To make peace in Congo we should engage the Congolese

In an opinion article for Foreign Policy Magazine, two established scholars, Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills, make a case for the abolishment of the Democratic Republic of Congo as a unitary state: rather than focusing on the promotion of the Congolese state, they say, foreign governments and aid agencies would do better dealing with those agents and institutions that are “actually running” the country. Instead of the usual panoply of ministers and state administrations, this would bring to the fore a “confusing array” of governors, traditional leaders, warlords, and whomever exerts control on the ground. The reason, they say, is that the country is just too big to be governed by a single state: resource rich provinces such as the Kivus and Katanga (themselves the size of other African countries) could never be improved as long as they fall under a “fictional” Congolese state. Besides economic federalism, their reimagined approach also assigns priority to the US’s historical ally Rwanda, given that much of the current violence in Eastern Congo derives from the wake of the 1994 genocide. Get this right and there might actually be a chance to reduce the violence that has haunted the Kivus and the Congo for the last decades, they say.


At face value, Herbst’s and Mill’s proposition does not shock me as trailblazing news. Even the most enthusiastic embracers of Congo’s political transition now agree that the country’s conflict reconstruction has been a huge failure. Since presidential elections in 2006, Kabila’s regime has steadily developed features of illiberal and autocratic rule, while the resolution of the country’s long-standing armed conflict(s) is staggering to stay the least. Every day activists and human rights organizations report new cases of brutal abuse by Congo’s security forces, which have become their citizens’ worst nightmare. That this worries international peace makers and observers is understandable: instead of turning the boat, the UN and the international donor community are effectively becoming complicit of a violent and predatory government that seems to survive mainly by mercy of the international community. Decades of international efforts to stimulate transition and peaceful development seem to go quickly up in smoke. But to conclude from this that the Congolese state has “outlived its usefulness” for the international community and Congolese citizens at large is not only cynical, but also highly naive.

To start with, the analysis in Foreign Policy Magazine is a-historical. It completely washes away Congo’s long legacy of foreign exploitation and domination that is partly (some would say essentially) responsible for the current mess. Foreign countries like Belgium and the United States have long promoted this country’s underdevelopment by actively exploiting Congo’s resources, and sustaining a brutal and repressive dictator. As one established scholar pointed out in the early 1990s, the US (and indeed many a European) policy from colonial independence onwards was that we had “better Mobutu than chaosi. This not only included killing the democratically elected leadership of Patrice Lumumba, but also an active promotion of state deregulation and privatization. The critique against this narrow policy vision grew in importance at a time when Congo’s (then Zaire’s) crisis looked less like a unique exception than a paradigmatic case, as many Sub-Saharan dictatorships descended into a similar path of state decay and underdevelopment. This led another established observer to ponder if Zaire really was a state at all, because almost exclusively kept alive by the drip of international aid and dignitary visits by the Pope, Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, and Henry Kissingerii. To hear Herbst and Mills call Congo a fictional state all over again thus frankly sounds like a badly rehearsed tune after yet another two decades of intensive budget aid, financial surgery and critical conflict resolution.

Where both authors get it wrong is in lining out the different reasons for this apparent state collapse. Herbst and Mills call Congo a disparate collection of peoples, interests and pillagers, who wildly eat away at Congo’s vast mineral wealth without concern for the coherency of the country. They say that Congo has none of the things that make a nation-state: territorial interconnectedness, capable government, and national unity. What they fail to underscore, however, is Congo’s remarkable resilience as unitary and working state. Despite its many looks as a waning phantom, Congo’s official administrations, public services and indeed national unity have been able to do remarkably well even in times of profound and prolonged crisis. Instead of calling for another break-up of the country along ethnic or economic lines, Herbst and Mills had better taken a look at the opinion polls: at two separate occasions, in 1998 and 2001, a large majority of Congolese expressed themselves vividly against a partition of the country (the results were respectively 89 and 70 percent). Wherever one meets Congolese, one is also confronted with a deep sense of national feeling, which honestly goes a bit further than the sharing of a foreign language, music and a joint history of oppression as Herbst and Mills claim. Actually there exist two separate reasons for this persistent Congolese nationalism. One is the fact that people can continue deriving private benefits from Congo’s weak state institutions. The result is something one could call “sell on-demand” administration, whereby the need for official documentation (for example to open a shop, buy land or prove a right) preserves the demand for state-sanctioned services from the part of citizens and administratorsiii. Besides this daily corruption, however, Congolese have been able to enhance public service delivery in less than conventional ways. To avoid public school closures, for example, parents regularly pay a ‘motivation’ to teachers by offering bonuses to supplement their inexistent salaries. This at least ensures the continued issuing of diplomas to graduating students all over the countryiv. Finally, even the country’s roving warlords have invariably expressed the desire to join, rather than abolish, the existing state system: over the last two decades, local strongmen with tight connections to the capital have successfully tried to secure a piece of the cake offered by international settlements and governments of transition. These different observations makes Crawford Young’s statement of more than 25 years ago still relevant today: that the dying image of the Congolese state is actively kept alive by a combination of international and national transactions, but which remain truly embedded in the daily performance of actually existing statehood. This, rather than some Weberian ideal, constitutes the daily reality of the Congolese state today.

Finally, one wonders to what extent the “reimagined” approach of Herbst and Mills is really a viable alternative, especially because it remains unfounded in a sound legitimizing project. Their proposal to leave the country’s political rule in the hands of an undefined array of governors, traditional leaders, and warlords comes close to the cynicism one increasingly hears in foreign policy circles these days, and which openly suggest a contracting-out of security and public service delivery to “whomever can get the job done”. A recent example of this could be found in Paul Collier’s call to channel donor money towards “whatever agencies work”, including NGOs, churches, and private firms. What all these proposals have in common, is that they find the building of an effective Congolese state an unrealistic and, at the very least, a too costly enterprisev. But when was this effective statehood ever properly given a chance, one might askvi. And who bears the rights of sovereignty in this privatized governance scheme? Even if one progressively eats away the state’s sovereignty and assigns it to smaller and arguably more workable units, how would their authority then be legitimized? On the basis of a donor contract, a commercial agreement, a foreign treaty? Without a sound popular basis, I fear such “hybrid” political orders will very likely end up in just the same neo-colonial policies that produced authoritarianism and underdevelopment in this country in the first place.

The benefits of failure

A more refreshing insight into Congo’s peace building deadlock, I suggest, is to look at it not as a series of policy errors and failures but as a working system, in which the reproduction of collapse and failure is consciously used as a means to satisfy certain (political and economic) endsvii. When using such a political economy approach to conflict and peace building, it becomes clear how over the last two years, different parties to the Congolese crisis have continuously used the terminology of political and humanitarian emergency as an excuse for nót learning lessons. A prominent example of this trend is Congo’s faltering security sector reform. As in other post-conflict countries, SSR has gained popularity as a conflict resolution strategy due to perceptions of anarchy in post-conflict settings on the one hand, and the rise of institutionalist thinking in international policy-making circles on the other. In Congo, this has led to the so-called Governance Compact, which views SSR as a classical institutional reinforcement operation including the reintegration of militias as well as an increasing professionalism and democratic control over national security forcesviii. Instead of giving priority to the reconstruction and reform of security services, however, the Congolese government has preferred to conduct two new military campaigns over the last three years, one against the main opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba in March 2007, and one in Northern Kivu from September to December 2007 and again in 2008. Meanwhile, it has consistently obstructed reform measures at a high command level (reshuffling command structures and leading operations outside the reformative framework), while reluctantly accepting international help for a few disjointed initiativesix.

At second sight, therefore, this piecemeal approach toward national security in the Congo does not reflect a series of policy failures but rather the consistent hardening of a regime that intends to crush armed and unarmed opposition by authoritarian means. While the West continues to cry emergency in Eastern Congo, Kinshasa actively invents new exceptional measures to gain control over its peripheral regions, be it with very mixed results. Western complacency reached its apex in this sense when the EU’s Development Commissioner, Louis Michel, expressed his deep satisfaction with the outcome of a haphazardly organized campaign of Rwandan and Congolese forces against the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia that terrorizes Kivu’s population since the mid-1990s. While the actual aim of this operation remains unclear until this day (some say it was used to topple dissident General Laurent Nkunda), the FDLR immediately reacted with a series of retaliations against Kivu’s villages, killing hundreds of civilians and producing yet another dramatic flow of refugees and internally displaced people. Should these people consider themselves as collateral damage to Rwanda’s or Congo’s conflict resolution?

To conclude, it becomes increasingly evident that the permanent reproduction of “emergency” in the Democratic Republic of Congo has generated a situation that blocks, rather than favours, genuine change in this country. While observers still refer to Congo’s crisis as a resource war or, at best, as a problem of peace spoilers, the liberal peace building approach has systematically put at the forefront a series of exploitative and violent actors whose only aim is to participate in the ruling regime of predation rather than opt for regime change. The constant obsession with humanitarian emergencies and political power sharing over the last ten years has overshadowed the integration of other less visible initiatives that have worked outside this permanent state of emergency, but are therefore not less legitimate: farmers and mining cooperatives fighting for their rights, informal security and development initiatives at a village level, spontaneous micro-credit associations, and in general ordinary people that try to cope and reimagine their lives. It is a pity that the current peace building architecture treats such Congolese citizens not as human beings, but merely as particles in a grand technical capacity building exercise. Instead of quickly running to elections – which are indeed no panacea for democratic developmentx – it might be good to stop and think hard what we actually mean by bringing peace and development to this country, when the most basic democratic rights such as free movement and association, freedom of speech, and the ability to develop one’s personal skills, are trampled upon on a daily basis. I agree with Ali Malau [], therefore, that the time has come to finally invest in one key component that Herbst and Mills discount too rapidly in their quick-fix solution: the Congolese people, their sense of citizenship, and their resilience. Instead of giving up on Congo, we should finally give its people a fighting chance by supporting local institutions and helping them hold their local and national governments accountable for their actions. Rather than just “getting the job done”, this would involve a long term engagement with Congo’s local communities in helping them re-establish trust and mutual cooperation, while actively building bridges beyond formalistic institutional levels. Given the current “emergency”, however, this is probably an engagement few diplomats would be willing to take.

Timothy Raeymaekers


i Schatzberg, M., Mobutu or Chaos? The United States and Zaire, 1960-1990, University Press of America and Foreign Policy Research Institute, Lanham, New York, London, Philadelphia, 1991.

ii Young, C., Zaire: Is There A State? in: Canadian Journal of African Studies, vol. 18 n° 1 (1984), pp. 80-82

iii Englebert, P., Why Congo persists: Sovereignty, globalization and the violent reproduction of a weak state, Queen Elisabeth House Working Paper Series, Oxford, 2003.

iv Trefon, T., Public Service Provision in a Failed State: Looking Beyond Predation in the

Democratic Republic of Congo, in: Review of African Political Economy, volume 36, n° 119, pp. 9-21.

v Collier, P., Naive faith in the ballot box: the catastrophe in Congo is a grave international failure. Hasty elections can make things worse, in: The Guardian, 3 November 2008; Anten, L., Strengthening Governance in Post-Conflict Fragile States, Clingendael issues paper, 9 June 2009.

vi Malau, A.M., The Case For The Congo, in:, 9 May 2009.

vii Such an approach has been successfully applied to other African protracted crises, including the West and the Horn of Africa. See for example: Keen, D. (1998), The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars, Adelphi Paper n° 320, London, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); Menkhaus, K. (2004) Vicious circles and the security development nexus in Somalia. Conflict, Security and Development, Vol. 4, n° 2 (August).

viii Melmot, S., Candide in Congo. The Expected Failure of Security Sector Reform (SSR), Focus Stratégique n° 9 bis, IFRI, April 2009.

ix International Crisis Group, Congo: five priorities for a peacebuilding strategy, ICG Africa Report, 11 May 2009.

x Paul Collier, op.cit.

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