Introducing Steven Spittaels

SpittaelsSteven Spittaels (1980) works for the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Antwerp (Belgium). He has visited the Democratic Republic Congo to conduct research in conflict areas.

In this interview, he discusses among other topics the geopolitical factors that explain an unstable and violent past and elaborates on the prospects of this huge country for the next decade.


Geopolitical features of Democratic Republic Congo

What geopolitical factors explain the unstable history of DR Congo?

The violent recent history of the DRC can only partly be explained through geopolitical arguments. Popular geopolitical hypotheses and explanations include the following:

  • The country is too vast and the different provinces, often isolated geomorphologically and through the absence of a passable road system, are too far away from the capital to allow sufficient state control, which has caused a situation of state absence and virtual anarchy.
  • The high population density of the neighbouring country of Rwanda has caused this country to virtually burst out of its borders. There is no sufficient space to house and feed everybody and consequently the Rwandans need more ‘Lebensraum’.
  • The DR Congo is very rich in terms of natural resources, especially when compared to some of its neighbours. When the armies of these neighbouring countries arrived in the DR Congo, they had therefore little incentives to leave the country.
  • The DR Congo has 9 neighbouring countries. Because of the partial absence of state control in several regions and because of its geography and vegetation conducive for hiding out, the DRC often serves as a base of operations for foreign armed groups from which they launch attacks against their home countries.
  • More than 200 ethnic groups inhabit the DR Congo and its borders are artificial.

Current situation in Democratic Republic Congo

Does DR Congo still suffer from local violence and insecurity in 2008?

Yes. Local violence persists in several parts of the country. In the past year there have been violent incidents in the Bas-Congo province, in the South-West of the country, and the Ituri District in the North-East.

The Bas-Congo province is the only Congolese territory with direct access to the Atlantic ocean. In February and March of 2008 members of a politico-religious movement clashed with troops of the Congolese national police. It was a violent event but it bore little relation to the Congo wars of the previous decade.

The Ituri District has remained a volatile region ever since the Sun City peace agreement of April 2002. One of the most destabilising factors is the presence of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that fights against the government of Uganda but often operates from Congolese territory.

Apart from these areas open warfare is still going on in the two Kivu provinces of the DRC, especially in North Kivu. In spite of an ongoing peace process 4 warring parties have clashed with each other on several occasions. Most of the time, three of them, the Congolese army, Congolese popular self-defence groups (“Mayi-Mayi”) and Rwandan Hutu rebels (FDLR, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda) side with each other against the fourth party, a Tutsi rebel group led by the renegade general Laurent Nkunda (CNDP, National Congress for the Defence of the People).

Being involved in the civil war in the 1990s, do other African countries such as Rwanda and Zimbabwe still have much influence in DR Congo?

The influence is much less and less direct. Of all the African countries that have been involved in the Congo wars, only Rwanda has retained a significant impact on the security situation of the DR Congo. Whereas the FDLR counts among its ranks former members of the old Rwandan army and the Hutu Interahamwe militias, the CNDP hosts a number of former Tutsi RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) combatants. It is an enormous simplification, but to a certain extent the fight between FDLR and CNDP is a continuation of the Rwandan war of the early 1990’s. As such Rwanda holds the key to solving (part of) the warfare that rages through the East of the DR Congo. Unfortunately, direct negotiations including Rwanda, the FDLR and the CNDP have never taken place.

Methodology and conclusions of research in Democratic Republic Congo

What are the advantages of the methodology you used, called “cartographical conflict analysis”?

The whole project started with the idea that what conflict parties claim they are fighting for, should be checked with the events on the ground. The easiest way to compare assertions with reality was to make use of multilayered maps. Sure enough, in some cases the maps do reveal intentions of armed groups that were previously hidden behind their discourse.

As a second strength, the maps enhance the accessibility of a thorough analysis for a diverse audience. The maps we produce are digital and interactive. When people lay the printed text of our analyses next to their computer screens they can directly follow every reasoning we make. This creates the possibility of a direct dialogue between the readers and us because they know (to a certain extent) on which information we have based our arguments. This offers an extra guarantee, or at least an additional check, concerning the objectivity of our research.

A third advantage of the geographical method is the ease with which the analysis can be updated. New developments on the ground can be shown on a new map and the new map can be compared to old maps and previous findings.

Finally the maps are didactic material in themselves and are great to use during presentations.

What are the results of your analysis of motives of armed groups in conflict areas in DR Congo?

(Note: Protagonists in 2008 conflicts: CNDP: National Congress for the Defence of the People; FDLR: Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda)

In our report we have tried to uncover the principal drivers of the conflicts by analysing the positions and behaviour of the armed groups that are involved. The report deals with the situation as it was in January 2008. In the meantime I think little has changed.

We have found that Laurent Nkunda and his CNDP who are fighting the other three warring parties do not want to break away from the Congolese state. The CNDP does not control any administrative capital, neither has it seriously tried to take one since its inception. Based on its grievances, the CNDP has drafted a list of principal objectives that constitute its reason of existence. Taking a closer look at those objectives and CNDP discourse in general it is clear that Nkunda considers himself the protector of the Tutsi population in the DRC. To a certain extent reality matches the discourse.

The CNDP has positioned itself in those areas where previously the Congolese Tutsis were living. Moreover, it is actively fighting the FDLR whom it considers to be a serious threat for its people. However, apart from its fight against the FDLR, it has engaged the Congolese army on numerous occasions and it has committed a considerable number of very serious human rights violations.

The CNDP also protects the specific economic interests of some of its members and sympathisers. It controls the grazing lands used by several rich cattle farmers and two mining areas.

Regarding the FDLR, its members have been living in the DRC for 14 years. It claims its fight is not with the DRC Government but with Rwanda. It is true it has never used its military power to try to gain political control in the Congo. Since 2005, it has stopped carrying out armed attacks on Rwandan soil. It claims to seek a peaceful solution through an inter-Rwandan dialogue when security conditions in its home country are met. The FDLR grievances seem a plausible explanation for its behaviour in the field.

However, the fact remains that the FDLR carry arms and frequently use them in military operations against the CNDP, in abuses against civilians and as leverage to make a profit. They live a hidden life on rough terrain but they are also involved in different types of illegal business such as illegal mining and drug traffic. Moreover, a small group of ‘ex-génocidaires’ has an interest in sustaining the movement and maintaining the status quo.

The self-defence groups (“Mayi-Mayi”) pretend to defend the Congolese people against foreign armed groups. However, they are mild in their judgement on the FDLR and clearly vindictive towards the CNDP. They claim to conquer the lands that they claim to be unrightfully occupied by the CNDP/the Tutsi. The groups are an offensive force and they act according to their grievances.

In 2007 and 2008 the Congolese army has been involved in military operations against the CNDP in the territories of Rutshuru and Masisi. The majority of their forces in the region are deployed in this area and participate in the offensive. However, some military units retain positions in remote areas where their main motive for deployment is to enrich themselves and their superiors.

Peace prospects for the Democratic Republic Congo

Does DR Congo have the potential to stabilise in the next decade?

Yes. With the relatively successful peace process since 2002 and the fair elections of 2006, two important corner stones have been put in place. But the acquis remains fragile and the situation could still go either way.

On the one hand, the further political and economic developments within the DR Congo itself are key to long term stabilisation. Joseph Kabila has put forward ‘5 works’ (chantiers) as a priority for his presidential term: education and health, water and electricity, housing, infrastructure and employment. The expectations of the population have been raised and Kabila needs to deliver if he wants to retain the support of his electorate. Fortunately for him in the short run but unfortunately for the country in the long run, the development of a credible political opposition is slow.

Concerning economic stability, much depends on the restoration of the DR Congo’s mining sector. In this respect the renegotiation of a series of important mining contracts inherited from the last decade is crucial as well as a package deal concluded in September 2007 with a number of Chinese enterprises and currently coming into effect.

On the other hand, solving the conflicts between Rwanda, the Congolese Tutsis, the Rwandan Hutu rebels and the DRC government is of prime importance. If no viable solution for the Rwandan problem can be found, peace will also prove to be elusive for the DR Congo and without peace there can be no stability.

Steven Spittaels: Congo (Democratic Republic) – a complex civil war
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