"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


hobbes in the congo

Here's one of the great mysteries of our age: why, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on peacekeeping, peace deal negotiations, democracy promotion, humanitarian aid, development assistance, and celebrity awareness-raising, is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo still an anarchic war zone? Why don't any of these efforts result in the creation of a peaceful, stable Kivu region?

My friend Severine Autesserre has a fantastic article in the new issue of International Organization that tackles part of this question. The piece, entitled, "Hobbes and the Congo: Frames, Local Violence, and International Intervention," is well worth your time. (You'll need access to Cambridge Journals to read it in full.) In it, Autesserre attempts to explain why diplomats and others engaged in peacebuilding processes "neglect to address the local causes of peace process failures, particularly when they threaten the macro-level settlements."

It's a question well worth answering, and the article beautifully summarizes the main arguments in Autesserre's forthcoming book. Using a constructivist approach that focuses on how international actors framed events and norms, she identifies four key reasons that international actors failed (and continue to fail) to focus on the local-level conflicts that are at the root of the DRC's troubles:
  1. The situation was labelled as a "post-conflict" despite the reality of continuing warfare on the ground.
  2. International actors believe that a certain minimal level of violence is "normal" and therefore acceptable for the eastern Congo.
  3. International actors believed that international action was not appropriate at the subnational level.
  4. International norms prioritize the holding of democratic elections over local conflict resolution as the best way to build the state and to create peace.
Autessere masterfully explains how these four erroneous frames doomed peacebuilding efforts in the Congo almost from the start. Again and again, diplomats, peacekeepers, NGO officials, and UN personnel oversimplified situations, ignored key crises, and very rarely attempted to intervene in local-level conflicts - despite the fact that "most violence was driven by micro-level conflict." Moreover, defining local conflicts as outside the realm of international involvment meant that diplomats couldn't even talk to the leaders of rebel movements and militias that wreaked (and continue to wreak) so much havoc in the east. Bad framing also led to the overemphasis on mineral looting as a governance problem, despite the fact that "the few NGO's that worked on local conflict resolution in the eastern provinces contested" that understanding.

The diplomatic world of the Congo - especially in the east - is an echo chamber. World Bank experts or Kinshasa-based diplomats fly in for a few days (on a MONUC plane), check into the Hotel Ihusi, and talk to the same limited number of Francophone Congolese sources that their MONUC escorts always cite in their reports. One narrative tends to dominate their accounts. It's repeated by almost every white person in the region until it becomes gospel truth. The problem is, this narrative is usually wrong. As Autesserre notes, short-term visits tend to "provide participants with only basic snapshots of the local situations," further narrowing their focus away from the region's most serious problems.

Finally, Autesserre discusses the ridiculous overemphasis on holding elections that permeated the international community's response to the conflict. This, she argues, resulted from post-Cold War norms. Elections were the "obvious" or "natural" choice for statebuilding and the way to guarantee international peace. While the elections went mostly smoothly (except, you know, for the battle between Bemba's private army and Kabila's government forces in the streets of Kinshasa six months later), the advent of so-called democracy has done little to improve the lives of anyone in the east. In fact, the situation has gotten worse since 2006, leading to much disillusionment with the idea of democracy.

Autesserre makes a convincing argument that "a transition process carefully planned over ten years to build a lasting peace at all levels, reconstruct the administrative and economic capacity of the country, minimize visible international interference, develop the preconditions for free and fair elections, and explain the advantages of this strategy to the population would probably have been received well" by the Congolese.

It also might have worked.


Blogger ColoredOpinions said...

At least the elections have reaffirmed Congolese territorial integrity, which seems to me a major step forward. I also believe this to have been the main objective of these elections. In my view the elctions were the axe at the root of the balkanisation of the DRC.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 3:56:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

But most Congolese already affirmed their territorial sovereignty before the elections, despite the near-complete absence of sovereignty in the juridical sense. I don't know. From the Kivus, it seems that they were mostly an exercise of formality that's had little impact on people's lives. There's no question that the aftermath of the elections led to huge disappointment and disillusionment. Goma went something like 98% for Kabila because they believed he would bring safety to the region. I doubt he'd pull 40% there in an election today.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 9:10:00 AM

Blogger ColoredOpinions said...

The territorial integrity of the Congo was not questioned by the Congolese people, but by foreign observers and media. I don't doubt the people in Kivu are disappointed. This disappointment could have been predicted, but could it have been avoided? I agree with you that Kabila will have a hard time campaigning for President in Kivu again, especially if Vital Kamerhe would be his opponent.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 5:49:00 PM

Blogger Charlie Mac said...

Several of the "Great Mysteries of our age" probably have no real answer.

Why isn't all of Africa saved? It was where missionaries of all denominations concentrated their primary efforts since before I was a child in the 30's and 40's.

Why is Juarez such a troubled city? Part time Christain missionaries have concentrated on helping the poor people by building thousands of houses, giving truck loads of clothes and food and sharing the gospel message since before I was in college in the 50's.

Why are public schools failing to teach many children basic reading and math? We have steadly increased the funding of our education system since I first became interested in the
60's. Many of the best funded public school systems are the worst at actually teaching children.

Why is it so difficult to answer most questions which begin with the simple word WHY?

Sunday, May 17, 2009 7:32:00 PM


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