Amani Itakuya II: Conclusion

Concluding remarks: On the emergence of essayists

Jason Stearns

 

Over the past month, Amani Itakuya has published twenty five essays about the conflict in the Eastern Congo, a majority of which were penned by Congolese. In conclusion, it is worth thinking about the space that these essays have carved out.

Political and social debate in the Congo is still largely carried out verbally––in bars, friends’ houses, churches, and public meetings. In a recent survey carried out by the McCain Institute in North Kivu, 82 percent of respondents said that the radio was their main source of news and information. Newspapers did not even figure on the list. Even in Kinshasa, the one place in the country where print newspapers are read, distribution peaks at several thousand copies.

This culture, however, is slowly changing with the advent of smartphones. Almost half of the households in the Kivus have mobile phones now, and Twitter and Facebook use is growing exponentially. News websites have proliferated, providing some of the best, often controversial, analysis of Congolese current affairs––just look to Congo Independent, Jean-Jacques Wondo, Voix du Congo, Congo Mikili, the Coralie Kienge Show, Afrikarabia, Radio Kivu One, and so on.

This will allow for the emergence of essayists, whose pieces can be read and re-read and who do not have to pass through the filtering of radio stations. Inevitably, because of the demographics of the internet, this debate will probably cater more to the educated and more affluent elites, but should also be less prone to political influence and patronage than the existing radio stations and newspapers.

So this is the stage onto which Amani Itakuya strides––a budding scene of bloggers and journalists, using the internet to showcase their talents, with an assist by foreign researchers.

What about the issues they are discussing? Here, too, this series of essays gives us some insight into what happens when the debate is driven by local voices and researchers with long roots in the region.

Three issues stand out. First, representation. The foreign essayists, in particular, seem troubled by how the Congo is depicted in foreign media. Charlotte Mertens argues against the excessive focus on sexual violence for a more inclusive understanding of conflict and how it affects the lives of Congolese, while Benson Linje pushes back against depictions of the Congolese army as predatory thugs.

Both Rachel Sweet and Stéphanie Perazzone, in very different ways, push the reader to look away from the superficial drama of the conflict, the AK-47s, rape, and killings often reported in the media. Sweet highlights the political nature of conflict, the web of relationships between economic operators, politicians, and armed groups in Beni territory. Conflict is a broader social phenomenon, a way of politics and ordering life. Perazzone, in her excavation of cross-border trade and relationships between Goma and Gisenyi, shows that conflict is but one narrative alongside many others in the region.

The second recurring topic is solutions. How well are we doing at bringing an end to the conflict, now in its 19th year (depending on how one counts…)? By most accounts, not so well. Several of the essayists scrutinize the persistence of armed groups and wonder how to best calibrate sticks and carrots. Luckily––after all, this is supposed to be a debate––they come up with different answers. Umbo Salama argues for a better demobilization program, providing better long-term employment options for former combatants. In contrast, Mahaut de Talhouët writes that it makes more sense to invest in creating a stronger army with more deterrent capacity, rather than trying to further the revolving door of demobilization programs (the third major round of demobilization is currently underway). Meanwhile, Josaphat Musamba argues for a holistic approach, coupling a more accountable and efficient Congolese army with a better demobilization plan and a renewed effort to listen to the grievances of local communities.

A final strand of debate is over responsibility. If it is true that over five million people have died as a result––direct or indirect––of the conflict, then who bears responsibility? Michael Bauma castigates those who eternally find blame elsewhere, either among the Congolese leaders or foreigners. He quotes Thomas Sankara: “The slave who isn’t able to rebel doesn’t deserve our pity.” In contrast, Marta Iñiguez de Heredia reminds us that the Congolese conflict occupies a particular role in world history and politics.  “Global economic patterns have constrained the Congolese economy, state-formation and peasant resistance.” Blaming the kids with AK-47 for the violence while effacing this history requires a willful act of amnesia.

These are but some of the essays in the series. The reader can hope that Amani Itakuya will, over time, become a springboard for discussion among Congolese and foreign researchers, germinating the blogosphere and elevating debate.

 

Jason Stearns is the Director of the Congo Research Group at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. A former UN Group of Experts coordinator, he also wrote ‘Dancing in the Glory of Monsters’ and led the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project.

Comments
One Response to “Amani Itakuya II: Conclusion”
  1. I’d be keenly interested in more recommendations about who to follow in DRC media and in further discussion and analysis of how the technology is changing news production and consumption patterns. Any good links?

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