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When Fighting Becomes an End in Itself: Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo




"There should be more conceptual books on this topic, and this is one of them. Haven’t you wondered why this war drags on for decades, without resolution? Start your quest for an answer here."
Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

Well into its third decade, the military conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been dubbed a “forever war”—a perpetual cycle of war, civil unrest, and local feuds over power and identity. Millions have died in one of the worst humanitarian calamities of our time. The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name investigates the most recent phase of this conflict, asking why the peace deal of 2003—accompanied by the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world and tens of billions in international aid—has failed to stop the violence. Jason Stearns argues that the fighting has become an end in itself, carried forward in substantial part through the apathy and complicity of local and international actors.

Stearns shows that regardless of the suffering, there has emerged a narrow military bourgeoisie of commanders and politicians for whom the conflict is a source of survival, dignity, and profit. Foreign donors provide food and urgent health care for millions, preventing the Congolese state from collapsing, but this involvement has not yielded transformational change. Stearns gives a detailed historical account of this period, focusing on the main players—Congolese and Rwandan states and the main armed groups. He extrapolates from these dynamics to other conflicts across Africa and presents a theory of conflict that highlights the interests of the belligerents and the social structures from which they arise.

Exploring how violence in the Congo has become preoccupied with its own reproduction, The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name sheds light on why certain military feuds persist without resolution.



Order The War That Doesn't Say Its Name: The Unending Conflict in the Congo from Princeton University Press.



Jason Stearns is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and is Director of the Congo Research Group at New York University. He has worked for the International Crisis Group, the UN Group of Experts on the DR Congo, and the Rift Valley Institute. He is author of The War That Does Not Say Its Name: The Unending Conflict in the Congo (Princeton University Press, 2022), as well as Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (Public Affairs, 2011).






Leslie Johns is a professor of political science and law at UCLA. She is also Associate Director of the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Her research focuses on international law, organizations, and political economy.

In 2022, Cambridge University Press published her newest book, Politics and International Law: Making, Breaking, and Upholding Global Rules. You can access related news stories on the book's Twitter account: @PoliticsIntlLaw

Her work appears in the American Political Science Review, International Organization, Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Politics. Her first book–Strengthening International Courts: The Hidden Costs of Legalization–was published in 2015 by the University of Michigan Press. She received the Michael Wallerstein Award for political economy in 2017.

She is a former term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former research fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University (2012-2013 and 2021-2022).

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Leslie Johns 0:00

So welcome everyone. Thanks so much for joining us for the first Burkle center event of the season. Before we begin, I just have a few quick announcements. First of all, this webinar is being recorded, but only the speakers are visible and audible, so the audience cannot be seen or heard. Both video and audio will be available on the Burkle Center website, as well as on YouTube and on Apple podcasts after the event. We invite you to submit your questions through the Q&A portal that's located at the bottom of your screen. We'll be going back to these questions later on in the event. But first, I want to start by introducing today's guest, which is Jason Stearns. Jason has a PhD from Yale University in political science, and he is currently a professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He has a lot of really interesting background experience, through working in the real world of international politics, both for various nongovernmental organizations that have activities in the Congo, as well as through the United Nations, working both with the UN peacekeeping mission, as well as the UN group of experts, which has been a very pivotal actor in the region. He's written two books on the Congo. The first was published in 2010. It's called Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. And it's a really compelling narrative account of the war in the Congo. Shortly after it was published, he started his own research group called the Congo Research Group, which is based out of NYU and does lots of interesting project work partnering with NGOs, to produce research on the ground in the Congo. And today, he's going to be sharing with us his second book which was released late last year, and it's entitled The War That Doesn't Say its Name. So Jason, I'm gonna go ahead and throw things over to you now.

Jason Stearns 2:03

Thank you so much, Leslie. Thank you to Burkle Center for inviting me. This is a pleasure to produce to present my book and I look forward to the discussion afterwards. I'm gonna share my presentation here.

So this book is about interests and structures. It's about the reasons why people go to war, the importance of figuring out who exactly those people are. It's the combatants, the commanders, the string-pulling politicians, the money bag, you know, financiers, and understanding how shifts in the economy, the structure of society and international geopolitics have driven the violence that's effected millions. But it is, of course, first and foremost, a book about the Congo. The wars for there are many that have been embroiled the country since around 1993 and continue today in a very different form since 29 years ago have displaced 5.5 million people. Currently, that's the number that are currently displaced. That's as many as any previous time in Congolese history, the third largest displacement crisis after Ukraine and Syria in the world. I see there's a hand up from the Burkle Center should I be doing something different? No, okay, good. For the most part, the war is just too complex, too marginal even to Africans for people to care about. I want to start this presentation with two snapshots. The first is of this gentleman here Jules Alingete on April 27 of this year. He is a celebrated financial inspector and the public face of the Congolese government's current anti corruption drive. He stepped up to a podium in Houston. He was wearing his trademark uniform that you can see a thick cloth jacket and up to the neck with gold buttons. He was addressing a small conference room of potential investors to convince them to come and invest in the Congo. What he said recorded for thousands to see on social media shocked many Congolese. He assured, he said "we do not have a war in the Congo. We see the war on television. We are in Kinshasa, Banda Lubumbashi the big cities where we have never seen war, and so it's a situation more than 2000 kilometers from our institutions." The second snapshot is the pageantry and fanfare of the heads of state come arriving to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali this June 20 of this year. 35 Heads of States attended. However, at the same time as Prince Charles at that time, still prince, who was presiding over the meeting was shaking President Paul Kagame's hand, the M 23 rebellion was making inroads in the neighboring Congo, allegedly with Rwanda and backing. None of the diplomats who are attending including Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson and Muhammadu Buhari expressed concern. In my new book, The War That Doesn't Say its Name, I try to understand this. I tried to understand why armed conflict has persisted in the Congo despite numerous peace talks, billions in international aid a national army of 130,000 pitted against ragtag rebel groups, and one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in the world. These snapshots from Houston and Kigali offer pieces of an answer. Over the past 26 years of fighting, while many have suffered from the conflict, a slim class of commanders and politicians has emerged for whom the conflict has become a source of survival and profit. Meanwhile, Alingete encapsulates the view of many Congolese elites, the war is distant and does not threaten their political survival. The government and armed groups have thus become locked in a perverse symbiosis. Alternating fighting with peace talks, neither side with an interest in ending hostilities. Conflict as well as perhaps peacemaking has become an end in itself, the fighting carried forward by its own momentum. Meanwhile, foreign donors and diplomats have provided food and urgent health care for millions in need, preventing the Congolese state from collapsing, but have also been unable to bring about transformational change. I put on this slide a couple of the main takeaways from my book that I'll be highlighting today in the talk.

Congolese have developed their own often very witty ways to express this sort of equilibrium in which they're living. Congolese author Koli Jean Bofane explores this culture of "anti-valeur" unethical behavior and his novel Mathématiques congolais. Here the protagonist, a mathematical savant, puts his creativity to use for a powerful government minister only to discover that his boss was staging false flag protests in order to manipulate public opinion. Not unfortunately, a far fetched scenario for the Congo. Eccentric Congolese Popstar Koffi Olomide put it differently, alluding to the propensity to turn adversity into a source of profit even pleasure. "Oyo eza système ya lifelo—moto ezopela kasi tozo zika te." We live in a system of hell everywhere the fire is raging but we don't get burned. And so what is this "système ya lifelo," this hellish system in which Congolese live? How has it come about? That is the motivation for this book. So in what follows. I'll give a very quick summary of the first part of the Congo War to provide a context for those who are less familiar with this so we can talk about the the core subject of my book, which is the 2003 to current period. The Congo wars started roughly speaking in 1996, or it started as a large war at least in 1996, when a coalition of regional countries in particular Rwanda, Uganda and Angola invaded the country in support of a Congolese rebellion, in fact, in support of a rebellion that they had created. The goal was to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko, who had led the country for 32 years and allowed it to become the rear base of these groups from a variety of different countries. That coalition then installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a mercurial and veteran rebel commander as president in 1997. Kabila, however, fell out with Rwanda and Uganda worried about their overbearing influence within his new government. That sparked a new war, which began in August of 1998, and split the country into four major parts. These wars had names, the First War or the War of the AFDL. Or the Second War, the War of the RCD, Thrawn and their rebellion that kicked off that fighting in 1998. In 2003, a peace deal was signed (French name) that reunified the country after five years in brutal war and forged a transitional government. A new Constitution was signed enshrining the rights of citizens as ever before, creating democratic institutions that decentralizing power to the provinces inaugurating the Congolese Third Republic which we are in today. These changes had real impact on the lives of millions of Congolese. By 2006, the number of internally displaced people in the Congo had declined to 1.2 million a third of what it has just been three years earlier. 130,000 soldiers including 30,000 children were demobilized during this transitional period. However, by 2006, these trends were being reversed. The main challenge to the nascent stability came from the malcontents of the peace deal, first part of the former colleagues Congolese rally for democracy are RCD rebels, then a series of Mai-Mai local militia, armed groups proliferated in part because of the failure of army reform, spawning a wave of defections of army officers, who fomented rebellion, or in part also due to poverty and local contestation over land and identity in the eastern highlands. Paradoxically, even as violence escalated, the nomenclature of the conflict was toned down. The United Nations peacekeeping mission was transformed into a Stabilization Mission. And as armed groups mushroom, there was no real pre peace process to engage them, no demobilization program, and only a few local reconciliation initiatives. This as Congolese sometimes call it is the war that does not say its name, which is the reason that I gave that name to my book. So that is an extremely fast overview of the sequence of events that has more or less taken us to here where we are today. I'm happy to talk in more detail about all of this in the question and answer period. But I want to talk about the underlying dynamics, which is the theoretical contents of my book. Why why why this persistence? Why has this conflict simmered on for almost 30 years now?

And so I argue that in order to understand why the conflict is persisted and become so entrenched, we have to look at the interests of the main actors, and a large part of my book focuses on these interests, the Congolese and Rwandan governments as well as their foreign partners. The Rwandan government was the first mover in actually all of the conflict, but also as well in this latest phase of the war, provoking a crisis as soon as the transitional government had even begun in in 2003, and then backing major armed groups in the Eastern Congo between then and now. And in fact, even now, they are at the heart of contestation and controversy in Eastern Congo. But what were its interests? What are its interests? The study of interest gets to the heart of my book as all too often and even today, you can see this in the way Congolese and foreign media are dealing with this issue. Analysts and policymakers have assumed and not scrutinize the interest of the main belligerence. So with regards to Rwanda, I tried to debunk two theories: that of ethnic solidarity and that of economic profiteering. Yes, of course, Rwanda has made a fortune of smuggling and racketeering in the Eastern Congo. That data is easily available, and I go over it in the book. But neither the CNDP or the M 23, Rwanda's main proxies or allies in Eastern Congo, in this period, really helped with that. In fact, Rwanda's export of Congolese minerals has skyrocketed in the years since it withdrew from the Eastern Congo following the M 23 defeat in 2013. And in fact, so you can see that in the recent years, and before this current escalation that we're currently in, Rwanda made more money off gold smuggling from the Eastern Congo than ever before. Alternativly diplomats and pundits often claim that Rwanda has intervened in the Congo, out of solidarity with ethnic Tutsis, the Tutsi community there. Many Rwandan leaders, including Paul Kagame, they are also from the ethnic Tutsi community. That clashes however, with dozens of interviews that I conducted with Congolese Tutsi soldiers and community leaders, many of whom felt betrayed and manipulated by Rwanda. And I go over this evidence in my book as well. So this leaves us with security. What about security. Supporters of the Rwandan government often mentioned security as the overriding imperative, in particular, the rebels of the democratic forces for the liberation of Rwanda or FDLR, some of whom participated. In fact, some of their leaders participated in the 1994 genocide. There is no doubt that the FDLR threat formed an important part of the decision making process, especially in the early parts of the war. But it's extremely difficult to disentangle real quote unquote, security threats from symbolic or political security. Much of the narrative underpinning the legitimacy of the RPF is tied up in the genocide and in the protection of the nation. The threat of the FDLR bolsters the notion that there's a greater good, a security imperative that justifies the repression of the opposition and restrictions on civil liberties, hallmarks of the RPF rule. And add to that the need to manage dissent from within the Rwandan army, which until today remains the greatest threat to the survival of the authoritarian government. Now to the Congo, in the interests of the Congo, which are similarly complex and smoothly complicit in the war, but in very different ways. Here political elites approach to the conflict has been a mixture of apathy, fatalism, and opportuism. Many of the political leaders I interviewed, even some of those from the East, expressed little knowledge about or engagement with the situation there. Those people have always been at war. One parliamentarian from Kinshasa told me nothing we can do, it will change that. The war in the Eastern Congo was extremely peripheral to their survival. I think it's a quote that I lead off with shows that politicians have never been punished or only very rarely been punished at the polls for their neglect to the East, nor has the fighting there been a security threat to the country's capital 1000 miles away. So my book explores this political culture characterizes by two impulses, normalization and decentralization. And I can go into that more in depth in the Q&A if you want. Well, some politicians may be influenced by stereotypes surrounding the violence, others are actually well informed of government complicity and do little to change things as it would be risky for them to do so. The main reason for this stems for the importance of the military during the period following the transitional government of 2003 to 2006. Political aides in Kinshasa were more worried about military dissent within the Army than about the grievances of the local population. And so but by deploying most of the army to the East, keeping officers salaries low but their discretionary allowances and bonuses high, and by giving them a free hand and racketeering, political elites can protect themselves from possible coups and enrich themselves through kickback schemes.

This system of fragmentation and clientelism has become self reinforcing, is now baked into the organization of the state, rendering it invested in the persistence of conflicts. It can, for example be observed, in how members of the Security Services are compensated. Payment is structured in such a way that officers struggled to prosper in the absence of armed conflicts. In 2014 up to more than sorry, more than 90% of officers remuneration depended on legal or extra legal payments directly linked to military operations. Both the fragmentation of actors and these interests produce what I call involution of the conflict. Over time, the main stakeholders approach to the conflict turned inwards, becoming invested in its own reproduction and then became stuck, thus making the conflict, rendering the conflict an end in itself. There is however, no grand conspiracy due to the multiplicity of players and the shadowy nature of these networks. Each actor find it's difficult to imagine another logic, let alone take concrete actions to reform. Although almost every actor within the current system finds it reprehensible, the violence has thus become systemic, exceeding the intentions of any individual actors. Now, finally, the international actors, they are also a part of this process. After all, they brokered and funded much of the peace process, and they have dramatically shaped the economy and politics of the Congolese over the past 20 years. I find two main faults with international engagement during this period. Donors and peacemakers focused on technocratic reforms rather than addressing the inequalities built into the structure of the Congolese state political inequalities. And they ignored parallel developments in the private sector that dramatically entrenched the political elites in charge of the state. Now, many of the donors working on the Congo have a deep appreciation of how the state works. Of the 37 donors and diplomats I interviewed for this book, most of them articulated a frustration with the Congolese state and understood that the main interests of the state were not aligned with the imperatives of efficiency, transparency, accountability. And yet, donor policy all too often ended up shoring up the Congolese state, providing enough resources to prevent it from collapsing, but unable to bring about substantial reforms. In part, this is due to internal dysfunctions of their own donor bureaucracy. Quote, "we understand that the state does not want to truly reform. We build new accounting systems for them, but that means they just steal money from elsewhere." One diplomat told me about the reforms they had supported in the management of civil servants. "However, our capital tells us we need to continue supporting them because the Congo is an important place for us to be. These bureaucratic incentives then often create a way of framing the problems facing the Congo in an abstract technocratic terms that strips away politics. In general, a large part of donor policy interpreted state weakness and conflict as a dysfunction that needed to be fixed, instead of an architecture set to serve the interests of political elites. Now, the second major flaw in how donors approach the conflict was evident in how the economy was managed. The rapid liberalisation of the Congolese economy during this period brought about dramatic growth in facts, exponential growth, but also compromised the peace process and helped entrench conflict dynamics related to the predatory state. The owners of diplomats were complicit as they implemented policies based on preconceived templates of peacebuilding, and refrain from enforcing stricter regulatory guidelines, and conditionalities. At the beginning of the transition in 2003, the Congolese economy was tiny, around 9 billion in terms of real GDP and state revenues were only $730 million for a country then of 51 million. Now it's unfortunately already 100 million people. By comparison, the budgetof my host here UCLA into 2021 was 9 billion. And so UCLA budget today is much larger. It's about 50% larger than Congolese budget today, a budget of 400 million people.

The size of the Congolese economy, however soon grew as a peace process brought about the privatization of many of the country's most valuable mining concessions in particular. This privatization was backed and encouraged by donors who believe that private investment would not undermine the peace process, but bolster this however, this afterall is a central tenet of liberal peacebuilding philosophy, which assumes that a right based democracy and a market oriented economy are the best foundations for sustained and equitable peace. When the World Bank, for example, helped draft the 2002 mining law and finance the reform of state run companies, and for embassies encouraged private business development, they chose not to scrutinize too closely the close connection between politics and business. Some of those investments in mining, for example, were extremely questionable made far beneath market prices by shadowy offshore companies. Estimates for losses of just a few of those deals range between 1.36 bilion and 5.5 billion dollars. One of the players in these deals, Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, was reportedly worth around 1.2 billion based on wealth amassed almost solely in the Congo. While less mediatized, transfer pricing and tax evasion by reputable multinationals has probably been on a similar magnitude. Since the Congolese government's main tax for mining companies is on profits, many companies in the Congo declare losses for their local subsidiaries, while transferring profits to a more lenient tax jurisdiction. For example, a study of Glencore, the largest mining company in the Congo and the world, found that it's Congolese subsidiary Kamoto Copper Mining Company declared losses of hundreds of millions of dollars between 2009 and 2013. During the same period, Glencore's Canadian subsidiary subsidiary, Katanga mining limited ran a net profit of over 400 million resulting in a $150 million loss to commonly state coffers. That's just one example. In the long run, the involvement of international and business people and diplomats did not resemble essentially control conspiracy to fuel war in the Congo. Instead, donors and diplomats acted uncritically in accordance with the belief that privatization and foreign investment would bring greater prosperity and stability in the Congo and also to their companies. Once the floodgates of private investment were open, international capital then moved with little control by political elites in individual countries. This ended up creating few jobs for Congolese and leaving little profit in the country. I would like to end with a nod to my political science colleagues who may be in the audience. Part of this book, after all isn't engagement with broader academic debates, especially in that discipline, and they will find that my explanation places much greater emphasis on government elites in the Congo and Rwanda. Excuse me, then on local actors, in contrast with the local turn, adopted by some conflict scholars. It is also more focused on the actors, their interests and their interactions than on material variables. In contrast with literature by conflict scholars that is aimed to detect loss of causation through large datasets with high degrees of abstraction, the story told here is not primarily one of natural resources, a corrupt government, an impoverished population and a difficult topography. After all, those features that are highlighted by much of the literature are relatively commonplace, while conflict is actually not in the Congo, and in fact around the world. My book instead focuses on the protagonists who animate and interpret these factors. And finally, a word about policy. There were there have been many inflection points at which donors and governments could have intervened to bring an end to the conference today. However, 30 years on simple solutions are hard to come by. The conflict has transformed trade networks, social hierarchies mentalities and political structures. There is no one strand of this cat's cradle that can be tugged to collapsing. The challenges facing Congolese are generational. At the local level, they will have to contend with the demobilization of hundreds of armed groups, and the psychological and social scars of decades of war. At the national level, they will have to battle the political elite that has become less accountable and more corrupt, as massive investment has flowed into the country. Meanwhile, on the international scene, they will have to contend with a relatively apathetic African community of states and the Western donor community that has done little to constrain international capital, and often fails to live up to its high minded human rights rhetoric. These are not technical battles, but rather struggles for power for control over local and national politics. And so I will end there. I look forward to the discussion and thank you once again for listening.

Leslie Johns 25:00

Thank you, Jason, thanks for such an interesting and engaging presentation. I think it did a really great job of illustrating how much depth there is of the book in terms of qualitative knowledge of the individuals and all of the various factions involved, as well as highlighting some of the big sort of theoretical contributions you make. And I particularly encourage our graduate students in political science to purchase a copy and read it because there are a lot of things in this book that that might be somewhat controversial in terms of the way we think about studying war. So it's very provocative, but I thought I will get our discussion kicked off today by asking you to tell us a little bit about what's going on on the ground in the caboose. Since you published this book, at the end of last year, you alluded to the current escalation, but we don't hear that much about it in the Western news media. So could you give us a brief update on conditions on the ground?

Jason Stearns 25:55

Sure. So what the international media has focused on is their escalation around the M 23 rebellion that started in November of last year, and really picked up steam in March of April of this year. That rebellion that traces really traces its lineage back to the early days of this third phase of the war. In other words, the M 23, is a descendant of the CNDP, which is a descendant of the RCD, which was the biggest run and ally during the Great Congo War. The M 23 invaded again the Eastern Congo and occupied an important border town of Bunagana. In fact, Bunagana is still today under the control of the M 23. The reason that this triggered so much debate in the Congo and a little bit abroad, is because of that history. And because many believe and in fact, UN experts have documented Rwandan support to that group. And because it's so that it really triggers memories. And going back to the beginning days of the Congo War, this relationship between Congo and Rwanda still remains extremely contentious and, you know, really is extremely animates the Congolese population, enormously. Now, I see that that's the conflict that most people have focused on. There are five and a half million people displaced. I would say maybe only 5% of those people who are displaced are displaced because of the M 23. There are far deadlier groups, there are groups that are have displaced many more people. There are a total of rounds of upwards of 100 groups, maybe two dozen or so of those groups are actually very serious armed groups. The most serious of those are not in that area, therefore the North. They are the foreign Islamist armed group, the Ugandan ADF and the Congolese CODECO. Those are the deadliest armed groups. And so you have a proliferation of armed groups. I couldn't, you know, I don't have time to get into all of those armed groups. But I think the important thing is there's a system of armed groups. The most important one of these armed groups is the commonly state itself, despite the fact that most of these armed groups are relatively ragtag, not terribly professional, not much loved by the local population, the Congolese government has really struggled getting to grips with the situation. And so what is stalled, unfortunately, even under the current Presidency of Felix Tshisekedi, who came into office three years ago in 2019, has begun process of reform of the Congolese government of the Congolese state. And so that that's really, I think, one of the most important underlying factors in this current constellation of conflicts as it stands.

Leslie Johns 28:30

Okay. I guess I wanted to push you a little bit more on sort of how we talk about conflict in the Congo. You know, you very vividly paint a picture of widespread violence by non state actors. Obviously, there's a great humanitarian tragedy playing out there. But what's striking to me as like a political scientist, is it seems as though these groups have no clear political objectives. And so I mean, should we really be thinking about this as warfare? Is this just law enforcement problems and widespread criminality? I mean, maybe these distinctions don't matter. But should we really be even thinking about this as war as opposed to just sort of statelessness more generally?

Jason Stearns 29:15

So I will push back to the fact. I mean, there is often people who have depicted Congolese rebellions and Congress war as through this lens of greed, criminal rebels, right? And if you go there, it's tempting to see that view. You meet with many of these armed groups. And they seem thuggish in the sense that they have, as you said, no ideology. They're not communists or socialists. They don't talk about deep state reform. They seem to be fighting. They don't seem to be popular. They seem to be rooted in survival and extraction, and that's it. But if you dig deeper, and if you spent some time with him, you'll find actually that as much as with any armed group, as much as was the case with Castro's communists in, in the mountains of Cuba, or as was what was with Ho Chi Min in Vietnam, many of these combatants are fighting for dignity. And for a world that would make more sense to them. Most of them, almost all of them are young men that are fighting also for a sense of meaning in their own lives often expressed in very chauvinistic terms, but it's trying to make sense out of out of a world that has been extremely abusive and marginalizing to them. And so I think that, you know, trying to say that some, some groups have ideologies and some don't, I think really doesn't take into account that almost all armed groups around the world are people fighting for dignity and survival amongst the combatants themselves. And almost all wars in terms of elites are fights over over power framed in different ways. You can see that with the Ukraine conflict today, you know. It's in Russia, it's framed in one way, and Ukraine or the United States is framed in a very different way. And so, ideology, I think, can be a deceptive frame, I think, to understand many of these conflicts. So that's, that's on the side, in terms of what motivates and what animates these combatants now is this war is a statelessness. Now, I think the thing, the thing that I don't like about the concept of state failure or statelessness, is that it can often be ahistorical, and it makes it almost seem as if the Congo collapsed under its own weight. Or if it's something about the Congolese that made their own state collapse, and it makes us understand I know, that's not what you're pointing to. But it's sometimes that it's the concept of state failure can, can can, and it has been used that way at certain states in the world. It's as if they're collapsing by themselves. Now, the Congolese state is extremely weak, although it's present everywhere. It's an extremely, it's an overly present state, you can find it everywhere you go throughout the Congo, but it's extremely dysfunctional or it's functional for certain people. And so I think instead of saying statelessness, a lack of structure, it's a particular kind of order that benefits certain people. So the state is very much there, it just is a very different kind of state than you and I are used to. And in the state, failure is, is not ahistorical but deeply historical, and the Congo ties in with Cold War politics, that it helped sap the state that we and we benefited from this. I mean, after all, how is it that Congo is the largest producer of cobalt in the world. In fact, anybody who's driving an electric vehicle in the audience has a piece of the Congo probably driving around with them, because majority of the cobalt in the world, and it's used for almost all electric car batteries today comes from the Congo, and yet the Congo is pathetically poor state. And so in order to understand that, we have to understand Congolese history, international political economy, and I think sometimes concepts such a steep being there, decontextualize and de-historicize. That process?

Leslie Johns 32:47

That's a really great point. Yeah. You know, I have other questions that I was hoping to get to, but we have so much audience engagement, that I want to go ahead and start bringing in some of the Q&A. If you arrived a few minutes late, and you would like to contribute a question, please go down to the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen. And I'll do my best to get as many of these to Jason as I can. But I wanted to start at one that naturally follows on from what you last said, is some of the guests are asking about what triggered your own interest in the Congo? And what has your own time on the ground been like? You mentioned sort of talking to these groups spending time with them? Could you tell the audience a little bit more about your background and how that shaped your research?

Jason Stearns 33:31

So I traveled to the Congo after I finished my undergraduate degree in the United States. I had spent some time in Tanzania, but never in the Congo before that. So I spoke French and Swahili. So Congo was sort of an easy place for me to go and find myself. But other than that, I was a young, a young American trying to understand how to express solidarity in the war at that time. That's probably even a too sophisticated understanding of what I was trying to do at the time. And so I ended up in Eastern Congo and Bukavu where I worked and lived for many years, with local human rights group, as you pointed out, eventually, with UN peacekeeping mission, trying to figure out what the best way was of understanding and engaging with this conference. So I started off with the human rights lens. I transitioned into this peacekeeping or international diplomacy lens to the UN. And then I really settled on what I do today, which is research, but research that tries to promote a more informed debate about the Congo in the Congo, because our research institute is actually also a Congolese Research Institute, and, and in the United States, and amongst other foreign partners that have not usually been constructive or productive partners for for the Congress. So then I went on to do my PhD, yada, yada, yada, but that's sort of how it started. My interest in the Congo started in 2001.

Leslie Johns 34:59

Wonderful. One of our guests asks whether the transition away from the Kabila government until new leadership has changed the war in any noticeable way.

Jason Stearns 35:11

Yeah, that's a very good question. So Félix Tshisekedi, who was the current president took over in January of 2019. It's important to understand this could be a very long explanation. I'll try to keep it short. Tshisekedi came in as a compromised victor in the sense that according to most observers, according to my own analysis, he didn't actually win the 2018 elections. It was it was rigged in his favor by the incumbent. And so he came into office in a power sharing deal with with the former President Joseph Kabila. And as part of that deal, he couldn't really attack the foundations and the patronage networks of the Kabila government. Right. And so he came in trying to change things. And I think he didn't want to try to change. But he very quickly realized that he can't push too hard, because he was actually in a partnership with the person who'd been there for the previous 17 years. And his father had been there for four years prior to that. And so he found a system. And so, you know, he said, you know, (phrase), I'm gonna kick out the people with the previous system, but he had a very hard time doing that. Two years after that, so 2021, he actually did do that. He broke his alliance with Kabila in fact, to many people, including my surprise, and he started replacing people of the Kabila government with new people. And so this, and they many people were enthusiastic about this, they thought that this could bring about a new system of governance, a system of governance, both in terms of the economy, as well as in terms of security that would be invest in the interest of the Congolese people, and not as the current as a colony status has always been almost since independence, a system of patronage and extraction for a very narrow elite. And I think that many have been disappointed with that this past year and a half. Since Tshisekedi has broken up for almost a year and three quarters since he broke up with his former partner Joseph Kabila. He has indeed replaced many people, but like with Kabila, and in fact, just this week, there was a new wave of army nominations. Just today, in fact, a new wave of army nominations, and again, it seems to be prioritizing loyalty over efficiency, loyalty to him and these patronage networks over something that would install a greater accountability and real true reform to security services. So I think that in terms of the security situation, I mean, I can go much deeper than that. But there, many things have changed, but as in the Congoese, they say, [French phrase]. So it's almost the same in terms of violence. Certainly levels of violence, unfortunately, have not come down.

Leslie Johns 37:49

Okay. Some of our other guests have written in asking about the International Criminal Court. Obviously, there have been some investigations, including prosecutions of a few militia leaders, although I believe those are leaders primarily from Ituri if my knowledge is correct. And so I was wondering, do you have any sense as to whether the ICC has had an effect? And do you have any optimism about their ability to help influence change in the region?

Jason Stearns 38:20

Frankly, I mean, one of the key things in terms of the key lacking things since the transition began in serious at least in 2003, in the Congo, has been accountability. There has not been mechanisms of accountability from the Congolese court system through to the international approaches, including the ICC. And so the International Criminal Court, indeed prioritize many cases from the Congo. This was after after Uganda and Joseph Kony came to Congo. That's the cases were filling up the docket in The Hague. For many years were Congolese cases Congolese used to joke that ICC was an international court for the Congo because so many cases were Congolese cases. And indeed, as you pointed out, many of those from were from Ituri. The logic was, let's try to prioritize and focus on a part of the Congo where there are actually not that many geopolitical interests in Ituri. At that point, both Rwanda and Uganda didn't care that much about Ituri anymore, Kinshasa didn't care about Ituri. So it was a place where you could start arresting people, and you weren't going to face an enormous amount of pushback. They wouldn't in other words, face the same problems as they face in Sudan and Kenya, where they had a hard time finding witnesses. Witness intimidation, the powerful and the mighty, basically stopped everything. And so they weren't able to actually carry out prosecutions. They did try many of those. They found some of them at least guilty, although some of them, quite embarrassingly, they had to lead free for lack of evidence or for procedural flaws in the trials. But I think they they didn't go up the chain of command. In other words they found Thomas Lubanga. They convicted him, he's a militia leader. They convicted him for recruiting child soldiers. I mean, he also was guilty of overseeing mass rape, mass killings, etc, etc. So that wasn't tried. That was a flaw. And then Lubanga was in cahoots, I mean deeply in cahoots with both first the Ugandan Government, and then the Rwandan government. In fact, much of the violence, that terrible, terrible violence in eternity was a proxy war between Kinshasa, Kigali and Kampala. And none of those actors were tried or held accountable at all, despite testimony. You can, you can go through this riveting testimony on the ICC website of people who would talk about all of their relationships with those powers. And yet, all of those guys were let off scot free as well. And then, just to end with the final flaw, it wasn't broadened out to concern any of the other Congolese leaders, the leaders who were prosecuted such as Lubanga, have many of them have been set free. Lubanga, today is a peace envoy for the Congolese government in Ituri. And so I think many, most Congolese would say the ICC has not produced the results they have expected.

Leslie Johns 41:05

Several of the students that are chiming in on the Q&A, I know who the students are, just through my own past teaching, are asking you if you could talk a little bit more about this concept of involution, which is a really interesting concept that comes out in the book. And could you in particular, see this concept as applying to other types of conflict? Perhaps in Africa or elsewhere in the world?

Jason Stearns 41:31

Yeah, so involution is an anthropological concept. Actually, it's an architectural concept that was that came from architecture involution. And involution in architecture is when you it's like an arabesque when you draw ever smaller geometrical patterns within existing geometrical patterns. It's, it's, and it was then adopted by the famous anthropologist with regards. In Indonesia, when he did a study of rice agriculture, what he found was that people were employing the same method of rice agriculture, but it's smaller and smaller scale, just surviving, not transforming the system, but getting by on the existing system. And so it was a system that by its very nature tended to reproduce itself and got stuck. It's you can imagine getting stuck like in a gutter on a ditch. And that's, I think, an apt metaphor for what's happened in the Congo. You speak with people in the Congo. Everybody who speaks to me, you know, army generals, politicians, combatants, certainly the victims, nobody's happy with the system. You know, this notion that there are in French you say (French phrase), the people pulling the strings. Yes, there are people pulling strings in the conflict. But even then most of them are not very happy with the conflict. It's not a, it's not a great thing. And yet everybody is stuck in this ditch together, almost stuck in this ditch. Now, some people are stuck and they're suffering, they're victims, and some people are actually making money off of it. But you know, you can make a lot more money in the Congo if you got out of this ditch. And you know, if you if it's really just about maximizing profits, there are better ways to maximize profits. And so involution is this notion of different actors participating in this negative equilibrium. And being stuck in this equilibrium, improvising extreme sometimes, finding extremely inventive ways of making money, staging false flag attacks, creating new armed groups, being very creative, but being stuck in this ditch this negative equilibrium of conflict. In the Congo, they often say (phrase). So war is a hustle. You just hustling, you're trying to get by. You're not happy or even proud of yourself. But you're hustling to get by. Could this apply to other African conflicts? I think Nigeria has very similar dynamics, speaking with many Nigerian colleagues and friends. If you look at the investment, even if you read my book, I detail this a little bit. If you read even Nigerian Parliamentary Commission's examinations of the conflict, they go into great lengths detailing all the government officials up and down the lists were complicit in the conflict, who were making money out of the conflict in some shape or form. The conflict has been at, has become, has transformed the political economy, become a source of profit, also a source of populism for certain political figures. And so it shifts everything. And so you have Buhari who comes into Nigeria, pledging to transform everything. He's a former general, he knows how to fight a war, and things just get worse and worse and worse and apart. We have this metastasizing of conflict and the feeling that Buhari is not actually in control of the conflict. The conflict's in control of Buhari. So I think it's a different conflict. There's different kinds of actors, different kinds of interests. I don't want to say it's the same thing. But in some ways, it's also stuck in a ditch, just like the Congolese conflict. Okay.

Leslie Johns 44:42

On a related question to your just last answer, you know, you know, if there are so much of the government is complicit in the system, why don't voters or public's who are living in other portions of the country, why are they so apathetic? Is it because of their contrasting livelihoods across the state, obviously, it's such a huge state with so much diversity, like, like, why aren't publics expecting more out of those politicians?

Jason Stearns 45:11

I mean that's a really good question. So I want to make, that leads me to emphasize that this involution and this stuck in the gutter phenomenon is not just because people, it's not a material thing alone. It's not just interests, right. It's a it's a political culture, right? It's exactly this. A lot of what's happening is not just in Kinshasa, but in Los Angeles, in Vancouver, where I am, is apathy is a huge driver. The normalization of the conflict. And you can see that in Kinshasa, you know. You talk to people in Kinshasa, amongst parliamentarians. I would go to a parliamentarian a good friend of mine or not for many years in Kinshasa. And I say, look, why don't you do what you just said, Leslie. Why don't you have a motion in government? Why don't you know, rally against this war, etcetera, etcetera. He said, You know, my constituents don't really care about this. It's not an issue. It's not like I'm gonna live or die in the elections based on conflict in the East. They say, oh, those Swahili in the East, they've always been fighting. That's just that's just, that's just their way. So they normalize it. They forget about it, they centralize it by saying they just that's just how they are and what they do. And I think that those same instincts also apply to many people around the world. We, as you said, you know, we often don't hear about the Congo and in world media, and yet it is extremely deadly conflict. We get obsessed about certain conflicts. This is why many Africans, I think, at least my colleagues have been discussed it, I think, to be frank about the treatment of Ukraine, not because Ukrainians don't deserve no, you know, treatment. And of course, it's awful. And it's horrible. And it's handed down, of course, but it's just that this has been happening in many African parts of Africa, Ethiopia, Congo, etc, for a long time, and we just don't care. You know, I did an analysis of the Congo War, in the New York Times, which is good, actually has a lot of foreign coverage, into 2019, which was a pretty bad year for the Congo and figured three times on the front page. And I think two of those times was George Clooney, and one time was mountain gorillas. George Clooney does some charitable work in the Congo, and Syria figured a 180 times on the front page. Yeah, not to say that our investment in Syria has born great fruit, but it's just to show that the politics of suffering are filtered through lenses that we impose on them. And those lenses then tends to create normalization, create apathy. And I think that's an important extremely important question. And all of this is in question the United States as well. The question you asked about why people why do people not vote in their interests? That's a question that, what's your matter with Kansas as political. Exactly, the US that happens too. So this notion of what we care about, what we think is acceptable and not as something that applies world around.

Leslie Johns 48:04

Yeah. Another question from one of our graduate students, this is comes from a graduate student who's working on a dissertation involving armed groups in Colombia is very interested in having you talk a little bit more about fragmentation, and more particularly, what insights you might have as to why fragmentation has become so prominent in the DRC?

Jason Stearns 48:29

Yeah, there's a whole literature on this. And Colombia is a great case study. In fact, you know, what happens in many post conflict or late stage conflict, or whatever you want to call this conflict in the Congo at the moment, is this fragmentation. So it's not something that's just a Congolese phenomenon. Theorists of new war and others would argue that, that proliferation and fragmentation is actually a feature writ large of modern conflicts. And that has to do with new liberalization. That has to do with globalization. And so there are worlds worldwide phenomena that I think it makes it easier to sustain very low level insurgencies around the world. So that's not just a Congolese thing. You can see it other places and African continent as well. In the Congo, I think this has been also paradoxically and perversely fueled by politics as well, especially democracy. You know, there's been a democratization of armed groups to a certain extent where armed groups elections, the advent of elections, we've now had 1 2 3 4 cycles of elections in the Congo since democratization 2006. And that also creates perverse incentives for politicians to mobilize militia and those militia then take on a life of their own. That's been the story of some armed groups in the Congo as well. So I think there's a bunch of centrifugal forces, so forces that are forcing outwards, rather, they tend towards decentralization rather than centralization, that that reinforced this dynamic of fragmentation in the Congo as elsewhere as well.

Leslie Johns 50:03

Okay. We have gotten a question as well, mentioning that the DRC recently joined the says EAC. I assume that's East African Community. Last week, lots of regional forces have been moving in the area. What do you expect from this initiative? Do you have any hopes that this might help to change things on the ground?

Jason Stearns 50:28

I think it's a big question mark, I think that we always need to hold out hope and to try to see where dynamics are taking us the country, and build on those dynamics. So I mean, obviously, there's reasons to be cynical. The East Africa, this came on the heels of integration, the East African Community was one thing that's been happening now for several years, and then the law was just voted in by Congolese parliament. And so that's, that's, that's ongoing. And then the M 23 rebellion triggered an East African intervention force that's supposed to be deploying to deal at first, the first of its kind for the stuff from community that's supposed to be deploying to engage with the violence now. So there are economic issues and political issues on the economic front. I think that there could be reasons to be optimistic, although as for all other countries, the Congo has to be very careful in this process of integration. The countries that are further along in the industrialization process stand to benefit from a lot of this because, you know, the Congo has a nascent fledgling manufacturing sector. For example, businessmrn in Goma, Kinshasa, and Lubumbashi are very worried, they're going to be swamped by goods from Kenya, and Uganda, which are much further along and have a much greater ability to produce plastics, mattresses, matches, electronics, etc, etc. And so that's a, that's a, that's a threat to a certain extent. There has been some hope that the standardization of taxes and tariffs across the region will undermine the huge amount of smuggling that's going on in the eastern Congo. Last year, there were $3 billion of gold alone, smuggled out of Eastern Congo has issued enormous vast amounts of gold to Uganda and Rwanda. And so there's some hope that joining the East African Community will mitigate that kind of smuggling process. So you know, we'll have to see where it goes. It all depends, I think, on having a stronger government to be able to engage in those kinds of discussions. That's been what's been lacking. And the military front, this East African intervention force. Again, there's reasons to be cynical in the sense that almost all of the countries that are supposed to be in that force are actually already deployed in Congo, and they were deployed before the force was announced. And so you have the Ugandans, who are conducting drone operations, Operations Shujaa, in North Kivu and Ituri. You have the Bruneians in South Kivu conducting operations on their own, but with the approval of Congolese government, you have the Kenyans, and Tanzanians who are already there with the UN peacekeeping forces. The Kenyans have sent some more soldiers now for just this one. So it's. there's reasons to be cynical. I think the big change is Kenya's involvement. This, after all, was an initiative of the Kenyan government especially under Uhuru Kenyatta. And even though William Ruto, one the recent Kenyan elections, Kenyatta is now has been designated as the official Kenyan envoy to both Ethiopia and the Congo. And Kenyan businesses are very, very interested in the Congo in a way that doesn't seem to be as opportunistic and as illegal perhaps as Rwandan and Ghanaian businesses in the past, Kenyan businessmen are coming in in a big way in the banking sector and in other sectors. And it's possible that Kenyan involvement can temporarily and mitigate the more negative involvement of Rwandans and Ugandans. So that's I think, what the whole hope out for but the problem is that there's no peace process. I mean, we've been talking about a lot of violence. As you well know, Leslie, the, you know, the 101 of peacebuilding is you need a process. You need to get people around the table, you know, figure out a strategy. What's you know, how to put these different pieces of the puzzle together? Is there going to be a peace deal and agreements followed by demobilization that doesn't exist? There is no strategy at the moment. And that I think is a big problem for the East African community, but also for the UN peacekeeping forces in the country today.

Leslie Johns 54:14

One of our guests also asked more specifically about the mining industry and trying to crack down on tax evasion. Is there any expectation that Kenya might get involved in mining as well and perhaps help out in that industry or -?

Jason Stearns 54:28

We can't, I mean, the mining modes so there's but there's different kinds of miners, artisanal mining, and there's industrial mining. Industrial mining is where the big bucks are like, much bigger than the artisanal mining. Artisanal mining employs vastly vastly more people, right. Industrial mining is extremely capital intensive and not very labor intensive at all. It's these massive trucks and bulldozers etc that you that you've seen on TV. The multinational stuff really I would love there to be cracking down, I'd love there to be new contracts that are more in the interest the colonies. Government, I'd love to be tackling crime, looking down on tax evasion in the country and outside of the country, the country is being fleeced. I think it has been fleeced by multinational investors, since they opened up since they privatize mining starting in 2003-2004. And they've lost just vast, vast sums of money. That's not something that can do alone. They need the City of London, they need the US governments, they need tax havens around the world. So I mean, it says there's an effort, a global effort by tax justice advocates around the world pushing for this. Yeah, that is a tremendously tremendously, I mean, again, I can't emphasize enough, how can a country of 100 million people only have a budget of 6 billion? You just can't do anything with $6 billion. Instead, you know, 80% of that money goes just to pay people salaries. That's it. And then you can't, you can barely do anything besides that. So yeah, so at the end, they need more money, and most of that money is leaving the country. So on the on the artisanal stuff, I don't think the Kenyans are very involved in their artisanal stuff there. You need the Congolese government, I think, to engage more. You know, there's a lot of controversy surrounding the conflict minerals discourse that has been criminalized parts of the artisanal mining sector. So there, there are many minerals that are being taxed by armed groups that are benefiting armed groups. And that is a factor in the political economy of conflict. There's no doubt about that, and it needs to be cut out. Unfortunately, as an unintended and perverse consequence of laws, including the Dodd Frank legislation in the United States of 2011 has been to decriminalized sectors 10s of 1000s of artisanal miners are rendered them jobless, make it difficult for them to survive. And it's also led to a monopolization of these various different certification schemes that come in to try to take out the conflict of the conflict minerals, so to say. And so it's a lot of perverse consequences in that whole approach. It's a much larger conversation, but that whole approach needs to be taken, needs to be reformed, I think.

Leslie Johns 57:05

Wonderful. Well, we're almost out of time. So I think I'll go ahead and let you off the hot seat for now. Thank you so much for joining us. We've certainly gotten a lot of issues discussed in those last hour. Just Jason just so you know, a lot of people have been writing into the Q&A feature, just saying I can't wait to buy the book. Everyone, if you go to the chat box, we posted a link to the book. It's available in hardback. Do you know, are they going to release a paperback edition soon, Jason?

Jason Stearns 57:35

I'm not entirely sure. Luckily, it's not the hardback is not yeah, it's not expensive.

Leslie Johns 57:38

Yeah, it's a very cheap price. So it's not like Cambridge or Oxford where they get you over the bucket. So it's a very affordable book. I particularly recommend it for graduate students who are doing work on conflict studies. Thank you so much, and thank you to all of our audience members. Please be sure to share with your friends and colleagues that we will be posting this in video as well as audio files if you're interested in sharing this conversation with them. And I look forward to seeing you all in our future events coming up in the next couple of weeks. Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Sponsor(s): Burkle Center for International Relations, African Studies Center, Political Science, The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law

4 Oct 22
12:30 PM -

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