Kris Berwouts (°1963-2023) studeerde Afrikaanse taalkunde en geschiedenis in Gent.
Congo’s violent peace
Kris Berwouts presented “Congo’s violent peace”, a lecture, at IOB Conference “Pathways to peace and drivers of democracy in the DRC” – January 23, 2018. You can read the complete lecture here.
I: Conflict? Which Conflict?
There are at least three layers of conflict which come upon a complex historical context where issues on identity and land already provide already an important potential for conflict.
The three layers are:
1. The struggle for power in Kinshasa after the dismantling of the Congolese state. Within weeks following independence, Congo fell into a constitutional and institutional crisis the country was not able to cope with. The new nation was immediately pushed in a neo-colonial framework and became a pawn on the chessboard of the Cold War. It took years before the government gained control over the entire territory and once that was done, the state was managed with such a degree of bad governance that we had to invent the word ‘kleptocracy’ for it. State institutions and public mandates were – and to a large extent still are – considered as tools for personal enrichment. The result was a crisis of legitimacy, a ruined state that needed to be rescued from near non-existence, with a total absence of the necessary instruments to guarantee the rule of law. The peace process and the elections of 2006 had created the framework for the Third Republic but they didn’t raise the Congolese state from its ashes. It not only remained weak, it also kept its fundamentally predatory nature. A Congolese state with reasonably good governance continues to be a condition for sustainable peace in the region.
2. The Rwandan civil war was exported to Congo in the aftermath of the genocide when two million people fled the Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) on the eve of their victory, while many of these refugees were civilians. This mass of people also contained the remnants of the militias and the defeated army which had initiated the genocide, as well as representatives of the previous government. Hit-and-run actions against the new rulers in Kigali were organized from Congolese (then: Zairian) territory. The RPF’s reaction to this destabilization eventually accelerated Mobutu’s fall and was the first phase in a long process of direct involvement of the Rwandan national army on Congolese territory. The Rwandan interventions went along with support for different generations of rebellions put in place by Congolese Tutsi in Kivu. The remnants of the forces who implemented the genocide maintaintain their violent presence in eastern Congo. The consequences of the Rwandan war and genocide is a major theme of Congo’s contemporary history and for many people the ultimate cause of conflict and suffering in Kivu.
3. The illegal exploitation of mineral resources. Many scholars not only presented the trade in Congo’s natural riches as the primary motivation for neighbouring countries to be involved in Congo, but also as the ultimate reason for the long list of foreign or local militias, rebellions and other armed groups competing to control over the different parts of Kivu. This narrative became dominant and steered the international reaction to the crises in Congo and in the Great Lakes region. UN expert groups, academics, think tanks and specialized NGOs have documented the plundering of Congo’s resources since the mid-1990s and produced detailed reports, naming and shaming the political, military and economic actors involved in it. Countries and multilateral institutions have elaborated laws and programmes for more controls on mining to prevent the trade in conflict minerals from the DRC. Of course, the 1990s did not create the illegal exploitation of natural resources but changed its direction: Kampala and Kigali became the main axes for minerals leaving Congo and sold on the world market. The scramble for the natural resources of Congo is also a major leitmotiv in the country’s and the region’s history. King Leopold transformed the Congo into his own Free State, to keep it out of the reach of Belgian public opinion and constitutional instruments which could control the monarch’s exploitation. Also under Mobutu, the exploitation and commercialization of then Zaire’s natural resources escaped the control of the state because they were organized through parallel and illegal networks to maximize the president’s personal enrichment and serve the patronage networks his reign was based on.
The dismantling of the Congolese state, the extension of the Rwandan conflict in Kivu and the illicit exploitation of Congo’s natural resources are the most prominent causes of the violence and suffering in eastern Congo.
The dismantling of the Congolese state, the extension of the Rwandan conflict in Kivu and the illicit exploitation of Congo’s natural resources are the most prominent causes of the violence and suffering in eastern Congo. The three layers of conflict overlap and reinforce each other, but none of them can be reduced to being merely a part of one of the others.
They are relatively recent developments coming on top of an ancient and complex puzzle of communities with historical bonds and divisions, where identity issues overlap with conflict regarding land.
The violence, especially since the start of the wars in 1996, has been responsible for the deaths of millions of people, devastating local economies, infrastructure and social coherence.
The trivialization of violence and the emergence of armed groups has affected the traditional structures of society, changing the economy from a parallel, informal economy to a war economy. In this way, conflict at a grassroots level plays a part in other conflicts, forming a complex mixture of conflicts with provincial, national and regional dimensions.
One of the main dramas of the DRC is that this complexity has never been fully understood by the international partners and the donor community, and even by Congo’s political elite in Kinshasa, so that programmes were designed and solutions proposed that took a top-down approach, which ultimately meant they were condemned to lack impact.
II: The wars and beyond
Following the end of the Cold War and throughout the 1990s these regional dynamics have developed into a tsunami of killing and destruction. During the two wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in 1996–1997 and 1998–2002, following the genocide in Rwanda, Congo – and particularly its eastern provinces – became the battlefield of ‘Africa’s First World War’. (The book goes with much detail into these wars but we don’t have the time to do that here.)
The Great African War ended with a tough set of negotiations under intense international surveillance, and agreements which, rather than reconciling water and fire, put them together in a transitional government. The partners in this shaky construction had little confidence in each other and still less in the chances that the procedure would lead to peace and democracy. The international supervision was so strict that many started to consider it as a form of guardianship. Even if it didn’t bring peace, though, it changed the open war into a low-intensity conflict, and the transitional government was able to organize elections in 2006, which Congolese and international observers proclaimed reasonably free and fair.
The Third Republic started off with a highly fragmented parliament, a rather powerless government that did not try too hard to overcome its own inertness and a barely existing opposition.
The Third Republic started off with a highly fragmented parliament, a rather powerless government that did not try too hard to overcome its own inertness and a barely existing opposition in the form of the UDPS – which remained outside the institutions and the debate due to its refusal to participate in the elections – and Jean-Pierre Bemba, who had left the country.
The first legislature of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Third Republic proved difficult: some of the institutions were never installed. Local elections, for instance, never took place. Others were, but functioned with a noticeable democratic deficit. The elections had provided a president, a parliament and provincial assemblies, but without local elections, Congo’s democratic architecture resembled a palace with a heavy roof, weak walls and no foundations.
Despite much rhetoric surrounding the ‘cinq chantiers’20 which formed the heart of Kabila’s 2006 election campaign, nothing much seemed to happen. The president had promised spectacular improvements on infrastructure, jobs, education, health, water and electricity, but few Congolese citizens saw tangible improvements in their daily living conditions. Furthermore, Kabila, who had been elected because he had brought an end to the war, failed to address issues of insecurity and impunity. In the end, Joseph Kabila did not manage to reinvent the Congolese state. Like his predecessors, he governed through a patrimonial system with a very small inner circle and a large network of local, national and international stakeholders.
Neither the transition nor the elections brought back peace in eastern Congo. After the withdrawal of foreign troops at the end of 2002 as part of the peace process, armed violence remained a part of everyday life in many areas of Kivu, committed by groups whose origins, structure, vision (if any) and objectives were very locally rooted, but whose impact remained global by the fact that they were one of the factors impeding the renaissance of the Congolese state and the return of the rule of law in eastern Congo. The open war had been transformed into a low-intensity conflict, but essentially the war economy was maintained after the war.
The most important achievement for Kabila was a very important contract signed with China. The most direct and tangible impact of the Chinese contract was that it gave Kabila’s self-confidence a boost and reinforced his position in the view of his electorate as well as on the international scene.
The most important achievement for Kabila was a very important contract signed with China. The most direct and tangible impact of the Chinese contract was that it gave Kabila’s self-confidence a boost and reinforced his position in the view of his electorate as well as on the international scene. He knew he no longer had to depend only on his traditional Western partners. It soon became clear that the Chinese interest was not an isolated phenomenon, but the most visible manifestation of a much larger process of globalization in a multi-polar world.
The DRC had, in 2006, completed its complex peace process with the organization of elections labeled by various observers as sufficiently fair and free. The 2011 elections, by contrast, were not held to consolidate democracy but to consolidate power. Elections were organized in a climate of chaos and intimidation, with a lot of irregularities, including in the way the bulletins were treated after the elections. Kabila’s victory was proclaimed amidst a lot of tensions, ultimate challenger Etienne Tshisekedi never recognized his defeat and the elections were widely considered as not credible at all.
The West was very ambiguous in the signals it sent. Though Western countries insisted on holding the elections, they then went quite far in accepting undemocratic practices. This behaviour is partially explained by the search for a delicate balance between the desire to contribute to the development of democracy on the one hand, and on the other the concern not to damage stability, which remained precarious. Of course such pragmatism is also based on a solid understanding by each of the international players of its own bilateral interests.
The ambiguity of the Congo’s Western partners is well understood, by both political players in the region and the local population. But this means international partners become the most important source of legitimacy. After two elections, Congo had state institutions, values and a system borrowed from the West, with an elected president, a legislative body, a government to execute power, a constitution, an army and an administration, expressing itself in the jargon of democracy and development which is a condition for a regime to be accepted at international negotiation tables.
But underneath the surface, patrimonial and predatory-style governance continued to be the norm. Clientelism had shaped the democratization process in its own image much more than democracy had managed to influence the logics and rigour of clientelism; and public funds were still rerouted to those in power who desperately needed them to maintain their clients.
In the eyes of the Congolese population, the West has lost all credibility.
Kabila continued to govern a conflict-torn country where not only the landscape of armed groups was atomized, but the political caste was also splintered into many micro-parties, breakaway factions or very small groups. It remained very difficult to build stable coalitions in this political environment. The international partners had not been able to bring positive change. This was confirmed in the report of the European Court of Auditors in September 2013 examining EU support between the start of the transition in 2003 and Kabila’s re-election in 2011. The court concluded that the effectiveness of EU assistance for governance in the DRC had been very limited, although the support had been set within a generally sound cooperation strategy, addressed the main needs and had achieved some results. But fewer than half the programmes examined had delivered, without much prospect for sustainability. The West happily believed that it had contributed to the rehabilitation of the Congolese state, but neither two elections (2006 and 2011) nor years of army reforms had allowed it to rise from the ashes. In the eyes of the Congolese population, the West has lost all credibility. Despite lip service paid to democracy, the people did not feel a real commitment and the main challenges were not addressed: bad governance and poverty remained endemic; land and identity issues were still a time bomb; and the Congolese state remained fragile, without the capacity or political will to reform the instruments needed to guarantee the rule of law.
Personally I am convinced that one of the dramas of Congo is that it has been labeled as a post-conflict country much too early. The consequence was that the international community imposed on Congo a standard package for post-conflict treatment in an environment where the page of conflict never had been turned.
III: Will he stay or will he go?
After the contested election of November 2011, Congo remained a sort of twilight zone in the early months of 2012, politically as well as due to the military situation in the east. The political landscape was totally divided, with discord inside the majority, a complete lack of cohesion within the opposition and no communication at all between the two. But in the east, another Tutsi-led rebellion emerged. Early 2012, frustrated Congolese Tutsi officers who had fought the government as part of the CNDP rebellion under Laurent Nkunda but integrated the FARDC in 2009, formed M23, a new militia which was able, with support from Rwanda, to take Goma in November 2012. One year later, with a lot of support from a new Monusco brigade led by SADC, FARDC was able to neutralize M23.
After the defeat of M23 in November 2013, the political process returned to the forefront in the DRC: Kabila approached the end of his second and constitutionally last mandate and there was no sign that he was preparing his succession. On the contrary, Kabila tried several times to organize the institutional context to push his reign beyond its constitutional limits, but failed to do that. The only strategy which worked was “le glissement”, the slippage of time, remaining in charge by not organizing the elections to appoint a successor.
The protests that broke in January 2015 in various cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) over proposed changes to the electoral law demonstrated the important role that disaffected urban populations can come to play in the upcoming elections in the country. Frustrated with precarious socio-economic living conditions and a regime that is increasingly perceived as unrepresentative and unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of the population, there is a real risk of more large-scale violence.
My own research for DFID in January 2016 made clear that there was an almost generalized anger and anti-Kabila feeling at grass root level, and that this anger had a very violent undertone. This anger was essentially related to the fact many people held the regime responsible for their poverty. For them, the achievements of the democratisation process do not exist, and nothing has fundamentally changed in the way the country has been governed since Mobutu died. Everybody was surprised by the intensity of the violence in January 2015, and since than we are all aware of the possibility of violent revolt. After that, the regime prepared an impressive machinery for large scale repression, which has been fully deployed in the weeks and months leading to the end of Kabila’s constitutional deadline, and in the different sensitive moment since then.
An important question is: which institutional actor is able to transform the grass root anger in a non-violent and politically constructive direction.
At this moment, we have an electoral process in which it is not easy to believe, a disintegrating majority and an opposition which does not manage to streamline itself or formulate a clear vision or plan for the future. The anger of a large part of public opinion increased under the current economic and financial crisis, and the standards of governance decreased. An important question is: which institutional actor is able to transform the grass root anger in a non-violent and politically constructive direction. The national institutions have lost their capacity to mobilize at grass root level because many of them became over-structured and much politicized.
The Catholic Church seems to be the last traditional institution which kept its moral leadership and street credibility intact. Last week, the Catholic Church was joined by voices within the Protestant, Islamic and Kimbanguist communities which so far had remained loyal to Kabila.
Meanwhile the situation in Kasai showed us how Congo at local level got stuck between on the one hand an administration which formally exists but has no real power, no legitimacy and no means and thus is not operational, and on the other hand customary structures which are not consensual at all and very often contested from within. This makes them very vulnerable for manipulation. This triggered off a wave of violence which started at the very local level but eventually affected four provinces, with thousands of people killed and 1.2 million of IDPs. Most other provinces in Congo are vulnerable for a similar type of violent escalation. With similar consequences.
The international setting around Congo has fundamentally changed in the last years, and certainly after the way the M23 was dealt with. African multilateral institutions, particularly SADC, have claimed and obtained ownership over the Congolese problem.
The immediate future looks bleak for Congo. But I refuse fatalism.
Many countries are very concerned about the impact of a possible implosion of Congo on their own national stability and on the larger continental situation. Especially the Angolan president Dos Santos changed his attitude, maybe not in his public messages but certainly is his communication with foreign diplomats and with Kabila himself. Important developments are taking place in Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the three most loyal partners of Kabila until not so long ago. It is a bit early for an exact understanding of the consequences of these current events.
I have absolutely no talent for pessimism but at this moment it is not easy to keep my natural optimism: Congo remains and will continue to be a roller coaster of events and emotions where one should always expect the unexpected. The peace process and the Third Republic installed institutions which were not very operational but gave some structure to the state. Outside the major cities, however, the state does not have the capability of addressing the old issues of identity and land, and cannot react effectively to the increasing incidents and tensions. The immediate future looks bleak for Congo. But I refuse fatalism. I am convinced there are enough responsible, competent and committed leaders in the different corners of Congo’s political landscape who have essential contributions to make in the difference in a process towards stability and governance, despite the current depressing dominance of mediocrity, opportunism and maintained kleptocracy. I continue to hope they will find each other and set an agenda for change.
Kris Berwouts has worked for several NGOs over the past 25 years, focused on peace building, reconciliation, security and democracy. Since 2012, he has worked as an independent expert and writer on Central Africa. He published “Congo’s violent peace. Conflict and struggle since the Great African War” in 2017 (ZED Books). Follow him on twitter at @krisberwouts