Tag Archives: LRA

How Civilians Protect Themselves Nonviolently During Mass Killings

16 Jul

*This post summarizes my undergraduate thesis.

International interventions in mass killing episodes often fail to adequately protect civilians.

The UNMISS peacekeeping operation in South Sudan is a case in point. Bureaucratic, political, and financial constraints consistently inhibit the deployment of well-staffed interventions, and often prohibit them outright.

Therefore, many civilians must survive without external assistance, but we know surprisingly little about how this occurs.

No scholar has produced a work combining empirical examples of civilian self-protection with a theory of the mechanisms that allow it to function during mass killing or even conflict more broadly. The lack of focus on civilian self-protection is symptomatic of a larger issue of how scholars envision violent conflict.

Check out the rest of the article at the Monkey Cage. You can read the entire thesis here.


When a Government Falls in the CAR, Do Analysts Hear a Sound?: A Narrative of Current Events

25 Mar

As I sarcastically noted in the above tweet yesterday, the reaction from the foreign policy community to the news of rebels entering Bangui last night was quite underwhelming.  Though I’m about the furthest thing from a CAR expert, I’d like to do my part to fill the information gap about the collapse of Bozize’s regime by aggregating various news reports and producing a more coherent narrative.

Bozize’s (whose ascendancy to power seems to have started when he beat up a French officer) downfall began back in December, when a coalition of four rebel groups, Seleka (meaning “Alliance” in Sango) took up arms against CAR’s government.  The two most powerful groups that form Seleka, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) , both started as loosely-organized self-defense militias in northeastern CAR (and of the two, the UFDR is the most powerful).   While Bozize’s neglect of rural areas is surely a cause of the rebellion, in the New York Times, Louisa Lombard argues that a United Nations D.D.R. program that failed to understand how the CAR actually works (and seems to have even encouraged some rebels to take up arms) also shares some of the blame.

As Seleka advanced and looked as if they might well overthrow Bozize, the government took to the negotiating table.  Though the “talks”, held in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, were conducted with plenty of pomp by the four regional leaders present, they did not produce any strong comprises.  The hastily signed peace document simply rehashed previous talks from 2007 and 2008 which Bozize had failed to uphold.  Seleka itself, though present at the negotiations, was internally divided on whether or not to engage with the government, considering its then position of strength.

By mid-March, Bozize had still failed to uphold the peace agreement.  Seleka accused Bozize of not fulfilling the four main demands by the rebels that had appeared in the January talks: the release of political prisoners, an end to the curfew and road blocks, the withdrawal of foreign (primarily South African) troops from the country, and finally the integration of at least 2,000 rebel soldiers into the country’s security forces.  The accusation caused Bozize to appear on radio on March 15th and decree that his government respect the first and second demands.  However, his actions only partially placated dissenting voices.  Though Prime Minister  Nicolas Tiangaye (a Seleka representative who had been inducted in the newly formed unity government) had repeatedly encouraged Seleka to lay down its weapons and engage in dialogue with the government, on March 18th, Minister of Defense Michel Djotodia (also a newly inducted government member from Seleka) threatened to overthrow Bozize if the rebels demands were not met within 72 hours and fled Bangui to join with Seleka armed forces.  Bozize failed to meet the demands, Seleka advanced, taking Bangui and causing Bozize to flee across the river to the DRC on the 23rd.

Before I move into the nitty-gritty of what’s happened in the last three days, I’d like to ruminate on two reasons why Seleka was able to overthrow Bozize.  First, there seems to have been a strategic miscalculation on Bozize’s part.  While he had been able to maintain control after sham peace process in ’07 and ’08, it clearly didn’t work this time.  Surely, it should have been pretty clear that the rebels were both militarily strong enough to take Bangui (perhaps he was counting on international support that never materialized?) and that individuals like Djotodia could not be co-opted, even as members of the government.  One possibility is that Bozize himself was not the final power broker here.  Perhaps decision making power in his government was diffuse, meaning hardliners ultimately overruled and paralyzed Bozize, but considering the perfunctory nature of January’s peace talks, the first explanation, a pure political miscalculation, seems more likely.  Second, Bozize fell into a classic trap for dictators in weak states, “Observers say Mr Bozize kept the army weak because he was afraid of a military coup” (via BBC).  James Fearson wrote about this dilemma in the Monkey Cage, and indeed, it seems that dictators (ok, so Bozize won elections, but still had dictatorial tendencies) in weak states, even with ample resources, are unable to build strong security forces to safeguard their rule because of the threat of mutiny.

So what’s happening right now?  It sounds as if, at the time of writing, the skirmishes between Seleka and government forces have ended.  Despite the end of formal fighting, there seems to be widespread looting in Bangui, which may be being directed or prevented by Seleka, depending on the article you read.  Reports indicate that nine South African soldiers died defending Bozize’s governments.  Though it’s still unclear exactly why there were there in the first, the theories I’ve seen have postulated it was an attempt to extend SA’s continental influence and curry good favor with Bozize in order to access CAR’s mineral wealth.  France, which already has 250 soldiers stationed around Bangui’s airport, has deployed another 300 ostensibly to protect French citizens, and Francois Hollande has stated that he does not intend to interfere in internal CAR affairs.   This surge in fighting seems to have involved many child soldiers, and there are also unconfirmed reports of rape and torture perpetrated by the rebels.  While Djotodia has declared himself interim President (he surely has the shortest Wikipedia page of any world leader), Tiangaye was named Prime Minister, and elections are to be held in three year’s time.

The situation on the ground will inevitably change rapidly within the next few days, and in all likelihood, the full picture will become more clear with time.  Finally, I hope that this conflict will start to receive the attention it deserves.

Update 1 (12:15 am EST, 3/26/13)

News is still slow to make it’s way out of CAR.  Ban Ki-Moon has condemned Seleka’s seizure of power and expressed concern regarding reports of atrocities and the deteriorating humanitarian situation (especially in areas of the CAR where the LRA has had a presence).  Looting continues, but several regional armed forces are working with Seleka to restore order.  Seleka has pledged to name a power-sharing government, and has also suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament.  Finally, the death toll for South African soldiers has been raised to 13.

Update 2 (12:30 pm EST, 3/26/13)

Djotodia issued the following statement, “I consider it necessary to suspend the November 27, 2004 constitution, to dissolve parliament as well as the government.  During this transition period which will lead us to free, credible and transparent elections, I will legislate by decree.  We will lead the people of Central African Republic during a three-year transition period, in accordance with the Libreville Accord.”  This statement cites a recognition of the Libreville Accord, despite the fact that Seleka’s rejection of the legitimacy of this process was the main cause for taking up arms.  In light of the rebellion, The African Union has suspended the CAR and placed personal sanctions on Seleka leaders.  Water is in short supply throughout the CAR, and large parts of the country, including Bangui, are without electricity.  Ex-President Bozize, after a few days of unknown whereabouts, has popped up in Cameroon.  The US has weighed in on the issue, condemning Bozize’s ouster, but also failed to call for his re-instatement.  Finally, the BBC (surely responding to my statement on the short length of Michel Djotodia’s Wikipedia page) has published a profile of the world’s newest leader.

One Year Later, Analyzing Kony 2012’s Fatal Flaws

24 Feb

Since the original Kony 2012 video came out on March 5th, it became the most viral video of all time, received tremendous amounts of criticism, and then as quickly as it appeared, the movement faded into relative obscurity.  While the concrete effects of Invisible Children’s campaign on the LRA’s insurgency are fleeting, the video prompted both a public interest in central African conflict and a critical discussion on foreigners’ role in conflict prevention, the LRA’s place in a broader African context, and a history of human rights abuses by the Ugandan army.  While Kony 2012, at the very least, was terribly problematic, it did accomplish a very limited number of its goals.  However, considering the massive following it was able to initially achieve, the campaign was certainly a failure.  Joesph Kony continues to elude pursuing armies, and policy-wise, little has changed in the past year.

Beyond the campaign’s basic inability to successfully prompt the arrest or death of Joseph Kony, Invisible Children ultimately made little headway in producing an approach that was likely to achieve one of those two goals.  In a panel discussion I helped organized last semester, Swarthmore history professor Tim Burke argued that the United States’ past attempts to work with African strongmen had always failed, and would continue to do so.  IC’s campaign could not be a more perfect example.  Kony 2012 threw all of its eggs into the Ugandan military‘s basket, simply ignoring its long history of human rights violations and Musevini’s use of the LRA to justify a large military budget (which is then used to fund meddling in the DRC).  IC also failed to take into account Museveni’s propensity to use hunting the LRA as a bargaining chip with Western donors.  Ultimately, using a military force with foreign advisers to hunt down and eliminate the LRA is a tactic that has been tried over and over, and failed every time.

Invisible Children’s approach to ending the LRA conflict in the Kony 2012 video was essentially based in a flawed, simplistic understanding of the conflict.  Though, to its credit, IC does some really good work on the ground in Northern Uganda, its policy proposals, consisting of more American military advisers, were always destined to fall flat.  The LRA is a symptom, and not a cause, of poor governance, violence, and civilian suffering in the areas in which it exists.  Killing Joesph Kony is highly unlikely to seriously change regional dynamics in DRC, South Sudan, or the Central African Republic.  This analysis seems pretty basic, and so it’s hard to understand why Invisible Children chose to promote such nonsensical policy.

Though Kony 2012 did succeed in taking Invisible Children, and even human rights advocacy, to new heights, it seems that there were small changes IC could have made to promote better policy without damaging the video’s popularity.  In the end, the problem with Kony 2012 was not so much the template they used to draw viewers in, but rather with the solutions the campaign espoused.  Instead of a campaign focused on killing Kony, IC could have produced a similarly sappy video that focused on efforts to coax poor African children who have suffered at the hands of the monster Kony out of the LRA and back into their communities.  It could have even convinced viewers to direct some of their ire toward regional governments who have done little to help the plight of LRA victims.  This alternative video would still have catered to those with a white savior complex and totally simplified the conflict.  It could have portrayed the LRA’s child soldiers as poor souls trapped in between the spiritual delusion of Kony and the neglect of greedy and incompetent regional governments.  A stronger focus on LRA child soldiers as victims would have helped sort out the bizarre moral universe created by IC in the original Kony 2012 video in which child soldiers are victims, but also legitimate targets for a military mission aimed at killing Kony.  This alternative video would still have had many problems, and would have still been rightly subject to mounds of criticism, but at least it could have done some good.  

* For a more in-depth reflection on Kony 2012, check out Daniel Solomon’s in-progress five part series on the campaign. 

Negotiation vs. Justice: Strategies on Legally Combating Gang Violence and Mass Atrocities (Part II)

6 Oct

*This is the second post in a two part series that examines how we can conceptualize gang violence in the United States through the framework of civilian protection, mass atrocities, and political violence.  I will continue to call the city I worked in Joplin to protect the identity of the people I mention. 


Combating gang violence in Joplin is a widely discussed and contentious issue.  Everyone has an opinion and no one agrees.  Strategies range from police crackdowns to church outreach to mentoring programs, but none of these have a monopoly on gang response.  The same challenges exist in international justice.  There are many strategies for dealing with war criminals, each one with its own consequences.

In Joplin, the central strategic divide is justice versus mediation.  Those connected to the city government tend to favor the former, with the idea that the only way to stop gang violence is to “take the drug dealers off the streets”.  Strategies focused on locking up violent youths aren’t monolithic, but they repeatedly fall back on increasingly authoritarian strategies due to the inability to fully stop violence through arrests alone.  The mediation approaches mostly exist outside of government, and focus on using community centers and mentoring programs to reach drug dealers on a personal level.  As a community member told me, “A lot of these kids don’t want to deal drugs, but they don’t know how to get out.”  Despite the promising nature of mediation, it is yet to receive any real institutional support in Joplin, and so it is left to already over-burdened individuals who are working on other community projects.

The justice versus mediation divide also exists in the pursuit of international justice.  While the creation of the ICC has theoretically made the meting out of justice less flexible, reality is more complicated.  Without the ability to immediately bring war criminals to justice, these indictments have potentially adverse effects on achieving peace.  While Bashir has been able to partially avoid his ICC-imposed isolation, his indictment has affected power dynamics in negotiations on ending violence in Sudan.  This unequal balance of power means that leaders like Bashir have very little incentive to negotiate their way out of power if they know a jail cell awaits them.  An indictment pushes war criminals’ backs up against a wall, leaving them nothing to lose.  This arrangement is not conducive to peace.  However, we have to also consider that relative impunity has long-term negative consequences too.  Still, it is questionable to what extent the ICC and other judicial bodies are effective in deterring potential war criminals.  Therefore, we need to examine each case individually, and determine whether the potential of increased violence in the short-term is worth long-term justice.

A central problem with the ICC and police crackdowns on gang violence is that they fail to fully recognize the organic political power of war criminals or gangs.  It is easy to indict Joseph Kony, who has very few friends and isn’t embedded in a political process, but an individual like Bashir holds an immense of power.  He has the ability to kill thousands or keep Sudan peaceful.  Gangs often have the same proportional power.  They are community institutions, and they cannot simply be crushed in order to return to a previous imagined status quo.  Advocates of justice must recognize that no matter how unsavory, war criminals and gangs can provide valuable partners in conflict resolution and transformation.  In the New York Times, Paul Thomas Chamberlin writes, “As Nelson Mandela, Gerry Adams and Menachem Begin have shown, yesterday’s “terrorists” have a tendency to turn into tomorrow’s peacemakers. We should be careful not to let our fears of terrorists continue to blind us to opportunities when diplomatic openings present themselves.”  We must resist the impulse that crimes, no matter the political context, must be dealt with completely standardized justice mechanisms.

Dealing with gangs as political actors is not an untested idea.  In El Salvador, a Catholic bishop was able to broker a truce and initiate a peace process between two of San Salvador’s most dangerous gangs.  Gangs do not solely exist to terrorize citizens, but also because of poverty, access to guns, etc.   If these conditions can be reversed and gang members are provided with a way to productively re-integrate into society, a lasting peace that no police crackdown can provide is possible.  This approach can even be used in response to terrorism.  Every group, no matter how brutal, has fissures and objectives that can be exploited through negotiation.  Even the LRA, a group widely condemned as solely a terrorist organization without a political agenda, is vulnerable to attempts to convince child soldiers to desert.

During my last few weeks in Joplin, I met Jason (not his real name), a self-described community activist and founder of Men in the Community (not a real name either), a group of Joplin men, most of whom are former drug dealers who have turned their lives around.  While Men in the Community does various mentoring and nonviolent peacekeeping work, Jason also maintains contact with numerous gang members throughout the city.  While he tries to talk kids out of joining or staying in gangs, he is also able to glean the most recent and accurate information on crimes, making him an invaluable resource in the community.  An initiative from the mayor’s office, the Community Taskforce, is supposed to perform the same role, but it is largely ineffective.   This impotency is due to the Taskforce’s direct connection with the police and city government, which is generally more interested in making arrests than negotiating with gangs.  This destroys all credibility in the eyes of gang members.  Jason, on the other hand, is careful to avoid associating himself with authority, thereby maintaining his unique information-gathering abilities.

This is a model that can be applied to combating political violence and mass atrocities.  Attempts at informal negotiations with unattached mediators should always be the first response to violence.  Negotiations give the chance to de-escalate the situation, improving trust and communication among opposing sides.  The use of the ICC or other judicial processes may still be necessary, but negotiations provide a constructive route to conflict resolution.


Gang Violence and Civilian Protection: Observations on Their Relation (Part I)

29 Sep

*This post is the first in a two part series that will examine how we can conceptualize gang violence in the United States through the framework of civilian protection, mass atrocities, and political violence.  This post will focus on the actual functioning of gangs and militaries that perpetrate violence against civilians, while the second will focus on conflict resolution strategies.


“Little Terry got a gun, he got from the store,
He bought it with the money he got from his chores,
He robbed candy shop told her lay down on the floor,
Put the cookies in his bag took the pennies out the drawer.

Little Kalil got a gun he got from the rebels,
To kill the infidels and American devils,
A bomb on his waist,
A mask on his face,
Prays five times a day,
And listens to Heavy Metal.

Little Alex got a gun he took from his dad,
That he snuck into school in his black book bag,
His black nail polish, black boots and black hair,
He’s gonna blow away the bully that just pushed his ass…” 

These are the first few lines from Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon“.  In the song, he makes an explicit link between the culture of youth violence in the United States and violence in foreign countries.  This connection merits further examination.  I spent this summer working in a small city on the east coast where I was exposed to gang violence (I will refrain from naming the city to protect the privacy of the people and organizations I mention).  This city, which I will call Joplin, has a population between thirty and fifty thousands, but all in an urban setting.  It is very economically depressed and majority African-American.  My experiences working with issues of civilian protection prodded me to constantly make connection between the two seemingly very different scenarios.  Though there are certainly very concrete differences from, for example, rebel groups in eastern Congo and gangs on Joplin’s east side, I think it is important to note the similarities while acknowledging the differences.  I will focus on the issues that allow on the structural factors that allow gangs and militant groups to exist and then move to examine the impact of these groups on non-combatants.

In Joplin, gangs are a product of a terrible educational system, a non-existent job market, and a simple lack of activities for youth.  Joplin is not the only the victim of a federal government that feels no need to help low-income communities  but also a terribly inefficient and corrupt local government that wastes most of the funding it does receive.  From my experience, Joplin youth, in general, don’t believe that there is a productive future ahead of them.  Dealing drugs and joining gangs is one way of the few ways to make money.  These structural factors are shared by militant groups.  The military or rebel groups can offer a path for advancement for low-status individuals, and are often made up of disaffected populations.  Similarly, rebel groups, think the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often compete with both the government and rival rebels to control material resources.

Gangs in Joplin, like many rebel groups, do not exist entirely separately from the communities in which they operate.  Individuals move in and out of gangs, and social circles are not divided solely by conditional gang membership.  Several programs in Joplin facilitate mentoring from current/potential gang members and former gangsters.  Franck van Acker notes this same phenomenon in the link above.  In LRA-affected Uganda, individuals routinely experienced the conflict as a civilian, a rebel, and a soldier over the course of their lifetime.

The victims of militant groups and gangs are both disproportionately civilians.  Many more civilians die in armed conflicts than militants, and while I don’t know the statistics for Joplin (and they’d be practically useless anyway, because the line between gangster and civilian is so blurry), civilians are routinely caught in gang crossfire.  Civilians are affected in both cases, but the targets of violence differs significantly.  Militant groups have political objectives, though some of their actions can seem purely designed to inflict terror and suffering on civilians.  Gangs do not share this characteristic.  Therefore, gang violence is committed for personal and business reasons against other community members, while militant violence is committed either against opposing armed forces or civilian populations that are either in support, or imagined to be in support of those forces.

While gang violence is explicitly aimed at individuals for apolitical reasons, government response to gang violence adds a political element.  In “Little Weapon”, Lupe raps, “Government want me dead so I wear my gun.  This is not an unrealistic portrait of gangs in Joplin.  Young black men are suspicious of the police, who are more likely to be white than the rest of Joplin’s population, and have a record of harassment.  Joining a gang is a way to find protection from the police.  Rebel groups comprised of  marginalized and persecuted populations serve this same purpose.  While gangs are an avenue for social and economic advancement, they are also a way for disempowered individuals to protect themselves from an oppressive government.

Stay tuned for Part II.