Reconfiguring the state in eastern DRC: fixing the unfixable?

Two decades on from the Rwanda bloodletting, conflicts still simmer in neighbouring DRC. While their success remains mixed, two decades of external intervention and state-building heavily impinge on everyday life.

Christoph Vogel
3 April 2014
men in suits_0.jpg

Enter the men in suits: the heads of the World Bank (centre left) and United Nations (centre right) flank the DRC foreign minister en route to Goma last year. Flickr / World Bank. Creative Commons.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. While not the only root of the subsequent wars in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it was one of the main catalysts. International hand-wringing helped ruthless Interahamwe militias slaughter nearly a million people within weeks, and a misled “humanitarian intervention”, Opération turquoise, provided a safe corridor for many perpetrators into the then Zaire as the Rwandan Patriotic Front was liberating Rwanda.

The Interahamwe—which morphed into what is now the Forces démocratiques de libération de Rwanda (FDLR)—inserted itself into smouldering conflicts about land, identity, and political power on local and regional levels and provoked both nationalist and Rwanda-supported rebel groups. This culminated in two Congo wars: in 1996-97, a rebel coalition, the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la liberation (AFDL), toppled the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, with deliberate help from the new Rwandan government; in 1998-2003, the freshly installed government of Laurent Kabila chased away its eastern backers and the ensuing war drew in more than a dozen states and pitted their proxy militias against one another.

A decade of conflicts of varying intensity followed. Key milestones were the DRC’s first elections in 2006, the rebellion by the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) around 2008 and the recent M23 crisis.

While crisis are periods of destruction and disaster, they are also windows of opportunity for the emergence of ‘new’ or parallel orders. The DRC is frequently mentioned as a paradigm case of “state failure”—of the breakdown of the Weberian state into a “war economy” where the protagonists pursue economic activities by other, usually violent, means. Influential in policy circles, such paradigms represents only a small part of the DRC’s complex reality. Within this context, however, and driven by liberal interventionism, two major external reconfigurations of political and economic interaction have gained momentum.

Military intervention

The first is military intervention. In 1999, the UN sent a small observer mission to eastern Congo. With the mixed inter-/intra-state war escalating, MONUC was quickly transformed into a fully-fledged peacekeeping mission, with about 20,000 staff by 2006. The UN Security Council subsequently increased the complexity of its mandate, the latest dimension of the now-renamed MONUSCO being a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) to launch offensive military operations. MONUSCO’s main tasks are protection of civilians and restoration of state authority, in line with the UN’s general stabilisation agenda, but the UN has been accused of being ineffective as to the first and propping up a government with questionable legitimacy as to the second. Indeed MONUSCO struggles between these contradictory requirements—given state institutions are responsible for many of the rights violations committed in the frame of the country’s conflicts.

While the FIB is a military response to the mission’s apparent inefficacy in the face of numerous armed groups, MONUSCO’s “islands of stability” approach—an echo of the “clear-hold-shape-build” stance of the international forces in Afghanistan—betrays its own limited capacity to pacify the DRC, a country as big as western Europe, and the government’s inability or unwillingness to provide security throughout. Obviously, concentrating on key strategic centres and axes helps MONUSCO pursue its stabilisation task and the overstretched Congolese institutions concentrate on delimited spaces. Located however somewhere between a hopeful strategy to diffuse peace and security from the metropolis to surrounding space and territorial segregation into an Afrique utile … and less useful parts—both recalling colonial and post-colonial perspectives—the question of finalité remains: when and how will the DRC retake its full functions across its sovereign territory?

“Conflict minerals”

The second reconfiguration is reform of artisan mining through transnational regimes and regulations. Eastern DRC is home to a set of minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten (“3T”) and gold. At the height of the second Congo war around 2000, global prices for tantalum skyrocketed and its exploitation provided substantial war financing for some of the major conflict parties, while others benefited from gold-smuggling too. Investigations led by the UN and several advocacy groups established links between human-rights violations and minerals as a source of income. What followed what a massive campaign against “conflict minerals”, connecting daily use of mobile phones and similar gadgets to child soldiering and rape in eastern DRC. More than a decade later, this narrative has transformed into policy. UN and OECD guidelines frame “due diligence” policies, US legislation demands disclosure of mineral supply chains (while the EU goes for a voluntary scheme) and transnational, government- and industry-led schemes are set up in eastern DRC to formalise mining sites and render them traceable. The stated aim is thereby to demilitarise mineral exploitation and safeguard human rights among the affected communities—but the reality is somewhat different.

Despite claims that regulating mining would create peace in eastern DRC, a panoply of armed actors persists. The “conflict minerals” advocates assumed that 3T and gold were a main motivation for the protagonists. Yet while any war needs to be financed that does not mean it began due to the availability of resources. Minerals have been no more than a suitable means, which for some groups have quickly been replaced by cannabis, salt, soap, or charcoal. One resource does however lie at the core of conflicts in the DRC: land, associated property and access to it. Mixed with the political contest over authority, legitimacy, and identity, it has formed a powerful cocktail for two decades of displacement and killing. Large parts of the international community have neglected the land question or concluded that it is too difficult to solve.

In this regard, the campaign to fight “conflict minerals” can be seen as a confession of limited willingness and capacity. From a different angle, it reflects the neo-liberal faith that by creating liberal markets a liberal peace will follow. Instead of feeding international corporations through unregulated trans-border trade by military-entrepreneurial networks of power, profit, and protection, Congolese minerals are now supposed to pass through a neatly controlled bottleneck, in the shape of a tagging process to make sure the products exported are “conflict-free”. This approach is highly problematic—and not only because it clashes with the unfettered capitalism that prevailed.

So far, the only functioning mechanism is the iTSCi scheme implemented by the international tin industry and its partners. It brings a commodification of legality for which the producers have to pay—tagging is not cost-free—with prices artificially manipulated by the buying side holding a monopoly for “conflict-free” minerals. And it is highly selective: in the two Kivu provinces only one mine is so defined, with a few more to follow in 2014, out of far more than a thousand sites. Excluding the bulk of producers from the supply chain perversely brings the implosion of local economies, school drop-outs and deteriorating health provision. In areas affected by armed conflict and associated displacement, moreover, mining has become the key alternative to farming and if minerals cannot be sold legally the risk of workers being recruited by armed groups increases.

Reform of the sector has thus become more a trap than a trajectory to sustainable development. It echoes MONUSCO’s “islands of stability" in being driven by the strategic deliberations of external actors rather than the needs of affected populations and remaining highly exclusive. Populations not having the chance of being part of an island have the choice to wait and hope or develop alternative survival strategies.

Pathological regard

Eastern DRC, after the defeat of M23 and with further operations against other armed groups, remains pathologically regarded as “a patient of the international community”. The industrialised world has chosen to intervene to reconfigure the state according to attributes (control over territory and population, a national economy included in international markets) it considers desirable. Unfortunately, the approaches chosen—both for peacekeeping and mining—do not fall on virgin territory. They clash with existing structures in a setting where alternative varieties of governance exist, even if they appear as disorder through Western lenses. Providing and negotiating security in a situation where the state and the non-state interact in a fragile equilibrium is as much an example as the twilight area of economic competition over mineral resources between armed and unarmed, state and non-state actors.

In such circumstances, the reconfiguration through conventional external paradigms can be dangerous for two reasons. First, the state may not be able or willing to restore its Weberian monopoly of violence according to rules of the game that will undermine the same monopoly from outside. And, secondly, actors outside or at the margin of the state may be tempted to obstruct or infiltrate such a reconfiguration.

Is the country then “unfixable”? Not necessarily, but external fixes face an even more formidable sustainability challenge than those which start from local needs.

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