Why Peacebuilding in Eastern Congo Often Goes Wrong, and Why It Is So Hard to Get Right

Why Peacebuilding in Eastern Congo Often Goes Wrong, and Why It Is So Hard to Get Right

A perusal of the usual suspects among international media often yields (beyond more or less stereotypical explanations1) the central question of why peacebuilding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is such a difficult, or even impossible, task. After twenty years and a series of conflicts that has included most forms of bellicose activity, from full-scale affrontement to endless, low-intensity conflict, it is a plain, justified question. As the Swahili saying goes, kujenga amani ni shida kubwa (“building peace is a big challenge”).

Among the myriad possible answers, the narrative is generally reduced to actors and their relative horizons. The international community usually blames a blatant lack of justice or endemic corruption, while the Congolese government emphasizes the destabilizing impact of non-state armed group activity and the interference of neighboring countries. The latter in turn blame the Congolese state for failing to provide basic services and effective governance. Nongovernmental organizations usually agree, adding their own complaint about general indifference to a multilateral approach. All in all, the involved entities go round in circles. Many analysts would also add these accusations into the equation of unsuccessful peacebuilding.

To avoid reaching quick conclusions or encountering other pitfalls in trying to understand why peacebuilding is so difficult in the Congo, we need to parse the question. First of all, what is peacebuilding? Very conservatively speaking, peace means a situation in which individuals and communities are free to develop their livelihoods and manage their daily lives safely and securely, or, even more simply, it is the mere absence of war. Since the DRC has passed for much of the last two decades as a state with neither outright war nor outright peace but, rather, as an enduring conflict with shifting hotspots of fighting, this crisp definition does not capture the complexity of its situation.

Building, for its part, means constructing, establishing, or giving rise to something. It indicates a product that either does not yet exist at all or is to be assembled from existing parts, but that together will form something more than their sum. It is in the building sense that peacebuilding most sharply contrasts with peacekeeping, which focuses mainly on suppressing the destructive consequences of armed conflict and lacks a constructive element. Currently, the DRC hosts MONUSCO (United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Congo), the world body’s largest military mission containing an offensive brigade to "neutralize armed groups."

In short, peacebuilding is an activity through which we seek to set up a situation that coincides with, or at least builds up to, well-being, prosperity, and freedom. Perhaps this definitional quibble illustrates why building peace in a context such as the Congolese conflicts is so hard. Currently, the DRC is home to as many as fifty different armed groups with swiftly shifting allegiances, territories, ideologies, and organigrams.2 The central government, through its security forces, is as much a source of insecurity as are non-state groups.3 Rhizoid, entrenched layers of non-state and para-state governance structures4 challenge a president and a government that do not enjoy legitimacy among broad swaths of the population.5 Justice systems allow contending parties to straddle the line between public and customary jurisdiction—a main source of contention is land issues—and laws are hardly enforced in a transparent and egalitarian manner.6 The political opposition and large parts of the civil society act more as free riders and political entrepreneurs than serious counterweights to the government. The defection of national MP Roger Lumbala to M23 and the creation of rebel formation UFRC by civil society leader Gustave Bagayamukwe are telling examples.

From outside, neighboring countries, transnational actors, and ruthless multinational operators constantly interfere in the intricate layers of contest and conflict.7 After decades of Cold War proxy politics, international political power is contenting itself with a UN mission criticized for idleness in most of its priority fields.8 Among a wider range of foreign actors, the business model of humanitarian action seems to have gained prominence over the genius intent of peacebuilding.9

In sum, in the face of these daunting perceptions, the fate of peacebuilding in the Congo appears largely inauspicious, as the process itself oftentimes seems more of a patchwork approach than a coordinated strategy. A reality check of recent developments indicates to what extent some of the many problems are currently being addressed.

At the international level, the main reference is the so-called Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF), signed in February in Addis Ababa.10 Also known as the 11+4 agreement, it includes the eleven member states of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), with the ICGLR, the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the UN as watchdogs. It emphasizes the need for regional peacebuilding among the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, as well as efforts within the Congo (specifically in terms of security sector reform, or SSR). At the UN Security Council session on the Congolese conflicts in late July, a whole set of speakers, including US secretary of state John Kerry and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, mentioned this accord.11

While indisputably one of the more promising international approaches in years, the PSCF contains few indications of what should be done. The rationale behind the roles of the actors remains similarly opaque. Uganda, which was accused at some point of supporting M23 (a rebel military group based in the eastern DRC), is assigned to mediate IGCLR-brokered peace talks in Kampala between the DRC government and the rebel movement. The UN special envoy Mary Robinson finds herself more and more entangled in criticism and is having increasing difficulty maneuvering between endorsement of either the Kampala Talks or offensive military action through MONUSCO’s newly created Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).12 MONUSCO itself has suffered problems at its leadership level. Numerous changes in the military hierarchy (the force commander, his deputy, and his chief of staff were newly placed in the past few weeks) and the vacant position of the special representative and head of MONUSCO (during the one-month hiatus before German diplomat Martin Kobler took over from Roger Meece) affected the mission’s capability to act coherently; the communication disaster linked to the establishment of a security zone around Goma in late July was a clear result of that.13 All these examples indicate that peacebuilding needs more commitment from outside stakeholders.

At the national level, the two parties of the Kampala Talks have done whatever they could to sabotage the negotiations while carefully maintaining a diplomatic stance, with the DRC government and M23 presenting draft accords to one another that the opposite side could not possibly accept. Meanwhile, the talks have resumed and are reported to be at a final stageThe government side counts on the impending deployment of the FIB to neutralize M23 at the same time it has launched a process of concertations nationales, a new type of national consultation forum. Recently adjourned, they included the government side (Alliance for the Presidential Majority, AMP), the opposition, and representatives of civil society. DRC senate president Kengo wa Dondo, a former prime minister and presidential candidate, brokered supervision of the process by President Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and announced the formation of a government of national unity as a possible outcome. Joseph Kabila, the president of the DRC, has not reacted so far. For this process to contribute to peacebuilding, it will be crucial that participation is possible for more than just the good old class of politicians (which includes parts of “civil society,” too), and that discussions are held in a frank manner and at eye level. As of now, this appears to be quite unclear.

On the local level, only a few recognized initiatives are taking place. The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) continue their piecemeal efforts to reintegrate armed groups into their ranks, with success overshadowed by setbacks in the near past. For instance, the Mayi Mayi Nyakiliba militia in Mwenga territory left the process in late July over allegations that FARDC officers had embezzled their integration packages, containing food, clothes, and other items for the combatants. In Uvira and Fizi, Mayi Mayi Yakutumba elements left the integration camps in mid-August and came up with taxation rackets because they lacked food, resulting in major clashes with FARDC. Another militia, led by renegade army defector Colonel Bede, has sparked additional insecurity. One of the Raia Mutomboki groups in the Shabunda area decided to join the integration process in early August and was subsequently declared an enemy by the other groups with the same name. Much of the FARDC strategy appears more to “divide and rule” than to bring about lasting integration in the sense peacebuilding would demand.

Last, a plethora of local initiatives are working at peacebuilding. Unfortunately, most of the serious ones are underfunded, unrecognized, or neglected by the international community. They are even in danger of being targeted by warlords, politicians, businessmen, or other conflict actors whenever they contradict powerful elite interests.

Returning to the essence of peacebuilding, a linguistic logic again comes to mind. Building, or kujenga in Swahili, is an activity that, in the physical sense, begins from below, starting with a basement, not a roof. This implies that local initiatives must be at least part of the onset of the process. The duty and task of national and international actors are simply to endorse and support processes and, if possible, to streamline and coordinate them passively to facilitate exchange among numerous initiatives. A popular game called “Jenga” offers us an apt analogy. Initially, a tower of blocks is set up. Then—one by one—players withdraw blocks from the tower’s base, which they have to pile up again in turn on the top. While ways exist to take away some blocks without destroying the tower, the withdrawal of too many will inevitably make the tower collapse. We can imagine the tower of peacebuilding in the DRC in a similar fashion. When national and international actors neglect, spoil, or damage the base of the tower, the result will be failure.

Notwithstanding that much of the DRC conflict is caused by contestation among elites, efficient support of local peace initiatives that range from community-based disarmament to village-level reconciliation is a cornerstone of reducing the influence of military strongmen. Equally, the sole focus on furthering peacebuilding from the top is comparable to the amassing of blocks on the tip of the tower. Important resources are not only denied to the base, but they are used instead to strengthen the top and thus contribute to the rising disequilibrium of the construct as a whole. The hopelessness of such an undertaking is immediately evident. Once the base is unable to support the top, the whole thing will end in shambles.

In conclusion, although the creation of armed groups in eastern Congo appears to be a common, almost simple, undertaking, we should bear in mind the reciprocal dynamics at its base: without existing grievances, fears, and prejudice among the populations, potential rebel leaders will find designing and setting up their armed movements more difficult. Arguably, the intersection of interests and the convergence of necessities can, in the end, be much greater at the base, where people suffer more directly the consequences of the staggering top of the tower. While peacebuilding clearly cannot happen without the inclusion of elites and entrepreneurs of war, in this case the interest of the “common citizen” in peace and stability is much greater than that of actors who potentially lose through a successful peacebuilding process. Such a successful process in the DRC has to take this much more into account than it presently does.

  1. Séverine Autesserre, “Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences,” African Affairs 111, no. 443 (2012): 202–22.
  2. Enough Project, “The Networks of Eastern Congo’s Two Most Powerful Armed Actors,” at: http://enoughproject.org/files/CongoArmedActors_Table_August2013.pdf (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  3. UNOHCHR/MONUSCO, “UNJHRO Report on Human Rights Violations by FARDC and M23 in Goma, Sake, and around Minova. 15 Nov - 2 Dec 2012,” at: http://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/un-denounces-sexual-violence-other-serious-violations-eastern-drc (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  4. Timothy Raeymakers, Ken Menkhaus, and Koen Vlassenroot, “State and Non-State Regulation in African Protracted Crises: Governance without Government?,” Afrika Focus  21, no. 2 (2008): 7–21.
  5. New York Times, “Congo President Kabila Denies Reports of Election Fraud,” at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/world/africa/congo-president-kabila-denies-reports-of-election-fraud.html?_r=0  (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  6. The so-called Bakajika Law established under Mobutu’s rule is a key example. It sparked a whole legacy of problematic land and property legislation in the DRC.
  7. http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2013_433.pdf (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  8. Al Jazeera, “UN's Elite Force Raises the Stakes in DRC,” at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/07/201371595015796872.html (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  9. Koen Vlassenroot and Karen Buescher, “The City as Frontier: Urban Development and Identity Processes in Goma,” at: http://inec.usip.org/resource/city-frontier-urban-development-and-identity-processes-goma (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  10. African Union, “Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for DRC and the Region Signed in Addis Ababa,” at: http://www.peaceau.org/en/article/peace-security-and-cooperation-framework-for-drc-and-the-region-signed-in-addis-ababa (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  11. Christoph Vogel, “When the Big Ones Meet… – UN Security Council on the Congo,” at: http://christophvogel.net/2013/07/26/when-the-big-ones-meet-un-security-council-on-the-congo/ (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  12. Think Africa Press, “Taking the Fight to the DRC Rebels: The Potential Pitfalls of a UN Intervention Brigade,” at: http://thinkafricapress.com/drc/taking-fight-drc-rebels-monusco-intervention-brigade-potential-pitfalls (retrieved 19 September 2013).
  13. Radio France Internationale, “RDC: Pourquoi la Monusco revient-elle sur son ultimatum?,” at: http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20130805-rdc-monusco-revient-ultimatum-goma-m23 (retrieved 19 September 2013).
About the Author

Christoph Vogel is an analyst and researcher at the University of Zurich. He writes at www.christophvogel.net and tweets at www.twitter.com/ethuin.Joschka Havenith is a researcher and analyst focusing on governance, statehood, and intrastate conflicts in Africa.

Tags: , , , ,
comments powered by Disqus