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Elections & Peace Consolidation in the DRC

Wrapping up my backdated blogging of DRC events from earlier this year, I attended an interesting speech in January by Ambassador Roger Meece, the UN’s Special Representative for the DRC, at the Wilson Center.  As the head of MONUSCO, and a key player in the international effort to support the 2006 elections in the DRC, Meece seemed to take a perhaps overly rosy view of the country’s stability in this public forum, but there were some good points raised regardless.

On the note of the MONUC –> MONUSCO shift, Meece pointed out that stabilization was initially a question of removing foreign armies during the war.  The 2006 elections were seen as an exit strategy for MONUC in some quarters, but obviously questions of stability remain pressing.  Today, whilst the necessity of economic development for stability is broadly accepted, he feels that peacekeepers remain uncomfortable talking about this.  (Of course, economic growth is well outside MONUSCO’s mandate.)

Meece also felt that the 2006 elections are often given short shrift, saying that they “changed governance in the Congo permanently” through both the inculcation of democratic mores and the practical implications of creating new regional assemblies and granting some independence to parliament.  That said, he curiously elided the topic of Kabila’s decidedly non-democratic constitutional tinkering, even after I asked him about it directly.  (He responded with a reiteration of his belief [or hope] that Kabila is “committed” to the 2011 elections.)  However, he also heard that a number of opposition leaders came to MONUSCO whilst he was out of the country and said that a single round of elections was acceptable, which he found quite surprising.

News sources on Rwanda & the DRC

A thought continued from my last post: I think I tend to view outside “experts” (assign that term what value you will) as oft-credible sources of information about Rwandese politics in part because it’s difficult to get high-quality, objective information from within the country.  I’ve stopped reading the New Times, as it’s analytically not very helpful, and Rwanda Focus seems similarly uncritical.  Beyond Nkunda Rwanda I’ve found few active Rwandese bloggers.  If readers have links to additional resources, I’d love to hear about them.  (Congo, on the other hand, has a comparative wealth of local papers and several good blogs, all in French.)

There is also, I think, the question of what right foreigners have to be blithely writing about politics and conflict in central Africa.  It’s a fair query; after all, I only lived in the region for a year, in capitals both times, and my Kinyarwanda and Lingala/Swahili skills are negligible.  (My Tshiluba and Kikongo skills are totally non-existent.)  I make no claim of privileged information on my own behalf.  But that said, the entanglements of our globalized world are here to stay.  I have to believe that, as a foreigner, working towards more proximately accurate understandings of such complicated regions – responsibly, honestly, and self-critically – is in the end more useful than withdrawing from conversation.

Update as of April 5:

  • Via Tom of A View From the Cave, I’ve learned that Owen Barder has also written eloquently on the topic of privilege and African politics.  He reaches different conclusions, though.  Well-worth a read.
  • James Wilson links to FSI language programs in Lingala and Swahili.
  • Commentator zebrapad links to a useful Kinyarwanda vocab list.
  • Another Kinyarwanda resource is Speak Rwanda.

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

Chris Blattman’s fame as a development blogger is such that I think the rest of us development-types sometimes give short shrift to his published research.  Thus it was with interest that I read his 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.