July 14, 2016

By: Matthew Sebastian

2016JULY12 NMPDC Art

Artwork done by a young artist outside the National Memory Peace and Documentation Centre in Kitgum

On the evening of June 12th shots rang out from the center of Gulu Town. From Pece, an area just adjacent to town, I could hear them clearly. It was an attack on the Central Police Station (CPS), an echo of an attack elsewhere in Gulu District shortly prior. In the middle of the night on May 27th, a UPDF Local Defense Unit (LDU) was attacked in Opit, a trading center 30 kilometers from Gulu Town. One soldier and a small child were killed and a stock of weapons and ammunition were stolen. The following week police arrested Dan Oola Odiya, National Deputy Mobilizer and spokesperson for one of the prominent opposition political parties – the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) – on charges related to the attack. The attack on the CPS in Gulu Town was a rescue attempt, most reports detail – presumably by the same men who attacked Opit two weeks prior. A number of the guns confiscated in the aftermath of the attack matched those stolen from Opit, it has been widely reported.

Without much thought – and with little mention in the press – residents quickly pointed out the obvious: more likely than not, the attackers were unemployed young men paid (for some, “bribed”) in exchange for their participation. The attack was surely political – regardless of the veracity of the official explanation of UPC involvement – but, for the attackers, it was also assumed to be deeply pragmatic, much more than political ideology or loyalty to a particular party or cause.

When I first arrived in Gulu this summer in early May, I met with a friend of many years, a young man who is now in his early twenties. We caught up over updates on each other’s families and the activities that had occupied our time since the last time we saw each other. He revealed that during the national election held earlier this year he had been a crime preventer, a voluntary force comprised of (mostly unemployed) youth who receive basic military and police style training in exchange for “keeping order” – that is, “preventing crimes” – at a local community level. Monetary support is promised, but for most it never comes. It is widely understood that these groups are mobilized during national elections, and, in the minds of many residents, crime preventers serve as armed intimidators for the ruling party, standing guard at polling places and regularly accused of mobilizing votes. As we continued speaking, my friend emphasized his reason for participating: “…but to sit here idle like this with nothing to do, no, it’s not OK.” He is now at home, without much to do and with no expectation of being called on again as a crime preventer now that the election is over.

2016JULY12 NMPDC Art2

Artwork done by a young artist outside the National Memory Peace and Documentation Centre in Kitgum

An anxiety over idleness has haunted many of my conversations this summer. With few exceptions, most of the acikari I have interviewed over the past seven weeks have stressed that they joined a company only because it’s “better than sitting at home.” For many young men in post-conflict northern Uganda, security has become a way of “finding something to do,” of occupying time away from home. It is a way of finding work in a residual space of a post-conflict landscape. We might also recall the young man who, in my last post, spoke about how his supervisor in the police force suggested even if he doesn’t receive pay, he should stay on staff because it’s better than doing nothing. Michael Ralph’s work (2008) on how the visibility of (male) tea drinkers in Senegal has produced a discourse of youth that hinges on idleness and the passing of empty, unproductive time is instructive of the social expectations of young men in this context as well, particularly with regards to the sort of employment they should pursue (that is, any, regardless of its viability for making a life for oneself).

Last week a new report came out on the attack on the CPS in Gulu Town. The attackers were “duped into rebellion,” the headline read. The Resident District Commissioner for Gulu made a statement declaring that “the alleged recruiters promised the youthful attackers jobs at an unnamed farm and a forest where he claimed an unnamed businessman had been extracting timber.” The promise was for temporary employment as casual laborers. Once on the farm, the youth were “armed with machetes and whistles tasked to begin military training.” Some fled after becoming suspicious; others, such as those now in custody from the attack on Gulu (and suspected to be involved in the attack in Opit as well), were employed not as casual laborers on a farm or in a forest as promised, but as armed participants in two prominent attacks on military and police installations in Gulu District. The public discourse around the attack as being one undertaken by youth looking for work – even at risk of their own lives – is telling, even more so because it appears to have played out precisely as community members suspected. The knowledge these community members were pulling from is very much historically situated and is animated in the “post-” of the contemporary post-conflict moment, in those residual spaces left in the aftermath of war.

This summer has been incredibly productive for studying the interplay between security, youth, and interventions in the aftermath of prolonged civil conflict, and I hope these few posts have offered a window – however brief – into the sort of work that the DHRC@FHI supports. I am extremely thankful such a line of support exists, and have enjoyed connecting with other students who have taken part. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the kind of research produced in the next iteration of the fellowship!


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