The Trouble With Congo: How Local Disputes Fuel Regional Conflict

Autesserre, Severine

When, in 2006, Joseph Kabila became the first democratically elected president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many Congolese and international observers hoped that stability had finally come to the country. During the previous decade, Congo had been ravaged by widespread violence, including the world's deadliest conflict since World War II -- a conflict that involved three Congolese rebel movements, 14 foreign armed groups, and countless militias; killed over 3.3 million Congolese; and destabilized most of central Africa. In 2001, the United Nations dispatched to the country what was to become its largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission. A peace settlement was reached in 2003, paving the way for the 2006 elections. The entire effort was touted as an example of a successful international intervention in a collapsing state. Yet over two million more Congolese have died since the official end of the war. According to the International Rescue Committee, over a thousand civilians continue to die in Congo every day, mostly due to malnutrition and diseases that could be easily prevented if Congo's already weak economic and social structures had not collapsed during the conflict. In mid-2007, in the eastern province of Nord-Kivu, low-level fighting between government forces and troops of the renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda escalated into a major confrontation, both playing off and exacerbating long-standing animosity between the Tutsis, the Hutus, and other groups. Since then, clashes have killed hundreds, maybe thousands, of fighters and civilians and forced half a million people to relocate. Congo is now the stage for the largest humanitarian disaster in the world -- far larger than the crisis in Sudan. The international community has admittedly been facing a very complex situation: all the parties have legitimate grievances, but all are also responsible for massive human rights violations; the fighting involves many armed groups, and these often fragment and shift alliances. Still, the main reason that the peace-building strategy in Congo has failed is that the international community has paid too little attention to the root causes of the violence there: local disputes over land and power. If anything, international efforts to bring peace have enhanced local tensions. While it focused on organizing the presidential, legislative, and provincial elections of 2006, the international community overlooked other critical postconflict tasks, such as local peace building and overhauling the justice system. Meanwhile, the electoral process fueled ethnic hatred and marginalized ethnic minorities, making the reemergence of armed movements all the more likely. The international community must fundamentally revise its strategy. It must focus on local antagonisms, because they often cause or fuel broader tensions, and regional and national actors hijack local agendas to serve their own ends. Until the local grievances that are feeding the violence throughout eastern Congo are addressed, security in the entire country and the Great Lakes region overall will remain uncertain.

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Foreign Affairs

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Political Science (Barnard College)
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April 16, 2014


Preferred citation: Severine Autesserre, “The Trouble With Congo: How Local Disputes Fuel Regional Conflict,” Foreign Affairs, 87 (3), pp. 94-110, May/June 2008.