AIII #18: Re-engaging the Global: An Account of the Political and Economic Roots of Conflict in DRC

Re-engaging the Global: An Account of the Political and Economic Roots of Conflict in DRC

(picture by the author)

Marta Iñiguez de Heredia

In the last few years there has been a shift in thinking about the roots of conflict in the DRC. From a focus on mineral wealth exploitation, the debate has shifted to land and identity as the primary reasons for conflict to continue.[i] Unresolved historical cleavages around land and power distribution, both of which are linked to identity and belonging, create the basis for political mobilisation through violence.[ii] Although these analyses have offered nuanced explanations of the micro-dynamics, two features put them at risk of reproducing previous problems.

Firstly, the focus on the local has detached these analyses from broader global political and economic structures that condition the micro-level. Secondly, the characterisation of politics, the economy and society as neo-patrimonial has pictured the DRC as pathological. These two features are particularly salient in the renewed International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy (ISSSS), which makes the transformation of the state, the centrepiece for the possibility of peace. However, not only do these two features replicate an ahistorical and depoliticised view of the conflict, they ultimately portray Congolese actors and their own created dynamics as the only ones needing change. On the contrary, the article argues, neither the nature of the state, poverty, access to land, nor the distribution of political representation can be detached from patterns of appropriation and dispossession at the global political economic level. These patterns have not only transformed at different times the material and ideational basis of political authority, they have also put the local peasantry in direct connection with the dynamics of the global economy. The article focuses on patterns of extraction, patterns of state-formation, on the rhetoric of modernisation and on peasant resistance.

One of the most direct constrains of the nature of state authority is the extractive character of DRC’s economy. It was configured at the time of colonisation but maintained after independence, focusing on labour, land, resources and taxes. Taxation, for example, has always taken place in the context of a non-bureaucratised state infrastructure while serving a structure of authority linked to the international context. Between 1912 and 1933, the value of annual head tax went up 16% whereas monthly wages remained the same and debt rose from 250 million to 3500 million Belgian francs, that is a 1300% increase.[iii] This was not due to increases in government expenditure, but rather to the war effort in 1914 and subsequently the 1930s depression. During this period, which lasted only a few decades, the political and economic basis of authority in the DRC went from slavery to a system of waged labour. Subsistence farming has lived ever since in parallel to cash-crops as a marginal low-income activity, increasingly dependent on the possibility to rent rather than to own land. This is not just a feature of the way Belgian colonial administration was dealing with the distribution of wealth and rights, but also with the particular value of exchanges in the global market.

Yet taxes, labour, land and resources have not translated into the industrialised society that modernism predicated. Modernity has placed the DRC as a low-income country, which exports copper, petrol and ore at low value, and imports refined oil, technology, medicines, iron and meat at high prices.[iv] There is an outward exit of resources and debt, and an inward reception of manufactures and aid. The recent call for new large investments in land and the rise of agro-businesses displays the tendency of land and wealth distribution upwards and outwards, while pushing peasants to waged labour, migration and rent.[v]

The solution given to these issues has been premised on the construction of a liberal democratic state. These solutions argue that long-time entrenched corruption, power-politics and nepotism at all levels of state hierarchy are a source of violence. Hence, the neopatrimonial state has to turn into the modern state of the 21st century.[vi] However, during the last decade of statebuilding, authority has been pluralised and violence has been decentralized across actors as varied as elite coalitions, military, corporations, armed groups and foreign states.[vii] Yet these processes reflect more patterns of shared sovereignty in world politics and patterns of state-formation writ large, than particular pathological instances of state authority.[viii]

What statebuilding brings is a new version of the modernisation discourse that has offered state administrators a claim to legitimate authority. As James Scott defines it, high-modernism is the ‘belief in the capacity of technicians and engineers to design and implement comprehensive new forms of living and production that would be superior – that is, more “progressive”, productive, healthy, and humane to anything thus far devised.’[ix] The dynamics of identifying the nature of the state as neo-patrimonial against the construction of the ideal state as modern is the discursive device to claim obedience, taxes and labour, even if peace, democracy and development may not be straightforwardly available in return.

In this context, both historically and in the present, peasant resistance is not only important, it is constitutive of political order.[x] In the context of the present war, peasants have been exposed to the new demands of global markets, to the changes in security interests in Africa at the end of the Cold War and to the reconfiguration of the global security agenda. So while the war has transformed the political and economic landscape, with a direct impact on livelihoods, a significant section of rural classes have turned the war into a possibility for revolt.[xi] Although identity and belonging have marked the discourses of rural militias, these are underpinned by the long-term political aspirations for land, labour, democracy and participation.

Taking account of these dynamics from the perspective of the longue-durée the above illustrates the intertwinement of macro and micro-level dynamics that shape and constitute the nature of the state, political representation, economic distribution and appropriation in the DRC. Global economic patterns have constrained the Congolese economy, state-formation and peasant resistance. This historical sociological perspective contributes to analyses that have tended to stay within the confines of present and the local, overemphasising the specificities of the DRC. The article does not conclude with a call to return to a structuralist deterministic analysis that oversees agency or the particularities of local and regional politics. It calls to observe the pervasiveness of these patterns and the limits of an account that detaches the DRC from them.

Marta Iñiguez de Heredia is a Teaching Associate at the University of Cambridge



[i] The list of works contributing to this argument from different perspectives is extensive and the criticisms laid out in this article do not apply to all of them in the same way.

[ii] E.g. Morten Bøås, “Autochthony and Citizenship: ‘Civil Society’ as Vernacular Architecture?,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 6, no. 1 (2012): 91–105; Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Fraternel Divin Amuri Misako, “Les Milices Maï-Maï Au Maniema (août 1998-2003): Un Mode d’Affirmation Politique Des Masses Rurales?” (Master Dissertation, Political Science, Université de Kisangani – Faculté des Sciences Sociales, Administratives et Politiques – Département des Sciences Politiques et Administratives, 2008), Royal Museum of Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.

[iii] A. Adu Boahen, Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880-1935 (UNESCO, 1985), 356 – 58.

[iv] Observatory of Economic Complexity, “Democratic Republic of the Congo – Profile of Exports, Imports and Trade Partners,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (2014), Accessed 15/01/2015.

[v] UNDP, Democratic Republic of Congo Agriculture Investment Opportunities Brief: CAADP Investment Facilitation Programme (UNDP, 2013).

[vi] ISSSS, Stratégie Internationale de Soutien À La Sécurité et La Stabilisation 2013-2017 (Kinshasa: MONUSCO, 2013).

[vii] This section will draw on fieldwork undertaken in North and South Kivu and Kinshasa between 2009 and 2014. For previous work see: Judith Verweijen, “Military Business and the Business of the Military in the Kivus,” Review of African Political Economy, forthcoming 2013; Theodore Trefon, Congo Masquerade: The Political Culture of Aid Inefficiency and Reform Failure (London and New York: Zed Books, 2011); Koen Vlassenroot and Timothy Raeymaekers, “Briefing: Kivu’s Intractable Security Conundrum,” African Affairs 108, no. 432 (2009): 475–84.

[viii] Achille Mbembe, “Désordres, Résistances et Productivité,” Politique Africaine, no. 42 (1991): 2–8; John MacMillan, Richard Little, and George Lawson, “The ‘Will to Order’: Intervention in the Modern World,” Review of International Studies 39, no. 5 (n.d.): 2014; Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Cambridge, Mass: B. Blackwell, 1990).

[ix] James C. Scott, “Geographies of Trust, Geographies of Hierarchy,” in Democracy and Trust, ed. Mark Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 284, emphasis in the original.

[x] Alphonse Maindo Monga Ngonga, “L’État À L’Épreuve de La Guerre: Violences et Reconfiguration Des Pouvoirs En Republique Démocratique Du Congo” (Doctoral Thesis in Political Science, Paris 1 – Pantheon Sorbonne, 2004); Dave Renton, David Seddon, and Leo Zeilig, The Congo: Plunder and Resistance (London: Zed Books, 2007).

[xi] This point will be extended with fieldwork research in Bunyakiri, Fizi and Mwenga around Simba-Mai Mai; Yakutumba and Nyakiliba. See previous research in: Luca Jourdan, “Being at War, Being Young: Violence and Youth in North Kivu.,” in Conflict and Transformation in Eastern DR Congo, ed. Koen Vlassenroot and Timothy Raeymaekers (Gent: Academia Press, 2004), 157–76; Franck Van Acker and Koen Vlassenroot, “Les «maï-Maï» et Les Fonctions de La Violence Milicienne Dans l’Est Du Congo,” Politique Africaine, no. 84 (2001): 103–16; Emmanuel Lubala Mugisho, “L’émergence D’un Phénomène Résistant Au Sud-Kivu (1996-2000),” in L’Afrique Des Grands Lacs: Annuaire 1999-2000, ed. Stefaan Marysse and Filip Reyntjens (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000), 188–223.

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