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DR Congo: arc of war, map of responsibility

About the author
Martin Shaw is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and the University of Sussex, and professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton. His books include War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here

The reports of an upsurge of violence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may at a glance appear little more than a continuation of the persistent conflict in the country over much of the last two decades. Yet a closer look reveals not just the particularity of what is happening in one corner of Africa, but the ingredients of a wider arc of endemic conflict across a huge swathe of the continent.

Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. His books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here

More than a decade of conflict in the DR Congo peaked in 1998-2002 with what was called "Africa's great war". After this, the DRC's war-zone largely shrunk to the eastern Kivu provinces, scene of the last major violence in late 2008. The heart of the violence of September-October 2009 - to call it "fighting" would be to dignify what are mainly atrocities against civilians - is the province of Haut-Uele (formerly part of Orientale).

It is significant that until the mid-2000s this had been one of the DRC's least affected regions; and that - as in so many points in the Congo's recent history - the new massacres, mutilations, rapes and kidnappings result from the spread of conflict from a neighbouring country: in this case Uganda. For the agents of these terrible actions are the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, notorious for a two decades-long campaign of brutality in northern Uganda for which Kony himself was (in July 2005) subject to an arrest-warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC).  

The LRA has been in Orientale since 2005. But over the last year it has been driven out of Uganda by the forces of the country's president, Yoweri Moseveni; and in response has made more extensive forays, looting and murdering as it goes. The LRA's campaign makes little sense to the Congolese. Father Benoit Kinalegu, the director of the Justice & Peace Commission in Dungu, says: "A human being can kill with reason, and an animal to eat. But Joseph Kony just kills people for nothing."

The new atrocities only underline how intractable even this relatively limited conflict has become. Ugandan forces claim to have destroyed LRA bases, but this appears not to have seriously affected its organisation and armed capacity. Uganda also suspects Sudan of maintaining links with Joseph Kony, even though the Khartoum regime - which previously gave tacit backing to the LRA - is reported to have cooperated with Uganda in the latest crackdown. Sudan's calculation may be that it can use the LRA to destabilise the precarious comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) in southern Sudan, whose people are due to vote in 2011 on possible independence from Khartoum.  

The essential context

The DR Congo has for more than a decade hosted international forces and initiatives intended to stabilise the country (including the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, and one of the most controversial); yet even now, international organisations can barely keep up with the fragile situation in the country. The atrocities in Haut-Uele come as the UN issues two reports on the abuses of late 2008 in eastern Congo, which were committed by both government and anti-government forces.  There is little sign that the International Criminal Court will be able to hold the perpetrators to account, or that compromises with militia groups will really lead to greater security for their former victims in the civilian population. The likely route to progress may lie at an inter-state level - in new agreements between the DR Congo government and those of Rwanda and Uganda, the two countries most deeply involved in the DRC's conflicts since the mid-1990s.

The character and interplay of these dynamics of conflict tend to elude all but the most seasoned of observers. This highlights the immense value of a remarkable study by the French scholar of Africa, Gérard Prunier. His book - From Genocide to Continental War: The 'Congolese' Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2009) - both underlines the sheer complexity of this landscape of conflict and shows how profoundly difficult it will be to achieve lasting progress for the distressed civilian populations of many Congolese and neighbouring regions.  

The work is especially timely in a period when ever-increasing academic effort is being devoted to analysing the mass killings in Rwanda of 1994 as a stand-alone genocide - to be compared only to distant (in time) mass murders during the 20th century's two world wars (Ottoman Turkey's annihilation of the Armenians, and Nazi Germany's holocaust of Europe's Jews). For Prunier, who carefully dissected the Rwandan events in The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), shows forcefully how Rwanda needs to be seen in the international African context. A wider regional pattern of conflict, especially in Burundi and Uganda, helped produce the Rwandan crisis; in turn the 1994 genocide fatefully influenced an even wider arc of conflicts, above all in the "Congolese" wars.

The six lessons

Gérard Prunier's masterly, subtle and amazingly (though necessarily) complex account maps civil and international conflicts across large parts of Africa. His analysis offers six broad insights.

First, the Rwandan genocide was a decisive moment in modern African history. It was ended by the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from its bases in Uganda; the RPF went on to establish a militarily confident regime determined to project power across its border into Zaire (later the DR Congo), then a corrupt state misruled by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The resulting Congolese war brought the Zairean crisis to a head; proved a catalyst for conflicts across much of Africa, from Sudan to Angola; and directly or indirectly drew in many African states, from Libya to South Africa.  

Second, most of the states that became involved did so because of limited, local interests. The examples include Sudan's conflict with Uganda, arising from the civil war in southern Sudan; the Angolan MPLA regime's determination to prevent Jonas Savimbi's UNITA from using the DR Congo to reinforce itself; and the self-enrichment strategy of Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF elite. These interests first drew states into the DR Congo, but in the end caused them to draw back - either when their limited objectives had been more or less achieved, or when the costs (locally and internationally) were perceived to outweigh the benefits.

Third, the partial nature of most states' interests, combined with their restricted mobilising capacities (not comparable at all with those of industrialised European states' in the first world war), explain why this was not really "Africa's great war", but rather a messy, episodic conflict across but some areas of the vast DRC (see Gérard Prunier, "The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict", 17 November 2008).

Fourth, the Hutu Power forces in Rwanda in 1994 were unique in organising a large-scale, nationwide campaign of genocide. But genocidal violence (massacres, rape, expulsions) has remained intermittent throughout the conflicts in the DR Congo in the subsequent decade and a half, and been employed by many of the parties. In addition to such targeted violence, war and terror has caused extensive disruption to the Congo's already fragile society; the combination of direct violence and its many consequences for human security (such as disease and deteriorating living conditions) have resulted in an estimated 4-5 million conflict-related deaths since the mid-1990s.

Fifth, the Rwandan (RPF) government of Paul Kagame was unique in having a sustained interest in continuing the Congo wars, and determined to use the west's guilt at failing to stop the 1994 genocide to produce impunity for itself. The RPF was ruthless in carrying out its own massacres (most notoriously at Kibeho, Rwanda, in 1995, but also later in the DR Congo). The idea of a "double genocide" (that is, by the RPF as well as the former regime) is a Hutu Power propaganda notion; at the same time, the RPF did carry out against Hutus - albeit in smaller-scale, localised terms - the same type of violence that had been practised against Tutsis in 1994.

Sixth, many western governments and NGOs were (most of the time) duly blinded by their guilt to acknowledge the hardship Rwanda's campaign was inflicting on the DR Congo's population, or to raise their voices against it. Prunier at one point selects Britain's former overseas-development minister Clare Short as a prime culprit, but his scorn also targets the failings of American and (with his special insight into Paris's particular weaknesses) French policies and politicians.

The policy need

This digest hardly does justice to Prunier's full and detailed study. But as the Lords Resistance Army's latest campaign of violence draws new attention to the DR Congo, the force of his argument is to emphasise that this should not be seen as a mainly local (Ugandan and northeast Congolese) problem, but as a symptom of the intricate pattern of internationalised conflicts that continue across a large area of Africa. True, as the continental war is over and the Rwandan node of the Congolese conflicts has finally begun to be blocked, the danger of large-scale renewal may (as Prunier argues) have passed. But complex conflicts across northeastern Africa, centred on Sudan, still cast a long shadow that reaches into the DRC. International policy-makers tend to deal with crises one at a time: the current outbreak is another reminder that interconnected conflicts call for joined-up responses. 

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin"  (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)

"Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

"The Kosovo war: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

"The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland" (10 June 2009)

"Sri Lanka - camps, media...genocide?" (30 June 2009)

"Afghanistan and Iraq: western wars, genocidal risks" (24 July 2009)

"Israeli settlements and ‘ethnic cleansing'" (3 September 2009)

Also in openDemocracy about the DR Congo and the wider region, including articles by Gérard Prunier:

Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (6 April 2004)

Tristan McConnell, "The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name?" (27 July 2006)

Tristan McConnell, "DR Congo's dangerous run-off" (23 August 2006)

Gérard Prunier ,"Darfur's Sudan problem" (15 September 2006)

Andrew Wallis, "Rwandan rifts in La Francafrique" (14 December 2006)

Gérard Prunier, "The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)

Gérard Prunier, "Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)

Gérard Prunier, "Chad's tragedy" (7 September 2007)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan between war and peace" (1 November 2007)

David Mughnier, "North Kivu: how to end a war" (3 December 2007)

Gérard Prunier, "Khartoum's calculated fever" (5 December 2007)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Chad: between Sudan's blitzkrieg and Darfur's war" (19 February 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: histories of hidden war" (29 February 2008)

Gerard J DeGroot, "Rwanda: the colour of hope" (30 April 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan in a fix" (26 June 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan's Omar al-Bashir: a useful war criminal" (15 October 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict" (17 November 2008)


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