Circumventing the trap of the predatory African state narrative: Reflections from research on the Congolese armed forces

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In this blog, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Judith Verweijen argue that we need to move beyond the idea that the Congolese army is simply an abusive force that preys on local civilians. This depiction overlooks all the ways in which citizens make use of the army to help settle local and personal disputes. It also suggests that there is a clear line between state and society or combatant and non-combatant, which are impossible to maintain in practice. This blog is based on research published in Third World Quarterly. Maria and Judith are both Senior Researchers at the Nordic Africa Institute. 

The notions ‘failed’ and ‘predatory’ are recurrent in representations of the Congolese state, not the least in accounts of the state security forces. The Congolese army (FARDC) is often portrayed as the prime example of the predatory and abusive nature of the Congolese state, engaging in the unrestrained raping and pillaging of the population it is set out to protect. Such images are characterized by sharp strict distinctions between civilian and military spheres, with civilians written as innocent victims of military abuse. These distinctions commonly overlap with putative well-defined divides between ‘state’ and ‘society’ and the ‘public’ and ‘private’ domains.

This dominant story finds its import from a range of discourses. It is informed by the numerous writings on the predatory nature of the African state and state-society relations more generally, casting African state agents as perpetrators that feed themselves off the backs of population. Inconflict settings such as the DRC, these narratives are also shaped by human rights and civilian protection discourses, postulating that meaningful and clear distinctions can be made between, on the one hand, people taking part in violence (combatants) and, on the other hand, people not taking part in violence (civilians).

The power of the predatory state narrative, which is constructed upon a reification of ‘the state’, blinds us to the realities of everyday practices enacted by state agents, and the processes shaping them. It ignores, for example, that state agents do perform tasks that are sought after and appreciated by citizens, even if such practices fall outside the scope of their mandate or involve coercion. Moreover, it obscures the blurriness of the boundaries between the military and the civilian spheres, as reflected in the ambiguities surrounding the combatant/noncombatant divide. As research by, amongst others, Stathis Kalyvas has demonstrated, much violence enacted by armed forces in conflict settings is co-produced by civilians, who try to instrumentalize coercive power for settling local and personal conflicts.

Our findings on the Congolese armed forces, as published in a recent article in Third World Quarterly, corroborate these observations, at least for certain forms of non-combat related violence. In particular, in the war-affected eastern part of the DRC it has become a relatively widespread practice for civilians to solicit the FARDC to intervene in all sorts of conflicts, located on a wide private-public spectrum. These include disputes over debts, the division of profits, land, and other property, but also conflicts related to a wide range of private and family issues, like debts, dowry, divorces, love affairs and personal rivalries. The reasons for this must largely be located in the weak capabilities and legitimacy of local civilian authorities, and the inaccessibility, slow pace and costly nature of existing dispute-resolution mechanisms and formal justice. Furthermore, civilians often prefer coercive solutions, particularly when seeking to harm personal enemies or take revenge for past wrongdoing.

Furthermore, as also documented in the annual Oxfam protection surveys, our findings indicate that in many areas of the Kivus, civilians generally prefer the presence of the government forces over that of armed groups, although there are important differences per context. Despite ongoing abuses, the FARDC is still seen as providing at least limited protection in the face of rampant banditry and armed group activity. Moreover, contrary to dominant representations of ‘total impunity’, our research shows that the Congolese military engages in a range of restorative accountability practices towards civilians enacted outside the military justice system (albeit highly insufficient and in erratic manners). In the eyes of many civilians, such arrangements have a number of advantages over the formal military justice apparatus, being seen as faster, more comprehensible, less risky and yielding more immediate and tangible benefits.

While this does not excuse for or should distract from ongoing serious human rights violations, it does point to a more nuanced story of civil-military relations in the DRC than told in mainstream narratives. Acknowledging this is crucial for a better understanding of the workings of the Congolese military, in particular as it shows that its practices are crucially shaped by interactions with non-military and non-state actors. Moreover, such interactions can often not be clearly located on the public-private spectrum, blending public office-related and legal-rational considerations with more particularistic, often patronage-based rationalities. Like other state agents, the military are an integral part of complex social networks that cut across civilian/military and state/non-state divides, causing their interactions with civilians to be informed by multiple, overlapping and often contradictory rationalities. Similarly, in their dealings with the military, civilians enact multiple social roles and draw upon a variety of discourses and social networks, often preferring informal channels to address issues falling in the ‘public’ domain, or inversely, mobilize ‘public’ resources for settling ‘private’ scores.

These findings highlight the limited analytical utility of approaches to the Congolese state which conceptualize it as a monolithic whole and focus solely on its predatory and abusive practices. While such practices are undeniably omnipresent, they represent only one dimension of what the state apparatus in the DRC is and does. Moreover, it is questionable whether these practices are the best analytical point of entry for studying and theorizing the workings of ‘the state’. There is a need for more in-depth research aiming to better grasp emic understandings of state agents’ practices and the processes informing them, attending both to the voices of state and non- state agents and focusing on the dynamics of everyday inter-actions. Hence, it is not only imperative to ‘look beyond predation’ in the study of the Congolese state, as cogently argued by Theodore Trefon, paradoxically, such research also requires looking ‘beyond the state’.

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