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.

Yet conflict in Congo continues not just because of these local protagonists but also due to the failures of the foreign diplomats and activists who have not grappled with the underlying dynamics. This has produced a piecemeal response guided more by the interests of outside powers and those of aid bureaucracies than by a strategy for solving the conflict. Throughout the crisis, donors -- mostly the United States and a handful of European countries -- have supplied over 40 percent of the budgets of Congo and Rwanda, but they have rarely displayed the commensurate political and diplomatic muscle necessary to leverage this aid toward a sustainable solution. Other African governments, meanwhile, have mostly stayed on the sidelines.

These diplomatic failings have been particularly striking during the past seven years. Since 2006, when the last serious peace process concluded, donors have adopted a postconflict, or stabilization, strategy, epitomized by a mandate that focuses on supporting a government in Kinshasa that has little manifest will to stabilize its own country. At the same time, the UN peacekeeping mission has been stripped of any role in negotiating between the Congolese government and its enemies. This approach is mistaken. In order to foster a lasting peace, donors must use the billions of dollars in aid money disbursed each year as leverage to induce the governments in Kinshasa and Kigali to stop using armed violence for political gain.


Congo represents a cautionary tale for outsiders; it is worth understanding the international community’s past failings there, especially those of the 1999–2006 peace process, which succeeded at uniting the country after years of war but at the cost of creating new conflicts.

The Congo war began in earnest in 1996, prompted primarily by the collapse of the Congolese state and the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. After 31 years of misrule, President Mobutu Sese Seko had become a liability to the entire region. His poorly governed territory had become a rear base for armed groups from at least four neighboring countries, including the defeated Rwandan army and affiliated militias, which had massacred 800,000 people in 1994 before fleeing across the border. The Rwandan government -- receiving support from Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda -- took the lead in creating and backing a Congolese rebellion to break up the refugee camps where its enemies were based and to eventually topple Mobutu from power. But the Rwandans soon fell out with Laurent Kabila, the man they had put in power in Kinshasa, and so they launched another rebellion in eastern Congo aimed at ensuring their continued influence there. Eventually, the country was divided into at least five different parts, each one run by an armed group with a foreign backer.

Peace talks began in Zambia in 1999 and culminated in a comprehensive deal in South Africa in 2002. The magic that these talks had to accomplish was to make each belligerent believe that it would benefit from putting down its arms and joining a transitional government -- even though the transition, which ended in elections in 2006, would by its very nature produce losers as well as winners.

The peace process was largely successful at pulling off this feat, thanks in no small part to the efforts of outside donors and diplomats. They put financial pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to withdraw their support for Congolese rebels, helped create a government with strong participation from civil society and the opposition, and allowed the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila (the son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001), to steer the transition in his favor. The belligerents joined a transitional administration and integrated their troops into a national army. In 2006, the country held its first multiparty elections in 41 years, confirming Kabila as president.

The magic, however, turned out to be sleight of hand. One of the main belligerents and Rwanda’s ally, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), was deeply unpopular and stood to fare poorly in any elections. In the end, its fears would come true: in the 2006 elections, the former rebels went from controlling almost a third of the country to securing just a few percent representation in national institutions. So it came as no surprise when, starting in 2003, in anticipation of such a defeat, several prominent ex-RCD officers, backed by the Rwandan government and led by the charismatic General Laurent Nkunda, began to stitch together a new rebellion, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). As one RCD leader told me years later, “The CNDP was our Plan B in case the transition didn’t work in our favor.” The democratic logic of the transition -- a no-brainer for donors -- ended up disenfranchising the most potent military force in the country while doing little to address the systemic forces underlying the conflict.

In many ways, these forces were the same as those that had caused the first Congo war a decade earlier: a chronically weak Congolese state that, much like during Mobutu’s time, had little appetite for strengthening its own institutions and an aggressive Rwandan government that, mistrustful of its neighbor, fell back on an armed proxy to maintain its influence there. Finally, in early 2009, after years of unsuccessful offensives against the rebels, the Congolese government struck a deal with Rwanda to arrest Nkunda and integrate the CNDP into the Congolese army.

Foreign donors -- who were bankrolling the transitional government and spending several billion dollars a year on humanitarian aid, the UN peacekeeping mission, and development projects -- hailed this deal. But the agreement was a weak, short-term fix. Much like the transitional government, it resulted in a superficial integration of rival forces while doing little to diminish Rwandan ambitions in Congo or to render the Congolese state more accountable and efficient.


It is easy to blame local political elites for this mess, but donors deserve their share of the blame. What is the nature of this responsibility? Many in Congo see chaos as a deliberate policy on the part of outsiders -- what a recent book by a group of Congolese journalists, clergymen, and academics calls “the conspiracy of Balkanization.” According to this widespread view, world powers have a vested interest in breaking Congo up into separate states, so as to better exploit the mineral riches under its soil. Why else, they ask, would donors have financed close to half the budgets of both Congo and Rwanda for the past ten years? Is that not tantamount to condoning, even masterminding the current state of affairs?

The reality is not quite so Hollywood ready; it is apathy and ignorance, not hegemonic ambitions, that donors are guilty of. Congo does not rank in the top tier of foreign policy priorities in London, Paris, Washington, or Beijing. Donor policy is often managed by ambassadors, who themselves are torn between the dueling imperatives of maintaining good relations with the government in Kinshasa and pushing back on issues of governance and human rights. Congo policy rarely rises above the level of the Africa bureaus in foreign ministries. This makes it difficult to muster the political clout necessary to coordinate policy, impose conditions on aid, and hold the Congolese government accountable.

These pathologies have become particularly prominent since Kabila’s victory in the 2006 elections. Once democratically elected, Kabila felt emboldened to push for a sharp reduction in outside political involvement. With little appetite for or interest in pushing back, Western capitals complied, committing the critical strategic blunder of disengaging politically while the peace process was still fragile. So a strong multilateral approach, which had been coordinated through the UN-led International Committee in Support of the Transition, fizzled out, ending in weak bilateral, technocratic assistance. “If a democratically elected government tells you it doesn’t want multilateral coordination, what do you do?” one European ambassador asked me in 2007. Three years later, a senior U.S. official was equally defeatist: “You can’t make the government do things it doesn’t want to.”

And yet donors have continued to finance things the government does not want to do, at enormous cost and to little effect. The shift in Congo to a policy of stabilization -- focusing on development and the strengthening of state institutions -- is emblematic of a broader trend by donors and the UN of deploying resources in support of their hosts, as has been done in East Timor, Haiti, and Kosovo. For example, in 2009, declaring the conflict in the country largely over, the Congolese government rolled out the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern Congo (STAREC). Backed by the international community, the program was supposed to build infrastructure, deploy state agents to rural areas, and stimulate economic recovery.

The key ingredient, however, was missing: a sense of ownership on the part of Kinshasa. Donors disbursed $220 million, whereas the Congolese government contributed only $5 million. Administrative buildings were constructed, but the officials in them had almost no resources; police were deployed, but they were often abusive and unpaid; roads were built, but they fell into disrepair for lack of maintenance. An internal evaluation by UN officials concluded that the “state personnel deployed are mostly disconnected from the wishes of the local population [and are] perceived as ‘predatory,’ and the deployment of weak state agents has a counter-productive effect, reinforcing the population’s mistrust.” The plan focused on building the trappings of a state but not the content.

This pattern has held true in other areas as well. Shortly after the 2006 elections, donors set their sights on reforming the notoriously undisciplined army, a step that was key to dealing with threats in the east. Although foreign militaries ended up training less than ten percent of the Congolese forces, even the units they worked with often fell apart soon after. Belgian officers had to call the Congolese army’s staff headquarters every month to make sure the troops they had trained were paid and fed. Even the Chinese government, which rarely complains about domestic matters in other countries, recently wrote a letter to the Congolese government protesting the mistreatment of soldiers it had trained. Most embarrassing, in November 2012, troops trained by the U.S. government participated in the mass rape of 135 women and girls in the eastern lakeside town of Minova.

This new approach has raised acute ethical dilemmas as well. Shortly after the beginning of STAREC, the UN peacekeeping mission itself changed its mandate and its name to focus on stabilization. This transformation led the UN Security Council to reduce the mission, which had played a crucial mediating role during the 2003–6 transitional government, to a largely technocratic posture. The leaders of the peacekeepers now had little to say regarding the repression of the opposition and problems of governance, and for fear of antagonizing the government, they kept secret several UN investigations of mass abuse by army and police troops, which often received support from the peacekeepers. The government also prevented the UN from playing a role in negotiating with the dozens of armed groups remaining in eastern Congo. The UN peacekeepers, in short, were told that their first priority was to protect civilians, but because they were not given the political clout or the tools to tackle the causes of the instability, in practice they engaged only in reactive firefights.


In the years following the 2006 peace deal, the assumptions underpinning the international community’s strategy in Congo were badly battered. The first assumption was that the new government, which the donors had midwifed, would embrace reform. But it became increasingly obvious that the government had little interest in doing so. Many of the changes required by the 2005 constitution, the backbone of the peace process, were not carried out. Local elections were never held, the decentralization of revenues and powers to the provinces stalled, and judicial reforms were abandoned.

The final blow was the 2011 presidential and legislative elections. Even before the elections, international pressure on the government was tepid. Then, when Kabila rammed through constitutional changes to get rid of a runoff that would have allowed various opposition candidates to band together against him, Western governments made little noise. Nonetheless, they went on to spend over $200 million on the voting.

The elections themselves were deeply flawed. The European Union and the Carter Center concluded that they lacked credibility: over 850,000 ballots, five percent of the total, were lost; the tabulation process was extremely chaotic; and in several places, turnout exceeded the number of registered voters. Although Kabila was proclaimed the winner, the consensus among civil-society groups and in most embassies was that the elections had been so fraudulently managed that the true victor would never be known. And yet donors never considered pulling funding from the government or imposing sanctions. The option of pushing for a new vote was never really considered because, as one ambassador asked me, “Do we really want to spend another $200 million and redo the whole thing?”

The second faulty assumption was that the conflict was largely over and that what pockets of instability remained could be handled by stronger state institutions. This fiction unraveled in early 2012, when the 2009 peace deal with the CNDP rebels collapsed. The deal had allowed the former rebels to stay in the eastern Kivu region and maintain a parallel chain of command within the Congolese army. The agreement had always been a stopgap measure for the government, which had planned on eventually co-opting the ex-rebel commanders one by one and dismantling their networks within the army. But the plan backfired: the ex-CNDP officers, with the CNDP leader Bosco Ntaganda (who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is now in its custody) at the helm, grew richer and more influential. The precarious arrangement finally fell apart in April 2012, when Ntaganda launched a mutiny, taking roughly half of the former CNDP officers with him.

The mutiny, named the M23, highlighted some of the root causes left unaddressed by the peace process. The rebels received extensive support from the Rwandan government, which sent recruits and formed military units across the border, indicating the extent to which Kigali still feels the need to have an armed proxy in its neighbor in order to protect its interests. The Congolese army, which registered some initial victories over the rebels, eventually succumbed to its own habitual failings. An internal evaluation signed by a hundred Congolese army officers provides a telling diagnosis of the reasons for their failure: “Complete disorganization of the command structure, incompetence and insufficient military training of many commanders, . . . parallel command structures, . . . embezzlement and poor management of funds and equipment, racketeering, a culture of lies and manipulation.”

Relying on hefty backing from the Rwandan army, the M23 rebels were able to make significant progress, even briefly capturing Goma, a city of over 500,000 people, in November 2012. But the M23 is not the only militia at war with the government. At least 30 different armed groups currently exist in eastern Congo, many of them ragtag bands of a few dozen men. These groups are not so much a challenge for the Congolese state but a feature of it. As research I conducted for the Rift Valley Institute revealed, drawing on hundreds of interviews with members and associates of various armed groups, almost all these groups have ties with local or national politicians who use the armed groups to rally popular support, intimidate rivals, and bolster their importance. Many of these groups are led by disaffected officers who defected from the army and formed militias as a bargaining strategy: many such former officers have been bought off, receiving cash and lucrative new army positions in lieu of prison time. These patronage networks among insurgents, the national army, and politicians suggest that the right way to deal with these groups is not by waging a counterinsurgency campaign in remote jungles but by reforming the way politics is done at the core of the state.


The M23 crisis has prompted outside actors to reassess their engagement. On February 24, 2013, 11 countries from the region signed the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The deal has two basic requirements: the reform of Congolese institutions and the end of cross-border meddling. It created national and regional oversight mechanisms to make sure the various parties abide by their obligations, and former Irish President Mary Robinson was appointed as the UN special envoy to shepherd the process along. In a parallel process, the UN has authorized the deployment of a new peacekeeping brigade, consisting of Malawians, South Africans, and Tanzanians, with an aggressive mandate that can help them clamp down on the M23 and other armed groups in eastern Congo.

This framework provides hope. For the first time in seven years, there are signs of a serious peace process, with strong international involvement, aimed at addressing the real causes of conflict in Congo. Crucially, the new UN brigade consists of soldiers from the region, which will elicit greater political involvement on the part of South Africa and Tanzania, two countries that may have more influence in Kinshasa and Kigali than deep-pocketed donors from outside the continent. But the challenges are formidable, and the negotiators need to be armed with a clear understanding of how the conflict is seen from Kinshasa and Kigali.

First, the main obstacles to reforming the Congolese state are political, not technical. To grasp this, one needs to put oneself in Kabila’s shoes. Coming into office following the assassination of his father, operating in a political environment filled with intrigue, Kabila made his first priority survival, not the creation of an efficient state apparatus. From this perspective, he has exceeded expectations, staying in power for over 12 years -- far longer than anyone thought he would -- and shuffling his advisers and ministers every several years along the way. He has become an expert at pitting politicians against one another and maintaining loyalty through a blend of bribery and intimidation. In the meantime, he and his family have reportedly accumulated vast wealth, largely through deals in the extractive industries sector. A May 2013 report by a panel led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan showed that Congo had lost at least $1.36 billion since 2010 in five deals in which state mining assets were sold at prices well below market value to a friend of Kabila’s, the Israeli businessman Dan Gertler.

Kabila is not an authoritarian leader; he rules through fragmentation rather than strength. He is often absent from the political scene, sometimes spending months without making an appearance in public or on television. Bills and proposals sit on his desk for months before being dealt with, and he is known for managing military and political affairs through informal, often competing networks.

This mode of rule complicates reform efforts. It makes the executive branch suspicious of the rigid meritocracy required for a strong army or administration; by definition, it is more difficult to control people who owe their positions to their credentials rather than to their loyalty to the president. Strong hierarchies also create the potential for competing poles of power, which could threaten a weak ruling elite. Finally, reforming institutions requires punishing abusive officials, which could create a backlash from some of the regime’s power brokers. All these problems will become more acute over the next few years as Kabila decides whether to try to change the constitution to run for a third term or designate a successor who can protect his interests.

In this context, institutions cannot be reformed without changing the way politics is done. It is not enough to train and equip soldiers or build roads and data-management systems. The backroom dealings and patronage politics must come to an end. Ultimately, the solution can come only from the Congolese themselves, through checks and balances: a rising middle class, more professional media, and, above all, the democratic institutions prescribed in the constitution.

There is reason to be hopeful. Past peace processes in Congo have had a tendency to slip from any one politician’s grasp and take on their own, more inclusive logic. In 1991, Mobutu convened a sovereign national conference, hoping that he would be able to co-opt his rivals, only to have the assembly turn against him and elect his archenemy, Étienne Tshisekedi, as prime minister. Even now, Kabila spends much of his time bribing and coaxing his own allies in parliament not to impeach his ministers and governors. He is often lampooned in the press. Jeffersonian democracy this is not, but a bustling political marketplace is complicating Kabila’s ambitions.

Although the solutions to Congo’s problems will have to be homegrown, its national institutions are still fragile, and donors must play a vital role in bolstering democratization and state reform. They can help by holding the government to its own constitution and pushing for local elections, decentralization, and judicial independence, while opposing changes to the constitution’s term limits that would allow Kabila to stay on past 2016. Most important, the countries providing several billion dollars in aid to Congo every year, along with 21,000 peacekeepers, need to establish a more honest relationship with the government, based on mutual accountability and respect. That means strengthening coordination across donors, investigating mining companies and army officers involved in dubious dealings, and forging a pact between donors and the Congolese recipients of their aid that would lead to a cutting of development aid if key benchmarks were not met.

The role of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank will be crucial, since, unlike most national donors, they provide aid that political elites care about for their survival: increasing foreign cash reserves, funding retirement packages for state employees, and signaling to companies and donors that Congo is safe for investment. But it is precisely these donors that have been most reluctant to tie their funds to political reforms.


The Congolese state is weak and dysfunctional, but no insurrection since the 1960s has been able to rise out of its provincial confines without outside support. The heftiest such support in the past two decades has come from Rwanda, which has greatly amplified the instability in the Kivu region of eastern Congo.

The Rwandan army initially got involved in Congo in 1996, with good reason: it wanted to pursue the genocidaires who had fled there. Even in 1998, when Rwandan forces mounted a new rebellion against their former ally Laurent Kabila, the security imperative was clear, since Rwandan rebels with rear bases in eastern Congo were attacking large areas of Rwanda. Since then, however, these rebels, now called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), have all but collapsed, probably numbering only around 1,500–2,000, less than half what they were just four years ago. Meanwhile, Rwanda has lost its moral high ground thanks to its army’s mass abuses and profiteering in Congo.

Rwanda backed the M23 rebellion not in response to a resurgent FDLR but largely because it feared losing influence in eastern Congo, which it has long considered relevant to its national interests. These interests are difficult to parse, given the secrecy shrouding Rwandan involvement in the region, but several factors stand out.

First, Rwandan decision-making regarding Congo is dominated by “securocrats,” officials from the security sector. This is not surprising given Rwanda’s recent history: its main security threat has emanated from eastern Congo, many of its military leaders fought in Congo between 1996 and 2002, and Rwanda’s current minister of defense even led the Congolese army for a brief period after Mobutu’s fall, an indication of how influential Rwanda was in Congo at the time. Although this security threat has diminished, the FDLR is still symbolically important in Rwanda. Moreover, the ongoing strife in Congo has allowed these security officials to remain relevant and influential within Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Second, when it comes to Congo, the decision-making process in Kigali is limited to a small circle, and its members bristle at any finger-wagging by foreigners who did nothing to stop the 1994 genocide. The Agaciro Development Fund (agaciro means “dignity”), which was created last year to supplant foreign aid through individual donations, represents a clear expression of this fierce pride. Finally, the ruling party has itself been buffeted by the defection of senior military and civilian officials in recent years, giving it a kind of bunker mentality. All these forces push toward greater belligerency, even hubris, in the government’s decision-making process.

Rwanda’s stance toward Congo is thus not merely the outcome of rational self-interest; it is also the result of problems in Kigali’s decision-making process. Although it is true that millions of dollars’ worth of Congolese minerals, coffee, and food are smuggled into Rwanda and exported from there every year, it is not clear that Rwanda would benefit less if there were stability in the region. And the reputational hazards of meddling in eastern Congo are considerable. In 2012, for example, international donors cut over $200 million in budgetary aid to Rwanda due to its support for the M23. If the Congolese and Rwandan governments could manage to improve their relations and relax their labor and trade regulations, eastern Congo could provide opportunities for lucrative legal investments from Rwanda. For that to happen, however, the Rwandan ruling party would have to overcome its internal dysfunctions and learn how to trust Kinshasa.

There are signs that Kigali’s belligerent stance is beginning to conflict with another, perhaps stronger ambition within the ruling party: to turn Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa, a center of business and trade at the heart of the region. With little natural resources or investment opportunities, Rwanda is seeking to trade on its reputation as having a forward-looking government that delivers impressive social services and as being inspirational for having rebuilt the country after the genocide. Rwanda is tough on corruption, has wired the country with fiber-optic cable, and, with Carnegie Mellon University, hosts the first American university campus in Africa. Over the past year, however, this image has been marred by bad press over Rwanda’s support for the M23, and relations between economic officials and security officials in the country have soured as a result.

Outsiders should seek to strengthen the hand of those in Rwanda who seek a more mutually beneficial relationship with Congo by maintaining financial pressure on the government, which, according to a June 2013 UN report, still maintains close relations with the M23 rebels. But, as they do in Congo, donors to Rwanda have to grapple with their own dysfunctions. Rwanda has represented one of the best short-term investments of foreign aid, which has helped lift a million Rwandans out of poverty over the past five years. And yet Rwandan policy contributed to the displacement of hundreds of thousands in eastern Congo during the same period. Donors are so invested in the Rwandan success story that they suffer from a sort of cognitive dissonance, separating Rwanda’s domestic progress from its meddling in eastern Congo. For some donor countries, this has meant spending millions in humanitarian aid to eastern Congo while funding the government across the border that is in part responsible for the violence there. This cognitive dissonance explains why even though little has changed on the ground in eastern Congo, the aid for Rwanda that was temporarily suspended last year following reports of Kigali’s support for the M23 rebellion has since been mostly disbursed.


In the end, the conflict in Congo says almost as much about Western diplomacy as it does about the governments in the region themselves. Too often in the past, outside donors have fallen for short-term, technocratic fixes that have failed to address the logic of the violence in Congo, which is firmly rooted in the way power is managed in Kinshasa and Kigali. There are signs that this might be changing with the recently signed framework agreement; the diplomats in charge of this process would do well to study the troubled history of past interventions and to probe the pathologies afflicting Kinshasa, Kigali, and their own governments.

But this is easier said than done. It is easier to fix roads and train police than to change the deep-rooted incentives and habits of those in power in the region. Donors have learned that lesson in Afghanistan, another place where corrosive patronage politics, cross-border meddling, and a fragmented political landscape have perpetuated violence. Nonetheless, the stakes are high. If the Congolese government continues to hamstring its own security apparatus and to fuel armed groups in the country’s eastern region, and if Rwanda’s ruling party maintains its support for armed groups next door, there is little doubt that the heart of Africa will continue to be plagued by insurrection and violence.

If, on the other hand, outside donors and other African countries can tailor more honest engagements with both Kinshasa and Kigali, conditioning their aid on genuine progress toward more accountable and less bellicose governance in Congo and unlocking Congo’s economic potential, then the Congo war stands a chance of ceasing to be a current event and finally becoming history.

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  • 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.
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