Experts & epistemologies in Rwanda

My summary of the Great Lakes Policy Forum event on the UN mapping report provoked some heated discussion in the comments, focusing on the point about Rwanda being “a boiling cauldron under a surface that looks calm.”  One of the earliest commentators noted that this was a broad statement to make without attribution or evidence, and in retrospect I think I should have been clearer about why I felt it acceptable to post.  The GLPF has a no-attribution policy (see the bottom of this page), and thus I can’t specifically discuss the credentials of the person who made that statement.  However, if you scroll to the December 2010 section of the GLPF’s archives, you’ll see that several of the discussants (including the one who made that statement) have considerable professional experience in central Africa.  Given this experience and their demonstrated understanding of other political history & recent events in the region, I believe that the discussant did have an evidentiary base for making this point about Rwanda.  (It also concords with other observers’ reading of the situation.)

Commentator Raha points out a more fundamental epistemological question, however: “Working in the region for about a decade does not make any difference to me.  That’s the problem of the so called ‘expert.’ …  I’m from the area and I know what I’m talking about.”  This is a very fair critique.  Whilst I do believe that it is possible to have a reasonably accurate understanding of a country or a culture that is not one’s own, there’s also an enormous amount of contextualized knowledge that comes with spending one’s life in a place.  Between the sensitivity of historical memory in Rwanda and the country’s noted lack of freedom of expression, getting an accurate read on such complicated questions from outside is very difficult.  And of course, the mere fact of having an internet connection and a grasp of English mean that one has entered into the power dynamics of our unevenly developed world.  Chris Blattman recently cautioned foreign bloggers against spreading unsubstantiated rumors of violence in Cote d’Ivoire, and I think that warning absolutely has to be borne in mind by anyone writing about politics and conflict in countries not their own.  If readers believe that I’m using this forum poorly or dangerously, then I absolutely encourage them to tell me so.

However, I did ultimately include that statement (which I still believe to be supportable on balance) for a reason.  One of my overriding interests in running this blog and my Twitter account has been the idea of publicizing information about Africa and development that seemed well-supported, yet sat outside mainstream narratives about these subjects.  Over the past several years, Rwanda has gotten a great deal of well-deserved attention for its economic and social reforms.  Informally, an acquaintance in Kigali once described the country’s strategy as “growing its way to stability,” so that the economic costs of returning to ethnic conflict would be untenable.  There is in any case a lot of good work happening in Rwanda, and the only reason I don’t write about it is because it seems so well-covered elsewhere.  (Perhaps I need to be more balanced in that regard.)

I remain concerned about the question of Rwanda’s long-term stability, though.  There’s a sunny Afro-optimism in much coverage of the country that seems to lack context, and I can’t help but question whether Rwanda’s current stability has truly been consolidated.  Rwanda under the RPF has absolutely done better in recovering from the genocide than I think anyone expected, and I don’t want to make light of the achievement of maintaining peace for the last decade, even through coercive means.  However,  I also find it hard to believe that the hurts of ethnic conflict have been durably laid to rest in less than a generation’s time, even with gacaca.  My concern is that some political shock (like the persistent but vague rumors about the FDLR’s plans to mount an invasion from E. Congo, or even a transition of power within the RPF) might lay bare these ethnic fault lines and tumble the country back into conflict.  I don’t intend to dismiss or belittle Rwanda’s achievements, but nor do I think that it’s ultimately useful to ignore the real social tensions that still lie beneath the surface.

(Please comment away; whilst I know all the commentators on the last post didn’t agree with each other, I’m at the least glad that everyone had an equal platform to share their views and respond to each other.)

Congo: The UN Mapping Report & the Responsibility to Justice

Continuing my quest to catch up on Congo-related conference blogging, I wanted to share some notes from the December 2010 Great Lakes Policy Forum discussion of the UN mapping report.  The GLPF’s official summary can be downloaded here, and Laura Seay has her own summary here.

One commentator took on the political economy of the report’s publication, noting that many Congolese found psychological and emotional value in seeing the UN provide proof of crimes they had long known to have occurred.  However, the report’s existence also complicates peacebuilding efforts in the region.  “There’s blood on almost everyone’s hands,” as almost every government in the region has some members who’ve been guilty of massive human rights abuses at some point.  This is clearly visible in Rwanda’s treatment of Laurent Nkunda, who will “probably never go on trial” because he knows too much about the crimes committed by all sides during the wars.  In the end, she believes that transitional justice is unlikely to happen unless outside donors put strong pressure on regional governments.

Another commentator provided a bit of historical perspective on both violence and justice in eastern Congo, pointing out that political and social coalitions around justice in the DRC are very weak and fragmented now compared to 5 or 6 years ago.  There has been a simultaneous growth in the entrenchment of violence with economic interests, especially trade and mining.  Part of this entanglement was due to the desire of foreign armies to “do war on the cheap” by getting locals to do their killing for them, which provided space for “sophisticated entrepreneurs of violence” to use access to weapons to their own commercial ends.

Whilst the report itself only covered the period 1993 – 2003, the ensuing discussion also touched upon more recent developments in both Congo and Rwanda.  As one speaker pointed out, there’s been a welcome increase in Western attention to gender-based violence in the eastern DRC of late – but it’s important to avoid reducing issues of justice to the prosecution of rape and war crimes.  What the Congo ultimately needs is a “massive institution-building project” on the scale of decades, in order to rebuilt judicial systems that might handle everything from property rights and contracts to war crimes.  The international community has also largely elided the issues of land rights and citizenship for Rwandaphone Congolese in the Kivus, which remain at the heart of the ongoing conflict in the region.

That said, the “idea that the Congolese are doomed to fight each other is ridiculous.”  There are spaces in the DRC that are relatively well-governed, such as Butembo and Katanga.  More attention is needed to the factors that enable better governance in the Congolese context.

Finally, a number of interesting points that didn’t quite fit in elsewhere in the above narrative also came up:

  • Rwanda was described as “a boiling cauldron under a surface that looks calm,” with Hutu resentment running high, and ethnic identities remaining highly salient despite official attempts to ban their use.
  • The US values stability over all else in the region.  Kagame and Mobutu both contributed to stability, as did Museveni, and the US is willing to turn a blind eye to many other abuses because of this.
  • Africa more generally is “kind of the neglected stepchild of diplomacy,” with some dedicated diplomats, but others who got dumped there with little previous knowledge of the region.

Did anyone else attend this meeting of the GLPF, or the one that took place on March 24 on human security in the DRC?  Would love to hear thoughts if so!

The postbellum lives of child soldiers

I wanted to share a few notes from Chris Blattman’s 2008 article on “Child combatants in northern Uganda: Reintegration myths and realities” (PDF) co-authored with Jeannie Annan.  B&A identify a rather surprising natural experiment, arguing that LRA abduction of young men was so widespread as to be essentially random.  This allows them to make relatively clean estimates of the impact of child soldiering on comparable groups of young Ugandan men, using a mixed-methods approach with approximately 1000 respondents.

What they find is more complex, and perhaps less dramatic, than many mainstream accounts of child soldiering suggest.  Children were most likely to be abducted in early adolescence, as younger boys were inefficient fighters and older boys were more difficult to indoctrinate & posed greater escape risks.  80% of abductees eventually escaped, with most of the remaining 20% presumed dead.

Upon returning home, however, the former abductees were generally not received as the “damaged, uneducated pariahs” that the NYT had assumed them to be (quoted in B&A, p. 1).  94% of interviewed abductees said that their families had accepted them back without censure, and three quarters reported that they were generally treated well by their communities.  Only one sixth of former child soldiers reported elevated levels of psychological distress, and on average they were no more likely to behave violently than non-abductees.

Unfortunately, the economic outlook for returned child soldiers was not quite as bright.  B&A note that, whilst the average abductee only missed 9 months of education, abduction in early adolescence meant that that missing year of schooling was generally the 6th or 7th grade, when Ugandan students typically learn to read and write.  Thus former abductees were “twice as likely to be illiterate” (p. 16)  The educational gap also explained nearly two-thirds of the observed earnings shortfall of child soldiers, which found them “half as likely to be engaged in skill- or capita-intensive employment, and [to] have a third lower daily earnings” (p. 16) than non-abducted young men.  Interestingly, shortfalls have also been found found in the earnings of American veterans of the Vietnam War.  In both cases, “the source of this earnings gap appears to be time away from civilian education and work experience” (p. 22).  The authors close with a set of useful recommendations for tailoring ex-combatant reintegration programs to these realities.

Don Alvaro, King of Kongo

It’s interesting to remember that there was a pre-colonial time when the European imagination hadn’t yet essentialized Africa into a land of savages.  I purchased the image below – a reprint of an engraving from a 1668 book on African exploration – on a trip to South Africa last year, intrigued by seeing a European artist using European symbols of power to demonstrate the position of an African king.  (In other words, he is rather reasonably providing an accessible visual interpretation of African “power” for his audience.)  Note the Latin inscription “Don Alvarez, Rex Kongo” and the elegant European-style interior:

“Don Alvaro, king of Kongo, giving audience to the Dutch in 1642”

The Kingdom of Kongo, as it turns out, had a long and fascinating pre-colonial history.  From origins just south of Matadi (in the present-day DRC), it expanded to cover an area from the north of (modern-day) Angola to the south of the Republic of Congo, and remained extent as a political entity from roughly 1400 to 1914.  Its territory was divided into anywhere from 6-15 provinces and sub-provinces, with provincial rulers taxing local trade and paying revenues upward to the king.  In the early 17th century, the population of its capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and the surrounding hinterland was estimated at 100,000 people.

So whence this engraving?  The Portuguese came into contact with the Kongo in 1483, when Diogo Cao made his famous voyage up the Congo River.  Subsequent relations seem to have ranged from amicable to strategic to hostile, mostly centered around the slave trade and factional struggles for the throne of Kongo.  By the 1600s, however, the Dutch were competing with the Portuguese for the spice trade, and they captured Luanda from the Portuguese in 1641.  In 1642, Kongo agreed to provide them with military assistance, and in return the Dutch helped the then-king of Kongo, Garcia II, put down a rebellion in the south.  (Garcia’s predecessor, who died in 1641, was Alvaro IV.  Presumably either the name or the year in the print above is incorrect.)

Kongo held out, through wars, factional struggles, and a post-Berlin wave of Portuguese colonialism, until 1914.  But even today, the kingdom’s afterlife continues.  The DRC-based religico-political group Bundu dia Kongo has pressed for a revival of the Kongo culture and kingdom since the late 1960s, and has gotten attention more recently for demonstrating against (and being brutally suppressed by) the Kabila regime.

Gerard Prunier on recent news in the Congo and Rwanda

I’ve been lax in sharing the interesting points raised at the lectures I’ve attended on the DRC over the past several months.  One of the most wide-ranging was a November 2010 speech by Gerard Prunier on the Congo and Rwanda, which ran the gamut from the DRC’s foreign relations to Rwanda’s waning moral legitimacy in the eyes of the West.  Some of the main points:


  • Economically, the DRC is doing much better than it did after the immediate end of the war.  However, it’s barely integrated into the world or even regional economies, and very few industries have national reach (except for banking and transport).  Funds mostly flow from regional governments to Kinshasa, not the other way.  China is now its biggest aid donor.
  • The DRC’s interactions with the rest of the world are conducted by the “thin sliver” of government that presents the integrated Congo.  “From an economic and administrative point of view, the country doesn’t exist.”  However, it’s still very much in existence as a political entity.
  • Despite the ongoing war in the east, most of the country is at peace.  Only ~20% of Congolese live in the east.  That said, the Kabila regime has proven better at diplomacy than at either economic management or state-building & conflict resolution.
  • The Kivus are really more connected to Uganda/Rwanda/Burundi than to western Congo.  It would have been appropriate to have two settlements to the ’98-’02 war: one for the Kivus, and one for the rest of Congo.
  • When this speech occurred, Prunier felt that the government was behaving in an increasingly brutal and arbitrary manner towards its opponents, whilst there was no direct threat to its security to warrant this.  (The recent assassination attempt might have changed that calculus.)  At the time, however, he pointed out that the CNDP and its offshoot militias in the Kivus were in no position to overthrow the government.
  • The increase in state brutality might reflect Kabila’s concerns for his political survival – or it might mean that he’s losing control of his security apparatus.  Angola is well-positioned to put pressure on Kabila about this and other issues, but they don’t want to destabilize the DRC.


  • Rwanda is among the most opaque countries on the continent, comparable to Ethiopia and Eritrea.  One can reproach the Congolese for many things, but at least politically “nothing is hidden, they let it all hang out.”
  • There does appear to be fighting in the RPF’s inner circle.  There’s been a recent wave of assassination attempts and arrests of regime figures, including a former army chief of staff and the deputy commander of the Rwandese UNAMID force in Darfur.
  • Putting Laurent Nkunda on trial is undesirable for Kagame, because Nkunda knows too much about abuses committed by the RPF.  Prunier estimates that Kagame has killed 13 people who used to work with Nkunda, and is aiming to kill as many as he can.
  • There are rumors that the (Tutsi-affiliated) CNDP is talking to the (Hutu-affiliated) FDLR in eastern Congo, and considering using it as a base to overthrow Kagame, just as the RPF used western Uganda as a base for their attacks on the MRND.  Internal ethnic politics are also unsettled, as Tutsis who returned from Congo/Burundi/Tanzania are being marginalized in comparison to Ugandan Tutsis.
  • The UN mapping report, with its revelations that the RPF had massacred Hutu refugees in the Congo from ’96-’97, has diminished Rwanda’s moral authority in the eyes of the West.  Kagame had benefited tremendously from the developed world’s willingness to turn a blind eye to his authoritarianism out of guilt.  Prunier believes that a number of photogenic development initiatives, like the banning of plastic bags and the installation of wifi in public buses in Kigali, are “completely designed for the wazungu.”

I’d welcome thoughts from readers who know the region better than I do.

NB: To address the points raised by several commentators, I don’t think Prunier intended to imply that Rwanda has had no policy achievements of value under Kagame.  In many ways (especially health and economic policy), Rwanda is a good example of the benefits that can come of a strong, development-oriented African government.  This should be acknowledged along with the continued political repression and lingering grievances of the genocide if one hopes to take a more balanced view of the country.