How do we talk about rebel groups?

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.

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By Jamie Hitchen