The construction of knowledge on rebel groups: ‘a Lord’s Resistance Army for everyone’

Peace & Security07 Jul 2015Kristof Titeca

Rebel groups and conflicts are understood and framed in very different ways by various actors, even by those collaborating to end a conflict.  This is particularly clear for the Lord’s Resistance Army, as the rebel group serves interests independent of the conflict for various actors.

Between late 2008 and mid-2010, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) carried out major attacks in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For example, in late 2009, 321 people were killed and more than 250 abducted during horrific massacres in remote areas of the Haut Uele District. The reaction of the Congolese government was rather surprising: it argued that these massacres did not take place, and that instead “a few persons were attacked by uncontrolled elements”, in which only 3 to 25 persons were killed. Generally, the Congolese government has been minimizing and denying significant LRA presence. Equally surprising was the reaction of the UN peacekeepers to this attack: although its mandate is to protect civilians, and although it has a presence in the affected area, it took them about 10 weeks to deploy an investigation team after first learning about these atrocities. Generally, it has taken a passive attitude towards the LRA. Similarly, in the years to follow, various actors at both the national and international level, have framed the LRA in radically opposite ways. American lobby organizations such as Invisible Children, Resolve or Enough and the US government have given much attention to the LRA, while governments in the affected region largely approached the LRA as a defeated force.

Different ways to frame the LRA: four crucial factors

A new article published by myself and Théophile Costeur in African Affairs – ‘A Lord’s Resistance Army for everyone’ – analyses the factors explaining these reactions, and how various actors frame the LRA differently. Concretely, it argues how the extent of the LRA threat was not an objective condition, but something that could be manipulated depending on the interpretation given to the limited available data and the interests influencing these interpretations. Apart from interests, also other factors such as organizational structures or broader historical relations play an important role in the framing of particular LRA images.

By demonstrating these points, the article aims to contribute to the analysis of the construction of knowledge on rebel groups and conflicts more generally. It particularly identifies four factors which are crucial in analyzing how intervening actors frame rebel groups .

Interests of different actors

First, the interests of the actors involved plays an important role in how they will frame a rebel movement. The framing of the LRA as an absent or spent force by the Congolese government and army can be explained by the fact that it has much more important threats to its territory, but particularly by its relation with Uganda: during the earlier Congo wars, Uganda had been occupying parts of the DRC and exploiting natural resources. By framing the LRA as absent , the Congolese government and army wanted Uganda to leave its territory. In this context, the LRA conflict therefore became closely connected with the interests of the various actors involved, which were more important than the physical threat of the LRA on the local population.

The power of local constituencies

Second, the power of local constituencies plays an important role in the freedom of governmental actors to align their interests with a particular framing of a rebel group. Powerful local constituencies can influence how governmental actors frame the LRA image; while a lack of a powerful local constituency allows governments to construct a broader variety of images. Concretely, through their strong mobilization capacities, lobby groups such as Invisible Children, Resolve and Enough had a significant impact on US policies and actions against LRA violence, certainly because this coincided with priorities of the Obama administration. Constituencies of the LRA-affected areas were marginal to the power of their regimes, allowing the latter to largely ignore the LRA violence.

The availability of information

Third, the available information on the rebel movement also plays a role in this process: as the strength of the LRA is unclear, this allows a variety of images to be constructed by different actors. The LRA is operating in small and mobile subgroups in the large, and difficult to access borderlands between the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in which a variety of armed groups are operating. Communication between the different subgroups is difficult, and even for individual rebels themselves, it is hard to judge the strength of the movement, as most of the important decisions are centralized with a small subgroup around leader Joseph Kony. This situation makes it possible to construct contradictory images of the LRA.

Organizational dynamics

Fourth, also organizational dynamics determine how a rebel group is understood, and how knowledge on a rebel group is produced by particular actors. For example, as shown by Séverine Autessere’s recent book Peaceland, everyday practices of humanitarian actors have an important impact on how they perceive a particular situation. In LRA-affected areas, the intervention of the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO and other UN agencies has for instance followed a largely bureaucratic logic, which meant that the development of their presence in LRA-affected areas was more related with its bureaucratic procedures than with the actual threat of the LRA. As a result of this, many troops and UN Agencies only arrived after the LRA threat had significantly reduced.

A negative impact on conflict resolution, less effective interventions

Naturally, these factors had a negative impact on the effectiveness of interventions against the LRA: it led to a fragmented and dynamic situation in which particular elements of the LRA conflict were purposefully neglected or emphasized in the construction of a particular image, either influenced by particular interests or organizational dynamics which were more important than the actual physical threat of the LRA. Moreover, it even led to an intensification of local conflicts: through the instrumental framing of the rebel movement by various actors, the LRA has become embedded in local conflicts, amplifying and magnifying local tensions. For example, the Congolese army has structurally been linking the LRA with the pastoralist cattle-keepers Mbororo, which they claim collaborates with the LRA. While evidence for this is rather weak, and collaboration at most rare and ad hoc, it allowed a range of human rights abuses to occur against the Mbororo, which – through their cattle – are economically much more interesting to fight than the LRA. In this way, the fight against the LRA allowed other forms of violence to occur.

Consequences for the construction of knowledge on rebel groups

This analysis is not only important for the LRA, but more generally for analysing the production of knowledge on conflicts and rebel groups . For example, a similar process is ongoing for the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), another Ugandan rebel group operating in Eastern Congo. The fact that little public information is known about the movement, and the recent attacks in Eastern Congo, allows it to be used for a variety of purposes. The Ugandan government uses the Islamic character to depict it as a branch of Al Qaeda (which brings a range of geopolitical advantages), while a wide range of local and national political actors are able to instrumentalise supposed links with the ADF for various political purposes , facilitating forms of local violence.

This article was altered from the original, which was published on the Monkey Cage Blog of the Washington Post.