BY JAY BENSON*
Recent months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have seen border incursions by rebels, decapitation of police, civilian massacres, and the collapse of talks aimed at overcoming the country’s political impasse.
Such news has become depressingly common in a country that has struggled with instability for decades. But the recent combination of events is not just more of the same. The DRC faces a greater risk of local conflicts evolving into nationwide war and instability than it has for several years.
National level political crisis
To begin with, the Congo is facing an ominous political and constitutional crisis at a national level.
Having been in power since 2001, President Joseph Kabila’s final term officially ended in December 2016. According to the constitution, elections should have been held the previous month, but Kabila and his government claimed that logistic and financial hurdles made holding them unfeasible. His failure to step down led to widespread street protests in 2016 and bloody reprisals by security services.
On 31 December 2016, an agreement between the government and opposition coalition was reached. The deal agreed that a transitional government would be established and that elections would be held at the end of 2017, after which Kabila would step down.
But progress on its implementation was slow and set back further by the death of 84-year-old veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February. With no central figure for the fragmented opposition to rally around, talks stalled. In late-March, the Catholic bishops who had been mediating the talks withdrew from the process, saying they felt that no progress was being made.
At the start of April, Kabila added to mounting tensions when he appointed Bruno Tshibala as Prime Minister. Under the 31 December deal, it was agreed that the PM would be a member of the opposition. But the president’s choice of a politician who had been kicked out of Tshisekedi’s UPDS party only weeks earlier angered many.
As of now, there is no clear path forward for the opposition. Many demonstrators have already lost their lives in protests calling on Kabila to step down. If he refuses to commit to a timeline for leaving office once again, the potential for escalating nationwide violence is very real.
Spread of localised conflicts
At the same time, the country is also suffering from several more localised conflicts.
The eastern DRC – particularly North and South Kivu provinces – has long been seen as the tinderbox of the nation. Ethnic heterogeneity and high population density have led to a complex constellation of ethnic and resource-based tensions. In addition, political violence has occasionally spilled across borders, with Rwanda and Uganda adding fuel to the flames in pursuit of their own political and economic interests.
An alphabet soup of armed groups – including M23, FDLR, ADF-NALU, an assortment of ‘Mai Mai’ groups and, at times, the Congolese military – have battled each other in an ever-shifting web of alliances, victimising local populations and exploiting the area’s rich resource wealth.
However, while political violence may have been mostly concentrated in the Kivus for several years, this has begun to change. The clearest example of this is the recent developments in the Kasai region, where animosity towards a central government seen as providing little in the way of public goods and services erupted in August 2016.
That month, Jean-Pierre Mpandi, a traditional local leader who had agitated for greater autonomy, was killed in an operation by Congolese security services. Tensions exploded and since then rebels have decapitated scores of policemen and carried out attacks on population centres. Security services have retaliated with multiple civilian massacres.
Between 1997 and 2016 Kasai had been the location of just 3.6% of violent events in the DRC. But in the last five months of 2016, that figure more than tripled to 10.4%.
The effects and drivers of these instances of violence may be primarily local. But political violence can have simultaneous local, regional and national dynamics; initially local conflicts can easily escalate to take on wider narratives and scope.
In Kasai for instance, Kamuina Nsapu, the primary group involved in clashes with the security services, initially mobilised around calls for local governance systems to be given greater authority by Kinshasa. But these concerns have since grown to include national-level political demands such as the immediate implementation of the 31 December agreement.
What start off as primarily local conflicts can reorient towards national-level cleavages and drive wider instability. Furthermore, in the case of the DRC, this has significant potential to draw in neighbouring states seeking to support their preferred proxies and ensure their own security. This is precisely what happened in the devastating Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003.
What can be done?
So what can domestic and international actors do to mitigate the risk of more destructive conflict in the DRC?
For domestic actors, a swift resolution of the political crisis and improved local governance are needed. Options for the former in particular, however, may be limited. The political opposition and civil society have long been struggling to hold Kabila to his constitutional obligations to no avail. And with end of the bishops’ role and the death of the elder Tshisekedi, they are even less well positioned than before.
Perhaps the domestic actors with the best opportunity to prevent the escalation therefore are officials, security services and civil society working at the local level in areas of conflict. If these groups can begin to address grievances, this could alleviate some of the discontent and mitigate the risk of conflicts intensifying around national level political narratives. But this will be no easy task.
Internationally, the priority should be the expansion of peacekeeping operations. We have ample evidence that peacekeeping works (see a few examples here, here, and here). As conflict spreads, deployments ought to increase in scope and size to meet the growing threat of violence in the current, explosive political atmosphere.
Yet precisely the opposite happened this March as the UN Security Council voted to decrease the size of the DRC mission by 3,000 troops. If the UN continues to pull back, it may fall to the African Union or Southern African Development Community, whose members’ security is more directly threatened, to fill the gap.
At the same time, the international community must do more to facilitate a solution to the political impasse. The future of the country needs to be decided by the Congolese people, but international actors can help create the political space for that to happen.
As of yet though, there have been very limited international efforts to employ tangible deterrents or incentives. The world seems to have watched with disinterest as Kabila has executed a slow motion constitutional coup. Allocating greater diplomatic resources and demonstrating a real will to act should the deadlock continue could help create the conditions necessary for a resolution.
The current situation in DRC is more volatile and liable to escalate than at any point in recent years. The combination of localised conflicts in the Kivus and Kasai at the same time as the national level crisis makes each more dangerous than they would be in isolation.
Now is not the time to back away. Doing so would threaten the stability of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country, the safety of its 80 million people, and the security of the region as a whole.
*Source African Arguments.Jay Benson is a researcher at the peace-building think tank OEF Research.