Issues surrounding the LRA and its brutal treatment of children abducted from areas of northern Uganda, the DRC, South Sudan, and more recently CAR, have abounded for more than 20 years. The mechanism often applied to provide rehabilitation or reintegration of these children has been through DDR programmes. The results are subject to various interpretations, and certainly have not systematically addressed the larger issue for the need for former LRA children reintegration through DDR.
The assertions by Norbert Mao, the president of the Democratic Party in Uganda, that the LRA pose may be the next Al Qaeda misplace the LRA and child DDR issue. Not withstanding variances in the group’s composition, structure, motivations and ideologies, the fact of the matter may be that if the LRA could be the next Al Qaeda, they would have been. In a way, Mao’s statements speak tellingly of the political will, or lack thereof, historically present by the international (and regional) community to tackle and resolve the LRA issue.
Lacking the explicit recognition that the political will to tackle the LRA issue is absent runs the incumbent risk that shortcomings in DDR will be blamed on insufficiencies in reintegration. In doing so, proposed solutions may not address root issues. One such solution may be casting NGOs as being a detriment to LRA child DDR. While it must be acknowledged that DDR has too often adopted a one size fits all ‘cookie cutter’ approach to DDR, it is equally true that NGOs have played a critical role in child DDR and reintegration, and continue to do so in Africa and beyond. This includes the use of traditional customs such as dance, animal offerings, healing ceremonies and other means to support child reintegration and community reconciliation. These methods were prevalent in the early 2000s in the Mano River junction where children also did not need to possess a weapon to gain entry into programs.
So what is at issue for child DDR in Uganda and in neighboring countries no longer with the LRA? NGOs are tasked to do ‘ad hoc’ DDR with government programs for former LRA child reintegration not integrated into civilian institutions. One reason may be that DDR is a tool used in post conflict settings, and while the LRA is not technically an ‘active’ conflict zone they represent a real and present security risk. On this front Mao was right on target. DDR cannot be an effective mechanism for child reintegration as the preconditions to undertake a systematic and programmatic response are not present. These include the cessation of hostilities, a minimum guarantee of security and the political will of the parties involved in the process – none of which exists.
Should the government institute programs for the reintegration of child solider coming out of the LRA? – Yes. Should local and traditional Acholi customs be utilized? – Yes. Does the issue of the LRA require a durable solution before DDR can be efficacious? –Yes. Are NGOs a detriment to reintegration and DDR processes in Uganda and beyond for children coming out of the LRA? – Likely not a prime mover.
Prescriptively, then what is needed? Any entity attempting to implement reintegration through a DDR for LRA affected areas success will in part be shaped by the political will to find a durable resolution to the LRA issue. When this occurs a DDR effort can adopt a holistically and comprehensive programmatic response. Traumas experienced by LRA child victims will require context specific and ongoing attention including harnessing local customs and traditions, however; these will need to be determined by communities, not NGOs, the international community or even national government. The real ‘cookie cutter’ impediments to DDR may be the tendency to measure success in individual socio-economic terms – vocational training, bicycle repair and so on; coupled with the imposition of any reintegration model or modality.
While the preconditions to start a credible DDR are political will, minimum-security guarantees and cessation of violence, the preconditions for success will be anchored in social, psychological and psychosocial reintegration. The lack of social reintegration will become barrier to market as former LRA children will not be able to secure livelihoods irrespective of their marketable skills. Likewise, inadequate psychological and psychosocial reintegration may change attitudes, though in the end not behavior, limiting children with appropriate skills to be able to utilize them in public, social and community settings.
This situation is not unique to children coming out of the LRA and entering DDR. In Somalia Al-Shabaab youth face a similar dilemma. The preconditions for DDR are not present; metrics of success were largely socio-economic and communities determine barriers to reintegration as much as, and maybe more so than markets. Variables such as alcohol and drug abuse, crime, drop out rates, sexual and domestic violence will be indicators of failure and success. The issue will not be one of who implements, rather when and how programs are designed.