Problems that have been intractable for decades are very likely the product of many different issues that intertwine with each other in a way that makes attempts to fix things highly problematic. Simple solutions — changing a person, introducing a reform, holding an election, penalizing one party — rarely work.
Conflict, weak governance, state failure, economic backwardness — all have many causes and many issues that must be dealt with. There are no magic bullets, no easy remedies, no quick strategies.
The eastern Congo is representative. Depending on who you listen to, the ongoing violence is caused by either a weak state, grievances over land and identity, greedy local elites, or international business. Some say the root cause is local, another group says it is national, and a third group defines the problem as regional. In fact, all these interpretations are correct — to some degree. Interests, actors, and causes are intertwined in a complex web. It is hard to say where one factor stops playing a role and another starts.
Jason Stearns, author of the book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa and the blog Congo Siasa, does an exceptionally good job analyzing the many factors that play a role in this conflict in an article on the Reinventing Peace blog.
I especially like how he frames the problem as multidimensional and shows how the many issues defy easy categorization.
It seems to me that often the emphasis is misplaced, as we try to decipher an ideal solution for abstract problems, with too scant an understanding of the complex web of interests that produce mass violence.
In her recent book The Trouble With the Congo, Séverine Autesserre argues that violence has persisted in the eastern Congo because international actors have failed to understand its root causes, which boil down to local grievances. . . . In contrast, many activists and Congolese locate the culprits among a range of self-interested elites. In other words: It is greed, not grievance, that is driving the conflict. Depending on which pundit you believe, these elites are located in Kigali or in corporate board rooms. . . . Finally, an increasing number of academics locate the problem in the dereliction of the Congolese state. According to them, elites in Kinshasa actively undermine state authority, allowing opportunistic militias to fill the security vacuum.While resources, local grievances and state weakness are indeed important enablers of conflict in Congo, they do not explain why conflict has subsided in areas like Ituri and northern Katanga, while escalating in the Kivus. In contrast to these single explanations, I will argue for a less reductive narrative: Different dynamics are behind different armed groups in the Kivus; coming to grips with these differences should the major challenge for analysts of the region. . . .
I argue that in trying to come to grips with violence, we too often fall into lazy reductionism – ironically, even scholars like Autesserre, who has written as length about the dangers of monocausal narratives. In weak states like the Congo, where there is no preponderance of power, and no state Leviathans, there is no such thing as one cause, one effect.
The Congolese cat’s cradle, at least as I see it, can be described as follows. The CNDP, which was the first mover in this new conflict, 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 in 2003. . . .
This is not to say that land and identity do not matter. The CNDP draws on inveterate fears of discrimination within the rwandophone community of North Kivu. But the level of analysis is misplaced: it is not customary chiefs and peasants who are the group’s driving constituency, but rather political and military elites.
This is not true for all groups. Some Mai-Mai groups, for example, have much 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. Moreover, these groups often have a more diffuse command structure, which means that reigning them in is not so much a matter of striking a deal with one set of elites or commanders, but of providing incentives to the rank-and-file.
Moreover, this account does not discard the importance of the state. It is precisely because the state is weak and riddled with patronage networks that elites feel the need to ally themselves with armed men to protect their interests. . . .
There is no one-fits-all solution; each group has its own dynamic and interests. It is clear, however, that the deepest rift in the region is the one between ex-RCD backers and Kinshasa. As long as this conflict remains alive, it will be difficult to convince other local militia to demobilize. Solving this rift will require high-level diplomacy and a deeper understanding of the main actors – especially elites in Kigali, Goma and Kinshasa – and their interests.
This diplomacy will have to confront deep commitment problems. The pivotal question: “How can you guarantee my interests after I integrate or demobilize my militia?” will be difficult to answer, but possible solutions include decentralization, local power-sharing deals and increased demilitarization of the region. The recent due diligence initiatives for mineral supply chains also forms an interesting option, as it threatens sanctions for countries and elites involved in conflict.
Further down the road, it is clear that for any durable peace, programs will also have to target the rank-and-file, both current and potential recruits. Here, a mixture of economic incentives and increased deterrence through policing should be considered. The Congolese government has long resisted restarting another demobilization program, but the failure of past ones was probably in part linked to the sequencing: you can’t demobilize militias if the war is not over. There is also an urgent need to reform the rural economy, especially the patterns of land ownership and use, to assuage local feuds that can escalate.
Finally, the golden grail of donor intervention: the reconstruction of an accountable, efficient state. It is questionable whether this can be done from the outside, and perhaps donor intervention can even exacerbate matters. Past attempts have been thwarted by a poor understanding of local actors and the vested interests of many in maintaining a weak state. But as with demobilization, progress in this direction is unlikely as long as there is no firm political settlement in place in the Kivus.
Interestingly, the peace process in the Congo does not speak in this language of interests, but in an abstract rights-based lingo. ‘How do we get to democracy?’ is the question, or – ‘How can we create a credible army?’ These are questions that lead us most often to technocratic solutions, where we design Congolese armies on paper, or talk about ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the protection of civilians.’ All noble and valuable concepts and goals, to be sure. But these exercises are often not informed the realities on the ground, by an analysis of interests, actors, and capabilities.
Jason is also the author of a recent report on the M23 armed movement for the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project. For those interested in understanding the broader historical and sociopolitical background to the conflict in North Kivu, see the Rift Valley Institute’s backgrounder.