So how do we help the eastern Congo?

In her lucid opinion piece published in The New York Times last week, Séverine Autesserre argues that the international community has gotten it terribly wrong in the Congo. Drawing on an argument laid out in her popular 2010 book, The Trouble with the Congo, Autesserre says that this failure stems from our failure to understand the causes of violence. We have, she argues, for too long obsessed about the national and regional causes of the war, and neglected the local dynamics of conflict. She says about diplomats and UN officials:

They neglect to address the other main sources of violence: distinctively local conflicts over land, grassroots power, status and resources, like cattle, charcoal, timber, drugs and fees levied at checkpoints. Most violence in the Congo is not coordinated on a large scale. It is the product of conflicts among fragmented local militia, each trying to advance its own agenda at the village or district level. Those then percolate and expand. (My emphasis)

While she is right to emphasize the local dynamics of conflict, her argument is flawed. She falls victim of her own critique: she, too, ends up being overly reductive, failing to account for the different kinds of armed actors, each with its unique underlying dynamic, in the eastern Congo. In fact, reading her op-ed, one might think that the reason for the uptick in violence in the Kivus this year is due to land conflicts and struggles for power at the village level.

But the main protagonists since the beginning of the transition in 2003 have not been fragmented local militia with parochial concerns, but rather armed groups that are tightly linked to regional political and business elites, such as the CNDP, PARECO, and, most recently, the M23. It is these groups that have set the tone and the terms for the conflict that has percolated until today; in this sense, Autesserre’s article is strikingly anachronistic, published the same week the controversy over Rwandan support to the M23 came to a head at the UN Security Council.

Take the CNDP, for example, which has been the first mover of the main conflict that has simmered in the Kivus since 2003. The group 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.

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. In response to the CNDP, over twenty other armed groups sprang up, many linked to political elites, professing opposition (and often hatred) to the CNDP and hoping to benefit from demobilization programs.

This is not to say that land and identity do not matter. The CNDP draws on inveterate fears of abuse within the rwandophone community of North Kivu; other armed groups in Masisi, which mobilized in response to the CNDP, are indeed outraged by historical discrimination and the power of large landowners. But the level of analysis is misplaced: it is not customary chiefs and peasants who are the CNDP’s driving constituency, but rather political and military elites.

This is not true for all groups. Some Mai-Mai groups, for example, have 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. Even here, however, Autesserre’s recommendation to increase funding for NGOs like Life and Peace Institute (LPI) and Action pour la Paix et la Concorde (APC) may be off-mark. Groups like the Tsheka Mai-Mai have been tightly linked since their creation to the military and political networks in the Kivus. Tsheka himself, for example, is well-known to have close to with Congolese army officers in Goma – first Etienne Bindu, later Bosco Ntaganda – and is probably unlikely to be swayed by local community leaders in Walikale, most of whom have disavowed him.

Local reconciliation work is only likely to be successful if those being reconciled can sway the armed actors; LPI and APC – both good, solid organizations – have carried out valuable such work in Kalehe, for example. However, many groups that emerged due to local grievances have since taken on interests of their own and become integrated into regional business and political networks. In these cases, local land tribunals and reconciliation workshops may have little impact.

Autesserre also does not mention the hundreds of millions of dollars that have gone into precisely the kinds of programs she is pushing for. The government-led STAREC program, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars from donors, is supposed to re-establish state authority, boost local infrastructures and consolidate the gains of the various peace deals. For example, UN-Habitat has received over $8 million to set up land mediation committees to address land conflict at the local level. Yes, STAREC has been caught up in controversy and has desperately lacked strategic vision (see here, for example) and government ownership – but it may be worthwhile trying to figure out why this effort has failed before asking, as she does, for MONUSCO’s mandate to be redrawn to support grassroots projects dealing with local conflicts.

I certainly sympathize with Autesserre’s complaint that, all too often, we see the violence in the Congo through the lens of sexual violence and conflict minerals. And I am sure we can do more to tackle land tenure problems and conflicts over local power. But I worry that she, too, has adopted her own particular lens, one that neglects the complex power base of armed groups, and that does not address the various, often flawed, efforts undertaken by donors and the Congolese government.

Posted by Jason Stearns