DRC’s deadlock – new dangers, new beginnings

Democratic Republic of Congo: In Kinshasa , the summit meeting of La Francophonie replete with heads of state, resounding speeches and ringing declarations; in the east, 2 million displaced people and rising tension as the M-23 rebels sit just 15 kilometres from Goma, capital of North Kivu province, held back only by an uncertain ceasefire; on TV, repeated statements that this is the 187/8/9th day of aggression by Rwanda.

Outside powers have spent billions of dollars in DRC in the last decade and deployed thousands of UN peacekeepers (17,000 at present in MONUSCO, the largest UN force anywhere). All this effort has done some good and has probably prevented more harm being done but, despite that, eastern DRC has seen a steep escalation of conflict this year and if a way out cannot be negotiated things could get even worse very quickly.

International Alert has just published a new report – Ending the Deadlock: Towards a New Vision of Peace in Eastern DRC – that argues it’s time for a re-think. Launch meetings were held in Kinshasa on Thursday 11 and Goma on Monday 15.

Rwanda accused

The TV reminder that Rwanda stands accused – and on at least one channel it is a permanent strapline all through a feature film – both stokes an atmosphere of threat and offers something on which to blame the country’s problems.

But the M-23 uprising since April, regardless of whether it is backed, led, fed, funded, discreetly cheered on or contrariwise despised by Rwanda, is not the basic problem. The question is why it is possible. Other militias also control large areas of eastern DRC.

There is no military solution available in the East. Insecurity is endemic and the Congolese army can neither defeat M-23 nor provide security for ordinary citizens. The basic problem lies not in M-23 but in the state of DRC.

Time to re-think

International Alert’s report argues that international efforts have not led to solving the underlying problems because of misdiagnosing them; especially, the internationals have ducked the politics. They and the DRC government have preferred to depict the issues as amendable to essentially technical solution and proceed on that basis.

It hasn’t worked and it won’t work so it is time to start shaping a fresh approach. It’s time to take the foot off the gas and check the direction of travel. Fortunately, there is an appetite for this among some of the international community in DRC.

Politics and power

The roots of the conflicts devastating the east of the country are primarily political. Power in eastern DRC is based on patronage and patrimonial links. Ethnic, tribal and regional belonging are important components of politics. With state structures of limited reach, real power is neither transparent nor accountable and often lies outside the formal structure, only partly over-lapping with it.

Politics is essentially a winner-takes-all system and when it comes to elections, people don’t just vote the party ticket, they vote identity. Thus, the leaders of smaller communities are by definition excluded from access to the goods that power provides. Their recourse consists of two options: coalition with a larger group or use violence.

On top of this are the regional dynamics – and especially the consequences of genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and of the two Congolese wars in the late 1990s and first years of this century.

Through a deal in 2009, one of the main groups – the CNDP – was integrated into DRC’s army but over the years retained its group identity. The M-23  is essentially ex-CNDP (and takes its name from March 23rd, the date of the integration agreement).

The effective state

International assistance to find solutions to the conflicts in eastern DRC has largely been predicated on the need to fix the state’s inability to bring security to the region – its lack of capacity, its ineffectiveness.

But that misses the point. True, the state does lack capacity to do many things but it is very effective at serving the needs and interests of those who hold power. Most of them don’t want a state that might constrain them. For them, the insecurity that results from the limits they keep the state within is a price worth paying for the freedom of action that ensues. For the majority, the system is horribly dysfunctional; for most power holders, it works quite well.

The diagnosis of lack of capacity is largely accurate about the condition of the state but, because it is wholly inaccurate about the reasons for that, it leads to naïveté about solutions. It leads to the international community working with groups whose agenda is wholly at variance with the one the internationals think they see.

A decade ago there were around 50 militia groups – maybe more – operating in the Kivu provinces and Ituri district. Many persist. They have conflicting and marginally shifting allegiances, make opportunistic coalitions of interest, and live parasitically off the region and its people.

A different approach

The search for a new approach must start by recognising the uncomfortable truth that it is not at all clear what an effective alternative could be. Don’t come asking me what the solution is, don’t turn to the International Alert report to find it, and if somebody tells you they have the solution, first check if they also want to sell you Brooklyn Bridge and, if not, then try to sell it to them.

So what would be the starting point?

It is an axiom that I consistently press in this blog that development and peacebuilding are done by the people of the country concerned or not at all. Outsiders cannot do it for the citizens but can help. So as a matter of principle it is for citizens of DRC to identify and start a new approach. But outsiders can help with, inter alia, ideas based both on experience elsewhere and on understanding the specific context. In that light…

Analysis and vision

There’s been a great deal of effort to secure peace and not much impact. One reason is that international development and peacebuilding programmes are based on a largely erroneous understanding of Congolese realities. Instead of concentrating on the state’s incapacity, the analysis needs to begin with a nuanced understanding of the patrimonial system and of its winners and losers. That would make it a bit easier to find entry-points and potential partners for constructive change.

Thus, one step is to improve analytical capacities among international agencies and Congolese actors alike, including independent think-tanks and advocacy groups. One positive feature in DRC is that people can and do express their views. There is an opportunity for a richer debate.

Alongside that, there is a great need for a clear vision of where the peacebuilding effort should be heading – a long-term vision of peace, of what a peaceful and stable DRC would look like. This has to involve as many people, groups and institutions as possible, including the government, political parties, civil society, the churches and the private sector.


One way of building this shared vision is through a widespread dialogue, beginning in communities and involving local leaders, civil society and local authorities. It needs to be large scale and, if it develops momentum, has to find ways to be linked with government, first at provincial level and eventually nationally. It will be slow and will need patience. Because its legitimacy will depend on being validated by all participants, there will be repetitive cycles of redefining and re-agreeing the framework of dialogue.

It won’t replace or challenge the formal institutions of legislative deliberation and decision-making that are also supposed to ensure accountability in government. It will instead develop ideas and build a vision.


Participants own and shape this kind of process and in different localities there will be divergence about which are the priority issues. so the dialogue starts without a fixed agenda. Over time, five key issues will likely stand out:

  1. Land access and management in rural areas: To address a noxious mix of inter-communal tensions, political rivalries, economic insecurity, poor land registries, and uncertainty between written land legislation and local customs.
  2. Politics and the management of power : A broad dialogue could air possibilities such as power-sharing as alternatives to today’s zero-sum game of ethnicised politics.
  3. Returning refugees and displaced person: Dialogue could take the heat, fear and rumour out of an issue that has ignited conflict before and could again.
  4. Security:  Without improvements in security, progress in other areas will remain fragile, but for the state’s security role to be legitimate, much else about it must have broad legitimacy. The state-citizen relationship is at the heart of this issue.
  5. Regional cooperation: Eastern DRC is almost bound to have strong economic ties with the neighbouring countries– so political and security relations with them will always be of prime importance. 

The elite

Is the predatory character of the political elite irreducible?

In the end, countries make progress towards greater peace, stability and prosperity because a significant fraction of the elite recognise it’s in their interests to do so. They begin to see the benefit to them of a new and more stable social order based on security and equality before the law rather than instability, insecurity and arbitrary power. A dialogue of the kind envisaged in International Alert’s DRC report will be transformational if it starts to engage the elite of the country in exactly this discussion of the future.

Fortunately the government of the DRC has signed up to the New Deal on peacebuilding and statebuilding agreed in the Busan High Level Forum in November last year. This offers a framework for developing a peaceful state based on a contract of accountable authority between authorities and citizens. Indeed, DRC has not only signed up to the general principle but is one of seven countries where the approach is to be piloted. This offers worthwhile entry point for top level political discussions about governance in DRC, increasingly informed by a bottom-up dialogue.

The internationals

The S in MONUSCO stands for stabilisation, added as part of a political compromise when the DRC government decided it didn’t want the UN operation MONUC to continue. But stabilisation has been pushed to the margins in MONUSCO, possibly because it’s not the government’s favourite topic. There is a review currently underway of MONUSCO’s clunkingly named International Security and Stabilisation Support Strategy. It would be a great step forward if a revised strategy is put where it belongs at the centre of MONUSCO’s work.

Among their first steps in a new approach, donor governments and international institutions can ramp up their analytical capacities very quickly. They can recruit analysts and/or outsource the work; they can do it as individual actors or pool efforts.  And taking time for a rethink does not mean stopping everything. Assistance programmes will continue.  But donors should integrate both a conflict sensitivity lens and an accountability lens into the design of their programmes, informed by their improved analysis.

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