Visualizing the Web of Armed Actors in Congo

A screenshot of a new data visualization shows in red the connections between the rebel group M23 and various armed actors. See the visualization in action >>

For more than two decades, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has suffered from what is described as Africa's "great war." Two weeks ago, the United Nations Security Council renewed sanctions against the country. There are myriad factors fueling the country's protracted conflict, and there is a bewildering assortment of armed groups keeping the embers burning. But who, really, is driving the conflict on the ground? How do they operate? And why do efforts to bring peace so regularly fall flat?

Outsiders and insiders alike have devoted years to trying to understand the persistence of DRC's violence entrepreneurs. Many scholars have broached the issue from sociological, political, and other social science perspectives. And while their approaches have generated important insights, new thinking could help clarify the situation further still. A new dataset and interactive visualization that we created for the Stability journal could help shed some light on the protagonists of Congo's interlocking conflicts.

The multidimensional dataset features detailed information on hundreds of armed groups, political elites, businessmen, and others. The information is drawn exclusively from a 2012 UN Group of Experts report that documents shady financial networks and the illicit procurement of military equipment. We developed a user-friendly data visualization to map the links between them, consolidating complex links in a single convenient snapshot (see above image.)

For example, one of the key protagonists of DRC's latest round of fighting is the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), a rebel group formed in April 2012 in the wake of a failed peace agreement penned a few years earlier. With ready access to military-style weaponry, stolen cobalt and copper, and ties to other Congolese militants, the M23 emerged as one of the most formidable fighting forces in the DRC. From the beginning, there was evidence that M23 was backed by extensive foreign support. 

The extent of assistance provided by foreign governments to the M23 has been the subject of much acrimony. Among the most controversial claims is that the rebels received direct military intelligence, assistance, and equipment from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. If the allegations are true, then governments in both countries are violating an international arms embargo. Beyond these well-known allegations, the visualization also shows the extent and variety of other armed groups and individuals intertwined with the M23, which has established pacts with armed groups in the Kivu, Ituri and Kasai-Occidental provinces of the DRC, for example. All the while, the M23 has carried out brutal attacks, executed prisoners of war, and recruited child soldiers.

The M23 movement quickly reached its apogee with the fall of the Congolese city of Goma on November 20, 2012. Within a year, the group experienced a similarly speedy demise with its defeat by Congolese armed forces and a new UN intervention brigade. In spite of plans to quickly disarm and demobilize the group, a UN Group of Experts found that a number of sanctioned M23 leaders were still moving about freely in Uganda. Adding insult to injury, the rebels attacked UN peacekeepers and also demonstrated continued ties to Rwanda, openly recruiting new members in that country despite declaring an end to their rebellion in November 2013.

Owing to an apparently resurgent M23, the Security Council unanimously voted to renew its arms embargo and sanctions against the DRC last month. It also urged the UN and member states to increase their vigilance against former M23 combatants to ensure that the rebels did not regroup or resume military activities. A challenge for the international community, however, is keeping track of the individuals, governments, and networks sustaining the M23 in the DRC and outside of it. 

The diplomats, soldiers, aid workers, and citizens working to bring peace to the DRC are only just beginning to appreciate the ways in which new technologies can change the landscape of peacebuilding. When prepared carefully, and with attention to local context, such tools may potentially revolutionize the way governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies understand and engage with questions of early warning and conflict prevention. By demonstrating the relationships between state and non-state actors and the manifold ways in which outsiders fuel civil wars, they can offer new ways to hold warring parties and recalcitrant armed groups to account.

Dr. Cathy Nagini has a PhD in medical biophysics with experience working in the DRC and on data visualizations. Robert Muggah has also worked across the Great Lakes and is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and directs research and policy at the SecDev Foundation. They co-authored the article in Stability with Mainak Jas and Hugo Fernandes.

Unprecedented Syrian Refugee Crisis Brings Unprecedented Response: Interview with Amin Awad

An aerial view of the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. (Bidna Capoeira/Flickr)

“The [Syrian] crisis [has] reached a magnitude of unprecedented proportion,” said Amin Awad, Director for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Between 2-3 million people have fled the civil war in Syria, resulting in unprecedented flows of refugees into neighboring countries. Lebanon saw its population grow by one fifth. Za'atari, a refugee camp in Jordan, has an estimated 144,000 refugees, making it the country's third largest “city.”

Mr. Awad said that the borders between Syria and neighboring countries are by-and-large open. “There are restrictions sometimes because of security, because of smuggling, because of infiltration...However, we're working now with the governments in making sure that people are entering. We're cooperating with the border authorities, with the ministers of interior, and the security apparatus, to make sure that there is law and order in the camps, in the host communities, and that these countries are comfortable and supportive to keep their borders open.” 

He said they are preparing refugees and the countries for the long term by shifting from material-based assistance to cash-based assistance. “We are hoping that the millions of dollars that are spent on cash programs to the refugees will also trickle down to the host communities and stimulate those economies. And a byproduct of that will be generation of employment, access to services, stimulating the markets—as small as they are in these towns and villages—where the refugees live now.” 

Mr. Awad said there are “over 200 groups that are working in the surrounding countries” and “there are converging efforts between the humanitarian, the development, and the national institutions in the region.” He said that UN agencies and international NGOs have some established fora for communication, and while this leaves out organizations in the region that don’t take part in the established humanitarian system, “there are informal settings where coordination and information sharing and dialogue is taking place” with these organizations. The comprehensive regional strategy that aims to support a more holistic and longer-term response to the crisis and bring together diverse initiatives and actors—being developed by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs— is “an important strategy and initiative,” he said.

He said that UNHCR contributes at the village-town-municipal level, where it supports services such as water, sanitation, education, health, expansion of electric coverage, waste management, income generation, and employment. He said it also contributes at the central government level where “we play a catalyst role in making sure that there is bilateral support to the neighboring countries from financial institutions and development actors. We also forge agreements with some of these development actors and financial institutions.”

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Jérémie Labbé: I am here with Amin Awad, Director for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Amman, Jordan. Concurrently, Amin also serves as UNHCR’s regional refugee coordinator for the Syrian crisis, which will be the main focus of our interview today. Amin, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory.

First, could you please give us an update on the extent of the Syrian refugee crisis with a few figures?

Amin Awad: The crisis reached a magnitude of unprecedented proportion. There are about 2.4 million registered refugees in the region, in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt—and some went far beyond. There are another 600-700,000 that are not registered that bring the total number of refugees in the region to about 3 million Syrian refugees as of February 2014. 

ln Mali, Peace and Reconciliation is a Balancing Act

A delegation of the Joint Security Commission‚ in charge of observing the ceasefire between the Malian army and armed groups from the north, on an assessment mission in Kidal, June 23, 2013. (MINUSMA/Blagoje Grujic)

It’s been one year since the French Army intervened in Mali. While progress has been made in addressing several important issues, much more needs to be done to build social cohesion and ensure long-term stability for the country.

The particular challenge in Mali is whether the peace process, aimed at negotiating with and constraining armed groups, can be configured in conjunction with the reconciliation process, aimed at re-establishing relationships between different communities. At this stage, Mali needs to draw a careful balance between state security and human security. The international community will also need to perceive and navigate its role from this angle.

The Mali crisis is a multi-dimensional mix. It has a south-versus-north component, ethnic tensions, ambitions of violent extremists, criminal interests, and a struggle over how the nation will be governed. Most of these components play out beyond Mali in a regional context as well. 

Following the French intervention in January 2013, the international community responded relatively swiftly and in a unified way to the crisis. In April, the UN Security Council agreed on the “re-hatting” of efforts by regional organizations into a UN stabilization mission (MINUSMA), supported by a continued capacity of the French who are mandated to use all means necessary to intervene in support of MINUSMA. 

Domestically, Mali state power has been reset after successful presidential and parliamentary elections between July and December 2013. A new government is in place, led by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). A Ministry for Reconciliation and Development of the North has been created, as well as a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. The new government has made some promising steps to address impunity and corruption. 

To a large extent, Mali’s problems boil down to what will happen in the north. The French have quite consciously left some of the Tuareg-based groups a level of power in order to divide and rule among the different armed groups that were in the process of coalescing early 2012. This allowed them to focus quite effectively on chasing violent extremists. However, the north is not yet secure.   

The inclination of the new government is to follow the prerogative of state security, assert what it sees as its legitimate power, and guarantee the effective control of Bamako all over the country. But in the last three months of 2013, government delegations visiting the north have been met by demonstrations that have sometimes turned violent. This in turn has led to irritations with MINUSMA for not being able to fully protect government representatives. 

Could Sanctions and Mediation Save Ukraine?

Ukrainians protest in front of barricades at Independence Square, December 2013, Kiev, Ukraine. (Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr)

With the political crisis in Ukraine, the European Union (EU) is facing the biggest security challenge to its borders since the 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia broke apart with a series of brutal wars. Yet surprisingly, the EU has been slow to react, and many EU members continue to remain passive, preferring to follow behind the United States in fashioning their policy. But how the EU responds to this crisis is critical to a peaceful resolution.

Ukraine has experienced acute crises every decade since 1994, usually around presidential elections, and in 1994 and 2004, the country was heavily divided between candidates supported by eastern and western Ukrainians. In 2004, Europe looked very different; the EU and NATO had undertaken the biggest expansions in their histories. Ukraine was different, too; its economy was growing by 12 per cent, and the Orange Revolution (sparked by election fraud) was free of violence despite seventeen days of mass protests. In that instance, the EU stepped in as a mediator, and Ukraine’s ruling elites and opposition supported a negotiated compromise. 

How times have changed. And now, Ukraine’s current crisis is deeper, and more bitter, for six reasons.

First is the cause. The current crisis was sparked by the government’s decision in late November 2013 to turn away from signing an Association Agreement with the EU that Ukraine had been negotiating since 2008. The crises in 1994 and 2004 took place around elections, whereas elections were still eighteen months away when the current crisis began. 

As Violence Persists, International Intervention in CAR Falls Short

Fleeing violence, a family resettles in the burnt-out shell of a light aircraft at Bangui International Airport, December 2013. (UNHCR/S. Phelps)

Two months after the beginning of the French/African Union intervention in the Central African Republic, the situation continues to be volatile, with communal violence still taking place in the capital city as well as in the countryside. This begs the question as to whether assumptions made by the international actors on the ground and the international community—assumptions that informed the intervention strategies—were correct or not. 

In March 2013, the overthrow of CAR’s President François Bozizé hardly made international headlines, and when it did, it was because South African soldiers were involved in a badly planned military adventure. Outside Bangui, however, the security situation was bad, and it took a turn for the worse in May when the new president, to regain some leverage in the capital city, sent Seleka fighters to all prefectures, and massive looting and mass killings took place in the countryside for reasons that still seem to defy logic.

International NGOs mobilized themselves a few months later and tried to get the attention of world leaders, especially in Europe and France. They rightly argued that patterns of insecurity in CAR after March 24 showed that incremental improvement could not be expected, and that action needed to be taken to save lives, reassert a sense of law and order, and pressure the government to care about its own population. Meanwhile, CAR’s ministers spent their time travelling overseas, and CAR's president signed dubious mining contracts with foreign companies. 

It was only after France’s President François Hollande returned from his mid-August vacation that he acknowledged the situation in CAR had deteriorated to an unacceptable level, and that the international community should intervene. Once it realized the situation, however, France failed in its public diplomacy to get its European partners and other international players on board. France got into an argument with the UK on the use of European money to fund an African Union (AU) force in CAR, as London wanted maximum effort put into Somalia and the AU's mission there, AMISOM. France was also unable to get US support for a UN peacekeeping operation that was seen as too costly in Washington and not a timely response to the situation, since it required at least six months to deploy. 

Polio and Politics Collide in Syria: Interview with Annie Sparrow

Dr. Annie Sparrow is a pediatrician and public health expert who has worked in numerous conflict zones over the last 15 years. She first heard about a new polio outbreak in Syria when she was traveling along the border between Turkey and Syria in September last year. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Dr. Sparrow shone a spotlight on this lesser known dimension of the Syrian conflict and suggested that the situation may be worse than we think. 

I spoke with Dr. Sparrow, Assistant Professor of Global Health and Deputy Director of the Human Rights Program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, by telephone on January 30 while she was in Turkey, training Syrian doctors. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

In your recent article, you suggest that there have been more than 90 cases of polio in Syria, which could mean some 90,000 infected people invisibly spreading the disease. What’s going on?

The Syrian government has created the perfect conditions for polio and various other infectious diseases for years now through the withholding of vaccinations and the neglect of public health in areas considered politically unsympathetic. So, in terms of the polio outbreak, the Syrian government had no interest in acknowledging it. It didn’t make any serious attempt to look for it, despite the establishment of its own surveillance system. For months and months, it basically denied that there was any polio at all. 

There’s a very frightening uncertainty about the figures. All of the international aid that flows through the UN system is forced to be orchestrated by the Syrian government, because those are the international rules of assistance under the current mandate. The UN is allowed to help, but only with the government’s permission, and the government decides where the aid goes and what the official position is, and unfortunately, the UN has to abide by that. 

At the same time, for many of us working on this conflict, we could see that polio was coming. But when it did appear, it not only wasn’t being reported, it was being actively denied.

How is polio spreading in Syria today? 

Polio has now been identified in seven governorates across Syria. It’s not like measles, where everyone gets a horrible rash and they’re violently ill, so we know that they’re infectious and it’s easy to spot. With polio, only a couple of percent of the kids who actually get the infection manifest any kind of symptoms. So it’s really hard to recognize. 

Injustice Begets Violence, and Violence Begets More of Both: The Case of Yemen

After the momentous events of 2011, Yemen sadly has become a kind of backwater of the Arab Spring in the international media. What rare news headlines surface usually include the word “drone,” “al-Qaeda,” or “terrorism.” Beyond the headlines, Yemen is characterized by the same ambiguity as many fragile environments: a unique process of national dialogue concluded on an upbeat note while violence intensifies. In Yemen's case, the violence is intensifying around Dammaj in northern Yemen, with the southern protest movement apparently radicalizing, and the normally peaceful Hadramaut governorate seeing a tribal war erupt. 

Yet beyond both headlines and recent events, one finds the deep structural factors that have shaped the Yemeni polity over the past decades. The difficulty ordinary Yemenis face in obtaining justice through peaceful and legal means is one such factor that contributes significantly to creating the raw matter of current violence.

Key Conclusions

  • About 50% of all Yemenis have little to no access to effective legal recourse that can help them resolve their differences. The other 50% has reasonably good access to tribal customary law systems. These remain fairly effective but are under growing strains.
  • This situation is largely the result of conscious efforts by Yemen’s ruling elites over the past 20-odd years to capture and marginalize the legal mechanisms that could have been used to challenge their rule.
  • In consequence, a large number of disputes have remained unresolved, and many of these disputes have become grievances. Some of these grievances have been collectivized, turned violent, and contributed to an increase in sectarian politics.
  • This suggests that the current violence in Yemen is driven at least in part by interests and injustices at the micro-level. Hence, grand geopolitical narratives should be treated with caution. It also suggests that improving Yemen’s “state of justice” is vital to give implementation of the recent results of the National Dialogue Conference a chance.


By 1994, Yemen’s hopeful unification had turned into a hostile take-over of south Yemen by largely northern elites and their allies. Buoyed by an oil boom and remittance bust, they were able to use the country’s tribal tapestry to divide, rule, and selectively centralize the state, chiefly in the areas of security and commerce. 

One of the less noted aspects of the ensuing two decades of rule is how the gradual capture and partial marginalization of Yemen’s legal systems by these elites have generated deep grievances and left violence as the only way open for many to settle their disputes. A “justice at gunpoint” environment is fast in the making. A notable example is the cold-blooded shooting in broad daylight of two Adeni men in May 2013 by the bodyguards of Sheikh Ali Abd Rabo Al-Awadhi for disrupting his wedding convoy. Although legal proceedings were started, the case has not progressed to date. The likelihood of justice being done is remote. 

Key Global Events to Watch in February

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.



Peace & Security

      • February 1: Iran Receives First $550 Million of Blocked Overseas Funds
        Following the interim nuclear deal in November to ease sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program, Iran receives the first installment of what will be $4.2 billion of previously frozen assets from the six world powers who signed the deal, according to Reuters. The nations will release the remaining seven installments of $450-$550 million over the next six months if Iran meets milestones for scaling back its nuclear programs. Under the deal, Iran must significantly dilute its stockpile of enriched uranium from 20 percent to 5 before the last installment is paid. The opening round of negotiations on a long-term deal between Iran and the six world powers is expected to take place in New York sometime in mid-February.
      • February 1: Meeting on Middle East Peace Accord, Munich
        On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, top officials from the United States, Russia, European Union, and the United Nations meet to discuss how they can facilitate US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts for a Middle East peace deal.
      • February 5: Deadline for Deportation of Syrian Chemical Weapons
        Damascus had delivered less than 5 percent of its deadliest chemical weapons a week before the deadline to hand over the entire cache. Roughly 670 tons of category 1 chemical agents remain in Syria. UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon has said it’s unlikely President Assad's regime will meet its deadline. The US accused the Syrian administration of intentionally stalling at the end of January. Whether the government is dragging its feet—to test Western resolve, as some believe—or is simply delayed by the ongoing civil war could be reflected by its efforts in the next weeks.
      • February 5: ICC Considers Case Against Kenyatta, The Hague
        The International Criminal Court (ICC) was due to begin the trial of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity, but after two witnesses withdrew and admitted to false testimony, respectively, the prosecution delayed the start date. The defense, in the meantime, asked the ICC to throw out the case for lack of evidence. The Court weighs these matters on February 5. The defense previously asked for dismissal in 2012.

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