Amani Itakuya #17: “The woodpecker in the dead tree”

“The woodpecker in the dead tree”: armed conflict and peacebuilding in Eastern DRC

Bram Verelst

In preparation of my contribution to this Amani Itakuya series, I found it useful to first try to unravel current dialogues and debates on conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It comes to no surprise that I stumbled upon a whole panoply of voices and opinions that seek to explain the root causes of conflict, which make the road to peace in the DRC as bumpy and winding as many roads in the Kivus.

Finding the most critical conflict-drivers leads to controversial questions. Do we find them inside or outside the country, at the local or regional level? To what extent do they matter, and how do we tackle them? What is clear is that a multitude of local, regional and international actors pursue different interests and fall back on violence as a means to enforce them. The precarious political and security situation also points to the failure of the various peacebuilding programmes so far put in place. What is necessary for peace to be build, is a coherent approach built upon a thorough assessment of the conflict drivers in the DRC. In this essay I would like to contribute to such assessment, by focusing on the Congolese state.

I want to argue that the proliferation of armed movements in Eastern DRC, some of which are being supported by its neighbouring countries or through transnational political economies, exposes the incapacity of the Congolese government to rule and maintain peace rather than an outside threat to the Congolese state. Too often the debate tends to focus on these internal and external threats, thus oversimplifying both the explanation and solution for conflict in the DRC. From such point of view, mainly military action is needed to solve the security crisis in the Eastern DRC, or as Julien Paluku (the governor of North Kivu) stated, “if we destroy the M23, the FDLR and the ADF/Nalu, we’ll take away the reasons for other countries to intervene in our country.” Such an approach refuses to engage with the true drivers of conflict, which are to be found at grassroots level – localised struggles over land, citizenship and power (a “deadly triangle”) – and at the level of the state. The latter, through its apparent neglect or indifference to the rule of law and public welfare, through its reluctance to reform its security sector, and through its inability to cope with the current de facto parallel system of land management, creates the conditions for violence and armed group mobilisation as a means to power. Incentives for insurgent violence not only arise from local tensions, but must also be understood in relation to wider politics, like the politics of military integration that motivate (dissatisfied) marginalised officers to create new armed groups. Like a woodpecker prefers a dead tree to hammer in, a dysfunctional state can provide incentives for armed violence.

I am therefore sceptical towards a military approach – backed by the international community – that is certainly not a magical solution. Peacebuilding efforts should be directed towards the construction of credible and legitimate state institutions – through dialogue between all parties, including armed groups – and in political and security sector reform (SSR) processes that focus on the consolidation of territorial control, on the provision of legal security and representation, and on a comprehensive land reform process, which are all necessary for the rebuilding of trust between the state and its civilians.

Bram Verelst is a research fellow at Conflict Research Group, University of Ghent. He is doing doctoral research on the politics of territorial control in Virunga Park, North Kivu.

3 Responses to “Amani Itakuya #17: “The woodpecker in the dead tree””
  1. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    I agree with that assessment on land issues and armed groups. What do you think about the way in which political reform can happen, and how Congolese citizenry can be empowered to reform the current system. Many pundits advocate slow reform of the current political process, but this approach has seen the entrenchment of leaders in the region for decades at a time. It seems unsatisfactory, and Congolese still have very little say in the affairs of their country. What are your thoughts?

  2. Bram Verelst says:

    Dear Anand. Thanks for your interesting comments. I agree that a focus on land issues should be comprehensive, i.e. taking into account the role of external (armed) actors, migration and displacement, even conservationism (e.g. forced displacement out of Virunga National Park). In this regard explaining instability in the DRC solely as a result of ‘local’ land conflicts is surely an overstatement, since wider and broader issues are at play here. But we should also be careful in approaching land issues through the lens of (‘externally sponsored’) armed groups: 1. Other actors are also involved (e.g. the role of the FARDC in competition for natural resources), 2. the disappearance of M23, ADF or FDLR will not solve the problem of land access and 2. a failing land reform process will provide further incentives and motives for armed conflict and violent mobilization–as it has done in the past, and continues to do so.

  3. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    I appreciate your focus on political reform. I wonder sometimes if the land issues argument gets overstated in terms of dissociating it too much from the instability created by regionally sponsored armed groups. These issues seem to go hand in hand in terms of one affecting the other. But regardless of this, state reform in DRC is the largest issue that could ultimately resolve the conflict(s) and bring an era of progress. But this is also not a new argument. Perhaps we should get into “how” this reform will come about. I feel safe in saying that it won’t happen by the results of fraudulent elections being endorsed by Western donors, nor by military campaigns that entrench said leadership. I am very interested in how the Congolese citizenry, especially in the east, can be empowered to change the political circumstances that plague them. Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: