The supreme difficulty in Congo … is the persistence of the native authority, which, for all the complexities of ethnicity, is still in place as an organising principle. It is now the terrain on which new forms of political authority, flaunted by young men bearing arms, confront older forms steeped in patriarchal tradition … Faced with the extreme violence that has racked Congo and always threatens to break out again, the ‘international community’ has tended to fall back on the notion of the failed state. As with organ failure in medicine, ‘state failure’ provokes calls for radical solutions, including rapid intervention and even emergency transplants. In 2004, after a massacre in a camp on the Congo-Burundi border, Clare Short told the BBC that ‘if we leave it, there will be endless killing.’ She went on to warn that Africa could soon become a ‘failed continent’. In Foreign Policy a couple of years ago, two leading academics proposed that ‘the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists.’ Like external examiners everywhere, all three commentators are intent on outcomes, not processes: they ignore the colonial and post-colonial history of state formation in Congo and can tell us only what it should be, not what it is or how it is evolving.

That violence in Africa is criminal rather than political is now the conventional wisdom. Groping for a memorable soundbite, the development economist Paul Collier claims that greed, not grievance, is the source of the civil wars on the continent, while human rights groups now include ‘naming and shaming’ in their response to atrocities. Calls for prosecution and punishment can also be heard: but who will do the punishing in Congo? Will it be failing native authorities in Kivu? The armed militias not yet integrated into the new army? Or that army itself, already home to most of the perpetrators? Or should the international community – led by the International Criminal Court – take charge of Congo’s destiny yet again? And who should be punished: the rank-and-file or senior commanders? Will they be Congolese only, or soldiers from the neighbouring armies (Rwanda and Uganda) that have intervened? These questions are highly political.

Even the worst perpetrators of violence in Congo must be understood as human actors caught up in a conflict that started with the colonial conquest a century ago. That means shifting the focus from individual acts to the cycle of violence, from atrocities to the issues that drive them. Instead of recognising and facing the real challenge – to reform the native authority so that local militias can be held politically accountable – the ‘international community’ has chosen to induct them into a ballooning, dysfunctional colonial-style army, leaving the native authority to grind along unchanged.

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