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In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Séverine Autesserre argues that the international focus on the drama surrounding President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to cling to power in the Democratic Republic of Congo distracts from the country’s more pressing problems (“What the Uproar Over Congo’s Elections Misses,” March 1, 2017). Poverty, unemployment, corruption, and local matters such as poor access to land, justice, and education, Autesserre argues, are at the root of Congo’s longstanding violence. Only by shifting the focus from the crisis in Kinshasa to local actors can peace and prosperity be brought to Congo.
Autesserre’s call for research and interventions to pay more attention to local dynamics offers a welcome challenge to traditional state-centric approaches to peacebuilding. But when it comes to Congo’s current troubles, her emphasis on local solutions to local problems is misguided.
Global, regional, and national processes—from international laws on conflict minerals and civil wars in neighboring states to peacekeeping interventions and political changes in Kinshasa—all shape local events in Congo. Indeed, there is little evidence that local conflicts are the primary causes of the ongoing violence in the country’s east. Nor is it apparent that grassroots actors have the clout to stand up to brutal militias or the powerful networks that support them. Eliding these realities risks attributing powers to local actors that they often lack.
It is hard to find a local dispute in Congo that is divorced from elite politics. Most of the protracted communal conflicts in eastern Congo and elsewhere in the country have been provoked, instrumentalized, or sustained by regional, national, or provincial political actors who exploit popular grievances, using inflammatory rhetoric to rally public opinion against their opponents and armed groups to target them. It is primarily violence by armed groups that sustains conflicts between communities, rather than community divisions that produce violence.
The road toward stability in Congo must pass through the reform of state institutions.
Even disputes that may seem purely local are often deeply entwined with national politics. Conflicts over land, for instance, are frequently embedded in a vicious mixture of ambiguous or unenforced national property laws, patronage politics, and malfunctioning justice systems. And national and provincial officials can compound succession disputes among customary authorities by backing their favored candidates, as has recently happened in Nord Ubangui and Kasai provinces.
In the face of predatory elites, Autesserre argues that grassroots efforts led by customary authorities and civil-society organizations represent Congo’s best hope for peace and security. But many such local actors are already doing a great deal to address violent conflicts: Congo has a decades-long tradition of self-defense groups and civic organizations compensating for a withering state apparatus. If violence persists, it is not for a lack of local effort, but for a lack of local capacity to address the deeper roots of the violence. (It is also worth noting that the interests of local actors are not necessarily nobler than those of their national-level counterparts.)
In recent years, many armed groups in Congo have presented themselves as community self-defense organizations, articulating their grievances in local terms. Yet many of these groups actually took up arms to respond to or to ally with larger political or social networks, such as foreign-backed rebel organizations. No longer depending on popular support, such groups become more willing to abuse the communities they claim to defend, through extortion, banditry, kidnapping, and the like. Although armed groups may collaborate with local leaders when it serves their interests, local authorities do not control them. Militias tend to pursue their own priorities—above all, their own survival, which often involves striking deals with political elites and army units. These groups’ references to local problems can obscure their actual motivations for violence.
Civilian leaders have little room to maneuver when they are faced with armed groups that are willing to abuse them. Insisting on local solutions is risky, since asking local activists to face down armed militias can put those civilians in the line of fire.
At the core of Congo’s problems lies the lack of political will on the part of the country’s elite, which does not see poverty alleviation, public services, or institutional reform as priorities. Congo’s government agencies are woefully underfunded, pushing officials to levy illicit taxes and fees, demand bribes, and otherwise extort citizens to make ends meet. Meanwhile, attacks by armed groups often undo the valiant local reconciliation projects that Autesserre praises. These problems help explain the persistent poverty of eastern Congo, despite the high levels of international funding directed toward the region.
The road toward stability in Congo must pass through the reform of state institutions. The only way that can happen is by increasing official accountability, which will require national elections, the opening of democratic space, and a shift from predatory to responsible everyday governance.
The negotiations in Kinshasa over Kabila’s future have been messy and stained by opportunism, but they have also revealed the vitality of Congo’s democratic culture. It is not for nothing that the Kabila government has been unable to scrap constitutional term limits, as the heads of state of some neighboring countries have done, or that the vast majority of Congolese citizens, even in the most conflict-ridden parts of the country, believe that elections are their best hope for better governance. Given the pluralism of Congolese society, a new democratically elected government—one that distributes resources more fairly, respects Congo’s diversity, improves public services, demilitarizes politics, and institutionalizes accountability—could be the country’s greatest asset. Addressing local conflicts might help, but it is no substitute.