When we heard the news that an LRA commander had been killed, we wanted to talk to an expert about that meant, exactly. We know it’s a big deal, but why? Luckily Sean Poole knows what he’s talking about and was in the country and available to chat.
What’s your name and job title here at Invisible Children?
Sean Poole and I am the Counter-LRA Programs Manager here at IC.
Which of our programs fall under that?
I work on most of our programs in central Africa – in DR Congo and Central African Republic. Most of my time is dominated by our defection programming. So figuring out creatively how do we get defection programming into the hands of the LRA. We have some ways that are proven and tested like FM radios but we’re trying to figure out other ways to do it as well such as utilizing helicopter speakers.
News just came out that Vincent Binani, one of the top commanders in the LRA, was killed in combat by the UPDF. You’re really familiar with the LRA command structure, so who was this guy?
He was actually a really important figure. He pretty much ran all of the LRA’s Congo operations out of Garamba National Park, and if you think about the LRA geographically, that’s probably their most important stronghold. They’ve been in Garamba since 2005 using the park not only to move towards communities in Congo and CAR for looting, but also to store supplies, weapons, and ammunition. So it’s a really important location for the LRA and Kony entrusted it to Binani – which says A LOT about his influence. He oversaw the massacre of over 320 people around the communities of Makombo in 2009. That was a three day massacre that took place around one axis, moving from community to community, systematically killing and abducting people along the route.
That actually was a big inspiration for the establishment of the HF Early Warning Network. After the Makombo massacre it took two months for that information to be public to the international community. Nobody really knew that it happened outside of the communities affected and because of that, no security forces of humanitarians responded to it as it was happening. Communities along that route had no warning that their was an LRA group moving towards them.
So we began to establish and identify highly vulnerable communities and put communications equipment in place so that nothing like that could happen again and so that communities could alert humanitarians and security forces of the presence of LRA groups in their area.
You were talking rank versus influence – can you touch on how the age of some of these fighters factors into that influence?
Some of these guys have been in the LRA two plus decades, since its inception. However, Kony is paranoid and is constantly trying to protect himself at the top of that command structure. Whenever he feels threatened by by one of his commanders he does something to reinforce his own authority. So usually what Kony does is take someone younger and close to him, like someone in his protection unit, and promotes them over other senior ranks, and Binani is a case of this. Binani was a part of the HIGH PROTECTION UNIT which is Kony’s group of bodyguards and that may be where some of the confusion is coming from when media outlets have referenced “A Top Bodyguard Was Killed.” He can be seen in the Juba Peace Talk photos standing in the foreground with a weapon protecting Kony and Odhiambo while they sit in the background. He performed well and was given his own command over older, more senior officers and given one of the top commands in the LRA. It’s an example of Kony using these younger guys who are extremely loyal to him. Binani guarded Kony on a regular basis and even from 5,000 miles south, Kony could trust him having seen him put his life on the line for him.
You described how our local partners developed the HF radio network in response to the Makombo massacres. So it seems like IC does react to the changes in the conflict. With Binani off the battlefield, what does IC plan to do to react to that?
It’s a huge deal that Binani was removed – to both civilians threatened by his actions but also the LRA. When you look at when defection efforts are most successful in the LRA context, its when there is confusion, lack of leadership, and groups are isolated. They just lost one of their top commanders, and for those of us on the counter-LRA side of things, we want to exploit that. Binani probably had anywhere between 30-45 fighters under his command, not taking into account women, children, and porters.
Can you define defection?
It’s just a complicated way of saying surrender, but within the context of an armed group. We’re currently working on using all of our publication methods of getting defection messaging to the LRA. Ongoing, we are developing a flier publicizing to the LRA that Binani’s been killed. Saying to these groups in Congo, “You don’t have a leader, this is an ideal time to defect. Binani was killed but you don’t have to end up like that. You can surrender. You can go to any number of safe reporting sites [which we’ve been establishing over the past six months; these are communities that IC has coordinated with who have said that the LRA can safely surrender there without risk of harm.]
We’re working on incorporating what happened to Binani into the fliers, FM radio programs, etc. A new project we’re working on is using these speakers that have a range of about six kilometers and are mounted on helicopters that broadcast messages directly to LRA groups. When there is information about where a specific LRA group is, these helicopters will go up and play defection messaging – often times by Caesar Achellam - talking about how you can come out, and that he’s safe, and the UPDF will take care of you. It’s really effective because you can forbid people from picking up a flier, you can limit the amount of people who have FM radios, but you can’t cover every person’s ear when a helicopter is flying overhead.
Is there a major difference in our messaging with Binani’s case being that he was killed versus a safe defection such as Achellam’s?
We’ve seen that messaging is not effective when framed in the negative. You have to positively say you can surrender and show that there are people safe at home. That’s why we’re using the narrative that this is not anything that anybody wants. It’s not what Invisible Children wants. The ideal scenario is that these guys surrender. We’ve seen a huge increase of safe surrenders in the past six months, and we want to show that death is not the ultimate outcome.
Back to the defection fliers – what does that take? When you say we’re doing it, who is we and what are the steps?
There are a few key people on this project. We really rely on our Acholi counterparts in northern Uganda. These are people who have lived through the war, lost family members to the LRA, some of them were even abducted into the LRA, and understand the psyche of the group. They really own all the messaging, and then from San Diego we put that messaging into a succinct, efficient, and clear package using feedback and expertise gained from talking to defectors about what is effective to see on a flier.
We’re constantly working with our Acholi staff in northern Uganda to come up with messaging. When we created one of our first fliers, we used, “Surrender to the UPDF here.” And they told us, “No, you can’t tell an LRA to surrender. You have to instruct them to a place, and can say lay down your weapons here, but the wording of surrender will not be received well.” Things we would never know not being Acholi.
Our staff in the field in CAR, DRC, and Uganda gather photos of people who have recently defected to use the most up-to-date examples for our fliers. Once everything has been put in place, the fliers are printed in Kampala and shipped out to according locations.
How long does it take to put these together?
It takes anywhere from 3 days to a week. The most difficult portion often is getting one of the languages translated. For some of these languages, there aren’t a lot of people in the world who speak it.
When are you leaving San Diego to head back out to the field?
I am headed back out in two weeks and will spend the remainder of the dry season working with our CAR team on the HF expansion up there and will continue to focus on defection messaging as more and more LRA surrender and we capitalize on that.