How do we talk about rebel groups?

Marching to LRA Camp. Image via ENOUGH Project Flickr.

Talking about rebel groups is especially the conundrum for journalists and researchers who follow the fates of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – which has been operational for almost 30 years across northern Uganda, southern Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and Eastern Congo – and Boko Haram, which has been active in northeastern Nigeria and countries that surround Lake Chad since the early 2000s.

Both Boko Haram and the LRA have stirred religious fanaticism; tapped into a feeling among citizens of government neglect; carried out attacks and abductions on civilian populations causing large scale internal displacement; and have successfully avoided military defeat despite a substantial technological and logistical disadvantage.

Media reports and analyses of these rebel groups, and the government responses to them, are too often simplified “good vs evil” narratives, with little room for complexity and nuance. Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video campaigned for a redoubling of international efforts to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony, but omitted any mention of abuses committed by members of Uganda People’s Defence Force. In response to the capture of 276 girls from Chibok in Nigeria, an open letter to the international community by prominent British political actors, accused Boko Haram of “waging an evil war.” But the proposed support for military action seemed oblivious to the propensity for violence and terror within Nigeria’s armed forces. These two examples highlight a general trend; a tendency to overlook the blurred lines of conflict.

These narratives hamper attempts to better understand why these groups continue to exist, how they operate and what messages they seek to convey. When the LRA is described, as it has been by a number of media outlets, as “a rag-tag force”, or when Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau is said to have more of the air of a psychopath than a militant” or is cast as being notorious for his wild YouTube rants,” an image is reinforced that is not wholly accurate.

The researcher and writer, Ledio Cakaj’s newly published book, When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard, which chronicles life in the LRA from the perspective of a foot soldier, George Omona (a pseudonym), breaks with this consensus.

Omona joined the LRA voluntarily in 2007, two decades after it began operating in northern Uganda. Under Kony’s leadership the group engaged in guerrilla warfare across northern Uganda, against Yoweri Museveni’s government. The conflict subsequently spread across borders into neighboring countries,. Upwards of 1.5 million Ugandans were internally displaced. George grew up in this context, but does not give the impression that he was radicalized by it. He was well educated, but his uncle, who appears to have connections to the group, pushed him towards the LRA. George boarded a United Nations flight, under the pretext of being a herbalist who had been sent for by Kony, and made his way to the LRA camps in the bush. It became his home for the next three years.

Omona’s account sheds light on the day to day reality of the LRA. The picture that emerges is not only one of immense hardship – walking huge distances through dense bush with food and water in perpetually short supply – but also of a highly sophisticated organisation. The LRA fighters are able to communicate with clusters across borders, have developed intimate knowledge of the terrain in which they operate, have set up networks of camps, and have developed strategies to frustrate and for the most part confound the Ugandan troops seeking to eradicate them.

The brutality the LRA has inflicted on the communities in the region is not ignored or downplayed in Cakaj’s book; nor is the abduction of children who, serving as porters and fighters, are essential to its ability to function. But the account provides much more of value than is encapsulated in the term “rag-tag” and presents real insight into how the LRA has evaded defeat.

Of course other geo-political factors were at play. The LRA benefited from a proxy war between Sudan and Uganda in South Sudan in 1990s and early 2000s; receiving weapons and support from the Sudanese, who sought to destabilize Uganda. Sustaining the conflict was also in the Ugandan government’s interest. They benefited materially from the international support (especially from the US) given to fight the LRA. Their commitment to the US’s global war on terror, coupled with the country’s relative stability in the region, deflected international criticism away from its domestic commitment towards issues like democracy. But these do not, in and of themselves, explain how and why the LRA persists.

In the mid-2000s, under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram was just another Islamist group in Nigeria’s northeast. However, clashes with state security forces in 2009 ended with the death of Yusuf in police custody and the ascension of his deputy, Shekau. Since then, Boko Haram’s violent activities have resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people and the displacement of more than five million in the Lake Chad basin.

Much commentary on Boko Haram and Shekau is trapped by its failure to address the complex issue of the group’s enduring and deep-rooted appeal, before its turn to violence. The use of YouTube videos and sermons by Shekau and his predecessor Yusuf, which were readily available in local markets in the early 2000s, provide an underused resource to better understand the way they think, act and recruit.

The research of Atta Barkindo, now Director for Faith and Public Policy at the Kukah Centre, Nigeria , has proved particularly useful in making sense of Boko Haram’s worldview. Translations and analyses of Shekau and Yusuf’s sermons and statements by Barkindo, suggest a high degree of rational thinking and an ability to tap into genuine grievances – contrary to impression conveyed by the usual “crazed” and “wild” epithets.

Boko Haram’s leaders have constructed a narrative that exploits the history and memory shared by people in the Lake Chad basin, specifically contrasting the “glorious” era of the Islamic Kanem-Bornu empire with the depredations brought by its destroyer, colonialism, and the modern Nigerian state. Shekau, and prior to his death Yusuf, attribute blame for many of the problems facing impoverished residents of northeast Nigeria to this “western” construct. Shekau is a skilled orator in Hausa, Arabic and Kanuri and is able to relate to current political debates in a way that appeals to, and resonates with, his audiences. While many members of Boko Haram have been forcibly conscripted into the group, many chose to join voluntarily – an apparent conundrum that is seldom examined. Atta strongly believes that “despite the atrocities of Boko Haram, they really have something to say, if we can listen to them.”

Listening to, and attempting to better comprehend, groups like Boko Haram and the LRA should not be conflated with sympathy or in any way condoning their atrocities. But seeking to interrogate unhelpful media (and official) narratives that permeate everyday discourse and obscure the truth about these terrorist organizations is important. By doing so, information and ideas will emerge that can assist in understanding and overcoming such groups.

Jamie Hitchen

Jamie Hitchen is a researcher at Africa Research Institute. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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