The response of the United Nations (UN) to intercommunal and armed group violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has long suffered from an overly securitized approach and the separation of security and development. Since its establishment in 1999, the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has failed to fully take into account the political economy of conflict in the country in its analysis, political strategy, and programming. This has left many structural factors that continue to act as drivers of instability unaddressed, including the instrumentalization of ethnic conflict based on political and economic exclusion, as is evidenced by the recent escalation in intercommunal violence in the Ituri province of eastern DRC.
The current period of transition and the Joint Strategy on the Progressive and Phased Drawdown of MONUSCO presents an opportunity for the UN to undertake a coordinated approach to address these structural factors. This includes reframing stabilization not only in terms of security, but also governance and development, and supporting the implementation of reforms and targeted measures to address the deeply rooted causes of conflict.
A number of UN resolutions—including UNGA Resolution 70/262 and UNSC Resolution 2282 on the Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture—have emphasized the importance of sustaining peace through “the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes,” noting “inclusivity is key to advancing national peacebuilding processes and objectives.” However, as was observed during a recent High-Level Security Council meeting on Exclusion, Inequality, and Conflict, “the Security Council is not effectively addressing the root causes of conflict.” Approximately 60 percent of post-conflict countries experience a relapse within five years due to inadequate investment in peacebuilding and the failure to address underlying causes of conflicts, particularly exclusion.
As a result, identity-based conflicts rooted in exclusion and inequality are on the agenda of the Security Council “almost on a weekly basis”. While peacekeeping operations are not designed to “resolve the diverse structural drivers of conflict,” which “often requires long-term engagement from UN Country Teams (UNCTs),” it is worthwhile to examine how missions could better balance competing imperatives and immediate mandated priorities with long-term approaches.
Addressing the Root Causes of Violence
After a 10-year period of relative peace in Ituri, relations between the Lendu and Hema rapidly deteriorated at the end of 2017. Since the recent escalation in violence, over 1,000 people have been killed in a series of intercommunal clashes, with the razing of entire Hema villages by Lendu militia and the closure of several MONUSCO bases limiting the mission’s response.
While MONUSCO had implemented a number of peacebuilding programs at the local level following the end of the Congo Wars in 2003, including community-led programs focused on mediation, these initiatives were only temporarily effective at stabilizing the province, failing to fully address the structural drivers of conflict. These include long-standing grievances over the marginalization of the Lendu due to discriminatory policies and political structures instituted during colonialism and the post-independence period, with the distribution of power still perceived as favoring the Hema. As a result, narratives based on ethnicity have again been used to mobilize violence in the province.
Similar patterns of political and economic exclusion and the institutionalization of ethnicity are at the root of many conflicts across the DRC—from tensions between communities in the Masisi and Lubero territories of North Kivu, Banyamulenge and Bafuliru, Babembe, and Banyindu communities in South Kivu, Twa and Bantu communities in Tanganyika, and Kuba and Luba communities in Kasaï and Kasaï Central. Structural factors stemming from the legacy of colonialism and entrenched patronage systems have contributed to the exclusion and marginalization of groups based on ethnicity and the unequal distribution of power and access to resources, which have become institutionalized over time. Competition over land, in particular, is at the root of many conflicts. This is due to the lack of legal recognition of customary land rights and overlapping claims based on differing statutory and customary laws.
The significant levels of inequality in the DRC are evident across a number of dimensions. Most recent data for the country indicate an inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.335 (175th of 189 countries). In terms of horizontal and cross-ethnic-group inequality, the DRC ranks among the highest in terms of exclusion by social group and group grievances, and among the lowest in terms of equal distribution of resources, representation of disadvantaged social groups, and access to public services and power distributed by social group. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a further increase in overall levels of poverty and inequality.
The underlying structural drivers of conflict have evolved over time, with motivations not only based on long-standing grievances rooted in political and economic exclusion, but also the exploitation and trafficking of natural resources, including by neighboring countries, which has played a significant role in sustaining conflict. These complex and mutually reinforcing factors are mediated by limited government authority, state capture by influential patronage networks, and weak institutions, especially in border areas, which are further root causes of instability. The lack of rule of law and persistent cycles of intercommunal violence have contributed to the proliferation of self-defense militia, with many armed groups becoming increasingly embedded in elite political and military networks and often taking on de facto governance roles.
These factors have repeatedly led to the exploitation and instrumentalization of ethnic tensions by local, national, and regional powers that have supported proxy militias, often against one another, further contributing to the militarization and protraction of conflicts. Due to the interconnectedness of the region, “a very small local incident has the potential to escalate to the strategic or regional level,” as noted by the Independent Strategic Review of MONUSCO. This makes reports of the resumption of proxy violence—attributed to Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi—as well as recent offensive operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) by Ugandan forces and the alleged presence of Rwandan police and Burundian troops in eastern DRC particularly alarming.
Given these multiple, complex, and mutually reinforcing factors, it is essential that greater attention be focused on addressing the structural causes of violence in the DRC to prevent a resurgence of conflict that could risk further destabilizing the country and region. During the transition, MONUSCO and the UNCT are well-positioned to work with the Congolese government, as well as regional and multilateral organizations, to address these structural factors through the Joint Strategy on the Progressive and Phased Drawdown of MONUSCO. In the lead up to MONUSCO’s exit, the mission could work with the UNCT and the Peacebuilding Commission, through the Humanitarian-Development-Peace nexus approach, to lay the institutional foundations for addressing these structural factors. This could include joint peacebuilding programming through the mission’s assessed budget.
To facilitate the transfer of tasks during the transition, “the International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy (ISSSS) should be moved to the UNCT,” recommends Youssef Mahmoud, Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute and leader of the Independent Strategic Review of MONUSCO. “The ISSSS could serve as a catalytic entry point for addressing these structural issues by supporting the mission and UNCT in incorporating development into their work through joint programming undertaken with ISSSS extra-budgetary funds.”
Recent political developments, including newly-elected President Felix Tshisekedi’s ambitious Reform Agenda and the government’s Programme of Action, offer a significant opportunity for MONUSCO, through its Good Offices, to support the Congolese government in implementing key reforms. Support for the strengthening and reform of institutions at all levels will be of particular importance, not only for overall economic growth and stability, but for promoting inclusive development through the creation of legal and policy frameworks that address patterns of exclusion and discrimination. Ensuring greater representation of ethnic groups within provincial governments will be critical. In addition, “major parliamentary groups need to be better understood as central sources of power that could contribute to the building of a center/periphery deal over time,” as Adam Day, Director of Programmes at United Nations University and former Senior Political Adviser to MONUSCO, has noted.
Given the interconnected political economy of local, national, and regional conflicts, the UN’s strategy for engagement should work to build a theory of influence that considers the links across political processes at all levels. Leadership based on collaborative approaches will be a crucial enabling factor to overcome the “divisive and short-term modes of governance that have often prevailed, in order to build the foundations for more legitimate processes in the DRC,” according to Michel Nouredine Kassa, founder of Initiative Pour un Leadership Cohesif—an initiative that works to foster cohesive decision-making among Congolese leaders.
To ensure a common approach to addressing both the political economy of conflict and security challenges at the regional level—including the illegal exploitation and trafficking of natural resources—the implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSC Framework) for the DRC and the region remains of critical importance. During the transition, MONUSCO should prioritize support for the implementation of commitments under the PSC Framework and increased coordination with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region. This includes support for the Contact and Coordination Group to promote non-military measures to reduce the threat posed by armed groups in eastern DRC.
It will also be important that the mission work closely with the special envoy to provide Good Offices in support of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to strengthen regional cooperation and deescalate tensions among signatories of the PSC Framework. Enhancing technical capacities for the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region to investigate security incidents and allegations of links to armed groups would also help to advance cross-border cooperation.
Programming for Inclusive Development
In light of MONUSCO’s transition, the 2020-2024 UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework Plan for the DRC presents an opportunity for the UN to work closely with the Congolese government in implementing its National Development Plan for the promotion of inclusive development, through a Common Country Analysis and in partnership with international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The Liberia Agenda for Transformation and the Sierra Leone Agenda for Prosperity were closely aligned with the UN Development Assistance Framework and were instrumental in establishing the foundations for sustainable peace following the conflicts in both countries, which can provide guidance for implementation in the DRC. Regional frameworks, including the African Union Agenda 2063 and the UN Strategy for Peace Consolidation, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Resolution in the Great Lakes Region also provide mechanisms for equitable and inclusive socioeconomic development at the regional level, including through cross-border projects undertaken with the support of the Great Lakes Region Cross-Border Fund.
To ensure equitable growth, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in coordination with the UNCT, should work with government agencies and civil society to implement targeted interventions, including the expansion of social protection systems, such as the Lisungi Safety Nets Project to improve access to health and education, as well as infrastructure and public services. These measures will require capacity-building around the collection of disaggregated data, as well as ensuring “a systemic approach through the mapping and strengthening of existing capacities that have proven resilient in sustaining peace,” according to Youssef Mahmoud.
The UNCT and other partners should enable local civil society organizations and governmental agencies to implement programs through direct funding—similar to the community-led development programs in Sierra Leone, where local communities hold budgetary and decision-making power—which would ensure programs are informed by local needs, build on existing capacities, and increase the likelihood of their sustainability.
Systemic policy changes and structural reforms will be particularly critical for addressing exclusion and unequal access to resources, including land reforms to ensure transparency over the allocation of land and security of tenure. Following Liberia’s civil war, where access to land had been a key factor in the conflict, the UN mission in Liberia, the UNCT, and UNDP provided political and technical assistance for reforms, including the Liberia Land Rights Act, “hailed as one of the most progressive land reform laws” in Africa when it was passed in 2018. The support of MONUSCO, the UNCT, and UNDP will similarly be critical for providing Good Offices and technical assistance for the implementation of land reforms in the DRC, in consultation with traditional authorities and civil society. This includes recognition of customary land rights, restitution for land appropriations of internally displaced persons and refugees, and the equitable redistribution of land.
The mining sector is central to the DRC’s economy, accounting for over 17 percent of GDP and 90 percent of exports. The development of legal and regulatory frameworks for natural resource management and the progressive formalization of the mining sector will be instrumental in ensuring natural resources are a driver of shared prosperity and inclusive growth. While the government undertook revisions of mining codes and regulations in 2018 and, more recently, an audit of mining licenses under President Tshisekedi, the 2021 Resource Governance Index for the DRC stood at 36 out of 100 points due to a lack of transparency and insufficient implementation of laws and regulations. The mission should use its Good Offices to advocate for increased implementation of regulations, the adoption of government revenue targets to finance development, the establishment of a national civilian structure for natural resource management, and the publication of the financial audits of Gécamines—the state-owned mining company—as well as the Mining Fund for Future Generations. Support for the development of a regional strategy for the management of natural resources and the Regional Initiative against the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources will be of critical importance, as will be support for the Group of Experts and MONUSCO to monitor implementation of supply chain due diligence guidelines.
Political Economy Analysis
The timing and sequencing of reforms should be informed by conflict-sensitive political economy analyses, as they are likely to challenge existing power structures. It will also be important to incorporate a political economy lens throughout peace operations—from the design and implementation of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Recovery, Community and Stabilization Program, to initiatives focused on transitional justice—as unequal access to political and economic institutions, including security and justice mechanisms, could potentially lead to different outcomes for affected populations. Peace and development advisors, seconded by the Joint UNDP-DPPA program on Building National Capacities for Conflict Prevention, who regularly undertake political economy analyses, could be instrumental in this regard.
If the UN is to prevent a resurgence of conflict following the exit of MONUSCO, it is imperative that comprehensive peacebuilding measures are implemented to address the multiple, complex, and mutually reinforcing structural drivers of conflict in the DRC, including long-standing grievances stemming from systemic inequality and exclusion. During the transition period, the Joint Strategy on the Progressive and Phased Drawdown of MONUSCO presents an opportunity for the UN to undertake a coordinated approach to address these structural factors.
As the UN seeks to gradually draw down the mission, these measures will be critical, lest Ituri become a case of the DRC writ large.
Laura McCreedy is a recent research assistant in the Center for Peace Operations at IPI.
The author would like to thank Agathe Sarfati, Youssef Mahmoud, Daniel Forti, Adam Day, Michel Nouredine Kassa, Jake Sherman, Masooma Rahmaty, Mark Wood, Jill Stoddard, and Eimer Curtin for their invaluable insights and guidance throughout the research and editing process.