Interview with Laura Seay, by Keren Yohannes and Casey Hogle

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, USA. Her research addresses community responses to state fragility in central Africa and US foreign policy in central Africa. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and is completing a book, Substituting for the State, on the differences in the ways that civil society organizations respond to the state’s absence in social service provision in the Kivu provinces and Ituri district.  

Seay spoke with PRAXIS editors Keren Yohannes and Casey Hogle on March 1, 2012 when she was attending a World Peace Foundation seminar.

PRAXIS: Can you outline some of the ways advocates have framed the conflict in the DRC? What impacts have these ways of framing had on Western policy responses to the conflict?

Laura Seay: You see two primary streams of advocacy. One has to do with the rape crisis and the other is about conflict minerals. The anti-conflict minerals advocates argue that the armed groups benefiting from the mineral trade are the same groups that engage in massive human rights abuses. A group called the FDLR once got about 75 percent of its revenues from the mineral trade. Another group called the CNDP, which has now reformed itself as the M23, was getting about 25 percent of its revenues from the mineral trade. Is that bad? Yes. But there are different sources of revenue, and these groups are quite adaptable.

The other stream of advocacy is focused on stopping rape. How do you do that? Do you go after the conflict minerals issue? Do you go after the broader problems of governance in the Congo? We know that the majority of rapes in Congo that are happening are civilian-perpetrated, so I believe you’ve got to do something within the civilian population.

PRAXIS: The 2012 Human Security Report states that international organizations and media often exaggerate the prevalence of rape, and the increase in reporting is often extrapolated to mean an increase in violence. Can you discuss the ways in which the focus on sexual violence in the DRC has done a service or a disservice by raising the profile of the conflict?

LS: It has had mixed effects. Nobody was paying attention to the Congo war until the stories about rape started appearing in the New York Times around 2007. It was only when these unbelievably horrific stories started coming out that attention was galvanized. This is not bad, but it is problematic in several respects, such as the direction of resources. Non-profit hospitals in [the Kivus] have more resources than they know what to do with. There’s an idea that sexual violence is only a problem in the East, but it’s much more widespread than that.

It has done a lot to reinforce the stereotypes that the Congolese are passive victims waiting for the world to come help them. It’s reinforced a lot of the negative stereotypes about savagery and that Congo has a natural propensity for a certain level of violence. And those things are not true. The people angriest about this [rape] are the Congolese. It’s seen as a breakdown in civility and society as a result of the breakdown of the state and the economy. People very much want this to change.

The Human Security Report is controversial in its claims. A lot of the increased numbers can be explained through improved reporting mechanisms. Certainly in Congo, reporting has improved since 2006-7. But a lot of the numbers of rape are based on outdated data. The statistic that one Congolese woman is raped every 48 seconds is based on data from 2006. But people respond that if you claim that rape is decreasing, then that downplays the experiences of people who are still encountering violence and could encourage policymakers to take away funding. I’m pretty skeptical of those claims. I think that accurate data is still bad and would galvanize support.

PRAXIS: We know that you are currently writing a book about the consequences of Dodd Frank and the LRA Disarmament Act. Can you comment in a more detail about your book? Considering the field research it required, what is your impression on what Congolese see as the U.S.’s role in conflict mitigation?

LS: I’m looking at the effects of US policies in Africa that are designed to mitigate conflict in Africa. It’s a study of three post-Cold War cases: Save Darfur, the anti-LRA movement, and the anti-conflict minerals campaign in the DRC. These are the only campaigns that have galvanized at least several hundreds of people to be involved.

I think it is fair to say that there are mixed reactions to these policies in the DRC. People call the conflict minerals law “la loi Obama” (Obama’s law), and it basically shut down the mines. Within a month, the Malaysia Smelting Corporation, which bought about 90 percent of some of the minerals coming out of Eastern Congo, looked at the Dodd Frank Legislation and said that there was no way they could verify that all the minerals coming out were conflict-free. So they said there was no way they could buy Congolese minerals anymore. The Malaysia Smelting Company decision, which lasted for a little over a year, basically shut down mining, which had devastating effects for the local economies and people.

PRAXIS: One aspect of the conflict in the DRC that is often overlooked is the role of Congolese as change agents. What is your impression of local activism and responses to the conflict within the DRC?

LS: There’s an extraordinarily vibrant civil society in Congo. In the early 1990s, there was this blossoming of activity, emanating out from Bukavu in the East, where students and faculty at a major Catholic University became very well-versed in the theoretical literature on civil society. Today, in the country’s major cities and particularly in East of Congo, people are very active on every possible issue you could imagine.

In terms of activity related to the conflict itself, we’ve seen the most activism recently over the M23 crisis. M23 is a movement led by Tutsi Congolese, but we have pretty good evidence that it’s pretty strongly backed by the governments of Rwanda and probably Uganda as well. To be backed by Rwanda in Eastern Congo is a very unpopular thing. They are seen as wanting to steal Congolese territory, and wanting to – and they do – steal minerals from the Congo. So there have been protests lately opposing what they call the Balkanisation of the DRC.

Before, the big issue was the elections. In November of 2011, there were quite fraudulent elections. We don’t actually know who won because the numbers were so cooked. The common perception among many Congolese, especially Western Congolese in the capital, is that opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi won. That may or may not be true, but that’s the perception. And of course sometimes perception is more important than reality. But you certainly have seen civil society very actively denouncing what they view as the theft of the election and the theft of democracy.

We know from government 101 that all politics are local. People do care more about their domestic and local politics and I think that’s true of the Congolese just like it’s true of everybody. People are concerned about the fact that legislative elections that are supposed to have taken place for seven years now are still yet to happen. They are concerned about the school year and whether the schools will finish on time and whether their children will be able to take national exams and advance to the next level. It’s very local and domestic issues that they’re thinking about.

PRAXIS: What is the role of the Congolese diaspora in DRC-focused advocacy. Diaspora communities are often more extreme in their views than populations on the ground. Have you noticed that online, such as in posts from DRC tweeps?

LS: The diaspora is interesting. I will comment mostly on the Congolese diaspora in the United States because I’m most familiar with it. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that they’re more extreme in their opinions, but they definitely are extreme in their opinions. Congo is a place where sources of information are not often reliable and lot of it is state controlled. There are a couple good outlets, but what has always thrived is Radio Troittoir–meaning sidewalk radio or gossip networks.

Those gossip networks extend into the diaspora. Many Congolese in the US are trying to explain things that seem otherwise inexplicable, through what most of us would call conspiracy theories. Theories that make sense within the universe of who Congolese diaspora members talk to, what they know, and the trauma many of them have experienced. For example, many Congolese in the diaspora believe that the problems their country has been through in the past 20 years is a big conspiracy, involving the United States government, the Tanzanian government, possibly the South Africans, definitely the Rwandans and Ugandans, probably the British and the Belgians, and multinational corporations. The ultimate goal is to break up the Congo and to exploit its mineral wealth without benefiting the Congolese. That [theory] has unfortunately consequences for diaspora leaders in the United States because it causes them to not be taken very seriously, particularly in policymaking circles. When you subscribe to conspiracy theories and you can’t provide evidence in the way that Western policymakers think about evidence, it really undermines a lot of their goals and they don’t get taken seriously, they don’t get listened to. They get shut out a lot of a lot of discussions.

PRAXIS would like to thank Laura Seay for her insights into the varied voices in rhetoric  surrounding Congo. You can also watch her definition of human security, in our exclusive video series, here!

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