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.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

For those interested, I’ll be giving a talk about part of my summer research this upcoming Wednesday. The talk is a part of the Yale Council on African Studies’ weekly Brown Bag series (the name is deceptive, there is free food – reason enough to come!). It is a very, very preliminary talk – originally scheduled for February and moved up due to scheduling problems – on the HF radio network that operates in DRC and CAR. For those in the area, I’d love some feedback. More info below:

Rural Warning and Militarism: The Effects of the Radio Early Warning Network in LRA-Affected Congo

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 | 12:00-1:00 | Luce Hall 202

In northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a network of high frequency radios has been built in rural villages to help protect civilians from the Lord’s Resistance Army. This early warning system seeks to protect these vulnerable populations by alerting villagers of rebel movements, facilitating a military response, and directing humanitarian aid. This presentation will explore how the network functions, how it fails, and the role of regional militarization in the process.

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.

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.

A Note on Defection Messaging

Most of my blogging from this trip will be more about research than traditional travel-blogging, but I’m doing a short e-mail newsletter for friends and family. If you’d like to be included on that list, feel free to comment or e-mail me at scootles7 [at] gmail [dot] com.

So, I’ve been in Uganda for a week now. My research has been slowly progressing, which already puts this trip as wildly more successful than my last sojourn to this country, which I deemed “a failed attempt” at an internship. I’m nervous about the Congo portion of the trip not least because it’s the Congo and all of the associations, realistic and overblown, that come with that, but also because I don’t speak a bit of French, Lingala, or Zande and because the schedule is very, very up in the air. But, for now, it’s nice to be back in Uganda and be (somewhat) active in my work.

So far, I’ve interviewed the head of radio for Invisible Children and the program director for Mega FM, one of the biggest stations in the north. These interviews have all been about defection messaging, also called come-home messaging (dwog paco in Acholi). The messages include former rebels telling other rebels that it is safe to come home, encouraging them to take advantage of the amnesty law. You can find out more about these messages here and even hear some samples clips in different languages at The Voice Project.

It is widely agreed that the radio messages are extremely effective. This isn’t just coming from the people who work in radio, it has been labeled by aid workers and peace advocates as an effective means of encouraging LRA escapes and surrenders for some time now. Mega FM was started with a large amount of funding from DFID with come-home messaging in mind, USAID’s policy on the LRA includes capacity-building on radio defection efforts, and this programming has recently been a primary thrust of Invisible Children, which states that 89% of returnees cite the messaging as one of the reasons they returned.

But not everyone agrees. I met with Tim Allen, professor of development anthropology at the London School of Economics and long-time (like, long-time) follower of the LRA, a month ago and he said that he thought that the role that radio played was vastly overstated. Indeed, in his and Mareike Schomerus’s report on reception centers [pdf] in 2005, their team found that:

Hardly anybody from the sample heard about the amnesty while still in the barracks and reception center staff have confirmed that most who arrive in the center do not know about it.

[…]

Of those who had heard about the amnesty, many had a negative impression of what it actually meant. In the bush, LRA commanders tell combatants that the amnesty is actually a government ploy to lure people out of the bush and kill them. Commanders deny their soldiers access to radios and make every attempt to suppress information.

Many reception centers say that, anecdotally, returnees say that they try to sneak around and listen to radios when they can to hear news from home, and that is how they find out about the amnesty.  This report was written in 2005, so perhaps things have changed between then and now, or perhaps some center staff had different experiences. Allen and his team raise some concerns about the reliability of returnee anecdotes, citing that one of the jobs of reception center staff is to teach returnees how to talk about their experiences in constructive ways. Some returnees may be picking up that they should cite radio regardless of their personal experience, either as an unintentional side-effect of the rehabilitation process or as part of the belief that it will get them better aid packages.The point remains that there is some ambiguity over how much access to radio the lower-level members of the LRA have.

My research is predominantly on how the messaging works, which may or may not assume that it works. I’ve been an ardent supporter of messaging, but Allen and Schomerus provide some important arguments to keep in mind. The biggest spike in returns occurred during a time of both heightened radio programming and a major military attack in the early- to mid-2000s, so it’s hard to figure out which event had a bigger impact. No doubt both played a role, and I’d much rather advocate for radio messages than military action. And so that’s what I’ll be studying, and we’ll see how it goes as I move forwards. See update below.

With two interviews down, I’ve traveled back to my old stomping grounds in Lira today. Tomorrow morning I’ll be visiting Radio Wa, a Catholic radio station here that also did come-home messaging, called karibuni programming, which is inexplicably a Swahili word in a region where few speak it. I might ask about that. I’ll be back in Gulu tomorrow to round out my radio-in-northern-Uganda interviews, and then be moving onto other things. Besides that, I’ve been doing a lot of things most expats do: using the internet, eating street food (although there’s a disappointingly small amount to offer in Gulu), avoiding eye contact with other expats, while also making friends with some expats. Same old, same old, here in Uganda.

Update: Friend of the blog and Director of Civic Engagement at Invisible Children Lisa Dougan had this to say on Facebook:

Question for you: Tim and Mareika’s points (at least the ones you’ve mentioned in your blog) were specifically about whether or not AMNESTY messaging was encouraging defections. That can be differentiated from come-home/defection messaging more broadly. We’ve found that several recent LRA defectors have referenced defection messaging as having a role to play in their surrender/escape, while they might not necessarily specifically mention Uganda’s amnesty policy. Some LRA seem to just need assurances that if they surrender, they will have a safe place at which to defect, where they will not be hurt by the FARDC, FACA, or local community, and they want to know that they will be able to go home. We’ve also been the degree to which reintegration programs/packages are actually more important to LRA defectors than an amnesty certificate itself. The distinction between amnesty (as legal protection from prosecution) and a more comprehensive reintegration program might be something you’ll want to look into. Thanks again for your work.

To which I responded:

I think you’re right to differentiate between amnesty messaging and general come-home messaging, and the first portion of Tim & Mareike’s report that I quoted was specific to amnesty and how the UPDF treated it… but the latter section questioned how often lower-level rebels actually listened to the radio at all. I know a lot of people have told me that rebels sneakily listen in when they can, but the report gives a few reasons to be wary about returnee anecdotes.

I do want to restate that, broadly, I’m on team radio on this topic. I really do think it’s done a lot of good, and I think it’s a positive way to bring about more escapes and surrenders. Looking at some of the data, I just wonder if it’s playing as big a role as we think it is. I think flier drops and aerial loud-speakers are a great addition to this that may indeed improve upon the radio method.

Summer Plans in Africa

Greetings, dear reader. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m sorry for inundating you with only weekend reading lists and none of the usual amateur commentary that usually comes along during the week. Things have been busy here – I’m halfway done with my time at Yale now, and final papers this semester were a wreck for me. Now that school’s out, though, I have a small group of draft posts waiting in the wings. Until then, though, I thought I’d give you an update on recent occurrences in the House of Backslash.

This summer, I will be abroad for about two months, spending time in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (and maybe South Sudan) to conduct thesis research. I’ll then be spending a short bit of time in Benin with my BFF who is a PCV there. A short note on my thesis, for those interested:

In the early 2000s, a radio station in Gulu, northern Uganda, ran programming that urged defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is comprised predominantly of conscripted youths. The defection messaging promoted the Ugandan government’s amnesty program and encouraged rebels to surrender and be reintegrated back into their home communities. There has been a lot of fanfare about the defection messaging, but it hasn’t been without criticism. During the mid- to late-2000s, the LRA moved westward towards northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Central African Republic (CAR). Since then, radio stations in both of those countries and South Sudan have been using similar tactics in urging defections. Meanwhile, organizations such as Catholic Relief Service and Invisible Children have helped patch together a network of HF radios that function as an early warning system for villages that are in danger.

My research plan is to better understand how radio is used in the LRA conflict and how it affects people in the region. I hope to be conducting interviews in Gulu about radio’s use in the early 2000s, and then doing the same for contemporary usage in Yambio, South Sudan, and Dungu, DRC. The goal of these interviews will be to get a clearer picture of what the radio programs said, who was in charge of determining the programming, and how radio stations dealt with outsiders’ (NGOs or the government) involvement in their work.

I will then (hopefully) visit villages in DRC, most likely in Haut Uélé district, to learn about the HF radio stations. Similar to the first phase, I hope to learn more about how the messages function, who is in charge of operating them, and how villagers interact with those who help establish the stations. I would also like to look into how the messaging system affects the daily lives of civilians in these areas, and am interested in learning if the radios are used for anything beyond the NGOs’ intended purpose. Lastly, I’d like to evaluate the effects of the defection messaging in terms of actually encouraging defections. Both of these sections will depend on my resources and the situation on the ground, so I’ll provide updates once I’m there.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about this over the course of the next year. I’ll try to post research notes from the field, and I’m sure that I’ll use the blog as I plod through the thesis-writing process, especially in preparation for any presentations I have to give. If you have any questions or comments, go for it. If you’ll be in any of these places, we should chat. As I prep for my trip, I should probably thank the Lindsay Fellowship, the Coca-Cola World Fund, and my parents for their financial help, my wife and my friends for the emotional support, and a host of grad students and professors for their intellectual help. I have never done a lot of the things I’ll be doing, and I’m glad I’ll have all three kinds of support throughout. As we get closer to June (I’ll be leaving at the beginning of the month) I’ll let you know more about my plans. Until then, keep on keeping on everybody.