Helping Congo Help Itself
JASON K. STEARNS is the author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa and Director of the Usalama Project, a research program on Congolese armed groups at the Rift Valley Institute. Follow him on Twitter @jasonkstearns.See more by this author
It would be easy to label the Democratic Republic of the Congo an irredeemable mess. For almost two decades, the country has been roiled by a series of wars involving neighboring countries and dozens of Congolese militias. Recent years seemed to bring some respite; in 2009, following a peace deal between the Congolese and the Rwandan governments, some of the main armed groups in eastern Congo joined the national government. But this agreement, like previous ones, soon succumbed to its flaws. Since April 2012, violence has once again begun to escalate, centered on a new rebellion in the eastern highlands led by the March 23 Movement, or the M23 (the group takes its name from the date of the signing of the 2009 peace accord, which it contends the government has not respected). There are now 2.6 million people displaced in Congo, over 30 different armed groups, and thousands of killings and rapes each year. The UN has deployed one of its largest peacekeeping missions there, and half a dozen peace processes and agreements have failed to bring an end to the fighting.
This dismal picture is misleading. Congo’s problems are complex, but certainly not beyond repair. First, however, it is necessary to diagnose the conflict’s root causes and understand its protagonists’ interests. Although Western media have often taken shortcuts, focusing in particular on the scourge of sexual violence and conflict minerals, a close reading suggests that it is not local warlords and mining companies that are the key players in this drama but the Congolese and Rwandan governments. Congo’s government is not only extremely weak, but it is also beholden to a political logic of patronage that undermines the reform of its own state and encourages the creation of competing armed groups. Meanwhile, the ruling party in Rwanda -- in part due to Congo’s weakness and instability, in part due to its own problems -- has backed armed groups in the eastern Kivu region of Congo, an area it considers to be its backyard.