Category Archives: Conflict

On the Social Condition in War

I recently finished Stephen C. Lubkemann’s Culture in Choas: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War, and there’s a lot there for interested parties. The book is a dense brick of a book, but there is a lot crammed in those pages, and I found the different directions that Lubkemann goes in really fascinating.

The book is based on about a decade’s worth of research into the numerous ways that people adapted to war in Mozambique. I don’t know that much context about the war, but the narrative that Lubkemann strings together and the arguments he makes are fascinating to scholars of any part of the continent (or indeed anywhere there’s conflict). The backbone of his research is this:

[W]arscapes are often treated as interrupted societies in which the myriad social processes and life projects anthropologists investigate are treated as if they have been suspended. In such contexts coping with violence often becomes the only social task that analysts investigate. Such approaches strip warscape inhabitants of the social multidimensionality that is assumed to shape behavior and inform agency under less dramatic conditions.

[...]

War-time social existence in Machaze was never merely a matter of coping with violence; instead, as in peacetime, it centered on the pursuit of a multidimenstional agenda of life projects and “other struggles.” Throughout the conflict an array of “other” forms of gendered and generational social struggle continued to inform interests and orient behavior – migratory or otherwise. In fact, far from exercising singularly determinative force in shaping war-time behavior or proving capable or overwriting prior social and cultural difference, both the meaning and deployment of military violence itself tended to be reshaped by the specific sociocultural problematics that had long oriented the social life of the myriad and highly differentiated local groups throughout Mozambique (323-4).

With that as his jumping off point, he finds all sorts of interesting things in how people pursue life goals throughout the war and even after. The most interesting parts are his work on wartime mobility – displacement and otherwise. This includes the ways that men relied on decades-old migratory patterns (mostly to South Africa) to escape the violence, the ways that women tried to leverage war-time displacement to free themselves from the constraints of bride-prices, how men who remained in South Africa after the war ended tried to negotiate (or not) the dual life of keeping wives in Mozambique but careers (and even other wives) in South Africa, and the back-and-forth that all of these people navigated when trying to deal with ancestors and witchcraft to shield themselves. It’s all fascinating stuff, and at the heart of it is his decision to separate the life pursuits of people (and the contexts in which these are pursued) – what he calls a “lifescape” – from place. People pursue their lives in multiple places, in single places, or along routes between places, and his discussion of this (im)mobility during and after the war is really worthwhile.

One other thing I’ll focus on here is his reconceptualizing of Albert Hirschman’s “exit, loyalty, voice.” Hirschman’s initial idea was that there were three ways that people reacted to a situation that they were discontent with: loyalty, efforts to reach your life goals within the parameters set; voice, efforts to do this by modifying the parameters; and exit, refusing to participate and instead finding other ways to achieve those ends. In his book (mostly chapter 9), Lubkemann adapts Hirschman’s concept by framing loyalty and voice not as two of three distinct categories but by placing them on a continuum – reactions can be more loyalty or more voice, but they rest on a spectrum of participation within the terms.

In the context of this work, Lubkemann uses the continuum to analyze men who attempt to justify transnational life by living in South Africa more and more but maintaining ties to their ancestral land and their families back in Mozambique. Some men returned home after the war; others remained in South Africa but sent remittances or planned infrequent visits to placate families and ancestors; others sought to slowly leave Mozambique behind – one even argued that he had convinced his ancestors’ spirits to move to South Africa with him, thus freeing him from needing to return to his home. These variations of playing-by-the-rules are a useful way of looking at how people navigate these types of situations.

Anyhow, this is preliminary blogging for sure – I just finished the book this morning and felt the need to at least drop a word suggesting it for those interested in these topics. I’ll have to sit on it for a bit as I figure out just how much of the work can be applied elsewhere, but surely Lubkemann’s call for anthropologists to shift the way they study conflict is useful – to all disciplines.

Spectators

Four years ago today, a bomb hit the ex-pat-frequented restaurant, Ethiopian Village, in the Kabalagala district of Kampala, Uganda, killing and wounding several people who had gathered to watch the World Cup final. Moments later, two bombs ripped through the Kyodondo Rugby Pitch, killing dozens of spectators and wounding dozens more. The bombings were carried out by al Shabaab, who had threatened Uganda ever since its intervention in their war in Somalia. Pretty much everyone called it an act of terror.

A month ago, gunmen blasted their way through hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni, Kenya, while some guests were watching the World Cup. They proceeded to split up the residents and killed the men.  The U.S. State Department said that “there can be no place for horrific acts of violence such as this in any society.”

Yesterday, a cafe in Gaza was completely destroyed in the early morning by Israeli rockets, killing those who had gathered to break their fast and watch the World Cup match. Israel has been launching a huge operation into Gaza in response to rockets fired by Hamas. There’s less unanimity on the terrorism of blowing up spectators here, as Washington is pretty firm in its support of Israel.

If you’re an insurgent or you’re Muslim, bombs are condemned, but if you’re a state and a U.S. ally, it somehow becomes much murkier.

Cultural Anthropology’s CAR Feature

The journal Cultural Anthropology has been at the forefront of melding scholarship with the internet. It began going open-access recently, and has been running Hot Spots features for a few years now. Hot Spots are a collection of short essays written, curated, and edited by scholars addressing a specific topic.

I’ve been reading my way through the recent Hot Spots features on-and-off over the last couple of months. My thesis reader, Sara Shneiderman, co-edited a batch of essays on the ‘post-conflict’ in South Asia that is provides interesting insight on an idea (being ‘post-conflict’) across the wide region. Prior to that, there was a feature on protests in Brazil that are worth a look, especially now that the World Cup has brought the spotlight back to Brazil’s ongoing unrest.

But the reason I’m writing this post is to draw your attention to the most recent Hot Spots feature, edited by Louisa Lombard. It is a collection of eleven essays on the current violence in Central African Republic, and it includes some really, really great work that at once problematizes simplistic narratives and helps makes sense of complex issues. If you’re interested in anthropology, history, violence, of CAR, there’s something there for you.

AFRICOM is Everywhere

Nick Turse wrote up a report last month detailing some of the U.S. Africa Command’s presence in Africa, some of which is widely known, much of which is more opaque. The whole thing is worth a read, but here is a snippet:

Here, however, is the reality as we know it today.  Over the last several years, the U.S. has been building a constellation of drone bases across Africa, flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions out of not only Niger, but also Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the island nation of the Seychelles.  Meanwhile, an airbase in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as of the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative.  According to military documents, that “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara.  U.S. Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch also mention the deployment to Chad of an ISR liaison team.  And according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

AFRICOM is also engaging in a lot of humanitarian-like activity, leaving USAID and the State Department in its wake as it launches numerous programs across the continent. More from Turse:

When I spoke with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers, the first projects he mentioned and the only ones he seemed eager to talk about were those for African nations.  This year, $6.5 million in projects had been funded when we spoke and of that, the majority were for “humanitarian assistance” or HA construction projects, mostly in Togo and Tunisia, and “peacekeeping” operations in Ghana and Djibouti.

[Wayne] Uhl [chief of the International Engineering Center for the Europe District of the Army Corps of Engineers] talked about humanitarian projects, too.  “HA projects are small, difficult, challenging for the Corps of Engineers to accomplish at a low, in-house cost… but despite all this, HA projects are extremely rewarding,” he said.  “The appreciation expressed by the locals is fantastic.”  He then drew attention to another added benefit: “Each successful project is a photo opportunity.”

All this reminds me of is this money-quote from Adam Branch’s book on humanitarian intervention in northern Uganda. Citing correspondence with an anthropologist working in Kitgum, Branch discusses a U.S. Army training exercise in that town. I won’t add commentary, because it really speaks for itself:

As a public relations officer at the American camp set up during the operation put it, “We want people to see the military as something other than soldiers. In the U.S. soldiers are seen as heroes. In Uganda they have much more fear, so we are trying to change that image. The intention is to blur the demarcations between civilian and military.” This is a frightening testament to the militarization of U.S. society, in which exporting American values now becomes equated with exporting the U.S. military.

Hate Radio

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

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

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

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

But how much of a role did RTLM actually play?

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

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

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

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

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

Two Ethnographies of Conflict

I’m peaking my head over the books to give a brief glimpse at two really incredible books that I read recently. In a course on insurgency, the state, and political consciousness, I’ve had the chance to read two ethnographies that present really interesting approaches to studying conflict: Danny Hoffman’s War Machines and Sharika Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House. I’ve wanted to read the former for a couple of years, the latter I hadn’t heard about until I picked it up. Both are new books which hopefully haven’t slipped under everyone’s radar (and if they have, now you have no excuse!) – they’re well worth your time if you’re interested in how conflict shapes society and vice versa.

Continue reading

Rumor and Distrust in the Congo

 “rumors explain; they naturalize the unnatural.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Sudan Descends into Crisis

Things have rapidly deteriorated in parts of South Sudan since political infighting between President Salva Kiir and ex-Vice President Riek Machar left Juba locked down on December 15th. A country that was described as “teetering on the brink” a week ago now looks like all-out civil war.

While this is a political crisis first and foremost, it is playing out along ethnic lines, and to very frightening effect. Human Rights Watch has reported that both soldiers and rebels have been seen executing people based on their ethnicity (Dinka or Nuer). Daniel Howden describes what can only be labeled a massacre in Juba (and several others like it) at The GuardianThe most horrifying example of what’s now happening there:

A week ago, Simon K, a 20-year-old student living in the capital of South Sudan, was arrested by men in military uniforms. He was asked a question that has taken on deadly importance in the world’s newest country in the past seven days: incholdi – “What is your name?” in Dinka, the language of the country’s president and its largest ethnic group.

Those who, like Simon, were unable to answer, risked being identified as Nuer, the ethnic group of the former vice-president now leading the armed opposition and facing the brunt of what insiders are describing as the world’s newest civil war.

Simon K was taken to a police station in the Gudele market district of Juba, where he was marched past several dead bodies and locked in a room with other young men, all Nuer. “We counted ourselves and found we were 252,” he told the Guardian. “Then they put guns in through the windows and started to shoot us.”

The massacre continued for two days with soldiers returning at intervals to shoot again if they saw any sign of life. Simon was one of 12 men to survive the assault by covering themselves in the bodies of the dead and dying.

Outside of Juba, the reverse is happening. Armed groups have taken much of Jonglei and Unity states, including Bor and Bentiu, their respective capitols. The UN humanitarian coordinator said that he saw “people who were being lined up and executed in a summary fashion” in Bor. Tens of thousands have sought refuge at UN compounds, and expatriates from many countries have already been evacuated.

As we hold our breath and hope that calm can be restored, talks can be mediated, and people can safely return home, I’ll try to keep you updated. In the meantime, a good primer is Radio Tamazuj’s nine questions about the South Sudan crisis and Think Africa Press’ edition of experts weekly focusing on the crisis. If you’re feeling like historicizing, this HRW dispatch on ethnic tension from earlier this year and this FP piece on how South Sudan faced setbacks from the beginning. If you’re on Twitter, Lesley Warner has compiled a long list of South Sudanese Twitter handles you can follow to get news, and the bottom of this post also has some expats that were (might still be) tweeting from Juba.

Update: Colum Lynch just wrote a good piece outlining how things have devolved.

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.

Everybody’s in the Ivory Trade

The Lord’s Resistance Army has been involved in the ivory trade for quite a while now, as have many other groups across Africa. The rural parts of Congo and Central African Republic have been the hunting grounds of poachers and armed groups alike for years, sometimes coming from as far afield as Libya. This summer, the Enough Project published a report [pdf] on the LRA’s involvement in the ivory trade, which caused a lot of news outlets to pick up the story, eventually leading Kristof Titeca to write this piece on the ivory trade beyond the LRA. In it, he describes the typical route of the ivory trade in Congo:

The most common trading scenario is the following:  local poachers (or individual soldiers) based in or near the forest pass on the ivory to local traders based in urban centers such as Dungu and Doruma (to a lesser extent Faradje). From there on, there are two trading routes: The first, and more common trading route, is from Dungu to the Congolese-Ugandan border towns of Ariwara and Arua. Most often, the ivory is sold to well-connected traders in these border towns, who in turn go to Kampala and sell it for export, most often to Asia.

The second trading route is from the north eastern side of Garamba Park, where ivory is traded in Doruma (or Bangadi). From here, the ivory goes to South Sudan, from where it enters Uganda (or also goes to Ariwara). It is difficult to estimate the amount of ivory originating from these areas. In Dungu alone, it is estimated that between 15 to 30 traders are dealing in ivory. Interviewed traders claim to be selling around 90 to 200 kilograms per month. In Arua, fewer ivory traders are active, but they mentioned similar quantities.

Ugandan traders are key in this commodity chain/trade network: they play a prominent role at different levels by using Congolese or South Sudanese traders as middlemen, by buying the ivory in Ariwara, Aru or Kampala. The nature of their involvement consistently points at the implication of Ugandan politico-military elites.

While the LRA are rumored to have traded ivory with Sudanese armed forces in exchange for supplies and arms, this segment, and especially that last sentence, is crucial. There is also a large amount of ivory funneling through Ugandan elite circles. This is part of a long-time trend in which a network of Ugandan political and military elites (often one and the same) profit from Uganda’s military exploits abroad, from livestock and coffee to diamonds and now ivory. In a 2012 article on the UPDF’s presence in the Congo, Vlassenroot, Perrot, and Cuvelier explore this network, explaining that much of it – and probably much of what Titeca identifies as “politico-military elites” – is made up of members of the First Family, long-time NRM party leaders, and leading military figures as well as Congolese local elites, armed groups, and businessmen. Vlassenroot et al refer to these actors as “entrepreneurs of insecurity,” as they capitalized on and even facilitated war in the Congo in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to reap rewards from mines.

There have been allegations of UPDF involvement in the ivory trade for some time now. There was evidencethat a UPDF helicopter was spotted near the site of multiple elephant killings last year, and an incident before that in which poachers actually attacked the UPDF in CAR to deter them from infringing on the poachers’ territory. That the military, or at least the military and political elite back in Kampala, are involved in the business is of no surprise.

Which makes the goal of melding anti-poaching and anti-LRA efforts a bit difficult to envision. In the weeks after Enough Project’s report was published, there were several calls for action against the LRA, both for their human rights abuses and their animal rights abuses, to help bring the rebel group to an end. Take, for example, Mark Quarterman’s piece highlighting the report for CNN:

Only effective local, national, and transnational action can stop this horror. Anti-atrocity groups such as the Enough Project can advocate for actions to shut off the demand for ivory in Asia. Conservation groups could broaden their focus to include efforts to end wars that have created a symbiotic relationship between ivory poaching and civilian suffering. Both types of organizations should emphasize the longer-term requirement for effective governance to lessen the likelihood of war and ivory poaching.

Joint and parallel action could tap activist organizations, increase the pressure on policymakers for action and broaden the knowledge about both of these problems among those who previously had focused on only one.

The combined efforts of conservation and human rights groups could spur the efforts of governments and international organizations to slow the destruction of the African elephant and free the people of east and central Africa from the threat of Joseph Kony and his ilk. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, one that could help stop the massacre of both humans and animals in Africa.

If you read this article and Enough’s report, this would sound like a great solution. And it still might be. With combined efforts of conservation groups and human rights groups, effective advocacy may succeed in putting forth new tools to stop the LRA’s abuses of civilians and elephants. But it wouldn’t succeed in stopping the abuse of civilians and elephants. The LRA is only one part of the complex situation of abuses and poaching in the region, some of which is perpetrated by the actors that will be empowered by anti-LRA efforts.

If the abduction of civilians and poaching of elephants by the LRA can be stopped, it will be of tremendous good to those that live in LRA-affected regions. But we shouldn’t expect that this will solve the problem of insecurity that people and elephants frequently encounter in the region. If using militaries (who poach and abuse civilians) to stop armed groups (who poach and abuse civilians) works, we’ll still be left with poachers and human rights abusers.