The Political Science of Child Soldiering in Africa

As reactions for, and against the Invisible Children campaign against Joseph Kony convulse blogs and Twitter, it may be no harm to turn to what political scientists have to say. Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman have a paper under submission on the logic of child soldiering that draws on a major data gathering project which paid particular attention to the Lord’s Resistance Army. The statistical evidence tells a grim story – Beber and Blattman also provide some practical suggestions to lower the risks to children in war-torn territories.

We conducted qualitative interviews with more than 100 former abductees, 20 community and clan leaders, and 25 commanders from the Ugandan armed forces and the LRA over ten months in 2005-07. … We randomly sampled 1,162 households in eight clusters, using the earliest sample frame available: UN World Food Programme lists compiled in 2002. 88% of sampled households were found. … Forced recruitment by the LRA was large-scale and indiscriminate. … The LRA focused on abducting young adolescents. Figure 6 illustrates the distribution of age at the time of recruitment. Three times as many youth aged 14 were abducted as those aged 9 or 23. … Violence and the threat of punishment was the main instrument of control in the LRA. … Initiation sometimes involved the forced commission of violence … Accounts of allegiance and forgetting suggest that LRA discipline, religion and propaganda did not simply change individual incentives, but fundamentally altered the beliefs and values of recruits … Not only were the LRA more like to forcibly recruit adolescents than adults, but once recruited, younger recruits received more punishments and fewer positive inducements. … Children were also more likely to be forced to commit acts that would reduce their real and perceived outside options. Being forced to kill a family member fell by 0.9 percentage points per year of age while being forced to abuse dead bodies fell by 0.7 percentage points per year (Table 1, Columns 4 and 5). These are large declines relative to the average incidences, 12% and 23%. … younger abductees stay longer before attempting escape.

Clearly, raising the cost of child recruitment is crucial, and the recent policy focus here is well deserved. Aid can be conditioned on human rights behavior. Financing from diasporas and other funders can be frozen. And the threat of prosecution is powerful. But is it sufficient? Child recruitment can still be optimal when the costliness increases, especially when children’s opportunities are poor or leaders exert control over the information that reaches them. Also, prosecution is not without difficulty. The first prosecution for child soldiering, against Lubanga, has gone poorly and narrowly missed an acquittal (New York Times 2011). And prosecutors have no means of bringing leaders like Kony to justice. This tool is powerful, but not all powerful. … Just as Western schoolchildren perform fire drills, or learn not to speak to strangers, so should children in war zones be drilled in escape and resistance to misinformation. Just such a grassroots effort was launched by Ugandan civil society, albeit too little and too late. … In retrospect, more and better education and communication earlier in the conflict could have reduced the effectiveness of LRA abduction. It is difficult to imagine UNICEF or education
ministries distributing abduction-training curricula to schools. The policy would be a frank admission of their failure to protect, and politically difficult. Nevertheless, in future conflicts, some institutionalized mechanisms for counter-propaganda, escape training, and other countermeasures ought to be a central part of the governmental and non-governmental response to war.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.