By Aidan Stonehouse (University of Leeds)
The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality. Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot (Eds.). Zed Books, London and New York, 2010. Pp. 356. ISBN. 9781848135635 (pb). £19.95.
In 2003 UN Under-Secretary General Jan Egeland described the consequences of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict as; ‘the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today’. The international concern over northern Uganda was overdue. Emerging in the 1980’s the LRA gained notoriety for the brutality of its civilian attacks and the abduction of tens of thousands of people, including large numbers of children. Despite the weakening of the group through military and diplomatic efforts and the issuing of International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants for leader Joseph Kony and his commanders in 2005, the LRA’s continued existence remains a threat to stability in northern Uganda, southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. In response to often partisan and one dimensional analyses, Allen and Vlassenroot’s edited collection provides a wide ranging and interdisciplinary account which allows space for Ugandan and outside perspectives, including academic, third sector and local leaders, which consequently draws together specialised and ‘insider’ knowledge’s of the LRA conflict. In addressing the nature of the LRA- its motivations, its origins, and its violence- from a variety of viewpoints, the collection is able to critically assess the realities of northern Uganda and the response of the Ugandan government. Moreover, the different essays are able to get beneath the skin of a movement whose primary description in the Western media and Ugandan governmental communication tends to be that of, as Mareike Schomerus puts it; ‘the ultimate horror story in which a gang of child soldiers was led towards darkness by a bible-quoting psychopath.’
The desire to move beyond the ‘myth’ and engage with the ‘reality’ of the LRA provides a cohesive force among the disparate viewpoints and foci contained within the collection. The publishing blurb refers to the work as ‘comprehensive’, yet the reader should not expect definitive answers to the complex and multifarious issues involved. This need not however, be a criticism. The strength of the collection stems from engagement with the situation in a bold, critical, and sometimes provocative style; Andrew Mwenda’s chapter, ‘Uganda’s Politics of Foreign Aid and Violent Conflict: The Political Uses of the LRA Rebellion’, is unlikely to have improved Mwenda’s status with Uganda’s central government. The concern of the authors to move beyond simple stereotyping of the LRA is clear in the structure of the collection. Part One of the work offers varying interpretations over the genesis and perpetuation of the conflict; the chapters by Adam Branch and Sverker Finnstrom in particular dismiss uncritical conclusions concerning the LRA and affected Acholi, Langi and Madi populations, and instead attempt to understand the political, social and ethnic origins of LRA violence. The second group of essays considers the process of ‘experiencing the LRA’, either through the lived experience of the impacted populations or former fighters, or, indeed, through the authors own personal accounts. The third and final section, ‘Peace and Justice’, addresses the 2006 peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan Government, as well as debates surrounding the implementation of justice in international and local contexts through a discussion of both the ICC and reconciliation in Acholi society.
For the vast majority of readers the gems of the collection are likely to be the first hand descriptions of meetings with Kony and LRA commanders in the two chapters by Schomerus, ‘Chasing the Kony Story’ and ‘A Terrorist is Not a Person Like Me’, and Ronald Iya’s, ‘Encountering Kony: A Madi Perspective’. The transcript of Schomerus’s June 2006 interview with Kony is undeniably fascinating in offering a unique glimpse, through the LRA’s commanders own words, into the motivations and life of one of Africa’s most brutal guerrilla movements. However, it is perhaps in the conflicting responses of Kony in his careful discussions with Schomerus, a German, and his outspoken and belligerent claims to Ronald Iya, a Madi from Northern Uganda, that the greatest interest lays.
It could be argued that Allen and Vlassenroot’s edited work lacks a certain claim to objectivity given the personal nature of the experiences of many of the selected writers. Overall, however, it is exactly the varied perspectives and insights offered through extensive experience on the ground within Uganda that makes this an essential reading on the LRA conflict. Impressive in scope and with an eye to understanding the experience and genesis of ‘terror’ beyond propaganda, ‘The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality’ will undoubtedly become a key component for those seeking a deeper understanding of the LRA.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 123-124]