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.
ALL POLITICS ISN’T LOCAL
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