The Complexities of Dominic Ongwen’s Reported Surrender

News broke on Tuesday that ICC-indicted LRA commander Dominic Ongwen had surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic. The human rights and LRA crowd was all atwitter (literally), and it has now been confirmed that Ongwen surrendered (or maybe was captured) by Seleka forces near Kafia Kingi, who handed him over to U.S. forces in Obo. Ongwen is to be handed over to Uganda, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Ongwen’s case is a complex one. He was abducted and conscripted into the LRA at the age of 10, but quickly rose through the LRA ranks to become the leader of the Sinia brigade. For his involvement in attacks on IDP camps and the killing and abducting of civilians, Ongwen was charged by the ICC with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes in 2005. He has since continued to be active in the LRA, although his position in the army’s leadership has been in flux. He has been sidelined by Kony, but remains influential in the rebel group to some degree.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ongwen, the essential reading list includes Erin Baines’ article on Ongwen and his position as a “complex political perpetrator” [gated] and a report [pdf] she wrote for the Justice and Reconciliation Project that discusses similar issues. Ledio Cakaj also wrote a brief but thorough bio on Ongwen for the LRA Crisis Tracker.

In addition, Mark Kersten recently penned some reflections on what Ongwen’s surrender/capture means, and why it isn’t a clear-cut victory for international justice. Importantly, he notes the “it’s complicated” relationship status between Uganda and the ICC, and the tenuous status of Uganda’s domestic court for international crimes – two important aspects of the ICC’s involvement in the LRA conflict.

Dominic Ongwen’s story isn’t over, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as he is transferred to Uganda and navigates a complex path between the domestic justice, amnesty, and international justice systems, not to mention the politics of all three.

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This past fall, I presented a paper at the African Studies Association on Invisible Children and the role of reconciliation. While most of the paper deals with Invisible Children’s programs in central Africa, part of it discusses narratives of reconciliation and accountability – especially in regards to the ICC. I compare Ongwen’s status and the narrative surrounding him to that of Caesar Acellam, the LRA commander taken into custody in 2012 whom I wrote about here. Acellam’s story is similar to Ongwen’s, but the reception to this capture/surrender were different than the media’s and human rights community’s treatment was markedly different. While not directly about recent events, here are the relevant paragraphs discussing Ongwen:

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was placed on the wanted list of the ICC and was recently the target (along with Joseph Kony and Okot Odihambo) of radio messages offering rewards for information leading to his capture. The U.S. government had expanded its Justice for Rewards bounty program to include LRA commanders indicted by the ICC a year before (see Ross 2013), with strong support and grassroots mobilization from Invisible Children.  Ongwen has not been the target of this attention because of his role in the organization today – he has recently been demoted, arrested, and threatened on Kony’s orders on numerous occasions (Lancaster and Cakaj 2013). Like Acellam, Ongwen was abducted in his youth, and subsequently rose in the rebel ranks to become a commander. Unlike Acellam and other LRA commanders who enjoy impunity or have received amnesty, however, Ongwen is painted as responsible for his actions. Ongwen remains “the first known person to be charged with the same war crimes of which he is also victim” (Baines 2008, 1). Some Invisible Children staff members I spoke to argued that Acellam was a victim of the LRA despite his position, while Ongwen had grown into LRA leadership and should therefore be held to account. But the reason Ongwen’s name is said on Congolese radio waves is arguably not based on his role in the LRA now, but because of his role in the organization in the early 2000s, and because of the timing of the ICC’s intervention.

Acellam and Ongwen were conscripted into LRA ranks decades ago, “a temporal span over which a young person so labeled [as child soldier] at one time moves to different stages of moral reasoning, responsibility, and culpability” (Ferme 2014, 58). Both fit the category of “complex political perpetrators” (Baines 2009), those who came of age within LRA ranks and became perpetrators in an attempt to reclaim agency over their lives, but who nonetheless remain victims, and whose complex status is excluded from the criminal justice discourse that the ICC and its supporters put forth (Baines 2009). Both Acellam and Ongwen fit these descriptions, yet the former has evaded the responsibility and culpability that could have come with commanding a rebel group as an adult while the latter has been less fortunate, due primarily to his having been indicted by the ICC. Despite the ICC’s role in the LRA conflict having diminished over the years since the end of the Juba peace talks, the Court remains a potent force for the three remaining indicted individuals – and for Invisible Children. By channeling Invisible Children’s media and narrative, the ICC has calcified the identities of the LRA leadership based on dated investigations and dictated the narrative of Invisible Children’s justice-for-some, forgiveness-for-others narrative.


On Kenya’s Security Act

In the middle of last month, the Kenyan government pushed through a new law that implements huge restrictions on just about everything, including increased securitization, heavier penalties for law-breaking, restrictions on free speech and movement and about every form of expression, with strong repercussions for refugees and other vulnerable populations especially, leading it to be called “Kenya’s PATRIOT Act.” Some of the provisions of the law have been temporarily suspended, but other provisions remain and such obstacles may not hold back the expanding security state.

Dissecting laws is never easy, especially when lawmakers don’t want it to be easy. But Keguro Macharia has produced a lesson in reading and critiquing very harmful laws, and I wanted to link to it for those interested in issues such as this. Macharia says that the law “transforms Kenya into a less free, less possible space” and dedicated numerous blog posts to studying the act. In addition to his notes, he also wrote a map of the laws amended, including amendments that target journalists and refugees, before writing five dedicated pieces about how the law will change the lives of those in Kenya. It’s all worth a read, but here I’ll quote three of his summaries and highlight some of the rest.

On police:

The Security Act vests more power in the president; gives the police more power; and substantially diminishes civilian scrutiny of police actions.

On refugees:

The amendments in the Security Act increase refugee vulnerability. They ignore international legal measures designed to help refugees have livable existences. They are anti-refugee and anti-human rights.

On citizen reporting:

Citizen reporting highlighted police extortion and violence during Operation Sanitization Eastleigh, and was crucial in highlighting the atrocity of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp. Valuable information about state-sponsored and state-facilitated violence and corruption comes to light because of citizen reporting. Restrictions in the Security Act attempt to silence independent media and citizen reporters. Silence has already started to fall.

On how Kenya’s new law constricts the definition of an acceptable “human,” a piece that moves in different directions on how “the human” has been broken apart by ethnicity, by perceived guilt, by complicity to the state, by the state’s security apparatus, and others:

During #kasaraniconcentrationcamp—whose afterlife we still occupy—fractures happened: “I am Kenyan Somali, not ethnic Somali”; “I am Kenyan Somali not Somalia Somali”; “I am a Kenya-loving Somali, not a Kenya-destroying Somali”; “I am a Kenya-building Somali, not a Kenya-undoing Somali”

The chorus of voices pledging loyalty to Kenya drown out much-needed critique. The state cultivates this chorus of voices. Sometimes, it rewards some in the chorus. Most often, it holds out an impossible promise that those who dance to its tune might remain unharmed.


Kenya’s vision of the human becomes smaller—human-recognizing filaments snap

On how Kenya as a space is changing, how the new law will affect everyday life, and how those who accept the new law are already affected by the Kenyan state:

Everyday Kenyan life is heavily securitized. To enter into any public space—a supermarket, a mall, a church, a public gathering, a bookstore—one must undergo a range of security checks. Cars will be inspected, sometimes thoroughly, sometime cursorily; bodies will go through metal detectors; bags will be opened… It is becoming increasingly difficult for Kenyans to remember that it was not always like this. Now, we hesitate to enter places that do not have such security checks. We have learned to expect them, to submit to them, to keep proving our innocence as we are all implicitly criminalized.


Kenyan everyday life is often understood through resilience: Kenyans are “tough,” Kenyans “survive,” Kenyans can “take a lot, and more.”

The repressive state relies on this resilience to increase repression: You can take it. Be proud of how well you can take it.

How to see this resilience as one of the conditions of our undoing? How to see what it licenses? How to distinguish between acts of resilience and everyday violations?

Weekend Reading

Link-readers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Weekend Reading.

There is no doubt the cops feel betrayed – a rage that has been building in synch with the growth of a nationwide movement that challenges the legitimacy of the Mass Black Incarceration State, of which they are the frontline troops, the “heroes” in the war to criminalize and contain an entire people. The chants and placards are an insult and an indictment of THEM, and of their centrality to the racist project that has been an organizing principle of the nation for more than two generations. How is it that cops can be compelled to “protect and serve” marchers whose purpose is anathema to the American policing mission: to beat down, lock up, and extrajudicially execute dissident, disorderly, uppity or merely inconvenient Black people?

The cops understand the law, and that the law is conditional, based on place, race and wealth, and that in the end there is only force, the use of which is their sacred monopoly. It’s what gives them a status that union paychecks cannot buy; what makes blue collar guys and gals “somebody” in society. Most of all, they know who is nobody: the beatable, friskable, disposable, killable folks who would be prey on any other day, but have lately been allowed to repeatedly parade down the most protected streets of the richest island in the country, screaming defamations.

The body cameras point at civilians, giving the police’s perspective of the interaction. In many videos released from officer body cameras, the police officer has their gun drawn but it cannot be seen in the shot. “Body cameras on police [are] fundamentally the opposite of cop watch,” Andrew Padilla argued. “Body cameras on police…record civilians. In cop watch, you record police.”

Other New York cop watchers, like Julien Terrell, worry about who will have authority over the recordings, and argue that the recordings should go to an independent body “with teeth” and should not be handled internally within the NYPD. Dennis Flores, who has experience with officers attempting to withhold and tamper with video and recording evidence told The Nation, “The NYPD already uses cameras [referring to TARU and CCTV surveillance cameras], and we don’t have any access to them. There’s no oversight. There’s no way for anyone to force them to release that type of footage. It’s at the police department’s discretion and the city’s law department. So they hold evidence when they know that you’re innocent. I expect the same thing with these body cameras.”

A Fusion investigation found that “the way body cameras are used usually serve police more than citizens charging misconduct. And in the data from two cities provided to Fusion, there was little evidence police body cameras reduced police involved shootings or use-of-force incidents.” Fusion determined the main reason body cameras tend to help police more than civilians: turning the camera on and off is at the officers’ discretion. In Albuquerque and New Orleans, during high profile police shootings, the police officer’s camera was off while they killed an unarmed civilian. And in New Orleans, cameras were off for 60 percent of use-of-force incidents. Although body cameras are advertised as a tool that helps keep police misconduct down, the reality is a little more complicated. The investigation shows that body cameras are not likely to lower use of force by police officers but more likely to absolve police officers of wrongdoing.

The Devil as darkness had long been part of Christianity, but only as metaphor. In the New World, darkness was realized literally on the frontier wilderness, on the shadowy edges of Puritan towns, in the forests, and on the dusky faces of Native Americans. As early as 1662, in Michael Wigglesworth’s long Puritan poem “God’s Controversy With New-England,” the New World was “A waste and howling wilderness, / Where none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That Devils worshipped.” The “dark and dismal western woods” were the “Devils den.”


Come the nineteenth century, in the wake of the major American religious movement known as the “Second Great Awakening,” New York Baptist preacher William Miller added his own spin to biblical literalism. He basically declared the Bible, especially the prophetic books, an eschatological math problem waiting to be solved. His solution: “in these days of darkness,” the world will end on October 22, 1844. Miller was wrong. But his tens—some say hundreds—of thousands of followers eventually split into several still-active sects of American-born Christianities, including the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My people.

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading is the reason for the season:

A Reuters examination of nine years of cases shows that 66 of the 17,000 lawyers who petitioned the Supreme Court succeeded at getting their clients’ appeals heard at a remarkable rate. Their appeals were at least six times more likely to be accepted by the court than were all others filed by private lawyers during that period.

The lawyers are the most influential members of one of the most powerful specialties in America: the business of practicing before the Supreme Court. None of these lawyers is a household name. But many are familiar to the nine justices. That’s because about half worked for justices past or present, and some socialize with them.

They are the elite of the elite: Although they account for far less than 1 percent of lawyers who filed appeals to the Supreme Court, these attorneys were involved in 43 percent of the cases the high court chose to decide from 2004 through 2012.

The dialogue between the two sides was not especially nuanced. The people of color would chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and the White people would respond, “Whose jails? Your jails!” This went on and on — the Black and Hispanic folks yelling, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and the White people responding, “Hands up, don’t loot!”


And, of course, “I can’t breathe” was met with, “I can breathe.”

The latter was extremely offensive, and I had a hard time maintaining body language which wouldn’t make those yelling it clam up around me. It is hard to fathom, even as a reporter, what is going on with folks who will use a dying man’s words against him to prove he was a “thug.” Nothing was as scary as hearing folks shout, “I can breathe! I follow the law!”

I was most scared when I got a retired, large white cop to talk to me. He was trying to convince me that Eric Garner should have known how to submit, because he’d been arrested so often. The man put his hands on me to demonstrate what a chokehold was, and what it was not.

Weekend Reading

Repeatedly, the Study faults the CIA for not briefing the president, the FBI, the Senate, and other bodies. Repeatedly, the Study faults the CIA not because it tortured detainees, but because the torture failed to produce intelligence. Repeatedly, the Study wants to hold on to torture as a resource, but it must be better torture, more efficient torture, torture that pays for itself. One gets the sense that the Study authors are disappointed that torture did not pay for itself—some torturers got paid, but torture was not profitable enough. The problem with torture is that it fails at capitalism..

Between 1996 and 2001, there were 102 “torture scenes,” the Parents Television Council told the Los Angeles Times. But in the three years after 2001, that number skyrocketed to 624 — with “24″ accounting for nearly 70 of those scenes. Those years also illustrated a shift in the portrayal of harsh interrogation. It was no longer the bad guys who did it — like in “Rambo” and “Braveheart.” It was now society’s protectors: stoic men like Jack Bauer, who sold his soul to keep his country safe.

“Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow — or any other city in this country — that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?” asked “24″ producer Joel Surnow, who calls his program a “patriotic show.”

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading can’t stop won’t stop.

When the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson came through, Frankie told me what he thought: “I’m outraged and the people that I hang around are outraged because they keep getting away with certain things. We not finna let them get away this time…Missouri is the show-me state. We ain’t doing no talking. We’re gonna show them…Muhfuckas ain’t gonna keep taking this bullshit. I know I ain’t gonna keep taking no bullshit. They keep killing our brothers out here. This is our race.”

All Frankie knows is black people are either dying or disappearing. His cousin: in prison with two life sentences. His brother: killed a week before our second interview. Michael Brown, Vonderrit Myers, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III, over the span of a few months. I ask Frankie how he’s doing. “Hurting,” he says, looking down at his hands, his shoulders hunched. “Hurting real bad.”

It’s a feeling shared by a lot of protesters, who refused to suffer in silence. If they had to feel the pain, the rest of the world should feel it, too. Or as someone borrowed from Katniss and tagged on a St. Louis landmark in the Shaw neighborhood, “If we burn, you burn with us.”

Local-level organizations are left to take the initiative. One of the first meetings between anti-Balaka and Séléka leaders was organized by Pareto, a local nongovernmental organization that promotes reconciliation, and took place in May and June at a restaurant in Bangui… Those first meetings paved the way for the cessation-of-hostilities agreement signed in July, the sole road map toward peace followed by the international community and interim government. In the accord, anti-Balaka, Séléka and other armed groups agreed to put down their weapons and begin a process of reconciliation. None of this happened, nor did the agreement have a meaningful impact on the level of violence in the country — at least yet. The cease-fire is a baseline that the international community can use to hold belligerents accountable and without which international donors would be reluctant to commit assistance to rebuild the country, according to a U.N. peacekeeping official.


Some view the local interventions between anti-Balaka and Séléka fighters, though undertaken out of necessity, as a hopeful sign — or at least as a new tack toward quelling CAR’s conflicts — which could, in turn, trickle down to encourage reconciliation at the average citizen’s level and for victims like Lucresse.

“Each time we’ve had a rebellion, people at the top reconcile, but those at the bottom — the victims — just sit there, watching them,” said Oumar Kobine Layama, the Central African Republic’s chief imam, who lives in Bangui. “There have been so many rebellions, wars, mutinies, but the victims have never been really considered. The base was ignored during reconciliation.”

The Right Kind of Victim

Earlier today a friend and colleague argued that, although police violence and race were important issues that deserved a public conversation a la Ferguson, Mike Brown wasn’t the “right” kind of person to be the locus of this conversation. This person cited some stuff about Darren Wilson’s innocence – stuff I disagreed with, but which is not what I want to talk about here. Instead, he referenced the case of Tamir Rice – the boy who was shot for carrying a toy gun literally the moment that police arrived on the scene, and was subsequently refused care by the officers and was later pronounced dead. There is video of the police misconduct. The victim clearly wasn’t charging the officers. This is where to organize protests.

Hours later, I saw news that Eric Garner’s murderer was also cleared by a grand jury. There is video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in an illegal chokehold. There is proof of police misconduct. The coroner ruled it a homicide. And the police officer won’t even stand trial.

Earlier today, I argued that – regardless of what one thought about Mike Brown’s death – the organizing and protests should continue. If you believe that police violence is a problem and black lives matter, you should be in the streets no matter what. Because the problem of police violence is a national crisis.


When protesters tried to shut down New York City two weeks ago, it was as much about the injustice of the Ferguson grand jury as it was about the impending Staten Island one. It was also about Tamir Rice. And Akai Gurley. And numerous other men of color killed by police who are sworn to protect.

When we look for the right kind of victim, we will always be waiting. The anger at racist police violence has reached its breaking point, and there shouldn’t be any discussion about the right kind of victim. Victims are victims, and we need to organize now – before there are more.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a bus, she galvanized a movement against segregated buses. But Claudette Colvin should have galvanized the same movement, but she wasn’t the “right kind of victim.”

When the bus driver told Rosa Parks that he would have to call the police if she didn’t get up, Parks replied, with extraordinary self-possession, “You may do that.” When the police arrived, she went without resistance. When the cops came for Claudette Colvin, she yelled at them that they were violating her rights, and refused to move. They dragged her from the bus. When they kicked her, she kicked them back.

Ever since I was first made aware of Colvin’s story and others like it, I’ve been adamant that these stories are worth remembering – these lives are worth remembering. We shouldn’t only rally around the perfect symbols of resistance and victims of injustice. We should rally around every victim of injustice. Every time there’s injustice.

Waiting for the right kind of victim means ignoring the actual victimization of black bodies across this country. Waiting for Tamir Rice means that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, and other victims of police violence.

We shouldn’t wait any longer.

Protesters staged a die-in at Grand Central tonight immediately after the announcement of Eric Garner’s grand jury. There is a demonstration planned at Foley Square tomorrow afternoon. If you’re against police violence, find a demonstration near you – or start one.

Weekend Reading

Let’s start with pieces – new and old – on Band Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”

Now back to your regularly scheduled reading:

California is in many ways emblematic of our current moment of U.S. empire. Our stage of late liberalism allows California to proclaim itself both the most “progressive” state while simultaneously producing among the most brutal carceral practices. We can look to California and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) as a cautionary tale of how even well-meaning prison reform almost always produces more violence, rather than stopping it.

To understand how “progressive California” became the way we talk about the operators of one of the largest prison systems in the world, we could look to the recent Proposition 47, the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” for an example. It is championed by many state prison-­reform groups because it claims it will help pull some people out of prisons and jails through resentencing of what the legislation calls “nonserious nonviolent” inmates.

And it might! At first glance, this seems like something that all of us fighting against the prison-industrial complex (PIC) could support. We know that decarceration is one strategy in the long vision that is abolition. However, written into the proposition is a provision that would mandate all the “savings” from releasing people be placed into a fund that would increase police presence in schools and mandate harsher truancy discipline. What looks like a victory in our struggle would actually build up rather than dismantle the PIC.

Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.

White rage recurs in American history. It exploded after the Civil War, erupted again to undermine the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and took on its latest incarnation with Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House. For every action of African American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.

To Indianapolis!

For the Africanists among you, I’ll be making my way to Indianapolis for the African Studies Association’s annual meeting.

I’ll be presenting a conference paper entitled “Invisible Children and Acholi Notions of Reconciliation in the D.R. Congo,” based partially on my MA thesis research as well as my experience with Invisible Children over the past few years. My paper is part of an awesome two-part panel on “Conflict Activism and its Consequences” organized by Kristof Titeca and Laura Seay and including several papers/topics that sound vastly more interesting than anything I could think of. You should check it out!

You can find the full program for ASA here [pdf], and I’ll be around from Thursday around noon until early Sunday morning, so get in touch if you want to meet up/hang out!

Weekend Reading

Spooky Reading, read at your own risk.

Back when masculinity was at its peak power, love wasn’t feminized. It didn’t need to be. Men were secure enough to experience the full range of human emotion — longing, grief, love, jealousy, desire — without feeling their identity as men threatened or reduced. Most of the love poetry we have was written by men, after all, and while for most of recorded history it shows that love hurt like hell, it couldn’t unman you. There was an explanatory model for what a rejected Jaylen might have felt. You were expected, as someone in his position, to want love, and to experience its loss as something bigger than the loss of potential sex. You could, as a fifteen-year-old boy, revel in that loss if you wanted to (look at Romeo) without risking your sense of self. You could watch the blue stars shiver in the distance.

These days, the source of some of the most virulent and lethal misogyny seems to stem from the lack of any tool to deal with feelings that are now — thanks to a strange hypercorrection among those invested in old ideas of gender — coded feminine.

For the past five years, I’ve mentored a refugee family from Myanmar. After living in a refugee camp for 15 years, they were relocated to the U.S. by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. They initially stocked their American kitchen with fresh produce, milk, chicken, rice, and frozen fish that they acquired through public assistance programs and several area food banks. Now five years later, one of the parents has a stable minimum wage job and the family has joined the ranks of the working poor. They all have iPhones, and their kitchen is filled with jugs of orange soda, chips, cookies, ramen noodles, and fast food wrappers. Three of the four of them have gained considerable weight, and the mother is now clinically obese. The two kids recently told me that before 2009 they had never seen or tasted a Coke—and now they drink several each day.

What should we make of this family’s story? On the one hand, their safety and religious freedom are no longer under threat. They have health care, free education, and the opportunity to work. They have shelter, electricity, clean clothes, and running water. On the other hand, they now chronically overeat and overspend. They are at risk for obesity and Type II diabetes. They have high-interest payday loans, as well as bad credit reports due to their misunderstanding of cell phone contracts. For their first year in the United States, their extreme poverty, combined with an ignorance of consumerism, paradoxically functioned as a protective factor, but as their incomes increased, they understandably wanted to join in the culture through the established tokens of membership: fast food, electronics, sodas, and sweets.