MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) Commander with Congo's armed forces and national police
MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade Commander with Congo's armed forces and police, Rutshuru, 2013

Jason K. Stearns is author The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name: The Unending Conflict in the Congo (Princeton University Press)

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo began in 1996 and continues today, often dubbed a "forever war". Yet you've pointed out that it has received little coverage in recent years.

Today, there are more people displaced in the Congo almost six million than anywhere else in the world, except for Syria. In just the first three months of the year, at least one thousand civilians were killed in three eastern provinces alone. And yet, the Congolese conflict was mentioned only twice on the front page of the New York Times in 2017; by contrast, the Syrian conflict was mentioned 240 times. It did not appear at all on US broadcast news, except for a few brief mentions, including George Clooney’s charitable work and efforts to protect gorillas.

Why is that?

I see three main factors. First, the Congo lies on the periphery of global geopolitics. Despite its enormous mineral wealth, it is far down on the agendas of global powers such as the United States, China, and the United Kingdom. You can see this even in discussions in the UN Security Council. It is one of the few instances where China, Russia, and the United States rarely disagree.

Secondly, political debates are always filtered by cultural biases. The political marginalisation of the Congo is exacerbated by race. We can see this in the crass difference between the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and the hundreds of thousands of Africans who try to enter Europe every year. This is an ugly truth: we care less about people who are culturally and racially different from us. This fact is amplified by the biases of global media, who are in their vast majority based outside of Africa and cater to what they believe their audience wants to hear and see.

Lastly, the Congolese conflict is not easy to put into a journalistic nutshell. How do you describe in several hundred words or a few minutes the story of a conflict that has been simmering on for almost thirty years now and features today around 120 different armed groups, fighting for a host of reasons?

You write about the rise of a “military bourgeoisie” in the Congo. Who are these people?

Like all wars, the Congolese one has reshaped society, creating groups and classes that have a vested interest in the current, violent order. This military bourgeoisie is the most important such class. Since the official beginning of the war in 1996, close to half a million people have probably passed through the ranks of the national army, the police, intelligence forces, and non-state armed groups. Society has become militarised. The military bourgeoisie is deeply involved in the trade of minerals, the farming and trade of cannabis, the production of charcoal, cross-border smuggling, and poaching.

It has become difficult for many of them to prosper in the absence of conflict. That is the way the current system is set up. Violence has become a means of governance. Although almost everyone I interviewed didn’t like – in some cases were even revolted by it – this is the system in which they operated.

In your book The War That Doesn't Say It's Name a Colonel tells you that “You don’t fight to win. You fight to fight, that’s it.” Why is it important to understand the motivations of people involved in the conflict?

To say the obvious: everyone involved in the conflict is driven by a set of complex motives. We can condemn their actions – and in many cases we should­­ – but we must also understand, even empathise with them, in order to figure a way out of the morass.

This is perhaps the most ambitious part of the book: to scrutinise and untangle the interests of the key players: the ruling party in Rwanda, led by Paul Kagame, the Congolese government, the combatants in armed groups themselves. All of these actors inhabit moral universes and try to justify their actions to themselves and those close to them.

Is it in the interests of the Congolese government to prolong the conflict?

Interests are always in the process of being rediscovered and redefined. Yes, some members of the government have a short-term interest in prolonging, even escalating the conflict. They embezzle operational funds, they get kickbacks on purchases of weapons, they are able to put men with guns at the entries and exits of gold mines to extort money. But those vested interests are not so deeply entrenched that they cannot be uprooted or side-lined.

In the end, the Congo would obviously benefit much more from stability. Even from a self-interested point of view, many of those in power could also benefit from stability. It would allow the economy and thus the treasury to grow, it would make those responsible for that stability undoubtedly popular. It would be good politics.

Then why hasn’t this “coalition for stability” come about?

The Congo is extremely fragmented. This kind of heavy lift requires the ability to harness enough power so the malcontents, those benefitting from the status quo, cannot undermine it. Every reform movement has had to forge this kind of coalition: during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States it involved deal-making between Democrats, Black churches and student movements. In countries from Indonesia to South Africa, democratic reforms were pushed by a mixture of grassroots mobilisation, intellectuals and elites trying to preserve their economic power.

Right now, the Congolese ruling class is too complacent and fractious to make such a risky move against the military bourgeoisie. But the grassroots – activists such as the Nobel Prize winner Denis Mukwege, or the LUCHA youth movement, or activists within the Catholic Church – are beginning to push harder and may impose far greater political costs for inaction. In the end, change will be produced by this: a political struggle for power.

Do other African countries risk being embroiled in similar "forever wars"?

Recent global developments have catalysed new trends in conflict in Africa. Whereas most armed groups on the continent once aimed to topple governments or secede and found new countries, those who take up arms these days are more likely to do so as a means of bargaining over resources.

Take Nigeria, for example, where the past ten years have seen a mushrooming of violence across the country – from Boko Haram in the northeast, banditry in the northwest, communal violence in the centre, to militia activities in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Here, too, the most fundamental challenge is how to transform the state. Violence has become a means of governance. One can often find police and army officers complicit in the militia attacks or kidnapping sprees that have afflicted the country.

What are the historical roots of this trend?

To understand the rise of conflict as a bargaining tool and of the perverse symbiosis between many governments and the rebel groups that oppose them, one must look to back to the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, and afterwards, there was a rapid liberalisation of economic and political systems. Economic liberalisation began in Africa in the 1980s, driven by the dismal economic performance of many countries and pressure from the World Bank, the IMF and business elites. Privatisation and deregulation eventually boosted innovation and competitiveness, but fuelled inequality and created new sources of profit for armed groups, making it easier for them to recruit.

Also after the end of the Cold War, multiparty democracy was introduced across most of Africa. This political opening had many benefits. But it also produced regimes that blended authoritarianism and patronage politics with some form of electoral competition – what some have called “illiberal democracies” or “hybrid political orders”.

From the Congo to Kenya to Nigeria, political elites used the electoral system to bolster their legitimacy and divide their opponents, but they have also often resorted to backing armed groups in order to enhance their status, intimidate their rivals or extract resources. All this has led to the entwining of politics, violence and business.

When it comes to the Congo, we hear a lot about "conflict minerals".

While minerals do form important parts of the local conflict economy in the Kivus, they present minor stakes for the state and the broader economy. Tin, tungsten and tantalum, the three main “conflict minerals,” amounted to less than two percent of total Congo mineral exports in 2012 and 2013, most of it mined artisanally and not amenable for rents that could be extracted by elites in Kinshasa.

So yes, armed groups derive huge profits from taxing these minerals and the trade routes. However, the real question here, once again, is why the central government has not tried to centralise these rents, to grow this industry, so it can better benefit from it. To answer that question I would point back to the fragmentation of the state and the culture of indifference and apathy, in addition to the vested interests of individual commanders and politicians.

Why did the peacebuilding process in the Congo fail?

It's important to understand that the liberal peacebuilding approach opened up the Congo to private capital. When the peace process started in 2003, the Congolese economy was tiny, around $9 billion in terms of real GDP, and state revenues were only $730 million. As a comparison, the budget of Oxford University in 2020 was $2.5 billion. The size of the Congolese economy, however, soon grew, as the peace process brought about the privatisation of many of the country’s most valuable mining and oil concessions. This privatisation process rapidly and dramatically enriched the new governing elite. Global trends, driven by a booming demand in electronics and construction, reinforced the influx of foreign capital.

This privatisation was backed and encouraged by donors who believed that private investment would bolster the peace process. When the World Bank helped draft the 2002 mining law and helped reform state-run companies, and foreign embassies encouraged private business development, they chose not to scrutinise too closely the close connection between politics and business. The enormous wealth that accrued to the ruling elite during this period solidified their hold on power and undermined democracy.

Despite billions in international aid and the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, the conflict rages on. How could things have been done differently?

The earlier the intervention, the better. For example, in 1994, when the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide fled into the eastern Congo (Zaïre), the refugee camps in which they hid should have been moved away from the border and demilitarised, as international law requires. That didn't happen and those camps then became a trigger for the ensuing war.

This logic also applies to the most recent phase of the war since the democratic transition of 2003-2006. During this period, the international donor community spent tens of billions of dollars on a political process that had overwhelming support from most Congolese, at the grassroots and elite level. And yet, Rwanda played a key role in sabotaging this transition by backing a new insurgency in 2004. This created the paradoxical situation of donors funding around half of the Rwandan government’s budget, and then spending similar amounts of money on addressing the humanitarian crisis in the eastern Congo that was caused in significant part by that same Rwandan government.

The solution here would have been fairly straightforward: greater investment in research and intelligence to understand these dynamics as they were unfolding, more intensive diplomacy, and the political will to suspend aid and political support to Rwanda.

What would a lasting solution look like?

A lasting solution to this crisis will only come with a stronger, more accountable Congolese state. Here, as well, there were missed opportunities. Following the landmark 2006 elections – the first in over 40 years and the culmination of the peace process – donors and diplomats should have maintained their political engagement and not shifted to a technocratic approach.

Donors could have demanded more accountability and governance, including through greater support to parliament and regulatory bodies, to political parties, to civil society, and to the electoral process. Instead of seeing political pressure as a potential spoiler in its relations with the Congolese government, the UN peacekeeping mission could have seen political reforms as a prerequisite for further engagement. Aid makes little sense if the ruling elite can siphon billions from public coffers. There should have been much closer scrutiny of the activities of multinational corporations, especially those involved in extractive industries – mining, timber and oil. Such additional scrutiny should also have included the banking sector.

You mention a youth movement that refuses foreign financial support and aims to show that politics is about “serving others”. Why is the movement important?

Lutte pour le changement (LUCHA), founded in 2011, is an impressive youth movement that began out of a demand for water and electricity provision in Goma and has grown into a nationwide network of activists. It is small, probably numbering in the low thousands, but extremely innovative and well-organised. They have a flat organisation model, avoiding putting charismatic leaders on pedestals. They seek a “thick” democracy in which citizens take part in civic life and participate as much as possible in their own governance.

The reason this is important is because it addresses twin imperatives of this moment. Firstly, it seeks to impose real costs on political leaders for abuse and inaction by a creating popular mobilisation. Secondly, it seeks to reorient the culture of politics from its current self-seeking nature toward public service and sacrifice. You can see this during their street protests, after which they often sweep the streets and clean the gutters.

You say that the challenges facing the Congo are “generational”. Is there hope in the younger generation?

“Generational” here has two meanings. Change will take a long time, and it will require a new generation of leadership. It will also take a long time because the Congo is an extremely plural, fragmented society. Any transformative change – such as rooting out corrupt officers in the army or creating a more independent judiciary – will take many years.

And yes, this new leadership is starting to bubble up. You can see it in artists such as Kinshasa-based hip-hop duo MPR, whose music rails against corruption; or in the literary works of Jean Inkoli Bofane, Sinzo Anza, and Fiston Mwanza, each of whom in their own way laments the current situation. These are hopeful new phenomena.

But I am still worried. In 30 years, the Congo's population of a hundred million is projected to double, while climate change is expected to a take a toll on large parts of the country. If nothing is done to allow Congolese to live peaceful lives and benefit from their own riches, the conflict is unlikely to disappear entirely.