Demobilization as Defection, and Other Thoughts on Blurring Categories in Conflict

A big chunk of my MA thesis was on radio demobilization projects in the LRA conflict (shameless self-promotion: new [gated] article about it in ASR!), and I’m hoping to do some more work on it this summer as I sort out my next project (The Dissertation). A common theme that came up throughout my research – both in the field and in looking over documents and videos from groups working in the region – was the frequent blurring of different categories. I’ll illustrate by thinking my way through and around this recent article in the Daily Beast, “Joseph Kony’s Former Bodyguards Are Now Helping US Troops Hunt Him” by Kevin Maurer.

The article is centered around a recent incident in which LRA leader Joseph Kony’s guards fired on his house before escaping to a distant U.S. base where they surrendered, and since then they have been assisting the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts. This incident is definitely worth talking about – as several interviewees note in the article, this is an incredibly bold move by the abductees, and it only reinforces the continuing story that the LRA is shrinking and its command structure collapsing – but beyond just this incident and even beyond this article, I want to tease out some of the blurring that’s happening in the conflict and in how it gets represented.

Blurring Demobilization with Defection

The first thing worth lingering on is something frequent in how several people talk about the conflict – the conflation of demobilization with “defection.” The radio program is, at its heart, a demobilization campaign. Messages encourage rebels to surrender, to go home, to reintegrate into their communities, to receive amnesty, to give up on war. It is different from most DDR programs in that it is not post-conflict, nor is it en masse, but it is a demobilization campaign nonetheless. But, starting in 2011, some began to call this program and this process “defection.” In my thesis I tied this to a broader shift in linguistic and programmatic practices that signaled the militarization of humanitarianism:

LRA who escaped and turned themselves over to be reintegrated were no longer just “returnees,” but also became known as “defectors.” The leaflets that MONUSCO had been dropping became “defection fliers,” and come home messaging also gained the moniker “defection messaging.” This more militaristic jargon seems to serve little purpose except to align Invisible Children closer with its narrative as forming an “army of peace.” By 2013, there was even a department within Invisible Children called “Counter LRA Initiatives.”


This latest shift in discourse, paired by a shift in programming on the ground in the region, puts Invisible Children on new terrain. Where most NGOs operate in a place of aid and development, they rarely endorse military action or engage in collaborations with military forces. Even in Uganda, where humanitarian organizations were complicit in the government’s violent displacement policy (Branch 2008 [pdf]), NGOs did not endorse military action nearly as explicitly as Invisible Children has. By using an early warning network that relies on FARDC, assisting the UPDF and U.S. army advisers in establishing a military presence in the region, and using come home messaging as an effort to disrupt LRA activity, Invisible Children has moved into uncharted territory in its contribution to the militarization of humanitarianism. Quoted in a recent news article, the organization’s Program Manager for Counter-LRA Initiatives Sean Poole stated that “Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides” (Gonzales 2014).

I think an aspect of this linguistic shift is creeping militarism in humanitarianism, writ large – a problem bigger than Invisible Children or the LRA conflict, but rather a part of the post-9/11 securitization of (Western?) society. But, linguistic analysis and militarization critique aside, the fact of the matter is that some of the former LRA fighters who come out of the bush do actually help counter-LRA forces, effectively defecting to the other side in this conflict. Defection is happening. I don’t think that negates my argument, which has to do more broadly with humanitarianism, militarization, and ways of speaking and thinking.

Still, the linguistic practices are still doing a lot of work in Maurer’s article. When Maurer refer to these former child soldiers who have demobilized as “defectors,” the logical point of progression is that they will assist the U.S. in helping track Kony – that’s what a defector would do. If we started by calling them returnees or formerly abducted child soldiers, we might have a different perspective; maybe we would stop and wonder whether they should still be engaged in warfare at all, regardless of which side.

Blurring Child Soldiers with Soldiers

I do think that the presence of actual defectors is worth staying with for a bit, because it raises a lot of questions. In Maurer’s article, he focuses on the “Kony 7” – seven bodyguards who turned on Kony, tried to kill him, and fled to escape LRA captivity. They have since joined up with counter-LRA operations and are helping the U.S. Special Forces pursue Kony. In the article, Maurer notes that “Roland [one of the returnees] is now over 18 years old, as are his fellow Kony 7 members, Alex and Simon… The former bodyguards already completed reintegration training in Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda, and were looking forward to starting a new life. But first they wanted to help the Americans free their comrades.”

If they’re going to help the U.S. fight, it’s good that they’re over 18 (child soldier laws, after all!) – but it’s not like the second you turn 18, years of abuse and trauma go away. Should these former child soldiers really be continuing to carry out war? (Again, if we start with calling them “defectors,” the answer is a more quick yes than if we start with “former abductee.”) In an article on military humanitarianism, Sverker Finnström explains that:

The American military intervention, promoted by Invisible Children as essential to any solution, has itself been described by a US army officer on the ground this way: “These ex-LRA guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to reintegrate,” he said to the New York Times. “But one thing they are very good at is hunting human beings in the woods” (10 April 2010). With a statement like this in mind, we ought to be more uncomfortable than ever with President Obama’s waiving of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for some of the very countries where the LRA is active.

The use of former child soldiers to help track Kony has been happening for a long time now, but should it? Does completing reintegration training do anything if you immediately head back into the bush with a gun, just under a different flag? Is that really reintegration? What does it mean to demobilize if you stay in a state of war? Is that really demobilization? Will these child-soldiers-turned-soldiers ever truly disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate?

The use of former LRA to go back into the bush where they spent recent years might have negative consequences for the returnees themselves, but it also feeds into other forces at play. How do victims of LRA violence feel, knowing that former LRA fighters are now coming back as counter-LRA fighters? When I was taking a break from interviews in northeastern Congo, one of the men I was with accused the UN of helping the LRA. Another interviewee told me that one of the issues the radio demobilization programming ran into was that locals that it was actually a coded message the Ugandan military used to coordinate with the LRA to attack civilians. Does actually using former LRA fighters do anything but exacerbate such beliefs?

Blurring Forms of Accountability

In the same instance, it’s worth noting that employing (deploying?) former child soldiers as soldiers pulls us away from the question of accountability. There’s a lot of ongoing debate over whether child soldiers – particularly ones that grow up to become adults and therefore legally responsible for their actions – should be held accountable. Much ink has been spilled on the place of child soldiers in justice after atrocities, and the issue continues to be debated (most recently in this symposium and my article on ICC-indicted LRA returnee Dominic Ongwen). Even from the perspective of LRA victims, it is often debated [pdf].

Child soldiers can (and should) be seen as victims too. Sometimes that leads to sympathy or solidarity between different victims, sometimes that leads to a perceived hierarchy of victimhood, sometimes it gets rejected completely and people see child soldiers as perpetrators instead. Often this depends on how the individual is portrayed – some get more sympathy than others.

When child soldiers grow into adult rebels, this gets murky enough. When the now-adult abductee rebels surrender and then take up arms as former abductee, former child soldier, now state soldier, things get even messier. How should local civilians interpret their change of uniform? Part of the reason even adult abductees and former child soldiers can be seen as victims rather than perpetrators is that every decision they make is shaped by the environment they find themselves in, and therefore the level of accountability or responsibility might change. For returnees who may not be able to imagine life after war, is choosing to switch sides rather than disarm still a decision in a wartime environment and a wartime mentality?

Blurring Returnee Experiences

And on the subject of accountability, there’s a lot of justice, accountability, and amnesty discussion absent from this article (either for space or because it didn’t really fit the narrative). In heralding the successes of radio demobilization programs, Maurer notes that:

One of [the] highest profile defectors was LRA commander Dominic Ongwen. He surrendered in January 2015. He was one of five high-ranking LRA officers indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. After Ongwen’s defection, military officials had him record a message urging his fighters to defect. The U.S. soldiers said many of the defectors said hearing Ongwen or other defectors on the radio convinced them it was safe to leave Kony.

“We try and let them know what is available to them,” the soldier said.

[Brownyn] Bruton [of the Atlantic Council] said there is some indication that LRA fighters listen to the radio and get the leaflets. The promise of amnesty is tempting.

“The people who go get amnesty, that is not a small thing,” she said. “To be able to wipe the slate clean, that is a very tempting offer.”

But Ongwen wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. He received no amnesty. He demobilized and then was arrested and is now on trial. Ongwen might be an example of the success of the radio come home messaging, but to say that he defected – and then to equate that with amnesty – glosses over a lot of detail. It makes demobilization programming explicitly counter-LRA and a tool for fighting rather than a tool for not-fighting, a tool for demobilization. It also obscures the fact that Ongwen was sent to The Hague and has now been charged with more war crimes than anyone in history, surprising for a child soldier (again, see the JiC symposium or my Warscapes piece for more).

On the ground in the LRA conflict, returnee experiences are in the plural. Some returnees were never abducted, though most were. Some returnees received amnesty, while many enjoy freedom (or impunity, depending on how you look at it) but without official documentation. Two men are actually in jail cells, one in The Hague and the other in Uganda, both pending controversial trials. Many reintegrate into their old homes, some reintegrate into the army, some don’t reintegrate at all and move away to escape ostracism. Much of the literature on the LRA sees one process, but there are many, many ways that demobilization and reintegration occur. Blurring these together obscures that, and blurring them into defection obscures even more.

Blurring Agency

But, in this very blog post I’m also blurring some representations of the actors involved. Child soldiers, inherently through the act of abduction and conscription, lack a certain level of agency in the legal sense, but also in scholarly and journalistic and humanitarian discourse. A lot of the back and forth in discussing the actions of abductees (and, me above, returnees) is shaped by this refusal to grant/recognize agency. But former child soldiers (or even active child soldiers) can be said to make their own decisions – decisions structured by the violent circumstances they find themselves in, of course, but decisions nonetheless.

The question remains whether, upon demobilization, taking up arms against the LRA is a decision shaped by structures of conflict or structures of post-conflict. Some post-conflict agreements include not necessarily demobilization but reintegration into the national army, after all. Is that what’s happening for these fighters? It’s not clear how long they will continue to act as soldiers, or if they’re role in helping Uganda and the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts may end up taking them as AMISOM soldiers in Somalia or as riot police to Kampala or contractors in Baghdad.

So, my own hesitation against turning demobilization into defection and turning former child soldiers into soldiers also steals away a certain agency for these individuals. Child soldiers could become soldiers, and they could defect. Who is to say they can’t take up arms? Can former LRA returnees still desire regime change in Uganda at the barrel of a gun? Can they desire to end the LRA once and for all, even if it means staying in the bush a little longer to help the U.S.?

Questions of agency in wartime are hard ones to answer, but they are questions worth asking again and again. But, in asking them, I’m trying to avoid blurring different categories together. As this erasure keeps happening, language and representation obfuscate what’s happening on the ground. In doing so, we may be closing off possibilities and asking the wrong questions.

Shameless Self-Promotion: at Warscapes

Short post to link you all to a new piece I have up at Warscapes: “Dominic Ongwen and the Search for Justice.” The article focuses on Dominic Ongwen, an LRA abductee-turned-commander who sat before the ICC’s confirmation of charges in January. I explore his particular case, but also look at the ICC’s broader intervention in the LRA conflict, and how it has narrowed the popular understanding of what types of justice are possible and for whom. You should read the whole thing (please!) but here’s a preview:

When Dominic Ongwen stood before the International Criminal Court on January 21, he confronted  a team of prosecutors and judges presenting a list of his alleged war crimes.  After spending years as a brigade commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen was no longer outfitted in rebel attire, but stood in a gray suit and tie, listening to the proceedings as they were translated into his native Acholi language. He waived the right to have each of the charges against him read aloud in court, so the presiding judge, Cuno Tarfusser, summarized the seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

When Ongwen was first taken into custody last January, major rights groups heralded his capture as an important step towards justice. Amnesty International argued that “Ongwen now needs to be held to account for the numerous charges he faces of murder, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers and use of sex slaves.” Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, called Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague “a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes.” This was a sign of progress in the ICC’s first case, which was opened in 2004 and has otherwise seen little development.

But while Western rights groups were nearly unanimous in supporting Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC, the mood among Ugandans was decidedly mixed—even among victims of LRA violence. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative issued apress release regretting that Ongwen had been sent to the ICC, arguing instead for him to be brought home and forgiven through traditional reconciliation ceremonies. The statement said that the ICC, “which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides” of the conflict. Around the same time, Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project facilitated a dialogue of local leaders in Gulu, a town that was at the center of the conflict for many years. A report on the discussion found that attitudes among the Acholi people were complicated and support for Ongwen’s arrest was far from universal.

Transnational Advocacy and the Single Story Problem

In 2013, a group of students at the Fletcher School at Tufts organized a research seminar on the topic of Western advocacy campaigns and their shortcomings. Several short pieces were posted online (here’s an overview of the seminar [also as a pdf]), which I followed from afar, and I was happy to hear that the organizers decided to turn it into an edited volume. When I was asked to review it, I excitedly agreed:

Transnational advocacy is an increasingly apparent part of activism in a world that is more and more interconnected. As Twitter and other social media sites allow people to forge relations with like-minded individuals, many have chosen to stand with or for others in their activism. Some of this has taken the form of solidarity movements like BDS while others can more easily be categorized as part of the “white savior industrial complex,” like Save Darfur.

While the book covers much more, the problems of Western advocacy campaigns are at the heart of Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, a new collection of articles edited by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Trisha Taneja, and Keren Yohannes. In an age when there are more and more edited volumes that fail to achieve much, this is one example that is more than the sum of its parts. The chapters in Advocacy in Conflict strike at the heart of what activism looks like and does, and what it ought to do.

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal

One crucial theme throughout the book is the role of single narratives. While we’ve all seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story by now, not everyone was aware of this danger when planning advocacy campaigns for causes around the world. Mareike Schomerus shows this in her chapter on the most (in)famous attempt to craft a single narrative: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and campaign. The dangers of a narrowed narrative are also present in Burma, where Maung Zarni points out the limitations of a narrative centered on an individual such as Aung San Suu Kyi rather than Burma as a nation, which has left the country with a facade of democratization; it is present in the D.R. Congo, where Laura Seay explores the unintended consequences of Enough’s conflict minerals narrative, including a de facto boycott of (and loss of livelihood for) legitimate Congolese miners; it is in South Sudan, where U.S. support of the SPLA helped create a new country out of Sudan, but also bolstered a corrupt and murderous structure that led to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan; and in disability rights, where Tsitsi Chataika et al. show that the complexities of identity and representation get molded into a narrowed discourse as Western donors get involved, a discourse which carries out its own oppression.

The pitfalls of a single narrative are just one thing that the book questions in its attempt to “reclaim international advocacy movements to make them more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (1). Other key questions that the organizers of the volume set out to answer include critiques of the legitimacy of advocacy on behalf of others, the question of inclusiveness, how to bring academic knowledge and public activism together, and the hierarchies of local and global contexts. The book does not necessarily offer explicit answers to each of these topics, but throughout the pages one can find explorations and ruminations that get us closer to building a better form of activism that is aware of its vulnerabilities and the importance of a more robust activism rooted in solidarity.

The book as a whole does a good job of turning success stories on their head. De Waal’s chapter on South Sudan shows that the success story of South Sudanese independence is anything but, and in so doing he renders the current civil war not a sudden crisis but a long-expected emergence rooted in the SPLA’s history as “a regressive resistance army masquerading as a liberation movement” (165). Citing Rebecca Hamilton’s brilliant reporting on South Sudan’s leading supporters in the U.S., de Waal also shows how these activists provided pressure that made U.S. policy inflexible, something I remember seeing in my own brief encounters with Save Darfur activists. This critique of past policies and advocacy helps place the current conflict in a new context, which can guide activists working to end this most recent crisis.

Critiquing movements that are commonly seen as success stories is more than just a buzzkill exercise. By doing this over and over, the book as a whole attempts to forge a new way forwards. Roddy Brett’s chapter on Guatemala shows that international efforts helped open space for indigenous activists to demand rights and gain a voice, but simultaneously made the realization of those rights impossible. Schomerus’ chapter on Invisible Children emphasizes that even radio programs that seek to inform people about LRA activities can inadvertently feed fear of rebels and empower armed militias that should otherwise be disbanded. Research like this, and others in the volume, show us what to be wary of as we engage in activism regardless of where and for what cause.

It’s crucial to ensure that global activism links all parties, giving local voices a global audience and ensuring the buy-in of those directly affected. Otherwise, we wind up with what de Waal refers to as policy that “can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19). Whether it’s central Africa, Burma, Guatemala, or Gaza, transnational activism is susceptible to being co-opted by those in power, and the best way to resist this is to ground our activism with those involved. It is harder for Uganda to entrench its militarization of the region if more Ugandan voices are included in advocacy decision-making. Congolese miners are more likely to stay employed and maybe even benefit if efforts to crack down on rebel supply chains were instead diverted to more fundamental concerns like security, justice, and governance at the heart of rebellion. The lesson in each of the cases featured in the book point to similar takeaways: be inclusive of those involved, be aware of the effects of involvement, and engage with complexity in order to address underlying causes.

The book itself is laid out in four parts – a one-chapter history of activism, followed by three case studies of Western advocacy movements linking with local campaigns (in Burma, Guatemala, and Gaza), then three case studies where Western activism diverged sharply from events on the ground (Congo, the LRA, and South Sudan), and three cases of issues-based activism (disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs). All four sections offer different perspectives on a common problem: how to do advocacy across societies.

De Waal’s historical chapter is a useful look at how transnational advocacy has changed from decolonization through the human rights regime to today (though whether “today” is defined by post-Cold War, post-9/11, neoliberal, etc. is up for debate). The next section is useful for seeing how movements can merge – but the key is to see how this occurs. Sometimes foreign activists can integrate their message with local campaigns, but other times grassroots work gets derailed by intervention. The third section is most relevant to me, perhaps because it’s on Western advocacy in armed conflict in central Africa, but also because it demonstrates how outside activists can advocate for a cause regardless of what those affected actually feel about it. This power relation is an issue that is fundamental to any activist to be aware of, be it mansplaining, the white savior industrial complex, or some other form of the superiority-via-helping tendency. The last section, on issues-based activism, was to me the least interesting (chalk it up to subjects I’m less familiar with, or a different argument structure), and yet there are still key lessons to pull from disability rights activism being co-opted by big international NGOs, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ rapid success which actually heralded its failure, and the ability of actors with very different understandings of land rights to come together to resist it despite their differences.

Regardless of where you’re coming from (academic, development, activists or otherwise), this is a book worth reading. Taken individually, each chapter offers different perspectives and lessons on the particular topic at hand. Taken as a whole, the book coalesces around key concepts and lessons that every activist (and scholar of activism) should commit to her agenda.

In their conclusion to the book, Hogle et al. find four common goals in order to help “reclaim activism.” These are 1) empower local actors, 2) recognize complexity, 3) be inclusive of a range of those concerned, 4) reject single narratives. This call to action, and the volume as a whole, is a salvo in an ongoing debate over how to carry out activism, and it’s packed with important evidence and relevant cases for all aspects of transnational activism.

“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.

On Sensitization and Safe Reporting Sites in LRA-Affected Regions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad News and Good News from CAR

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

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

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

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

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.

What Invisible Children is Doing Right: Protection and Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Samantha Power is Speaking at Fourth Estate

Tonight, newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will give the keynote address at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit. The summit is the second or third* such conference hosted by IC to bring together young leaders to learn more about the LRA conflict in particular, but also to learn about and discuss activism, development, justice, and trendy ways to change lives. The keynote will be Power’s first speech since assuming the role of ambassador to the UN.

Some people are a little surprised that this will be Power’s first event. But, regardless of whether it was booked before or after her nomination, her attendance at the conference representing the government is very appropriate. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide has been cited by a lot of activists as a call to action and a blueprint for what the U.S. government’s role in preventing and responding to mass atrocities should look like. In the book, citing how the U.S. failed to intervene when genocide occurred in the past, Power advocates for increased humanitarian intervention through engaged diplomatic efforts and military action.

While her call for intervention is not without criticism, Power’s advocacy for U.S. involvement in stemming and preventing mass atrocities has been central to groups like Invisible Children, Enough, and Save Darfur, groups that have led grassroots movements to bring attention to and take action to stop human rights abuses. In addition to making films about the LRA and running education, employment, and sanitation programs in Uganda, IC is also behind the years-long advocacy push for U.S. action to bring leaders of the LRA to justice. This is why it’s no surprise that Invisible Children would want Samantha Power to speak at their summit.

But why would the U.S. Mission to the UN send its highest official to the conference, and for her first official speech at that? Again, while this might seem surprising at first, it actually makes all sorts of sense. Invisible Children has been the central figure in the campaign to get the U.S. government to take action on the LRA conflict. There are several groups trying to shed light on the LRA’s actions, but IC has pretty much been in the driver’s seat of the effort to urge U.S. action since around 2007 or 2009. The May 2010 passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was the most widely co-sponsored Africa-related bill in modern U.S. legislative history. And in October of 2011 President Obama sent 100 military advisers to help track down Kony.

This is all to say that Invisible Children is a powerful player in helping advocate for policy decisions. But IC has also played into the broader U.S. policy in the region. President Museveni of Uganda has been a pretty bad leader recently, but the War on Terror gave both Presidents Bush and Obama reason to lend him financial support and military assistance as part of the trend in which we support autocrats for being tough on terrorists. Uganda is one of the main contributors to the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where they are fighting al Shabaab. Museveni has been a long-time opponent of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir. And this is on top of Museveni’s fight against the LRA, whom were labeled terrorists by both the U.S. and Ugandan governments in the early 2000s. Because of all of this, Museveni needs U.S. support – rigged elections and brutal crackdowns on protests be damned. And so, by mustering a grassroots movement of thousands of millenials to call for the U.S. to commit to helping stop the LRA, IC helps the Obama administration explain why Museveni deserves millions of dollars of military aid.

And that brings us to today, when an advocate of U.S. humanitarian intervention and a person who has been in the center of Obama’s foreign policy decision-making will speak to 1500 youth that helped call for intervention in central Africa that supported an autocrat. There are good and bad things that arise from such parallel work between an advocacy group and the government, from effectively getting aid money to development agencies and raising awareness of the effects of displacement to further militarizing an already dangerous region. But, as IC’s activism in the U.S. and their protection programs in DRC and CAR continue to support and shape U.S. policy, the relationship between the two will remain like that.

* This is the second Fourth Estate conference – the first was in 2011. I attended a conference in 2007 that was a sort of precursor to Fourth Estate, in which 200 IC supporters also learned about the LRA, discussed activism, justice, world-changing, etc.

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.