AIII #10: Amani Ilikuwa (Peace was): Rethinking the bounds of ‘conflict’

Amani Ilikuwa (Peace was): Rethinking the bounds of ‘conflict’

Rachel Sweet


Stories of conflict in Congo are full of narrative complexities. The multiplicity of armed groups past and present, transnational economic networks, and local land disputes form basic entrées into accounts of the conflict. A host of interventions, including demobilization programs, oversight of resource chains, and support for displaced persons, represent efforts to deal with the scale and nuances of causes of instability. Yet, despite awareness of the complexity of the conflict, the analytical frameworks used to interpret instability and frame solutions often fail to account for range of the dynamics at play. Specifically, the bounds on how conflict zones and actors are identified should be expanded from an emphasis on physical violence, while standard frameworks used interpret underlying causes of conflict in eastern Congo should be bounded.

Undoing bounds of ‘conflict zones’

Using levels of physical violence to identify areas and actors relevant to conflict places artificial bounds on dynamics relevant to understanding instability. One-directional conflict resolution programs that take scenarios of insecurity, displacement, and violence as starting points place less emphasis on areas where stability does endure. Yet rather than only seeking solutions for how amani itakuya, many people living in Congo remember that amani ilikuwa. Not only how peace will come, but that peace was. Peace is not as an abstract concept assigned to a future date, but a reality that is concrete, remembered, and still enacted.

Areas of stability that endure alongside zones of violence interrupt narratives of conflict. Displaced persons fleeing Ituri during the Second War caused Beni’s population to surge and transformed the town into what one Lendu resident describes as “a cosmopolitan city.” Hemas and Lendus displaced from Ituri study together. New universities are built, where professors research not war but the increase in the number of women drivers, and where students design projects to construct fishponds. Armed groups are discussed in the same conversation as questions on what to wear to work. These experiences do not normalize conflict, but situate it within the larger narrative of life. When violence occurs, it is abnormal and disruptive.

Focusing on areas where peace was, and continues, holds critical lessons for conflict resolution. For example, following the summer 2013 attacks on Watalinga chefferie in Beni, a new rhetoric identifying jihad and radical Islam as causes of violence emerged locally. For the first time, residents discussed Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda as credible threats, following the politicized interpretations of the attacks. This threatened to create new tensions between Muslims and Christians—in an area where a Protestants-Catholics divide is a more salient cleavage. Although the potential for violence against mosques threatened to transform this into a key dividing line, tension subsided and violence was avoided.

These dynamics that indicate the presence of community-based mechanisms for deescalating conflict warrant attention. Yet until the recent string of attacks in Beni, the northern territories of North Kivu or ‘Grand Nord’ were considered less critical for stability than other areas in Nord or South Kivu. The rapprochement forged between the RCD/K-ML and Kinshasa at the end of the Second War long seemed to qualify the area as meeting international emphases on reestablishing state authority. Even in 2014, Lubero territory was omitted from a UN provincial-level survey on conflict dynamics.

Yet areas with lower levels of violence not only deserve attention for their potential for stability, but because they are also often closely linked with political and economic disputes elsewhere. Protracted conflict in Bunia during the Second War mapped rival RCD/K-ML and UPC armed groups over competitions for market shares between Nande and Gegere trading networks. Militias throughout the Semuliki valley and Lubero continue to interface with conflict in Walikale, Masisi, and Rutshuru, while Nande economic interests and resettlement patterns are central to risk factors for instability in Mambasa and Irumu territories of Ituri.

Moreover, the Grand Nord is home to North Kivu’s demographic Nande majority, financially salient business networks, and the political majority in the Provincial Assembly. Provincial politics will turn around what happens there. As the rapport between the RCD/K-ML and Kinshasa unraveled, it sparked a realignment of provincial politics. These underlying tensions come to the fore during the ADF violence in Beni. For instance, including arrests of prominent businesses following the attacks map onto national-level positioning for control in the area. Their timing of these arrests to correspond with conflict can shift the dynamics of violence in ways unexpected by its original authors. Fissures in the area’s politics also open space for politicians elsewhere to expand their influence. Eugène Serufuli’s UCP’s capitalized on instability in Beni to compile amass evidence against the RCD/K-ML president.

Identifying conflict zones by metrics of armed group violence also lead us to overlook the areas where peace is not. In Ndosho quartier in Goma, night patrols organize in light of the insecurity. A resident of the quartier estimates that two people are killed here each day. While such areas of low-scale violence fall outside of zones designated as ‘conflict,’ they are often embedded in the same complexes linked to armed violence elsewhere, as stages for recruitment networks and cross-border smuggling.

Bounding Interpretative Frameworks

At the same time that the spatial boundaries drawn around ‘conflict zones’ should be relaxed, some of the analytical lenses used to interpret conflict should be more tightly bounded. One of these is the Land-Identity-Power matrix used to understand instability. The extent to land disputes causes conflict varies. The southern area of Ituri district is an example. Thousands of Hutu migrants from Masisi have settled near Boga, in southern Irumu territory of Ituri over recent years, spurring a backlash from the native residents of the area. Members of civil society in Bunia brought the issue to the attention of the Interior Ministry in Kinshasa, seeking firmer restrictions on who could settle in Boga and the return of some of migrants. These dynamics can easily invoke images of Hema-Lendu conflicts further north in Ituri. The tensions that pair Hutu agriculturalists within a primarily pastoralist areas maps onto the more well-known Hema-Lendu cleavage that shared similar identities.

Yet interpreting these migrations primarily as land disputes misses the potential escalators of conflict. The same leaders of efforts to reduce migration also describe Boga as ‘nearly empty.’ According to them, the area’s low population can accommodate the migrants—and many more. They explain that, given the abundance of land, the pastoralist livelihood is not under threat. Instead of concerns about land distribution, they explain that ‘it’s about politics.’ The potential for new administrative boundaries is of primary concern. Migrants established a new chef de localité where they settled near Boga, and are purportedly seeking a new groupement for the area. Migrants linked to the new groupement are treated with heightened suspicion compared with migrants elsewhere near Boga.

This distinction is important. Land in Boga is made salient because of the political dimensions of representation. This relationship fits with historic patterns of conflict dating to early post-independence politics in Kivu. Yet these narrative reversals and complexities challenge prominent analytical frames used to make sense of conflict.

Rachel Sweet is completing her Ph.D. in Political Science at Northwestern University. Her research draws on two years in eastern Congo and focuses on the

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