Demobilising the Democratic Republic of Congo

In response to our November post about conflict in the DRC, Sofia Shariff argues that lasting peace can only come from within the country itself – not the international community – by integrating former rebels into a new state military.


UN Mission in DR Congo Assures Stability During Electoral Period

UN forces on patrol in Bogoro during elections in 2006. © UN Photo/Creative Commons

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) does not fit with many of our preconceptions of a civil war. There isn’t a unified opposition fighting to rid a clearly defined area of an oppressive government or leader that has over stayed their welcome. No distinct class or ethnic group has risen up to demand rights or access to a resource others in their society enjoy the monopoly of.

Of course these dynamics exist and have played a role in the uptake of arms by some, but it simply isn’t possible to boil the conflict down to such a clear motivation. The civil war is one of profiteering and patrimony, with different groups clashing at the national, regional, local and even village levels. Not only do the groups involved in the fighting change frequently but their demands and aims also fluctuate. Control of mineral deposits is as much the desire for many involved as political change or institutionalised authority.

A sustained, successful and legitimate political system can only be established if the subjects of that system place trust in its institutions. In the DRC, this relationship has been broken due to years of protracted and deep rooted violence. For the country to move forwards, and for murder, rape and forced confiscation of land and natural resources to become the exception rather than the norm, the reconstruction effort – and, by extension, the new politics of the DRC – must focus on cementing a real and lasting trust between the state and its people. Lessons from Rwanda teach that reconciliation and truth telling can bring a once genocidal society back from the brink.

In the DRC, this must first take the form of a comprehensive and long term DDR programme. DDR stands for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and more generally refers to a process of removing guns and ammunitions from circulation, re-educating former combatants to give them new skills (and/or money), or integrating them to become the basis of the new state armed forces, military or police.

The principles of DDR focus on creating lasting peace for post conflict states by developing a new national identity that integrates as many perspectives as possible. Central to the DDR process is the idea that a legitimate state can be defined by its ability to exercise control over the monopoly of violence in a country. The state needs to have a functioning and even-handed executive body that makes and updates laws, a police and military force that enforces these laws and a judicial system that punishes those who break such laws. Without this, a degree of anarchy will exist and people will lose trust in their leaders. People will inevitably take security into their own hands, be this having an automatic weapon and magazine buried in the garden, setting up village level militias or paying local strong men to protect to their businesses. This loss of control by the state is endemic in the DRC and must be rectified.

Community in the IDP camp in Masisi

Could a successful DDR programme allow the 2.6 million internally displaced people, such as those living in this IDP camp, eventually return to their homes? © European Commission DG ECHO/Creative Commons

With the M23 rebel group’s recent promise to disarm and use purely political methods to secure their aims, there comes renewed hope of peace and progress in the DRC.  The M23 – who have been fighting against Government forces since April 2012 – formed as a result of an ill thought through DDR strategy, which made a return to arms and rebel warfare all too easy for the deserting soldiers. Attempts to rebuild the armed forces did not take account of some fundamental issues.

Now should be seen as a critical time to learn lessons from previous mistakes, and to implement a long term DDR programme. To move towards lasting peace, weapons must be confiscated and destroyed, fraternal relationships between ex-rebels must be replaced with loyalty to the state and real economic or political grievances must be addressed. Practically this means paying regular wages, implementing a fair ranking system to prevent one group dominating, or appearing to dominate, the upper echelons of power. New soldiers need proper standardised training that removes them from the areas they had previously terrorised. Finally, those who break rank or desert must be punished.

Most importantly, above all else, is that all of this must be led, implemented and maintained primarily by the Congolese themselves. It is well documented that the UN and other external organisations have been plagued by infighting and a lack of coordination between people in the field and those back home in political office. They are attempting to balance what is actually needed in the DRC with being able to justify the expense to their national tax payers. On top of this, mistrust between these actors is rampant and this has led to strategic disorder and incoherence.

Long term planning must overtake the short-sightedness of most donor-led peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts. External organisations have to take a more supportive approach where they aim to be the facilitators, not enforcers, of peace. Without national ownership of processes all the money and technical advisors in the world will not create a lasting peace in the DRC. As the old cliché dictates, you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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