In 2002, the various warring parties in the Congo signed a peace deal that brought about a formal end to the war that had lasted since 1998. While the peace deal was successful in reuniting the country in a transitional government, and producing credible elections in 2006, it did not bring an end to the violence. Fighting escalated in the eastern Kivus region, reaching levels as high as during the war. There are now as many as three -Dozen armed groups, ranging between a few dozen to 3,000 strong.

Why did the peace deal not pacify the Kivus? Why have other areas, such as northern Katanga and Ituri, seen a sharp decrease in violence, while a proliferation of new militias has exacerbated insecurity in the Kivus? These questions raise question about the Congo, but also about peace processes in general.

Depending on which pundit you believe, the ongoing violence in the eastern Congo is caused by grievances over land and identity, greedy local and international elites, or a weak and venal Congolese state. Here we have it: a problem of layering that resembles many other conflicts we know – Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan come to mind. Which layer should we privilege, the local, the national or the regional? Ill-advised policy could just get us pulling at the wrong strand of a cat’s cradle, entangling us in a web of interacting causality.

Which brings me to my second point – if violence is the product of a battle of interests, how should we understand these? As Lenin said: ‘Who Whom?’ It seems to me that often the emphasis is misplaced, as we try to decipher an ideal solution for abstract problems, with too scant an understanding of the complex web of interests that produce mass violence.

Competing explanations

In her recent book The Trouble With the Congo, Séverine Autesserre argues that violence has persisted in the eastern Congo because international actors have failed to understand its root causes, which boil down to local grievances. She writes: “The main reason that the peace-building strategy in Congo has failed is that the international community has paid too little attention to the root causes of the violence there: local disputes over land and power.” In particular, she cites struggles over identity and land dating back to the colonial period, as well as quarrels over customary rule. She contends that the “top down” approach of international actors has neglected these underlying drivers of conflict.

In contrast, many activists and Congolese locate the culprits among a range of self-interested elites. In other words: It is greed, not grievance, that is driving the conflict. Depending on which pundit you believe, these elites are located in Kigali or in corporate board rooms. For example, campaign groups in the United States and Europe have focused on the complicity of armed groups, politicians and multinationals in the exploitation of natural resources. Many Congolese NGOs concur with this analysis, while Mai-Mai groups put a different spin on this – for them, it is Rwanda, along with its CNDP proxies, that is trying to annex the eastern Congo to claim its natural wealth.

Finally, an increasing number of academics locate the problem in the dereliction of the Congolese state. Writing about the surges of violence in the Kivus, Vlassenroot and Raeymakers argue: “Instead of attacking such new ‘emergencies’, the international community would do best to tackle the fundamental obstacle to peace in the DRC, which is the violent and privatized governance of public goods and resources.” According to them, elites in Kinshasa actively undermine state authority, allowing opportunistic militias to fill the security vacuum.

While resources, local grievances and state weakness are indeed important enablers of conflict in Congo, they do not explain why conflict has subsided in areas like Ituri and northern Katanga, while escalating in the Kivus. In contrast to these single explanations, I will argue for a less reductive narrative: Different dynamics are behind different armed groups in the Kivus; coming to grips with these differences should the major challenge for analysts of the region.

The changing nature of conflict in the Kivus

Armed groups have existed/been present in the Kivus since pre-colonial times. In the late 19th century during the incursions of the Arabisés – groups linked to the Swahili slave trade – local chiefs mobilized ad hoc groups of young men to defend their territory. These groups – including the religious movements such as Kitawala that emerged in the colonial period – were peasant-led and often linked to customary elites.

During the colonial period, a new casus belli emerged linked to a politics and rhetoric of indigeneity, which has persisted to the present day. In North Kivu, the Belgian administration organized the immigration of up to 300,000 Rwandans to provide manual labor on ranches and plantations. In South Kivu, Tutsi pastoralists arrived in various waves, probably beginning at some point in the 19th century, and migrated to the high plateau overlooking Lake Tanganyika.

This immigration, coupled with misguided policies on land and citizenship during the reign of both the Belgians and later Mobutu, led to deep-rooted tensions between communities. Almost every armed group in the Kivus since the 1990s has cited this history as its motivation for fighting.

Crucially, this communal strife linked urban elites with rural peasants and changed the sociology of armed groups. Patronage networks from Kinshasa, Goma and Bukavu linked urban elites with peasants along ethnic lines. The emergence of a powerful landowning class in North Kivu, as well as the erosion of the state apparatus, reinforced this dynamic. The democratization process that began in 1990 was a catalyst for these tensions, as politicians used ethnic divisions in order to mobilize voters.

Then came the wars of the 1990s, with huge influxes of weapons and the regionalization of the conflict in the Kivus. The First War, the AFDL invasion of 1996-1997, led to a militarization of the economy, the creation of a new elite, and the deepening of communal rifts in the eastern Congo. These developments became even more accentuated with the Second War, also known as the RCD war (1998-2003).

The Third War

Which brings us to the conflict that has continued to percolate in the Kivus since 2003, dubbed by some as the “Third War.” It began in earnest in May 2004 when former RCD officers who refused to join the new national army laid siege to Bukavu. Following the attack, they retreated to North Kivu and began a new insurrection. This group, led by General Laurent Nkunda and a coterie of Congolese Tutsi, became the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP).

In response to Nkunda’s insurrection, various other local armed groups emerged, mostly along ethnic lines. The strongest of these was probably the Coalition des patriotes résistants congolais (PARECO), with an influential Hutu wing. These armed groups, along with a host of Mai-Mai groups, allied with the Congolese army in its offensive against the CNDP between 2007 and 2009.

What was the root of these new rebellions? Was it, as Autesserre argues, the unsolved struggles over land and local power? Or, as Vlassenroot suggests, is it the weak state and the privatization of governance?

I argue that in trying to come to grips with violence, we too often fall into lazy reductionism – ironically, even scholars like Autesserre, who has written as length about the dangers of monocausal narratives. In weak states like the Congo, where there is no preponderance of power, and no state Leviathans, there is no such thing as one cause, one effect.

The Congolese cat’s cradle, at least as I see it, can be described as follows. The CNDP, which was the first mover in this new conflict, did not emerge at the grassroots level due to land conflict, and the group has few links to customary authorities. Rather, it emerged as an elite-led response to the politics of the peace deal that reunited the country in 2003.

When the RCD joined the transitional government in 2003, it stood little chance of survival. It was internally divided and was unlikely to garner many votes in the 2006 elections. The stakes were high: Much of Goma’s elite had prospered thanks to the patronage and protection of the RCD and Rwanda. To safeguard these interests, the CNDP was formed by senior members of the RCD military, in coordination with officials in Kigali and Goma.

This is not to say that land and identity do not matter. The CNDP draws on inveterate fears of discrimination within the rwandophone community of North Kivu. But the level of analysis is misplaced: it is not customary chiefs and peasants who are the group’s driving constituency, but rather political and military elites.

This is not true for all groups. Some Mai-Mai groups, for example, have much more tenuous links to elite networks, and are more rooted in the realities of rural life, with its land pressures, poverty and histories of communal violence. Moreover, these groups often have a more diffuse command structure, which means that reigning them in is not so much a matter of striking a deal with one set of elites or commanders, but of providing incentives to the rank-and-file.

Moreover, this account does not discard the importance of the state. It is precisely because the state is weak and riddled with patronage networks that elites feel the need to ally themselves with armed men to protect their interests.

Dealing with the quandaries of multi-layered problems

So where do we start? With the disgruntled elites, the weak army or the land pressures? What are the priorities, given that these problems are all interconnected?

There is no one-fits-all solution; each group has its own dynamic and interests. It is clear, however, that the deepest rift in the region is the one between ex-RCD backers and Kinshasa. As long as this conflict remains alive, it will be difficult to convince other local militia to demobilize. Solving this rift will require high-level diplomacy and a deeper understanding of the main actors – especially elites in Kigali, Goma and Kinshasa – and their interests.

This diplomacy will have to confront deep commitment problems. The pivotal question: “How can you guarantee my interests after I integrate or demobilize my militia?” will be difficult to answer, but possible solutions include decentralization, local power-sharing deals and increased demilitarization of the region. The recent due diligence initiatives for mineral supply chains also forms an interesting option, as it threatens sanctions for countries and elites involved in conflict.

Further down the road, it is clear that for any durable peace, programs will also have to target the rank-and-file, both current and potential recruits. Here, a mixture of economic incentives and increased deterrence through policing should be considered. The Congolese government has long resisted restarting another demobilization program, but the failure of past ones was probably in part linked to the sequencing: you can’t demobilize militias if the war is not over. There is also an urgent need to reform the rural economy, especially the patterns of land ownership and use, to assuage local feuds that can escalate.

Finally, the golden grail of donor intervention: the reconstruction of an accountable, efficient state. It is questionable whether this can be done from the outside, and perhaps donor intervention can even exacerbate matters. Past attempts have been thwarted by a poor understanding of local actors and the vested interests of many in maintaining a weak state. But as with demobilization, progress in this direction is unlikely as long as there is no firm political settlement in place in the Kivus.

Interestingly, the peace process in the Congo does not speak in this language of interests, but in an abstract rights-based lingo. ‘How do we get to democracy?’ is the question, or – ‘How can we create a credible army?’ These are questions that lead us most often to technocratic solutions, where we design Congolese armies on paper, or talk about ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the protection of civilians.’ All noble and valuable concepts and goals, to be sure. But these exercises are often not informed the realities on the ground, by an analysis of interests, actors, and capabilities.

More time should be spent on this, on charting out interests as well as abuses. I say this, because after two decades of conflict in the Great Lakes, and spending twelve years of my own life trying to analyze the violence there, I am still only grasping at shadows.

7 Responses to The cat’s cradle of Congolese politics

  1. Adolphe Kilomba says:

    I partailly agree with you Jason. But the problem is that there is a serious interconnectedness of causes ranging from local, national as well as international to explain the escalating conflicts in the Kivu.Furthermore, those causes do not exclude each other at all!All of them should be addressed simultaneously so as to reach a sustainable peace in those provinces, negative peace be it. Indeed, all conflicts in the Kivu are well know by international powers becase they are often the first providers of funds and weapons. I personally think that a regional solution due to the regional dimension of the dispute might be the most appropriate!

  2. [...] The Cat’s Cradle of Congolese Politics. [...]

  3. LifeinContradiction says:

    Great article clearly defining the complex dynamic “wicked” nature of the Kivus conflict. Rational actor behavior at ALL levels is defined by their self-interests above all else. You are right to hold analysts accountable to assess these factors, rather than just the emotional headline-capturing ones.

  4. [...] or what you have been reading in the news, sparks your interest, we encourage you to come learn more. When I interviewed Congolese civilians, refugees, and ex-combatants for my thesis research, many [...]

  5. Phil P. says:

    Dear Mr. Stearn,

    While I understand that any academic must construct his position discussing, building on, and contradicting other academics who work in the same field, I must say that I was quite surprised with some of your interpretations and approaches. The works of Autesserre, Raeymakers and Vlassenroots, for instance, are not reductionist as you pretend they are. I must also say that calling their approach “lazy”, and their policy recommendation as “Ill-advised” is quite insulting. One may agree to disagree, but gently. The three of them have a broader approach that the reductionist approach that you use to qualify their work. I would certainly recommend you to re-read their work, since it was not clear to you. Nevertheless, your blog post is interesting, and I am looking forward to reading more of your research. I hope that, as you pursue your PhD., you will continue to build your own expertise using appropriately the research of others, and succeed in publishing in known newspapers and academic journals.
    Best of luck.

  6. [...] good job analyzing the many factors that play a role in this conflict in an article on the Reinventing Peace [...]

  7. [...] The Cat’s Cradle of Congolese Politics – In Reinventing Peace, Jason Stearns intricately sketches out the causes of conflict in [...]

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