seemed, were working long enough to make a decent amount of money and then choosing to not work for as long as that money would last.

I don’t know if this is true, but it surprised me when I first heard it as a naïve twenty-year-old. But, true or not in this specific instance, these types of stories are commonplace in the developing (and development) world. The capitalist mindset and assumed motivation for accumulation and profit are far from universal, and yet are part of the baggage that many practitioners from the Global North carry with them, often without even realizing it.

But why work more when you’ve made enough to just spend time with family, or drink, or tell stories, or do literally anything but work? The literature in the anthropology of development (and anthropology of capitalism) is rife with these types of stories. Six years, many books, and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa later, these types of stories are expected. Capitalist wage labor gets equated with slavery1 or tied to devil worship2, just to cite some examples. People don’t focus on wealth in money when they could strive for wealth in cows. They might not strive for individual independence, but rather seek “wealth in people”3. The forms of development we see often have waged employment as a goal, through vocational training, for example. Desire for employment is assumed. Some of the people I met this summer were working on internships or applied research projects that made similar assumptions – that wage laborers wanted to make as much money as possible, that people could be incentivized through bonuses.

I mention all of this not to point out that these students came to Uganda with their own set of assumptions (although that’s certainly true, just as it is with me and everyone else). After all, these assumptions are what make up the foundation of the IMF, the World Bank, and the entire global development regime. I point it out because all of these experiences – my own and those of countless others, from undergrads and newly minted development professionals to those of established scholars, practitioners, and critics – have yet to undermine capitalist development as it is experienced. Even when IMF economists say that neoliberalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be [here’s a pdf of the report], it’s a half-hearted apology from an institution that is still 100% behind capitalism (see Chelwa and also Hengeveld). I mention this because the assumption of a capitalist desire to make profit is an enduring one, and one that informs virtually all of development, despite development being implemented in societies whose history of capitalism is much briefer than the U.S. or Western Europe, and despite capitalism being a system that is more likely to exacerbate inequality and poverty rather than reduce it.

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In Gulu town since the war shifted across the border, things have changed remarkably. Just in the three intervening years since my MA research and this summer, the town has changed a lot. Roads are paved, a new market has opened, the town has grown. This is, some would say, development.

I was walking with a friend a few weeks ago, and I mentioned to him that I enjoyed living in town. He made fun of me for liking town so much, and told me that he didn’t really like staying there. When I asked why, his answer was simple. “People here are trying to make money.” This was a young university graduate who had multiple jobs and was aspiring to gain a state salary, but he was adamant that life in town was hard (“kwo town tek,” if I remember correctly), and that life in town was marked by people being preoccupied with earning money. Life in the village, though, was simpler and more enjoyable. Several of my friends in town mentioned either yearning for or being in the process of cultivating land outside of town.

This all hearkened back, pretty much explicitly, to Adam Branch’s study of Gulu town during and after displacement [gated, here’s an earlier version as a pdf]. In it, Branch discusses how town changed as displaced people went back to the villages, the region’s poor and returnees ostracized by village life were funneled into town, and the cash economy came with urban development and the NGO influx. While many women and youth saw positive changes in town, many elders (those who were on top of the old system) were wary of these changes, arguing that they eroded Acholi society and values.

But beyond the social structures of life in Acholiland before, during, and after the war, there are also fundamental difficulties that come with a more urban, more capitalist way of life. Branch quotes one women as saying that “village life is better than town life. Life in town needs money at all times and every day which is not the case in the village. In the village you can just dig and eat well even if there is no money there” (p. 3158). Life in a cash system doesn’t come with a safety net.

Development has often focuses on the rural poor, trying to “modernize” people’s farming habits, provide education to those far from schools, etc. But many NGOs now work in cities as well, often with similar goals of bringing people into the economic system. And surely there are a number of entrepreneurial people who embrace this way of life and excel at opening up shops, building up successful businesses. But not everyone wants to make money. What will development offer them?


1. Graeber, David. 2007. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar

2. Taussig, Michael T. 1980. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

3. Mier, Suzanne and Igor Kopytoff, eds. 1977. Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, cited in some excellent recent books that look at why people seek to be dependent on others: Jim Ferguson’s (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution and China Schertz’s (2014) Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda.

Branch, Adam. 2013. “Gulu in War… and Peace? Town as Camp in Northern Uganda.” Urban Studies, 50 (15), pp. 3152-3167.

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.

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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.

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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.