Archive for May, 2012

Alone at the top, or ahead of the curve? The regional geopolitics of Joseph Kabila’s presidency

Written 15th April

The 19th April marks the ten year anniversary of the signing of the Sun City Agreement, a peace deal aimed to bring about the end of the Second Congo War. The young President, Joseph Kabila, took little over a year in office to negotiate an framework for the end of the conflict, which had raged since 1998, and saw his stock rise as he received credit for catalysing a deal, making Rwandan reticence seem obstructionist at best and belligerent at worst. On one level this praise may well have been deserved, but there is also no doubt that pressure to end the war from the DRC’s Angolan and Zimbabwean allies played a part in Kabila’s decision. After all, his father’s failure to do so may well have cost him his life.

There is a consensus that the Angolan government, even if it did not order Kabila Snr’s assassination, in likelihood knew about it, and were not all that enthusiastic to stop it (Jason Stearns has a good overview of potential scenarios surrounding Laurent Kabila’s murder). What is less in doubt is that Kabila Jnr. rose to the presidency with the assent of the Angolans, Zimbabweans and other Congolese politicians. Mwenze Kongolo summed up the mood of these patrons when he said “We all came to the conclusion that this young man was the one we needed to keep things under control for the time being, until we have a President again”. Kevin Dunn also put it well when he wrote in 2002 that “it appears that [Kabila] has learned from his [father’s] mistake and is far more willing to follow the advice of his Zimbabwean and Angolan backers… This is in no doubt tied to the fact that Joseph Kabila’s survival is clearly in the hands of these external patrons”.

In this context, one where Kabila was clearly dependent on the support of others for his rise to the presidency, it would appear that his position should be far weaker than it was a decade ago, as his “external patrons” have one by one disappeared. Angola’s historic interest in the DRC was a consequence of a civil war mentality, and the UNITA bases in the Congo that resulted from Mobutist support for the rebel group. Since the end of the war in 2002, Angolan interest in the DRC has dissipated. Robert Mugabe was the only foreign head of state to attend Kabila’s inaugration following the 2011 elections, yet rumours about his health abound, and, long before then, Zimbabwean involvement in the DRC was increasingly unpopular as costs rose, lives were lost and the relationship to the Zimbabwean national interest of military involvement in the Congo were unclear. And domestically, the death of Augustin Katumba Mwanke, described by US diplomats as the “power behind the throne” was a huge blow, as he was seen as a key commercial link to the outside world.

Yet Kabila has consistently confounded those who have underestimated him. He carved his own path ever since his first days in office, acting in a statesman-like manner, both towards his allies but also on the broader global stage. As Gérard Prunier has noted, “devoid of a national constituency, he had decided to treat the international community as his powerbase.” And this powerbase is not one that he has been beholden to, nor one which has been static. In van de Walle’s phrasing, in playing the “politics of permanent crisis” he has exercised remarkable autonomy even as his state has demonstrated limited capacity to maintain security, and as such, changes to the mandate or nature of the deployment of MONUC/MONUSCO in the DRC has been largely on his terms, or at least to his favour. Regionally, his rapprochement with Rwanda and Uganda has shown his willingness to shift with the changing geopolitics of the region, and while this flexibility may have been forced on him to an extent, descriptions of him as a “proxy for Rwandan interests” are insensitive to his agency and capacity to evolve with the times, as what constitutes best serves his interests in self-preservation changes. After all, as Prunier has observed, those who assumed that he was a “front” for Angolan interests a decade ago “were in for a big surprise”.

The Sun City Agreement was in many ways imperfect, but also represented Kabila approaching the peak of his international legitimacy, a period which lasted until at least the elections of 2006. At this time he was given the benefit of the doubt, and the problems of the country were assumed by the UN to be solvable once peace and democracy were in place. The five years leading up to elections in 2011 saw a different tone being taken: one of frustration and one of fatigue, as rebel groups previously external to the FARDC were absorbed into it, and still abuses happened at their hands. However, despite a far less hospitable international environment, Kabila seems to be weathering the storm, and has kept one step ahead of his critics by maintaining a coalition regional support for his government, even if its members change. His problems may multiply, however, if, like his father before him, the Rwandans and Ugandans decide that Kabila Jnr is failing to meet their security concerns. Without being able to depend on Angolan or Zimbabwean support, he might find himself very isolated indeed.

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A peacebuilding success? Cracks in Burundi’s fragile post-conflict settlement

News this week that a HRW report on political violence has been suppressed might come as a surprise to those in the international community who like to hail the Burundian experience as a success story when it comes to post-conflict situations.* However, to people who have studied the peacebuilding process, and to Burundians themselves, it is just one symptom of a broader picture which in reality is less optimistic.

Yesterday I saw Dr Devon Curtis deliver a talk about the situation in Burundi and the real nature of peacebuilding. While peacebuilding is often conceived of as a “neutral” activity, it is in fact by nature a political activity too.That doesn’t make it any less worthy, but if practitioners aren’t upfront about the values and priorities which infuse the frameworks they use in peacebuilding (be them centred around liberalism, stabilisation or even local ownership), then there will be problems in the future which will catch them unawares. As in the DRC, the process of peacebuilding has swung between an emphasis on the installation of Western notions of what it is to be a good liberal democracy on the one hand, and the stabilisation of the situation, so that values such as human rights are subordinated to the broader stability of politics in the region, on the other. Thus, the immediate post-1993 situation called for a stabilisation of a potentially explosive situation, whereas the Arusha process was infused with more liberal norms. I don’t think the two priorities are necessarily always so separable – what about the stabilisation ahead of DRC’s 2006 elections, elections that are at the heart of any liberal agenda? – but the dichotomy is nevertheless a helpful one. As Dr Curtis pointed out, both have order at the heart of them. With stabilisation, this is obvious, but even with the liberal approach, the DRC example is illuminating, as it doesn’t address the potential for the militarisation of politics. Overemphasis on the technicalities such as the formal completion of elections and the institutionalisation of power-sharing arrangements can miss the fact that returns to violence are still high in Burundi, and the liberal framework for peacebuilding doesn’t address this effectively. Instead, because elections are being held with regularity and the spectre of genocide has faded, the mission is wound down and declared a success; ignorant of the fact that dynamics of militarisation and control are still playing out in Burundian society today.

With a greater awareness of these issues, perhaps the international community would be more restrained in giving themselves a pat on the back for their great success in peacebuilding, and, by the same token, less surprised when it starts to unravel.

* The UNA-USA also seem to think that only 80,000 people died in Rwanda, so there’s another surprise in store for them there.

An apology

As regular readers will have doubtless noticed, my blogging has been infrequent recently. Sorry about that; I do have an article forthcoming for Think Africa Press but they’ve been having some technical issues so it’s been delayed in posting (and I don’t want to put it up before they do…) Finals are right around the corner so I’m spending as much time laptopless as possible, so as to avoid distraction. But I haven’t forgotten about y’all, and after 7th June I’ll potentially have nothing to do with my life except blog to my heart’s content. Which is something we can all look forward to.