What is the Usalama Project?

As you may have seen (see previous post), the Rift Valley Institute just launched the Usalama Project, which will publish a dozen reports on armed factions in the eastern Congo over the next year.

So what’s this project about?

There are plenty of opinions about the conflict in the Congo, and some excellent policy research on human rights, security sector reform, and governance. However, despite the grinding violence, there is relatively little information out there on the main belligerents. Who are the M23, Raia Mutomboki and Mai-Mai Yakutumba? Why are they fighting and who supports them? Perhaps most importantly, why has conflict died down in some areas of the Congo, such as Ituri and northern Katanga, while it has escalated again in the Kivus?

There have been some answers to these questions, most notably in the reports by the United Nations Group of Experts. But their mandate is limited to reporting on material support networks – taxes, cash contributions, recruitment and military backing. They do not seek to understand the social or historical forces that drive these groups, or – more importantly – their interests and motivations. Other organizations – such as diplomatic missions or the UN peacekeeping mission – compile extensive profiles of armed groups, but do not publish any of their information.

The Usalama Project tries to step into this gap. We are a group of local and foreign researchers, compiling information largely via in-depth interviews with the actors involved in the conflict. For this report on the M23 and CNDP, for example, we interviewed over fifty military officers, politicians, businessmen and civil society leaders who had personal connections with these groups. Some of these interviews span days and take up to ten hours.

We understand these groups as arising out of particular social circumstances – some are driven by elite interest groups, others form as grassroots self-defense groups. All draw on, albeit in different ways, a long history of conflict in the region, in which state weakness, the manipulation of identity, and natural resources such as land and minerals have played key roles. Look out for our backgrounders on conflict – the first of which was released on Friday – that flesh out these histories.

In the coming weeks, we will have our own site within the RVI website, where we will post biographies of leaders, key documents on the conflict, and transcripts of some of the interviews. We also will be welcoming feedback on our reports, including constructive criticism. In line with the Rift Valley Institute’s ethos, Usalama is not advocacy organization, but seeks rather to inform. In this line, we will put forward policy suggestions, but these are supposed to stimulate debate, not posture as end-all solutions.