Chris Blattman

Is Congo a country?

Jeff Herbst says no.

The many combatants in today’s Congo have little incentive to form a united country; they benefit from the violent chaos that ensures that so many can pick at the country’s resources. The international community does not have the will or the resources to construct a functional Congo. Nor do neighbors want one Congo, as many find it easier to deal with a plethora of ungoverned parts over which they can exert influence. Rwanda, Angola, and Uganda, for example, have all intervened to protect their security interests over the past decades.

…Given the immense human tragedy, it is time to ask if provinces such as the Kivus and Katanga (which are themselves the size of other African countries) can ever be improved as long as they fall under a fictional Congolese state. Although African states recognize the borders on paper, Congo’s neighbors have often acted as if no such lines exist. The international community is the only remaining player devoting large amounts of resources to the idea of one Congo — with dismal returns.

A solution to Congo’s troubles is possible with a reimagined approach. The West could start by making development and order its first priority in the Congolese territory, rather than focusing on the promotion of the Congolese state. This simple distinction immediately casts the Congolese problem in a whole new light. It would mean, for instance, that foreign governments and aid agencies would deal with whomever exerted control on the ground rather than continuing to pretend that Kinshasa is ruling and running the country. Such an approach might bring into the picture a confusing array of governors, traditional leaders, warlords, and others rather than the usual panoply of ministers. But that would finally be a reflection of who is actually running Congo.

Congo is a mess, and it’s difficult to see, in my lifetime, it emerging as a cohesive state. Independent states it could become, but the path from here to there is murky. Is Herbst’s suggestion a good one? It sounds like a clarion call to opportunists: take effective control of territory, and we’ll shove a fire hose of aid money into your mouth.

I call it The Scramble for Africa, Part Deux.

But I don’t have any better ideas.

Update: Read this excellent comment.

7 Responses

  1. Joe, I could not disagree with you more, about the fact that it is just a matter of “sacred borders”. Has anybody among all these so-called experts bothered to ask the people in Eastern Congo about how they see their future? I am always amazed how everybody is so intent on deciding everything for us Congolese people.

    In any case, I wrote a response to this article on my blog:

    And moreover, I would enjoin you to read Delphine Schank’s brilliant rebuttal on the same Foreign Policy magazine:

  2. In the local papers in Rwanda there is frequent call for the balcanisation of the DRC. I think it is fair to say this would not be printed if it was not the conventional wisdom at the top of the Rwandan Government.

    The balance of power in the region would very strongly favour a separation of at least the Kivu provinces, falling naturally within the Rwandan sphere of influence.

    For me, this would no doubt be a good thing. Clearly Rwanda would benefit, but so would security of people in the Eastern DRC. Furthermore minerals currently exported illicitly would be brought into the legitimate fold, increasing much needed tax revenues in the region.

    I think the biggest factor preventing this is the apparent conventional wisdom of sacred borders that pervades our international institutions. Given that most African borders were drawn with a pencil by Viscounts in 1884, the occasional redrawing would not be a bad thing.

  3. About a decade ago, Herbst co-authored a very interesting book with Walter Clarke on the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. At the time, a number of political analysts were advocating for some kind of alternative-to-the-state model in Somalia, and while clarke and herbst were strongly interventionist (scramble for africa style) I recall him being much more respectful of the Somali state as a concept; but I haven’t read the book in years. I wonder to what extent he may have had an opinion shift on how to deal with a failed state?

  4. Mike J’s point about the highly localized nature of conflict in the DRC is excellent.

    There were a few other secessionist-esque movements in the east in the early 1960’s like the Kashamura and Mulelist rebellions. For awhile, Kasai claimed to be its own state, even to the point that I’ve heard they printed money. But Mike’s right. The vast majority of the wars, especially the recent ones, are all about land tenure and citizenshp. Everyone wants to control the whole territory, not pull out of it. Herbst’s plan would have the additional effect of setting off a new series of interstate wars among new and vulnerable microstates.

  5. I agree with texasinafrica. Herbst’s “realistic” view of Congo seems to have no relation the realities here in 2009, or probably ever. Perhaps one of the most surprising fact is that despite all of the wars the Congo has known since the 1960s, there has been only ONE full-fledged secessionist war — the Shaba rebellion. And possibly the current Bunda Dia Kongo group in Bas-Congo. I am surprised to see Herbst referring to “innumerable secessionist attempts” including Laurent Kabila.

    But what Herbst suggests would solve none of the problems in the Kivus, Northern Katanga, Ituri that have caused so much suffering more recently. Herbst is right to observe that the government’s official channels have very little impact on the lives of its people, but in 2009 almost everyone here recognizes the legitimacy of the government’s authority — even if they disagree with this or that application.

    The idea of dismembering the country into provinces as a conflict resolution strategy shows a deep misunderstanding of what is at stake. Fundamentally, the causes of the various conflicts and violence in the DRC are very local — but far more local than divisions along provincial lines; the nastiest problems exist between groups living in the same provinces, and even in the same territoires, as in North Kivu which texasinafrica points out. The intensity of conflict over provincial and local positions of authority, and access to specific land, water, and mines — which are the two biggest causes of violence — would only intensify as power is devolved along provincial lines. Secession of Katanga, for example would only increase conflict between northern katangans, copper-belt groups and kasaians, and make the economy that much more vulnerable to external commodity-pricing shocks. I think many outsiders and Congolese would agree that some sort of robust federalism would help the Congo develop, but I don’t think anyone but a small minority of Congolese would benefit — or want to see — their country divided.

  6. Has Herbst been to the eastern Congo, or even read Pierre Englebert? He clearly doesn’t understand how powerful the idea of Congo is in the east, or how much people there consider themselves Congolese. It doesn’t make sense from the outside, but as Englebert (2003) points out, the fiction of the Congolese state persists because it’s convenient for elites and those extracting resources from the territory. It also persists because the vast majority of the people want there to be a working, unified Congo. Why would we dismantle a state (even a very weak one) when there’s a strong national identity despite tribal and linguistic differences? Isn’t that what we spend all our time trying to create elsewhere in Africa?

    Inviting the strongest party to take control of small areas and then giving them access to foreign aid is a terrible idea. It would open the door to all kinds of chaos, cause a number of militias and rebel groups to rearm, and set off a battle for lucrative property that would take another 10 years to clean up.

    As for the notion that the Kivus could be an independent state, that’s something only dreamed of by a small minority of Tutsi extremists, and they only want it to happen if they can be in control, which the Nande and Bashi would never allow. The Kivus aren’t that big (They’re about the size of Austria and Switzerland together.) and with complete lack of access to a water route to either coast, a crumbled infrastructure, little manufacturing beyond coltan processing and the cloth industry in Butembo, and difficult terrain over which to maintain functioning roads, it’s hard to see how it would be viable.

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