Hypocrisy and Public Works: Local Perceptions of MONUSCO

The first time I visited Congo, I was talking with a new friend, a local leader in a small community north of Dungu, under his paillote. I had finished interviewing the radio operator there earlier in the day, and we passed some time under the thatched roof, just chatting. Amid casual conversation, joking around, and taking a photo together, one of his entourage who had been sitting with us complained about MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping stabilization mission in Congo.

As a driver for another organization, this man had witnessed the UN helping the LRA in 2010, dropping off rebels and sending them back into the bush. He described this amidst a litany of accusations, from the UN arming the rebels to refusing to let them surrender. I struggled to understand this then, and it received only a small discussion of rumor and violence in my MA thesis at the time. I’ve tinkered around with writing more about it as I continue to work through making sense of how people make sense of MONUSCO’s presence and the LRA’s ongoing activities.

In 2017, I heard a story in the village of Dungumai about a time a few years prior, when the local population there cut down trees and blocked the road in protest of the UN’s complicity in LRA violence. This story was also something I fell into—I had been visiting RTK, a radio station in Dungumai that played “come home” radio messages (the subject of my previous research), and talking with the director there about people’s complaints about such programs. An older couple had stopped by to speak with him, and as we wrapped up our conversation it turned to accusations against MONUSCO. He mentioned this to his visitors, and I ended up hearing a story from a woman as she recalled the protests there. People blocked the road, attempting to stop MONUSCO’s work and hold the mission accountable. “We had heard, but that day we saw,” the director translated for me, pointing emphatically at his eye, “that the UN was helping the rebels.”

This fieldwork trip, I’ve placed questions of MONUSCO at the center of much of my research, because one of my key research questions concerns who people turn to for security and to whom people attribute insecurity. The answer is filled with gray areas as basically everyone that is supposed to protect civilians is also accused of abusing them or abandoning them. Even the one consistent positive answer regarding who effectively protects communities—self defense groups, both ad hoc and organized—have had a history of abuse further south in the Kivus. Attributing security and insecurity to certain actors isn’t an easy task.

The MONUSCO offices in Dungu town, where protests have also occurred.

I’m still working through the transcripts of various short trips I’ve made during this stint of research so far, but during two days back in Dungumai this month I heard the word “hypocrites” used to describe MONUSCO multiple times. “Ils jouent un double jeu,” one person said—MONUSCO plays a double game. Someone else called the peacekeeping force “two-faced” for its declarations of combatting the LRA while it actually helped them. In Niangara town, rather than describe MONUSCO as responding to existing violence, several people associated the arrival of MONUSCO troops with impending violence to come (something Kristof Titeca has pointed out in explaining how people in this region make sense of increasing violence in their midsts as multiple armed actors arrived in short order).

And yet, when I put to these respondents the question of whether MONUSCO should stay or go, an overwhelming number of people in Dungumai said that they should stay, but do better. A few in other communities said they were glad MONUSCO had closed some bases in the region, and a couple said they hoped the peacekeepers would leave altogether. But a vast majority attributed some benefits to having MONUSCO around even as they criticized what they saw as not only complete failure to protect them but a betrayal of this commitment. For many, this ambivalence was attributable to the infrastructure projects that MONUSCO has engaged in, especially maintaining roads and rehabilitating bridges. A few buildings at schools had been constructed by MONUSCO, and some young men had found work with the peacekeeping force as well. Many others pointed to training the FARDC as an important practice carried out by MONUSCO. In short, there were benefits to having MONUSCO in the region, even if those benefits weren’t security.

A playground built by the Moroccan Battalion of MONUSCO in Dungumai.

The main bridge in Niangara, rehabilitated by MONUSCO’s Indonesian Garuda Contingent.

One hears news of MONUSCO packing up in Haut Uele altogether, though recent LRA incidents near and far may push this timeline further back. I should note, however, that such incidents are more than mere coincidence for some of my interlocutors, who wondered aloud why LRA attacks were increasing just as the peacekeepers’ mandate was winding down and now might have to be renewed. “No Kony, no job,” one person said in English, and I’ve heard similar phrases uttered on previous trips here. Allegations of MONUSCO complicity run far and they run deep. For over ten years the LRA has been preying on the population, and for much of that time UN peacekeepers have been performing poorly in countering the violence, in the opinions of people I’ve talked to.

Thus, while the peacekeeping force was under almost universal critique for failing at its primary objective of protecting the population and combatting the LRA, people mostly stopped short of calling for its departure, partially due to the other benefits of MONUSCO’s presence separate from security. To what extent might we think of the UN peacekeeping force as a development enterprise? Especially since several forward bases have closed and the remaining Moroccan Battalion only occasionally conducts patrols these days, the main encounter with MONUSCO seems to be through its infrastructure projects and maybe also its human rights monitoring. Most international NGOs have left the Uele region, and several people lamented being “forgotten” by NGOs and unable to get the attention of the government. But MONUSCO remains (for now), and just a few weeks ago a team of Indonesian peacekeepers smoothed out some of the major dirt roads here in town. How might we understand the public works projects of MONUSCO in the broader context of their mandate and effectiveness?

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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.

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.