War and Peace and Gorillas

An Interview with Central Africa Scholar Laura Seay

How did you get interested in the Congo?

I started studying the region when I was 18, during my first year in college, when I had to write a paper. I was supposed to be writing about refugees, but when rebels in DRC (who we now know were partly comprised of Rwandan troops and partly Congolese rebels) Kabila, were moving across the country, I started asking about the causes of such a complex crisis. I didn’t understand this then, but I came to understand the DRC crises as partly being the continuation of Rwanda’s civil war on Congolese soil.

What are you studying now?

I’m really interested in how people govern when their states fail them, when the state stops doing things the state is supposed to do, whether it’s enforcing laws, regulating who gets to be a doctor, or keeping territory safe and secure.

What’s your view of the role of resources in conflict?

There were Congolese researchers looking at this in the 1990s. There was published research on the topic by 2002 and 2003, and the topic was something specialists were aware of but it didn’t get much attention in the press or by diplomats. But when people started realizing that mass rapes were going on in the Congo, you had a convergence of good intentions and public interest in a story that remains really important today. The problem is that a lot of advocacy groups went out looking for a simple narrative, which became the story that resources cause the conflict, the consequence is rape, and that you as a consumer can do something about that by avoiding the purchase of products that contain these “conflict minerals.”

Much of that narrative has subsequently been proven wrong. There are multiple causes and motivations of the Congolese conflicts that cannot be reduced to resources. Resources sometimes fuel conflict, but they aren’t always the cause – that is, the thing that different armed groups are fighting over. And rebel groups have proven quite adept at adjusting their strategies to raise money off of any resources or other revenue-generating opportunities to which they have access. Making matters more complex, alliances shift and motivations of the actors in the conflicts change over time. That’s a very different story than the [human rights NGO] Enough project narrative.

How would you describe the scholarly debate over resources and democracy?

I don’t think there is a consensus view. There is Michael Ross, who wrote the book, The Oil Curse. His theory was largely developed based on studies of Middle Eastern oil-producing states. The argument was that oil-producing states are not democratic because the oil revenue is there and they don’t have to tax their populations, and so they’re not accountable to their populations. You don’t develop the rule of law, accountability, and legitimacy that come about as the result of citizens in democracies who pay taxes and expect to get services in return for those taxes. There’s debate over whether Ross is right. I have my students read many perspectives on the subject. There’s no broad consensus on it.

I think it’s a reasonable way of thinking about some of it, but then ask yourself, Why does institutional development take place in some places but not others? If you look at Texas, it had institutions before its resources were fully developed or exploited. If there is a consensus it’s that there are layers of complexity, but I wouldn’t say there’s a consensus because people who study this disagree.

What about resources and conflict?

There is even more disagreement about the role of resources in conflict. Most people accept what’s called Dutch Disease, such as when the Netherlands created labor shortages in sectors of the economy because everyone went to work in the oil industry, which messes up your economy. When oil prices go bust you’re in real trouble. The question is, Does the bust period lead to conflict? There are diverse views of opinion on that. And that goes into whether poverty causes conflict. And that gets into what drove Tahir Square or ISIS. The idea is that young men without opportunities join those groups. But research findings are not as good as the popular narrative suggests on the question of whether poverty causes people to become violent.

Do people go to war because they are poor?

I don’t think most people go to war because they are poor. I think it’s about exclusion from opportunity. There are lots of people in poverty who don’t take up arms. Uprisings and insurgencies that are based in ethnic and religious groups happen because their members are being marginalized in the society, like not being able to study at the university, or run for political office, simply because of their identity as part of one ethnic, geographic, or religious group. It’s exclusion that’s the problem, and exclusion can be a major factor contributing to poverty, but the poverty isn’t the root cause of most political violence out there. There’s a lot of overlap in the categorizations of who is poor and who is excluded from opportunity.

What about in the Congo?

In the Congo there are few scholars who have argued that the minerals are the actual cause of the violence. The mainstream school of thought is that very little fighting was over access to resources, and rather that, in most cases, the resources fueled some conflict and are more a symptom of a deeper problem than a cause. So rebels who got cut off funding because of Dodd-Frank 1502, which requires companies to disclose whether they can verify that their products don’t contain conflict minerals from DRC or its neighbors, simply shifted to other ways to make money. That gets to how rebel groups finance themselves.

How do conflicts evolve?

It starts when communities are in danger and nobody is there to protect you. You pull your resources together and you try to protect yourselves. But then, many of these groups see that there are opportunities for enrichment, or to settle scores with other communities, and they start finding other ways to make money. And then it becomes a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle.

How do rebel groups finance themselves?

In the Congo the answer is that they do it however they can. For the [Hutu rebel group] FDLR it was minerals, but they are now benefitting from whatever trade they can. Many rebel groups in DRC are involved in timber trade and charcoal production. There is no commodity more important to local markets than charcoal since most ordinary people need it to survive – it’s how they cook. Some groups are trading. They also use border checkpoints. M23, the Rwanda-backed group that was defeated in 2013, never got involved in the mineral trade. Enough said they did, but the UN Group of Experts looked into it and couldn’t back up Enough’s claim of M23 involvement in the gold trade. M23’s main source of revenue was border crossings — taxing at [DRC-Uganda] border town Bunagana, which brought in an estimated $200,000 to 400,000 per month. That was more than enough revenue to sustain their activities. A truck-driver bringing in a load of goods to DRC from Uganda or Rwanda can expect to pay 1,000 dollars in bribes or taxes. Everything and everybody coming through a rebel checkpoint or border crossing gets “taxed.”

What is the money used for?

Some is used for the purchase of weapons and ammunition, but most of the revenue personally enriches the commanders. A lot of the revenue goes toward paying the salaries of the soldiers. It’s much more like a criminal gang. It’s not a good thing but it’s important to understand that you are talking about men who have no other livelihood alternative than subsistence farming, no way to earn money, no way to even cover the basics like getting their kids medicine when they’re sick. If you had real, viable alternative economic opportunities, I think you’d see many rebels quit. For some people, joining a rebel group is a way to earn a living, even though it’s miserable to be a rebel in the forest when it’s raining and you haven’t been home since 1995 or 1996.

What’s your view of the conflict over oil and conservation in Virunga?

You’ve got a real dilemma there with the preservation of the park. You’re not going to believe how beautiful it is. You’re going to cross in from Rwanda, and as you drop down from the hill to the lake into Goma, it’s just stunning how beautiful Lake Kivu is. It was a big tourist destination in the colonial period and before the violence started. Mobutu had a villa there, which is now the North Kivu governor’s office. You can climb the volcano, look at gorillas. The potential for adventure travel and a totally unique experience is astonishing. If the violence were under control, it would be a huge attraction for travelers from all over the world, and a tourism industry – and the jobs it can create – would build up around showing people these wonders.

With Soco you have an oil company that, like most oil companies in Africa, is shady. The DRC government does not act in the population’s best interests when it comes to natural resource deals, especially when there are high-stakes contracts to be negotiated. There’s no transparency. The default assumption in DRC is that some politician will sell out the people to get rich.

The flip side is that there is widespread agreement that the sustainable exploitation of Congo’s natural resources is the key to its development. Those things sit in tension in Virunga.

I don’t have a lot of faith that the Congolese government will consider the tension and have a debate about it. The politicians who are involved are going to see little beyond the dollar signs. There is no enforcement of the rule of law, so health and safety precautions, transparency, the rights of people who live on the land that will be exploited by Soco – none of this will be taken into serious consideration when the final deals are done. The risk is it that it will turn out to be like the Niger Delta in Nigeria, so that whoever ends up exploiting it either will not be able to or will not be willing to keep it environmentally safe and sustainable. There will be leaks, pipelines will get broken into, and things will rot because the environment is so challenging. It’s very hard to be optimistic. It is hard to imagine a middle way that would benefit the common good, and protect the incredible natural treasure that is Virguna National Park. My feelings about the park’s future are pretty bleak.

Is the problem a history of a lack of functioning states in the region?

Rwanda was actually one of the few places in Africa that had a legitimate state before the Europeans showed up. There was a strong centralized Rwandan kingdom for 500 years before any missionary showed up. That shows that it was quite governable. That was not a democratic regime. It was feudal. Aristocratic and peasants. Tutsis were the aristocrats and Hutus were the peasants. These identities were more fluid in the pre-colonial period, but there was definitely a political unit called Rwanda that had territory and a population there. It’s been governable for centuries.

How would you understand the debate over democracy and development as it relates to Africa?

People forget the United States took 180 years to become a real democracy where most people could vote without fear for their lives. It takes a long time to consolidate the authority of state and have democracy. My students are always tempted to be like, “Oh, this is savage behavior!’ and, “How can people do that” and “There must be something about Africa” but the tribes of Europe spent several centuries slaughtering each other over what kind of Christians they were going to be. Think about ethnic cleansing and genocide that shaped modern Europe and made states what they were. European states became states by killing the tribes that were their enemies and forcing other tribes to adapt their language and culture. One way of evaluating the Holocaust is to see it as the last gasp of this kind of thinking. Hitler still seemed to think it was okay to use ethnic cleansing to build national identity in Europe. What Hitler didn’t understand is that norms had mercifully changed by that point in human history, and the horrors of the Holocaust forced even more changes for the better. We don’t accept that slaughtering one’s enemies is a way to build a state anymore.

What are the implications for Africa?

The states of Africa were developed through colonization, not by more organic processes of state formation. We are only 50 to 60 years out from the end of the colonial period; it’s unreasonable to think that everything is settled and modern democracies will take hold in that time frame. Maybe some of Africa’s borders do need to change to more realistically reflect how people view themselves and their relationship to states and to other societies. But at the same time, you can’t just say, “Let them spend a few hundred years violating human rights and raping women and it will all sort itself out.” It’s not okay, and we don’t sit around anymore while those processes play out the way we did in Europe 800 years ago. The other challenge is that people really want democracy. What’s striking in DRC is how strong the concept of national identity is, despite the state not doing anything for anybody for three decades. People really want the state to work. Congo is in a dilemma because it’s not acceptable to let state formation play out as it may due to the human rights violations that would ensue, but it’s also not reasonable to expect the place to be a fully-functioning democracy in such a short time frame, either.

There is a strong argument that what’s needed at the end of a genocide is a benevolent dictatorship that will not allow people to run wild and elect someone who start another genocide. But when you let someone govern in an authoritarian fashion and don’t check it at all for 20 years, it becomes problematic. Power corrupts.

What about alternative energy sources?

When I lived there in the mid-2000s, both Goma on the north side of Lake Kivu, and Bukavu on the south side, were run on the same grid. There’s not enough electricity for both cities and so they literally flip the electricity back and forth between neighborhoods in the two cities. When I was there you could call the guy personally and yell at him if you felt you didn’t have enough electricity that week and he would flip the switch over to your neighborhood long enough to charge up your cell phone! It’s a mess, but what else is he supposed to do? The real problem is that affordable energy is not available in the quantities in which it is needed.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of government at Colby College. Her research is centered around the study of community responses to conflict and US foreign policy in Africa’s Great Lakes region. She is working on a book, Substituting for the State, about the role non-state actors play in governing the eastern DRC in response to the Congolese state’s weakness in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri.