Conflict in the DRC: Competing Narratives and Framing Interventions

Recently, the Eastern states of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have experienced renewed instability and violence. After a fragile peace was declared following elections in 2006, the nation has  been shaken by internal conflict at the hands of rebel groups in the Eastern Districts. Following a breakdown of relations with the government in Kishasa, in November 2012 the rebel group M23 marched on several towns throughout North Kivu province, seizing the major city of Goma for 10 days before agreeing to leave the city.


Continuing violence and insecurity in the Dem. Republic of the Congo is the result of a failure to properly frame conflicts and violence in the large African nation. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s peace interventions by the UN and regional powers to bring stability to the region failed dismally. Even though the peace process ended with the democratic election of present prime-minister Joseph Kabila in 2006, violence and instability continues in much of the nation. The UN and regional intervention in the Congo failed, and this violence continues, because the conflict was framed as a top-down national and regional conflict. Consideration is needed regarding the bottom-up, localized causes of violence and insecurity, and a re-framing of violence in the Congo considering this alternative perspective, is urgently required.

congo-violence_1015583cTwo narratives explain in-depth the situation in the Eastern Congo. The first is the dominant narrative, based on regional and national politics. Following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, millions of refugees fled into the East Congo. From here, Hutu militias carried out raids on localvillages and posed a threat to the new Tutsi led Rwandan state. Responding to this threat, as well as gaining access to resources, subduing the threat of an unpredictable and unpopular Mobutu and encouraged by the lucrative prospect of a pro-Rwanda leadership in the Congo; Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi armed and conditioned rebel groups within the East DRC.  These forces would later become the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo/Zaire (ADFL). The ADFL led a rebellion that escalated into the First Congo War and subsequent overthrow of Mobutu, and coming to power of Laurent Desire Kabila in May 1997. Laurent Kabila gave promise of new stability  in the Great Lakes region and steps forward for the politically fragile and economically stagnant Congo. However, Kabila soon isolated himself and alienated his supporters, first by dismissing the Rwandan military advisors he was supplied with, then allegedly supporting Rwandan rebel groups, and inciting violence against Rwandans within the Congo.By August 1998 Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian forces encouraged the formation of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RDC) to overthrow the increasingly unpopular Kabila government. The RDC began a march to Kinshasa, initiating the Second Congo War. During the Second Congo War, factioning within the RDC and other domestic and foreign groups resulted in much insecurity throughout large tracts of the DRC, especially in the East, as groups fought each other and the government for influence and access to resources, and terrorised and exploited civilians, resulting in gross violations of human rights on all sides of the conflict. Some 5.4 million Congolese have been killed by the war and the resulting instabilities, famines and insecurities. During the Second Congo War, the RDC split into several groups including the RDC-G, closely linked to Rwanda, and RDC-W, closely linked with Uganda. Intra and inter group conflict in the East DRC turned the region into a ‘mosaic of enclaves under the control of armed bands’ (Autesserre 2010). The RCD-G, an offshoot from the RDC, took control of major towns including Goma, Uvira and Bokava, with Rwandan support. Outside of the major towns, the countryside was a mess of constantly changing zones of influence of Mai Mai militia groups, Rwandan Hutu militias and Burundian rebels, as well as smaller factions within the RDC-G and RDC-W, all fighting each other for territorial and resource control, and committing ethnic-oriented attacks to maintain political support and terrorise political enemies. With the assassination of Laurent Desire Kabila in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila took power. Joseph Kabila soon initiated an inter-Congolese Dialogue. A transition government was established in 2003, and the Second Congo War was accepted as over, despite continued insecurity and fighting in the East DRC. Electionswere held throughout the DRC in July and October 2006. The new national assembly was installed on September 22 2006, and Kabila was officially inaugurated as Prime Minister on December 6 2006. This was the narrative  employed by peacekeepers and international interventionists  in the DRC. Conflict was seen as a regional and national issue. Violence and insecurity on the ground level and in the East DRC, especially North and South Kivu provinces, was regarded to be the result of greater national and regional tensions, based mostly in Kinshasa and Kigali. By resolving political tensions in Kinshasa and between Kinshasa and Kigali, conflict within the DRC was assumed to have been be resolved. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is described as in a  ‘post-conflict’ phase, although ethnic violence and grassroots violence and insecurity continue throughout the Eastern provinces.

congo8-460_1108319cDeparting from the dominant narrative is the ‘bottom-up’ argument of Autesserre (2010). Although recent national and regional politics did have an effect on conflict in the Congo, present conflicts in the east DRC are rooted in decades old issues of migration, citizenship, land rights and ethnicized politics. Ethnic tensions established during Belgian rule continues to present day, and Mobutu’s politics based on exploiting the needs and insecurities of minority Banyarwanda (*Rwandan migrant*) and majority ‘indigenous’ groups in the East Congo created a situation of massive insecurity and opportunity for ethnic based militia groups in the east. Even during the Belgian era, encroachments on what was understood to be tribal land encouraged the formation of grassroots militias in the east. These militias attempted to defend what they saw as theutmost expression of the “traditional rural order” (Van Acker & Vlassentoot 2000). However, these groups soon proved the beginning of what has become a long tradition of local tribal militias, whose prupose was “a mix of self-defence and profit secured from pillage and cattle rustling; and who ultimately terrorised the communities they had set out to protect” (International Crises Group 2000. “Scramble for the Congo. Anatomy of an Ugly War”. Africa Report. Bruscels: International Crises Group). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the East DRC, especially both North and South Kivu, played role to dozens of isolated, decentralized conflicts between these groups over access to land, political office, resource use and real and perceived favouring by the central government. Both Banyarwanda and indigenous groups, however, employed the support and service of Mobutu’s government and factions within it to secure land, positions of power and influence and resources. Since the late 1980s, factioning and intra-group conflict within the Congo’s Banyarwanda  community along Hutu and Tutsi ethnic lines, within indigenous ‘Mai Mai’ militias, and within the central governments army, and spillover effects from the Rwandan civil war (1990-94)  encouraged the formation of competing militia groups. These groups garner support based on resources and ethnicity from Rwanda, Uganda, local towns and villages and from the central government itself. The M23 is just one of many such groups, itself consisting of other local and regional groups who it’s leaders must appease and manage to maintain loyalties and control. To sum, the east has a long history of militias and ethnic conflict. Ethnic tensions were exploited and grew under Mobutus rule, and by the 1990s had encouraged a volatile scramble for territory, resources and power by several competing militia groups, some, such as M23 under commander  Laurent Nkunda, had even established shadow states within their regions of influence, acting as illegitimate governments in the East.rebe;

Both of these narratives consider different causes of the current insecurity in the DRC. The dominant, argues Rwanda and other regional powers were forced to invade the DRC for their own security and this set off an international crises. With relations between regional powers calmed, and new governance introduced, the conflict is assumed to be over. The alternative, argues conflict stemmed from organic and constructed cleavages between ethnic groups in the East of the DRC, and these groups brought in local, national and regional support to maintain the economies of insecurity, violence and fear that maintained and enriched themselves. Although regional relations have cooled, the structures that create this violence and the individuals who benefit from them remain in place, and as long as they do, insecurity, violence and conflict will continue.

Both of these narratives also warrant different approaches to current insecurity. One, warrants international negotiation and intervention. The second, warrants grassroots level interventions, localised negotiation, working with militias and breaking down economies of insecurity, violence and fear.

What must be remembered is that conflicts are more than simply a breakdown of societal structures such as stable government, law and order and civil society. Conflicts are also more than simply a competition between two or more parties to ‘win’ particular territory, resources or influence. Conflicts such as that which is occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are newly emergent economies, where stakeholders compete for power, resources and territory. These stakeholders each have a value in continuing insecurity, and many are positioned best if insecurities and structures associated with continued conflict are kept in place. When framing a conflict, interventionists need to consider more than the macropolitical motivations, where, as mentioned above, it is often assumed that there are two or more parties competing to win a territory, influence, or resource access. Continued insecurity in the Congo is the result of a policy and interventionist failure frame the bottom-up motivations of conflict, the push and pull factors of local actors and local stakeholders in conflict zones. These factors don’t disappear, as the United Nations had assumed in the Congo, with democratization and stable government, or with the allaying of national and regional tensions. Instead, these factors exist within and outside of the newly democratized system, warlordship and militia politics moving parallel with democratization and stable governance.

Any intervention requires an in depth contextual understanding of all the interests at all the levels of conflict, from the regional and national motivators to the economies of insecurity, exploitation and fear utilized by stakeholders at the town, village and household level. The failure to consider and approach this second factor is where intervention has failed in the Congo, and until considered, this second factor; economies of insecurity, exploitation and fear, will continue to feed violence and conflict throughout the Eastern districts of the Congo.

Matt Wilkinson

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