On January 15, 2009, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted a forum in conjunction with the Great Lakes Policy Forum discussing the international community's engagement with the current crisis in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The event featured panelists Séverine Autesserre, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Marijan Zumbulev, UN Advocacy Director at the International Crisis Group in New York, and was hosted by Howard Wolpe, Director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.

Approaching the Conflict at the Micro Level

Why have international actors failed to achieve a solution to the crisis in the Eastern Congo? Why have their efforts been focused almost exclusively on the national and international level, rather than looking to the local antagonisms at the root of the conflict? These were the core questions posed by Séverine Autesserre as she presented her research on how local agendas have contributed to the current conflict in the Eastern Congo. Her research demonstrates several ways that seemingly small-scale regional grievances can fester into larger crises with national and regional implications. These local antagonisms include those arising from tensions between traditional and legal systems of land ownership. Autesserre recommended that the UN and other donors devote more resources to various land reform programs including the training of officials in land legislation and sending them to rural areas to help resolve these local conflicts. She also suggested expanding funding for inter-community reconciliation initiatives such as health centers, schools, and workshops which propose and establish mechanisms to deal with war crimes.

International actors' preoccupation with establishing peace building mechanisms almost exclusively at the international and national level have also contributed to several erroneous assumptions instrumental in their failures to resolve the crisis, said Autesserre. She criticized international actor's over-emphasis on elections, which, while concrete and manageable, are often not sufficient to address the underlying causes of conflict. She also expressed concern at the international community's conceptualization of the DRC as an inherently violent region, a perception that has contributed to a lack of both the attention and resources that are so urgently required to resolve the crisis. Other international actors categorize the DRC as a post-conflict society, said Autesserre, excluding from negotiations rebel leaders whose participation is crucial to the on-going peace process.

A Call for International Engagement

While criticizing the international community's ‘incomplete' and ‘misguided' approach to the East Congo crisis, Marijan Zumbulev nonetheless saw in the situation an opportunity to rethink efforts at peace building. Mitigating the conflict will require unified, consistent, and patient engagement of the international community with the DRC crisis, said Zumbulev, who was presenting policy recommendations of the International Crisis Group. He urged international actors, especially the Security Council permanent members P3+2 (US, UK, and France, plus China and Russia) to exert more pressure to dissuade the Kinshasa and Kigali governments from providing proxy support to rebel troops. He also offered praise for former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and suggested that they clearly divide their tasks as regional envoys in the peace building process, with Obasanjo focusing on the disarmament of militias and Mkapa working with local leaders on land settlement issues.

Military Components of Strategic Reconciliation

Zumbulev suggested military operations may be needed to shift calculations of rebel actors, particularly some factions of the FDLR that have no current incentive to disarm. While MONUC has recently prolonged and amended their mandate in the DRC, adding 3,000 troops to its peacekeeping force, Zumbulev questioned whether the revamped mandate has made the mission an ineffective ‘paper tiger.' MONUC also faces a volatile public opinion which has the potential to challenge its credibility. To improve its viability and credibility, the ICG recommends immediately reinforcing MONUC and introducing an EU force with a narrower mandate. Zumbulev maintained that MONUC is a weak entity, and like most other international missions cannot or will not fight. Accordingly, when called upon by the head of the UN mission to intervene in the Goma crisis a few months ago, some commanders refused to step in. "Their message, basically, ‘We didn't come here to die,'" said Zumbulev.

Redressing War Crimes

Zumbulev recommended that the Rwandan government convey a clear and concise message to rebels by issuing a list separating negotiable and non-negotiable actors involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. From various sources the ICG has determined that at most 20 percent of FDLR officers were involved in the genocide, less than a dozen of whom were involved to such an extent that their status is non-negotiable. Nonetheless, a more direct and concise indication as to who could be engaged would encourage a split in the FDLR and the integration of its members into civilian life or the army. Zumbulev called for a more serious Security Sector Reform (SSR) process that successfully integrates former combatants into army or civilian life. As of yet, Zumbulev considers the disarmament process a myriad of haphazard efforts driven by different donors, rather than a coherent international process that promotes transparency and accountability. Zumbulev also proposed creating a new chamber in the Congolese judiciary to deal specifically with atrocity crimes committed over the last decade, a proposal which has been considered in the past but never implemented.

Recent Developments in Kinshasa

Zumbulev concluded by briefly discussing recent political developments encompassing other areas within the DRC. He expressed concern that international attention has been diverted away from the nepotism and corruption plaguing the central Kinshasa government, an endemic ‘malaise' which has spread from Kinshasa to eastern territories. He briefly discussed rebel leader Nkunda's second-in-command, General Bosco Ntaganda, who now enjoys the support of 40 percent of the CNDP and is fully backed by Kinshasa and Kigali; Zumbulev suggested that Rwanda has aligned with Bosco in hopes that his ICC indictment will make him easier to control. He predicted that violence may break out again if armed conflict continues between the two factions. If fighting breaks out again, Nkunda may have no other option than to move south to Goma.

Facilitating Collaboration at the Local and National Level

Moderator Howard Wolpe echoed Autesserre's concern that the international community often devotes considerable resources and attention to the electoral process without laying sufficient political groundwork for a democratic transition. In divided societies like the DRC, often the biggest challenge is not necessarily in establishing competitive mechanisms in the political process, but rather in emphasizing the collaborative foundations on which a successful and peaceful democracy is built, said Wolpe. After four years of Mobutuism, the democratic ‘rules of the game' must be reinforced and integrated into all levels of government.

Wolpe also discussed the success of the Wilson Center's leadership initiatives in Kinshasa and the eastern Congo, demonstrating how the conflict in the East is inextricably linked to politics in Kinshasa and thus must be addressed simultaneously at the national and local levels. Although the Wilson Center's initial workshops engaged political leaders in Kinshasa at the national level, the diplomatic community later requested similar leadership workshops with local politicians and civil society leaders in North and South Kivu. He attributed the relative calm in North and South Kivu immediately before the 2006 elections to the success of these workshops, which brought together leaders "many of whom had previously never even been in the same room as each other." Workshops with local leaders also contributed to the effective communications between local and national leadership structures. After participating in a leadership program, local Kivutian leaders were able convey a more unified message articulating their grievances to the national leadership, said Wolpe, which included requesting Kabila to end the government's support to FDLR rebels.


In response to a question about leadership and political will in the international community's engagement in the DRC, Autesserre suggested that within the international community, Belgium is probably best situated to take on a leadership role, despite its relatively small size and political clout. Zumbulev proposed that the UK may take the lead in the DRC situation, with France, China, and the U.S. working together to exert pressure on Kinshasa and Kigali.

Another audience member asked why South Kivu had maintained such relative recent calm when previous outbreaks had affected North and South Kivu. Autesserre argued that recent outbreaks of violence in South Kivu have indeed occurred, although historically the area has been relatively calm compared to the North Kivu region. Conversely, an extensive interruption in the widespread fighting took place immediately before the 2006 presidential elections. Autesserre contended that each side was hoping to emerge victorious, intending to resume fighting in the case of a loss. Wolpe pointed out that despite the appearance of relative calm in South Kivu, combatants have established their authority by sheer force, and that the use of rape as a weapon of war is pervasive. A member of the audience commented that the FDLR has established complete political and economic control over some communities, policing these areas into submission.

Several members of the audience asked Autesserre to elaborate on the national and regional effects of a local level approach to conflict. Autesserre stressed the interrelationship between national and local politics, enumerating several historical instances in which the FDLR was able to continue fighting and accessing mining sites due to continued support from local alliances. In response to several questions about Rwandan involvement in the conflict, Autesserre pointed out that conflicts in the DRC, such as the 1993 massacres, did occur before the 1994 Rwandan genocide, demonstrating that local level conflict can occur without incidence of international and national 'triggers.'

This summary was drafted by Erika Rao, Intern, and Justine Lindemann