Violence and agency in the DRC

In yet another bit of backdated conference blogging, the Great Lakes Policy Forum held an excellent session on “Telling the Story of the Congo” last October. (Notes aren’t up at their site, but Wronging Rights lived-blogged the session.)  The first day of the two-day event (which was all I was able to attend) focused on the partial and often inaccurate narrative about the conflict in eastern Congo which has gained currency among policymakers in the West.  One of the first speakers opened with a striking exercise: he pulled a map of the DRC up on the overhead and pointed to a variety of cities throughout the country, asking the audience how many people had visited each.  A healthy number had visited Kinshasa, and nearly as many had been to Goma or Bukavu, but very few had been to Lubumbashi or Kisangani, let alone Mbuji-Mayi or Mbandaka.  This is a very real result of the way in which our collective imagined geography of the DRC has shrunk to the extreme west (Kinshasa) and extreme east of the country, rendering the rest of the country not as no-man’s land, but as non-existent land.

As the same speaker noted, the current Western framing of the DRC as a land torn by sexual violence and mineral-fueled conflict tends to pass over questions of domestic politics and governance, stripping the Congolese of political agency within their own country.  By way of example, he noted that a recent case of rape in North Kivu drew criticism of MONUSCO for their failure to prevent it; however, few commentators asked who committed the rapes, or where the army or police were at the time.  Sexual violence is clearly a symptom of the eastern DRC’s broader security problems, but the international community appears more interested in topical solutions aimed at reducing rape rates than in sustained engagement with the larger issue of security sector reform.

Several speakers were similarly critical of the Western narrative around minerals and conflict. One pointed out that mining is in fact not the only revenue source for many armed groups, and that it’s unclear whether cutting off this particular source of funding would decrease or exacerbate violence. Another speaker, more accepting of the idea of a positive correlation between mining revenues and violence, said that the international community’s exclusive focus on eastern Congo overlooked continued conflicts over natural resources in the center of the country.  In his words, places like Kikwete and Mbuji-Mayi are “more like war zones” today than Goma is.  Ultimately, the canonical view of conflict minerals in the eastern DRC appears to have been created largely by Western activist groups such as the Enough Project, with very little input from the Congolese, and without sufficient attention to the contextualized and ultimately local ways in which violence plays out.