The Complexities of Dominic Ongwen’s Reported Surrender

News broke on Tuesday that ICC-indicted LRA commander Dominic Ongwen had surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic. The human rights and LRA crowd was all atwitter (literally), and it has now been confirmed that Ongwen surrendered (or maybe was captured) by Seleka forces near Kafia Kingi, who handed him over to U.S. forces in Obo. Ongwen is to be handed over to Uganda, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Ongwen’s case is a complex one. He was abducted and conscripted into the LRA at the age of 10, but quickly rose through the LRA ranks to become the leader of the Sinia brigade. For his involvement in attacks on IDP camps and the killing and abducting of civilians, Ongwen was charged by the ICC with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes in 2005. He has since continued to be active in the LRA, although his position in the army’s leadership has been in flux. He has been sidelined by Kony, but remains influential in the rebel group to some degree.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ongwen, the essential reading list includes Erin Baines’ article on Ongwen and his position as a “complex political perpetrator” [gated] and a report [pdf] she wrote for the Justice and Reconciliation Project that discusses similar issues. Ledio Cakaj also wrote a brief but thorough bio on Ongwen for the LRA Crisis Tracker.

In addition, Mark Kersten recently penned some reflections on what Ongwen’s surrender/capture means, and why it isn’t a clear-cut victory for international justice. Importantly, he notes the “it’s complicated” relationship status between Uganda and the ICC, and the tenuous status of Uganda’s domestic court for international crimes – two important aspects of the ICC’s involvement in the LRA conflict.

Dominic Ongwen’s story isn’t over, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as he is transferred to Uganda and navigates a complex path between the domestic justice, amnesty, and international justice systems, not to mention the politics of all three.

*   *   *

This past fall, I presented a paper at the African Studies Association on Invisible Children and the role of reconciliation. While most of the paper deals with Invisible Children’s programs in central Africa, part of it discusses narratives of reconciliation and accountability – especially in regards to the ICC. I compare Ongwen’s status and the narrative surrounding him to that of Caesar Acellam, the LRA commander taken into custody in 2012 whom I wrote about here. Acellam’s story is similar to Ongwen’s, but the reception to this capture/surrender were different than the media’s and human rights community’s treatment was markedly different. While not directly about recent events, here are the relevant paragraphs discussing Ongwen:

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was placed on the wanted list of the ICC and was recently the target (along with Joseph Kony and Okot Odihambo) of radio messages offering rewards for information leading to his capture. The U.S. government had expanded its Justice for Rewards bounty program to include LRA commanders indicted by the ICC a year before (see Ross 2013), with strong support and grassroots mobilization from Invisible Children.  Ongwen has not been the target of this attention because of his role in the organization today – he has recently been demoted, arrested, and threatened on Kony’s orders on numerous occasions (Lancaster and Cakaj 2013). Like Acellam, Ongwen was abducted in his youth, and subsequently rose in the rebel ranks to become a commander. Unlike Acellam and other LRA commanders who enjoy impunity or have received amnesty, however, Ongwen is painted as responsible for his actions. Ongwen remains “the first known person to be charged with the same war crimes of which he is also victim” (Baines 2008, 1). Some Invisible Children staff members I spoke to argued that Acellam was a victim of the LRA despite his position, while Ongwen had grown into LRA leadership and should therefore be held to account. But the reason Ongwen’s name is said on Congolese radio waves is arguably not based on his role in the LRA now, but because of his role in the organization in the early 2000s, and because of the timing of the ICC’s intervention.

Acellam and Ongwen were conscripted into LRA ranks decades ago, “a temporal span over which a young person so labeled [as child soldier] at one time moves to different stages of moral reasoning, responsibility, and culpability” (Ferme 2014, 58). Both fit the category of “complex political perpetrators” (Baines 2009), those who came of age within LRA ranks and became perpetrators in an attempt to reclaim agency over their lives, but who nonetheless remain victims, and whose complex status is excluded from the criminal justice discourse that the ICC and its supporters put forth (Baines 2009). Both Acellam and Ongwen fit these descriptions, yet the former has evaded the responsibility and culpability that could have come with commanding a rebel group as an adult while the latter has been less fortunate, due primarily to his having been indicted by the ICC. Despite the ICC’s role in the LRA conflict having diminished over the years since the end of the Juba peace talks, the Court remains a potent force for the three remaining indicted individuals – and for Invisible Children. By channeling Invisible Children’s media and narrative, the ICC has calcified the identities of the LRA leadership based on dated investigations and dictated the narrative of Invisible Children’s justice-for-some, forgiveness-for-others narrative.

References:

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Recent Data on the LRA

Hopping back on the blog train to post links to three helpful, informative pieces of data related to research on the LRA. First is some very basic data on LRA activity in Orientale province of the DRC. Timo Mueller recently tweeted a link to this, a spreadsheet with data on LRA activity in the province from 2008 to 2014.

The file includes data on attacks, killings, abducted adults, abducted children, and injuries caused by the LRA by every quarter and every year, with some various breakdowns for the different categories. It’s not incredibly detailed data, but includes enough to be useful in looking at the overall effect that the LRA presence has had in the region over the years.

More recently and more exhaustive, two recent reports have been published about the victims of LRA violence in northeastern DRC. First is the latest report from the Resolve, Healing Their Image: Community perceptions of the UN peacekeeping mission in LRA-affected areas of the Democratic Republic of CongoAs Paul Ronan (of Resolve) tweeted, the report isn’t surprising, rather it highlights common knowledge on the ground – Congolese civilians don’t trust the peacekeepers in their midst.

When I was in Dungu last summer, I struggled with the same thing. People would tell me the perils of having Congolese or Ugandan soldiers in the area, tell me of incidents of abuse, and then they would still favor these over MONUSCO peacekeepers. This survey includes 347 people in five major towns in Haut-Uele district, Orientale province, each host to a UN operating base. The report includes brief sections on MONUSCO’s actual role in the region and the local communities’ other protection mechanisms (from migration to early warning to militia formation) before going into community perceptions of overall security, MONUSCO’s protection efforts, information sharing, defection efforts, and the opinions about the defectors themselves. Some snippets:

Even though they viewed patrols as an important aspect of protection work, the majority of participants responded that MONUSCO patrols were inrequent and ineffective. Participants stated that peacekeepers rarely patrolled near farm fields, along roads connecting communities, or within town. In one community close to Garamba [National Park, where LRA are active], participant stated, “We see them walk in our midst without protecting the population.” Participants spoke of irregular patrols and how the inconsistency made them feel unsafe, a sentiment that likely contributed to negative perceptions of the peacekeepers (11).

And a quote from a group of women:

We see them, but we don’t know why they are here in our area. [We ask] that MONUSCO inform the community, and explain to the population why they are here, to do what, and explain what are their projects. Especially that they heal their image in front of the population, because for us they bring despair, they are against our safety, they protect the LRA against us, [for] what good do they live among us? It’s better that they leave, and leave us in peace (10).

The report has other useful pieces of information, and is fairly short. Worth reading for anyone studying the LRA, MONUSCO, or peacekeeping in general. It can also be paired with Séverine Autesserre’s recent work on peacekeepers’ everyday lives and how they shape their effectiveness on the ground.

Secondly, Conciliation Resources just published a report of their own, A People Dispossessed: The plight of civilians in the areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army. This report focuses on the continued “chronic insecurity” that Congolese in this region face, both from the LRA and from Mbororo cattle herders, and explores the mishandled response so far, highlighting how protection is defined, ill-conceived military strategies, the unwillingness of the government to concern itself with the region, the (missed) potential of civil society, and lack of humanitarian aid. The report summarizes these factors thus:

At the fundamental level of understanding, international actors and the armies leading counter-LRA strategies have conceived protection too narrowly as protection from violence. In addition, by opting for a military strategy based on ‘search and destroy’ tactics, they have failed to deter LRA attacks against civilians. The strategy is ill-suited to the LRA threat as it leaves fighters free to move and attack at will. In Congo, the state has lacked the will and/or capacity to provide economic opportunities or essential social services that
fall within a broader conception of protection. Civil society actors, both local and international, have stepped up to fill some of the gap. They have had considerable impact through advocacy, but work at the community level has not connected with security sector protection activities. Finally, international humanitarian agencies and NGOs provided a burst of immediate relief to affected communities but their long-term impact appears negligible (9-10).

It’s also a report worth reading, especially for its exploration of these factors (more in-depth than I’ve copied here) and for its look at the Mbororo issue, an issue that most reports mention in passing but don’t really delve into.

In sum, a couple of good reports on LRA-affected regions of the DRC just came out last month. Read them.

8/7/14 Edit to add: The good people at Conciliation Resources have informed me that the report above, “A People Dispossessed,” was released alongside another report also on the LRA. I just started reading it, but Back but not Home: supporting the reintegration of former LRA abductees into civilian life in DRC and South Sudan seems promising and on an equally important topic. Reintegration and demobilization are a huge part of the push against the LRA, but it’s easier said than done – this report highlights some of the obstacles that still need to be dealt with.

Thesis: Complete

Dear readers, the time has come.

Yesterday, I handed in the final draft of my M.A. thesis in accordance with my degree requirements. I then promptly went home and fiddled with the headers and added an acknowledgements section, so really it’s doubly finished.

I didn’t have a senior thesis in college, just a slightly longer class paper. I also spent all of my senior spring in a high school classroom student teaching. Therefore, this is the first time I’ve had the just-finished-a-giant-project-and-am-about-to-graduate-what-do-I-do feeling. It’s kind of weird.

I first drafted grant proposals for my thesis in October/November 2012. I went to Uganda and the Congo in June 2013. I read a lot for my project between then and now, and talked about it a lot too. And here I am, May 2014, handing in a 150 page declaration that I think I know what I’m talking about.

I haven’t decided what to do with it just yet. I’ve spent the last six months stitching a bunch of disparate parts together, but I will inevitably crack it like an egg and try to make some scholarly omelettes out of it.

As for now, I have some papers to grade, and then I will busy myself with other kinds of tinkering since thesis-tinkering is a now fruitless hobby. But, I leave you with one common artifacts: the abstract. Hopefully it’ll pique your interest for things to come.

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Hate Radio

2/3 of my thesis is about how radio can be used to mitigate violence in the LRA conflict. The programs aren’t perfect, and may even facilitate other kinds of violence through increasing militarization, but the radio programs aim to use the airwaves to encourage rebels to lay down their arms and to warn civilians of impending attack.

When I explain my project to people, one of the most common reactions is to compare it to the role of radio in the Rwandan genocide. There, the killing of 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu occurred with RTLM Radio playing in the background. The radio station went down in infamy as inciting the genocide with divisive messages of hate, calling on Rwandans to purge their country of Tutsi, linking Tutsi civilians to the rebel RPF fighters, and publicly naming people who would then be targeted.

Ever since Rwanda, radio and its potential for inciting mass violence has captured the popular imagination. There are fears of radio programs turning peaceful neighbors into killers by engaging in fear-mongering and naming people and places to be attacked. There was even recent news that radio stations in Bentiu, South Sudan had been used to instigate violence.

I watched Sometimes in April last week in one of my classes, a film about the Rwandan genocide that is told through the story of one family. I was surprised at how much the film hits you over the head with the role of RTLM radio in the genocide. One of the main characters, Honoré, works at the radio station, and the film moves between the genocide, during which Honoré issues hate on the radio and also tries to smuggle his brother’s Tutsi wife and children out of Kigali, and after the violence, where Honoré is being held on charges of incitement. In almost every second of every scene in 1994, the radio is playing.

But how much of a role did RTLM actually play?

Scott Straus, author of The Order of Genocide, an in-depth study of why Rwandan men took part in the genocide, has a 2007 article that questions the assumption that radio helped drive the genocide [pdf]. In it, he soundly debunks the theoretical cases for radio’s role in inciting genocide (a. theory that media can influence the public so directly go against established communications research; b. theory that radio caused listeners to go out and kill denies killers agency; c. theories of radio’s role rarely situate it among other theories of violence) and he also takes on empirical studies that say that RTLM was a main driver of violence.

Straus compares a few different data sources and pokes holes in the idea that RTLM turned people into violent killers by broadcasting hateful messages. First, he notes that RTLM’s broadcast range was limited to Kigali and western Rwanda (that’s without considering the country’s hilly topography). He then compares this to the fact that killings occurred in all government-held territories, even those where RTLM did not have an audience. Second, he looks at the actual broadcasts temporally. Admitting that a small fraction of attacks were called for explicitly by RTLM, he finds that, broadly speaking, the increase in killings did not coincide with the increase in inflammatory or extremist broadcasts during the genocide. Lastly, he includes quantitative evidence from broadcast content and qualitative evidence from interviews with perpetrators that show that most of the broadcast content did not actually mobilize killers.

Overall, he finds that the radio had a “second-order” effect in bolstering those who advocated for violence, but that most perpetrators were not convinced by the radio to go out and kill; rather they were recruited in person or were reacting out of fear. He summarizes his findings as such:

The positive evidence of radio media effects is that the radio instigated a limited number of acts of violence, catalyzed some key actors, coordinated elites, and bolstered local messages of violence. Based on these findings, it is plausible to hypothesize that radio had conditional and marginal effects. Radio did not cause the genocide or have direct, massive effects. Rather, radio emboldened hard-liners and reinforced face-to-face mobilization, which helped those who advocated violence assert dominance and carry out the genocide.

I don’t know much about the recent story about radio and violence in South Sudan, but I do know that the country has never effectively addressed ethnic divisions that were so acute in the recent decades. Radio may play a role in inciting violence, but it can only do so when the foundations have already been laid for such violence.

“Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral.”

I’m deep into thesis territory. Currently hovering around page 110, madly pounding away at the keyboard. The chapter I’m working on is about two things, primarily: AFRICOM’s involvement in Uganda, and Invisible Children’s involvement in counter-LRA interventions. Yesterday afternoon I had just finished wrapping up a section suggesting that Invisible Children, by involving itself in military strategy, further blurred the distinction* between military humanitarian intervention and humanitarian/development relief (IC does both).

Many NGOs active in war zones collaborate to some extent with militaries, for better or for worse. In the LRA conflict, many used UPDF convoys to deliver goods, and toed the government line when it came to how to direct aid. But Invisible Children’s activities don’t use military support to carry out development aid. They coordinate with the military to help direct counter-LRA initiatives.

Then I happened upon this just-published short article on Invisible Children post-Kony 2012. It’s pretty bare-bones (if you’re interested in the topic, this piece does it more justice), but it includes some discussion of exactly this topic of an NGO’s role in military activity (sans analysis):

Invisible Children keeps a staff of about 80 people on the ground in Africa. They run programs dropping leaflets from airplanes to encourage LRA soldiers to lay down their arms, and setup a high frequency radio network so that remote villages can report LRA activities and movements.

Unlike other NGOs, which usually try to stay neutral in conflict zones to do their work, Invisible Children doesn’t apologize for actively supporting efforts to track down Kony, with help from both the US military and national armies in the region.

“Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides,” says Sean Poole, the anti-LRA program manager for Invisible Children.

This isn’t revelatory. Invisible Children has long stood behind their “comprehensive approach” that blends peace-oriented come home messaging and Safe Reporting Sites with more offensive maneuvers. But it’s an explicit statement of that fact. They see themselves as not neutral, but on the side of peace.

Agree with that framework or not, it’s a feature of the discourse around the international human rights regime. Because the LRA are guilty of human rights abuses and are indicted by the ICC, efforts to pursue them are legitimized with little regard to their consequences. And regardless of whether the current efforts against the LRA can be characterized as “good” or “bad,” the quote above is representative of human rights discourse and humanitarian intervention overall, from Darfur to Libya to Syria.

*The existence of this distinction itself is also up for debate. To a large extent, humanitarian interventions, armed or not, deploy a mixture of unequal, dehumanizing, and (in)directly violent power relations. Mamdani  [pdf] argues that humanitarian intervention reifies international power structures and depoliticizes those deemed “vulnerable,” and Branch goes into all sorts of detail on how humanitarian interventions (military and non-military) have exacerbated the LRA conflict in particular in his book on the topic.

Rumor and Distrust in the Congo

 “rumors explain; they naturalize the unnatural.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote, from Luise White’s Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, a lot as I work on my thesis. Rumor is a thing that exists around the world, and in many societies rumors play particular functions such as signaling group inclusion, fomenting opposition, etc. After conducting fieldwork briefly in northeastern Congo, I realized that rumors were going to comprise a part of my thesis.

“If there is no LRA, there is no MONUSCO,” one Congolese local government official told me as we sat under a giant hut with his friends and advisers. It wasn’t the first time that I had heard accusations that MONUSCO was either supporting the LRA or at the very least permitting the LRA to continue its dangerous actions in the region. I knew that dissatisfaction of MONUSCO was high across eastern and northeastern Congo, I hadn’t expected accusations that they supported human rights abusing rebels.

Right now, the role of rumor and distrust will be just a subheading in my broader Congo chapter, and so far it’s an underdeveloped one. I’m really interested in digging deeper into the role of rumor, a literature which has a surprising amount of depth thanks to anthropologists. I’m sure I’ll write about this some more, but for now some preliminary thoughts.

Max Gluckman has written [pdf] that rumors are exclusionary acts, and that they act within a network. People who know rumors are the in-group, those who do not are the out-, and rumors serve to make that distinction more clear. In this vain, others have stated that the content of rumors is not important, that the act of spreading and hearing rumor is what is vital precisely because of this cohesive function. This may or may not be the case in the Congo – after all, people freely talked to me about these rumors, but it may or may not have been a part of an inclusion process. I think the content is vital in this instance, however, because the rumors are about a topic with dire consequences, and because the rumors are believed.

When one man told me that he had seen a UN vehicle pull over just outside of Dungu and a band of LRA fighters got out and disappeared into the jungle, he was telling me a story he had told many times. It had happened in 2010, he surely had more interactions with peacekeepers since then, but this story was the first thing out of his mouth as we talked about perception of MONUSCO. This story was wrapped up in anecdotes that the UN was arming LRA, that they were refusing to accept surrendering LRA, that they benefited from the LRA’s presence financially.

Going back to Luise White’s quote at the top of this post, I think it goes really well with what Kristof Titeca has argued, which is that many Congolese create rumors as a means of understanding the rapid escalation of conflict in their community. He said this briefly at a panel I attended, and this notion helped me organize what I’ve been trying to understand as I look at the numerous rumors that I encountered while in the DRC.

The LRA arrived in the DRC in 2005, and were followed almost immediately by an increase in FARDC and MONUSCO presence (and a couple of a years later, UPDF operations as well). The sudden appearance and increase of armed actors makes little to no sense to most Congolese – the LRA have no reason to be here, FARDC prey on the population, MONUSCO is ineffective in protecting civilians, the UPDF have a history of exploiting war. None of these actors are doing anything beneficial, and yet they’re there. Titeca’s argument that rumor helps make sense of that is a compelling one. While the LRA do abduct and attack, the FARDC do abuse civilians, and the UPDF did exploit resources, MONUSCO hasn’t really protected people enough. And so Congolese are faced with explaining the presence of the peacekeepers in the sprawling headquarters building, and maybe that results in believing in the UN’s collusion with the other armed actors.

I’m working on unpacking all of this as I move forwards. I am still in the shallow end of the literature on rumor, but hope to wade deeper in the near future as well. If you know of things I should be reading, I’d love tips as well. With luck, I’ll write more about this aspect of my work as I trod through the thesis-writing phase.

Edit (2/6): This post has been updated to mention Kristof Titeca’s work on the subject, which helped me make sense of my findings and drove me to think through the role of rumor and distrust in the region.

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.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At African Arguments

Good news for those far from Yale and those too busy at Yale yesterday. If you missed my talk yesterday, which covered a portion of my thesis research, don’t be sad. A short essay I wrote that covers the same topic (and highlights the same parts of my research) has been published at the African Arguments blog. You can find it here.

In brief, the essay addresses how the early warning radio network is supposed to work, and highlights some of the functions it serves, but it also discusses the other, bigger source of insecurity for civilians in the region: the military’s unwillingness to fight the LRA, the reduced humanitarian presence, and abuse perpetrated by the military itself.

Be sure to check out the whole thing if you’re interested, and it would do you good to read other posts on the site. African Arguments brings together some phenomenal scholars to write about a diverse number of topics, and I’m thrilled to be featured there.

Dialogue and Destruction: LRA Responses to Ugandan Radio Stations

In the course of my fieldwork this summer, a question arose that I was unable to answer, and it concerns the inconsistent response of the LRA to the work of radio stations in northern Uganda. My research focused on the use of defection messaging, which several radio stations engaged in during the conflict, especially in the early 2000s. But there were other ways that radio was used during the conflict, and of particular note is Radio Mega’s attempt to foster dialog between the rebels, the government, and the civilian population.

In her essay [pdf] on the government-imposed limits that radio actors encounter at Mega FM, Maggie Ibrahim chose as a case study the Ter Yat (“Under the Tree”) weekly dialog program at Radio Mega. In December of 2002, LRA leader Joseph Kony called into the program to discuss why peace talks had failed – other panelists included an army spokesman and a local government official. This was just one instance of many in which members of the LRA called into the radio station on various programs to talk about the conflict or send messages to others. After three months of this type of communication, security forces informed the radio station that rebels would not be allowed to call in again. This was couched within the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was criminalizes interviewing alleged terrorists.

Mega FM radio station in Gulu town.

Mega FM radio station in Gulu town.

In the interviews that I conducted in Gulu, it became apparent that in the early 2000s there was a lot of contact between radio staff and the rebels. The rebels’ only source of news was the radio, and so the radio stations were frequently used to disseminate information and to communicate with the broader community. This, of course, was happening while Mega FM was simultaneously carrying out its defection messaging, which served to sap rebel strength and encourage escape attempts among disillusioned or abducted members of the LRA. The fact that the rebel leadership continued to engage in dialog with an entity that was also actively undermining it seems illogical.

And then we turn to Radio Wa, a radio station in Lira, southeast of Acholiland in the Lango Sub-Region. Radio Wa began running defection messaging in 2002, and was very effective in encouraging defections during the early 2000s, especially as rebels moved through that area after a UPDF offensive in 2002. Unlike with Radio Mega, there was no contact with the rebel leadership except for rumored threats against radio staff. In September of 2002, the rebels made good on these threats and destroyed the radio station, attacking early in the morning and burning it down.

Both radio stations actively encouraged LRA fighters to escape and take advantage of the amnesty. Both radio stations saw themselves as supporting community efforts to achieve peace by bringing the LRA home. And yet the rebels chose to engage in public dialog with one radio station while burning down the other.

There could be a lot of different reasons for this. In 2002, as I mentioned, the rebels were reorganizing from an attack by the military, moving into new areas in which they had never been active before. The LRA has its roots in Acholi territory, and many of the top fighters are familiar with some of the Radio Mega staff from early attempts to bring the war to an end. Lira has little history with the rebels, and this lack of connection may have led to the rebel attack.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Justice in Conflict

It’s been about a month since I’ve blogged, but I’m home from my research trip to Uganda/Congo and I thought I’d send you over to the Justice in Conflict blog to read a guest post that I wrote on former LRA commander Caesar Acellam and his defection story. It covers his appearance before the conference I attended in Gulu in late June and also examines the consequences of his defection. Here’s an excerpt:

When he was initially taken into custody, Invisible Children and the UPDF pointed to Acellam’s capture as evidence in support of the military approach to apprehending Kony and his commanders. Framing his defection as a military victory reinforced the goals of Kony 2012 and the UPDF’s international manhunt. But at the conference, hosted by Invisible Children and which included a representative from the military, Acellam told a story of escape and defection in which he broke with LRA leadership on multiple occasions.

If his story is taken as true, it flies in the face of the UPDF narrative and raises questions about the UPDF’s role in the conflict. If disagreements within the LRA led to Acellam’s escape, and he went in search of a place to surrender, then there could be less militarized ways to facilitate such defections, such as defection messaging and reception centers. In addition, Acellam’s defection makes it clear that he should be granted full amnesty. Despite the fact that the amnesty law was reinstated this May, the Amnesty Commission remains drastically underfunded and understaffed and it is unclear if Acellam is in the process of applying for amnesty at all.

Invisible Children, however, has been able to handle the change from capture to defection incredibly well. The organization has always pushed for embracing the LRA abductees while condemning the indicted commanders to justice, opening a rehabilitation center for former abductees in the DRC and partnering with local NGOs that work on promoting reconciliation with the rebel group. Acellam’s defection helps support their message of forgiving abductees without harming their campaign to bring Kony to justice. Similarly, Acholi traditional and religious leaders have used this opportunity to continue to push for a more peaceful end to the conflict, promoting their use forgiveness and reconciliation over military action.

Be sure to check out the whole post. A tip of the hat to Mark Kersten, who runs the JiC  site, edited my post, and is an all-around great resource on the role of justice in the LRA conflict, for agreeing to share my piece.