Friday, January 31, 2014

Life in the DRC - Local Focus

In this post, I will analyze the conflict in the DRC on the local level.

Background - This background is somewhat of a summary of an excellent book called The Trouble with the Congo by Séverine Autesserre. The main message of the book is to point out the failures of UN in the DRC, which I will not get into. However, I did think her well-rounded description of the historical issues in the DRC is a good start for my conflict analysis. But, you can skip down to more present-day analysis. J So here we go!

The DRC is one of those ill-fated countries that has not known peace for many decades.  Indeed, in the 90’s, the DRC has been through two wars. However, the DRC's issues have started at least in 1930’s when the Belgians sent tens of thousands of Rwandans to work for the plantations in the Kivus provinces. Since the Congolese chiefs allowed Belgians to bring the Rwandans only on the condition that they would not have any political rights, the Rwandans were left with a very ambiguous political status. In particular, they were denied indigenous status, which would allow them to own land. However, the Belgians did put a disproportionate amount of Rwandans into local administration, to the dismay of the Congolese.  This added fuel to fire as there were already issues with land availability.

Land was awarded by the local chiefs to those who had an indigenous status, which again Rwandans did not.  Land issue became more prominent in 60s-70s when thousands of Rwandan Tutsis fled to the Kivus in order to escape the prosecution in Rwanda. The tensions increased further when Rwandan Hutus fled to the Kivus because of 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Soon after, in 1996, the 1st Congo War began, which was closely followed by the 2nd Congo War in 1998.  The close proximity of the wars is not surprising, considering that the 2nd Congo War started in large part because of President’s Kabila alienation of his Rwandan and Ugandan war allies and the expulsion of their force from the DRC after the 1st war.[1] Although the wars have technically ended, the DRC has not enjoyed a period of peace since then.

On the local level, one of the prominent issues is the lack of land. Consequently, land disputes happen often and usually turn violent and deadly.  In 1973, Mobutu passed a General Property Law that nationalized all land thus taking power away from the chiefs, who usually handed it out. Furthermore, a lot of young peasants were deprived of the access to land due to this law. As a result, their survival opportunities decreased and tensions increased at the local level, which lead to small scale violence.

In the late 80’s, tensions began brewing between the Congolese Hutus and the Congolese Tutsis of Rwandan descent because the Hutus who came to the Kivus tried to affirm their power and diminish the Tutsi influence. As the Rwandan Hutu refugees arrived in 1994, the Rwandan Tutsis in the DRC feared that they would be attacked as their ethnic kin were in Rwanda.  At the same time, the Congolese radicalized against all Rwandans. They blamed Rwandan ethnic tensions for increasing violence in the DRC in general, in addition to already existing land and political disagreements they had with Congolese of Rwandan descent.  All of these tensions over time blew up into a 1996 war.

During the war, the militias switched alliances as it served their needs. Some militia groups fragmented and began fighting each other.  All of the fighting reinforced local tensions, led to militarization of some and decentralised others as militias followed their own local agendas, most notably in South Kivu, North Katanga, and Ituri. However, in general, militias rarely fought with each other and instead targeted unarmed civilians to gain power by either preventing them from collaborating with other groups or punishing those who have done so.


The violence in the South and North Kivu has existed for decades. A lot of it is driven by the competition over land. Since local administration and central governance is weak at best, the local chiefs fill the power vacuum. Even today, they play a prominent role when it comes to the distribution of land. However, they have been losing the support of local populations due to their involvement in patronage and sales of communal land without informing the communities.[2] Although their authority is now often questioned, there is little help for the locals from elsewhere. Indeed, even though the tribunals for land disputes are accessible, the hierarchy between them is not clearly defined, which results in of the tribunals’ overruling of each other’s decisions. [3] Naturally, this uncertainty in the rulings creates tension, which again tends to turn into violence over time.

Perhaps more importantly, there are different laws that apply to resolving land disputes and they often contradict each other. For instance, the Constitution gives investment rights to Congolese and foreigners, while the Agriculture Law states that only the ethnically Congolese people may own land.[4] Furthermore, land governance framework is in disarray. There is a multitude of systems, such as “a statutory land system, customary systems and informal governance practices” that oversee the access and the use of land. [5] There is not much harmonization among the systems, which tends to lead to conflicts when one system is pitted against another in a land dispute.

All of these issues are further complicated by the inter-ethnic competition. Since there is limited arable land, land conflicts are prominent in heavily populated areas. They often turn violent. This problem is intensified by massive displacement caused by armed groups activities or clashes with the army. In South Kivu, a lot of pastoralists are Tutsi Banyamulenge (Congolese of Rwandan descent) who often dispute with customary chiefs and farmers over land use. Pastoralists need the land for their cattle to graze on, which at least partially destroys farmers (usually ethnic Congolese) crops. Unfortunately, due to ethnic competition the land disputes often involve armed groups, and consequently, violence and death.[6] An example of a land dispute can be found in the Ruzizi plain, which is located between at the border of South Kivu and Burundi. There, the disputes between the Barundi (20% of population) and the Bafuliro (80% of population) communities about land and traditional leadership have long ended up in violence.[7]  In 2010, the chefferie (mainly made of those from the Bafuliro community) has created its own security force, the FALL armed group, to protect the Bafuliro from the Forces democratiques pour la liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) when the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) were unable to do so. Unfortunately, the FALL quickly became predatory and began imposing “taxes” and demanding payoffs at checkpoints from the population.[8] This brings us to the next prominent local issue, the armed groups.

Armed Groups

Although not all of the armed groups are local, all of them do have local implications: massive displacement and insecurity. Before entering the analysis of the armed groups in the DRC, one should place oneself in the shoes of the local population. Massive insecurity that stems from inter-ethnic conflict, predatory armed forces, vicious armed groups, and incompetent government creates an environment of desperate people in desperate situations. This is important to keep at the back of one’s mind especially when analyzing armed groups. In particular, it is important to consider when thinking about disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration in the DRC, or elsewhere really.

For the past two years, the FARDC was actively engaged in fighting with the armed group called the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23). The group officially surrendered and signed an agreement with the government in mid-December 2013, after robust operations against it by the FARDC and MONUSCO in October 2013.[9] M23 are former members of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), who turned against the government due to the poor conditions in the army and the government's unwillingness to implement the 23 March 2009 peace deal. M23 was supported by Rwanda and Uganda in 2012, especially in the offensives that led to capture of a very commercially active city, Goma.[10] However, in 2013 support from Uganda weaned, mostly likely due to international pressure and the lack of a strong incentive that Rwanda continued to have .[11] Indeed, the support from the Government of Rwanda continued mostly likely because M23 aimed to overthrow the government, and extremely resource poor country such as Rwanda could have substantially benefited from having a friendly indebted-to-it DRC government that would oversee an immensely resource rich territory.  Indeed, M23 recruited a lot of demobilized Rwandan soldiers and received support from Rwandan officers, who helped to prevent those soldiers from returning home.[12] However, when internal division within M23 began, Rwandan officials decided to support the new leader because they began to feel that they could not control the original leader Ntaganda and his network. This development is understandable since there isn't much use for Rwanda to help install a new government in the DRC that it would not be able to control.  The internal division within M23, however, weakened it, which eventually lead to its defeat.[13]

As for financing, M23 taxed commercial trucks, from $200 to $1000 per truck that crossed its checkpoints at Kibumba and Kiwanja in North Kivu. In Goma, they looted more than $3million.[14] Other armed groups, such as the FDLR, are involved in gold mining to finance their activities. The FDLR operates in Lubero Territory in North Kivu. While in Walikale, gold mines are controlled by Ria Mutomboki and Mai Mai Simba armed groups.[15] In Orientale Province, Mai Mai Morgan group robbed miners of their cold.[16]  All of these “financing” activities have naturally contributed to the insecurity in the region, human rights violations, and displacement. Indeed, the armed groups often engage in forced recruitment, child recruitment, killings, lootings, abductions, sexual violence, and other human rights violations.[17] The armed forces were responsible for at least 135 cases of rapes from 20 to 30 November 2012 in the South Kivu.[18] The displacement of people has reached astonishing heights: in December 2013, Secretary General stated that 2.7 million people have been internally displaced within the DRC.[19] Thus for the locals, the picture is quite bleak all around. Inter-ethnic tensions, violence perpetrated by the armed groups and the armed forces, and  a distrust in the protection provided by the law are daily realities of those living in the DRC.


In order to move towards peace in the DRC, land issues need to be solved. The starting point for this should be the harmonization of the laws that deal with land disputes, usage or ownership.  Indeed, a new Agricultural Law should be passed that will be the ultimate authority on land issues and that will override parts of any other legal statues that deal with issues relating to land. The law should state all of the relevant information about owning land, using it or resolving conflicts in regards to it. It should clearly define and limit the powers of local chiefs.  It should also describe the process one should go through in order to get a hearing at a tribunal and identify a higher authority which to address when looking to for an appeal. 
That being said, one tribunal should not have the legal authority to overrule the decision of another tribunal. If one of the parties goes to another tribunal to get a more favourable ruling than the other party could present documents that the case has already been tried previously and the party that tried to launch a new case should have to pay a fee for trying to abuse the justice system. However, an entity should exist that would hear the appeals that originate from the tribunals’ rulings.  It is essential that the legal framework is not only organized, but that there is a clear hierarchy within the system, where only one entity exists per each level.  Furthermore, the land governance framework also needs to be streamlined as the current multitude of systems, practices and institutional frameworks (such a statutory land system, customary systems and a variety of informal land governance practices) creates conflicts since two people can claim rights for the same land under two different systems. The legal and land governance system should be publicized heavily by every institution (UN, NGOs, all of the government institutions) in the local languages thus spreading the knowledge as widely as possible. If knowledge is power, the DRC needs to limit the concentration of power at the hands of the few (i.e. chiefs).

A harder issue to address is the issue of armed groups. It is important to remember that often the “recruited” people have been either forced or dubbed into joining the group with a promise of pay or better life.  People in the DRC are desperate people in desperate circumstances. Always fearing for your life, never having enough to eat, being constantly immersed in violence and seeing all of the problems being solved with guns will make anyone want to pick up a gun in order to give oneself and/or his family a fighting chance.  No one likes feeling powerless.

Thus the the DRC government and UN need to focus on changing the structures that form the desperate circumstances rather than focusing on chasing down the armed groups.  As long as the desperate circumstances exist, desperate people will exist as well… and so will the armed groups. In order to change the structures which create the desperate circumstances, the government needs to begin by fixing their legal system, starting with the harmonization of the land laws and land governance systems in particular, and the legal system in general. With a clearly defined laws and legal system, a just application of the law will be easier – although granted, it will probably take decades for the application to get in the proximity of just (due to the level of corruption), but you have to start somewhere.

[1] Reyntjens, Filip. The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996–2006. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. p. 194
[2] "Dealing With Land Issues and Conflict in Eastern Congo: towards an integrated and participatory approach". Report on Seminar held in Brussels on 20-21 September 2012, 4
[3] Ibid 3
[4] Ibid 3
[5] Ibid 3
[6] Ibid 6
[7]" Understanding Conflict in Eastern Congo: The Ruzizi Plain", International Crisis Group, Africa Report #206, 23 July 2013  p1
[8] Ibid 11
[9] p4
[11] Expert Group on the DRC - S/2013/433- p4
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid 6
[14] Ibid
[15] Ibid 35
[16] Ibid
[17] Secretary General Report on the DRC -S/2013/388 - p.28
[18] Expert Group on the DRC - S/2013/433- p.29
[19]Secretary General Report on the DRC- S/2013/757- p6

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