African events in the Bay Area

I’ve been compiling a list of Africa-related resources and events around the Bay Area. Check these out, and let me know if I’ve missed any (or if you’ll be attending any of the events!).

San Francisco

Berkeley

Stanford

*With thanks to Caity Monroe for these suggestions!

Shortcomings of Western knowledge production about 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.

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.

Ugandan media thought of the day

More belated conference blogging, but Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch offered up an interesting observation about the Ugandan media at a recent OSI event on Museveni’s increasingly undemocratic rule.  As she noted, the degree of press freedom allowed to English-language media is often favorably commented upon – but newspapers and radio broadcasts in local languages are significantly more constrained, and this has largely escaped scrutiny by the international community.  This is really a clever way of controlling information flow to ordinary citizens whilst still maintaining the appearance of openness.  I’d be interested to hear any thoughts readers might have on this observation.

I took this photo in Kampala in early 2009 precisely because I was struck by the diversity of Uganda’s print journalism in comparison to Rwanda’s tightly controlled media.  It’s a shame to hear that this openness isn’t as thoroughgoing as it appeared.

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.

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!