The DRC’s never-ending wars

A new book argues for the centrality of Congolese elites and regional powers in perpetuating domestic conflict, but it too easily lets the West off the hook.

Image credit Kevin Jordan for MONUSCO via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed.

In his study The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name: The Unending Conflict in the Congo, Jason Stearns claims to have solved the puzzle of the seemingly never-ending conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In answering the question of why the war has never come to an end, Stearns avoids blaming multinationals or international donors. According to him,  the protraction of the conflict in this minerals-rich country is mainly the fault of the Congolese government and neighboring states, such as Rwanda and Uganda. 

Any blame one could assign to foreign influences—Stearns adds—does not compare with that which belongs to local players. The first and second Congolese Wars generated a class of beneficiaries, which Stearns calls “bourgeoisie,” in both the Congo and Rwanda. The book argues that the doleful attitudes of the Congolese officials and the endemic corruption of some of the country’s high-ranking executives are largely responsible for the country’s descent into hell. The same corruption and apathy are shared by principally Rwandan senior bureaucrats and, to a lesser degree, their Ugandan counterparts. For this Hobbesian state of nature to end, international donors must engage with a complex set of players: the rebels and their backers on the one hand and, on the other, the Congolese army commanders and their civilian shadows. 

The book draws an excellent case for how a civil war deteriorates into a quagmire, as the two Congolese civil wars have—a situation that foreign diplomats, NGOs, and multinationals cannot begin to register, let alone reverse. Failing to appreciate the complexity of the Congolese civil war risks not only perpetuating the violence indefinitely but also replicating it in other resource-rich nations, both across the African continent and beyond. 

This book is indeed a critical source for understanding the Congolese nightmare. Its argument is nuanced if only because it makes an honest plea to grapple with the complexity of the country’s history and start treating its people with respect. Nevertheless, I cannot accept the idea that the international players are as naïve or as clean-handed as Stearns wants readers to understand. Quite the contrary, a strong and centralized Congolese state is antithetical to the interests of multinationals and the general state of the world economy, which is rooted in graft and the ruthless hunt for profit. 

One does not have to get very far into the book to gauge Stearns’ thinking. As early as page 3 of the introduction, readers learn that Congolese elites, even if they dislike warring with each other,  do not want the cessation of this conflict. Drunk on the spoils of war, they cannot see any advantage in putting down their weapons. Peace talks, Stearns observes, are sick pretensions from both government officials and rebel leaders designed first and foremost to leverage funds from international bodies and attract media attention. Similarly, the rebels never intend to actually topple the regime in Kinshasa; military operations are means to make their concerns heard by the political establishment, and combat is mostly limited to winning tactical cards at the negotiation table with an eye toward otherwise unattainable funds. Gone are the days—Stearns advances—when rebels were motivated by grand ideological projects. Now, mounting an insurrection in the jungle is just another form of politics. If you happen to live in the distant part of the Congo—say, the Goma or Kivu provinces—the only way to get your legitimate concerns effectively addressed is through armed sedition against Joseph Kabila.

Stearns dedicates chapter 2 to a useful historical background of the conflict, clarifying how past wars in the Congo were both similar to and different from the present ones.  The present never-ending war in the Congo bears little resemblance with the pan-Africanist struggle for independence as spearheaded by Patrice Lumumba, Cléophas Kamitatus, and Justin Bomboko, or the dictatorial nationalism of Mobutu Sese Seko or Laurent-Désiré Kabila that followed the pan-Africanist period. Similarly, past wars were mostly short-lived and concerned issues of development and allocation of resources for building necessary infrastructure. The present wars, however, are inherently sectarian; they involve different ethnicities competing to prove their Congolese ancestry, or one ethnic group trying to prove it is more Congolese than its rival, in order to qualify for fund allocation, or sometimes to even make the claim for accessing that fund. 

Chapter 3 details how the formal peace declared in 2003 did not end the conflict, but only transformed it. Stearns notes that the failure to integrate rebels into army ranks led to a proliferation of rebel groups. Besides, the country’s convoluted electoral process is conducive to political parties drawing alliances with rebel leaders. The stronger the rebel group is, the better positioned the candidates will be: those allied with the CNDP or Mai-Mai or M23 (often understood as proxies of Rwanda) have better leverage and can dictate terms. Hence, “insurrections become an open-ended endeavor, a lifestyle.” 

Chapter 4 discusses the role of both the Congolese and Rwandan states in lengthening the civil war. The Congolese government, Stearns claims, does not want to end the conflict, and Rwanda keeps interfering with the affairs of its neighbor even when that meddling goes against its own interest. The conflict has generated losers who are knee-jerk invested in the fighting and simply do not want to give up. In addition, state machinery in the Congo is weak and fragmented to the point that the peace process has resulted in a lopsided patronage network whose continuity can be ensured only via an unremitting challenge to Kinshasa. This explains why army units have never been allocated enough resources to defeat the rebel groups. Likewise, Kigali’s backing of M23 makes sense once we realize this line of policy is “wrapped by domestic conflicts, organizational dysfunctions and skewed perceptions of what interests of the nation or regime are.” Indeed, the protracted conflict in the Congo lends legitimacy to the Rwandan regime.

It is not until chapter 5 that Stearns puts forward his theory of the forces driving the never-ending violence: involution, fragmentation, and a military bourgeoisie. Here, the author outlines the causes behind the “stasis” that has become the Congolese quagmire, as belligerents are engaged in fighting not for the sake of overcoming rivals, but rather for the sake of fighting. Perverse, but true, as “the Congolese army have provided weapons or intelligence to their rivals on the battlefield, at times leading to defeat of their own troops.” Decades of conflict have resulted in “a startling proliferation of belligerents. Such a prolonged instability has rendered the conflict less threatening to the central government but also more intractable and devastating for the local population.” Stearns outlines similar structural impediments to peace in the rise of an inchoate class—which he calls a “military bourgeoisie” whose interests lie in eternizing the status quo along the coordinates of neither a complete victory nor a crushing defeat. 

In support of the involution approach, chapter 6 offers a profile of two rebel groups, CNDP (le Congrès national pour la défense du peuple) and M23 (Mouvement du 23 Mars), or rather “the micro-dynamics of the conflict in the Congo between 2003 and 2020.” To make a long story short, these groups are offshoots from previous rebel groups whose failure to integrate into the Congolese army led to disenchantment with Kinshasa. 

Likewise, in support of his fragmentation-based argument, chapter 7 focuses on a grassroots movement called the Raia Mutomboki, literally “outraged citizens.” It is a decentralized movement that emerged “in response to rampant insecurity, in particular to the abuses perpetuated by FDLR, a largely Rwandan Hutu rebel group.” Up to 2021, 20 to 30 Raia Mutomboki groups were in circulation in the eastern province of Kivu, and these groups were not immune to infiltration by other groups whose objectives contradicted the original movement, knowing that the latter enjoyed popular support and political legitimacy. 

Chapter 8 makes the case that the relative peace in the province of Ituri is due to the absence of a military bourgeoisie. In Ituri, unlike elsewhere in the Congo, UN and EU peacekeeping interventions did not allow a chance for a military bourgeoisie to emerge. Besides, the Ituri highlands are known for cattle herding, not mining potential. In other words, the largest rebel group in the province, Union des Patriotes congolais (UPC), did not enjoy support, simply because “local business and customary elite … backed peace-building initiatives.”  

Stearns’ conclusion, significantly titled “Peacemaking and the Congo,” broaches on flaws by international donors, foreign diplomats, and multinationals. Stearns notes that foreigners working mostly in the extractive sector of the Congolese economy do not have the incentive to grapple with the complexities of a largely dysfunctional government in Kinshasa, nor are they willing to seriously ask either Kigali or Kampala to fulfill their promises not to intervene. Stearns observes that when “policy memos are rarely more than a few pages long—not several hundred,” critical leverage to stop the war is wasted, allowing Kinshasa, Kigali, Kampala, or their proxies to literally play peace-loving donors out.  

Stearns’ inductive approach—starting with observation, examining cases, drawing a hypothesis, and then outlining a theory—has genuinely served his purpose. The wealth of detail in the book, along with the impressive number of quality interviews the author conducted with rank-and-file actors of the Congo miasma, turns the reader into a privileged observer. Stearns has done such a professional job in collecting key details that a perceptive reader could reorganize the pieces of the puzzle to arrive at a conclusion different from Stearns.’

Indeed, if every rebel is a mercenary (since grandiose causes are dead) and rebellions are only a political shortcut, isn’t it methodologically sound to seek an understanding of the conflict by tracing proxies to their backers? There is a mode of production that thrives on extending material support to belligerents. In other words, it is in the interest of the backers to keep a low-profile war raging, as it is the only way to ensure their interests, whatever they may be. A World Bank official whom Stearns interviews does not hide this fact: “Our internal incentives are to spend money. We are a bank, after all.” Indeed, no banker or donor runs a charity, least of all in the Congo. Hence, one wonders: Why can’t Stearns spare readers homilies of violence? Without such homilies about the weakness of central authorities and the avarice of elites, the contradictions in the narrative would be uncovered. This explains why the conclusion does not add up with the materials presented from the introduction to the seventh chapter. The entire endeavor risks falling into the category of: “Africans love wars.” What do empire builders want to hear other than blaming the victims?

Even when expounding on the apathy and resignation of Congolese politicians, Stearns does not level equal reproach at international backers. Perhaps nowhere does Stearns’ argument falter more than when he accounts for the egalitarian movement of Raia Mutomboki. Satisfying audiences with a penchant for the exotic, Stearns describes the movement as a bunch of ignorants who carry a magical amulet, making claims of invisibility. As if counting on readers’ impatience with the group, the author buries their true achievement toward the end of the chapter: “A relatively open movement in which people could stay or leave as they pleased, a relatively egalitarian movement with clear prescriptions of conduct within the group but with little command structure or hierarchy.”

Perhaps in a moment of principled clarity, Stearns admits how “the rapid liberalization of the Congolese economy … brought about dramatic growth but also compromised the peace process and helped entrenched conflict dynamics related to the predatory state,” but still cannot or does not register where that applauded liberalization ends up—that is, who precisely cashed in from the liberalization of the mining industry. And again, Stearns remains puzzling when he deems that the Congo’s permanent war was caused by the donors’ structural oversight, probably even as their failure but certainly not as their complicity. But Stearns himself tells us that it was World Bank officials who drafted mining laws! He even cites the role of the US embassy in Kinshasa in obtaining mining concessions to Freeport McMoRan, a company based in Arizona, despite fierce opposition from members of the Congolese government. 

In the end, analytic limitations can sometimes become achievements. This is not wordplay because reading Stearns’ book results in at least two takeaways. The first is a warning to readers that the Congo’s fate can be replicated in other countries with extractive potential and weak central authorities, and that the multinationals’ avarice for cheap resources remains unlimited because they are still largely unhindered. The second takeaway is no matter how much craftsmanship and obfuscation the false omniscient invests in blaming victims, the truth emerges no matter what.

Further Reading

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

Congo blues

Until Joseph Kabila publicly recuses himself from running for a third term, many Congolese will be suspicious of any dialogue proposed by the government.