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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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.

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.

All Aboard for Public Infrastructure

Over the last nine months, I have spent about 275 hours on trains. I usually take the Metro-North, a state-operated railroad service whose trains have been involved in multiple crashes since I moved to the area. Sometimes trains hit cars. Sometimes trains hit each other. Sometimes there are seemingly preventable accidents, like when a train goes 82 miles per hour through a 30 mph turn and catapults towards the Hudson River.

I usually take the Metro-North, but last month I got to take the Northeast Regional, an Amtrak train that is notoriously late and inevitably tries to make up time however possible. That’s probably why an Amtrak train was going 106 mph through a 50 mph curve Tuesday night when it derailed and crashed, killing several passengers and wounding more.

While trains are safer than cars and are crashing less and less often generally, this isn’t true in the New York City area, where crash rates haven’t really declined at all.

At the New YorkerJohn Cassidy writes that “the United States has been allowing its public infrastructure to decay” for decades. The government spends half as much on infrastructure as it did in the 1950s-60s. Of course, the government spends less on a lot these days, as public service provision continues to shrivel and programs get cut more and more. Infrastructure – and safety – for people to move around the country should be a priority.

Instead, Congress slowly breaks off chunks of infrastructure one bill at a time. From International Business Times:

Seven years ago, in the face of growing evidence that the American rail system was dangerously vulnerable to derailments and collisions, Congress passed a law requiring that railroad companies add to their tracks new technology designed to limit such accidents. Absent such technology, federal transportation authorities said last year, “everybody on a train is one human error away from an accident.”

In the years that followed, some sections of the rails threading the crowded Northeast Corridor gained the so-called Positive Train Control (PTC) technology. But in late March, a Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to delay by an additional five years the requirement for the new technology. Among the sections of the system that were then still without the safety gear: the tracks stretching between New York City and Washington.

And then, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s crash, Congress rejected a proposal to increase Amtrak’s funding.

Public infrastructure is supposed to be just that – public. It should serve the public good, and it should move the people safely and at a reasonable cost. It should help the country move. Inhibiting that does us no good.

I still have a few dozen train rides over the next month, so let’s see how I fair. In the meantime, there are some rails that need repair, investment, and technology.