For those of us who have to give presentations on recent Congolese history, we are often faced with a problem of labels. There was the period of democratization (1990-1993), the first Congo war or AFDL war (1996-1997), the second Congo war or RCD war (1998-2003) and then the transition (2003-2006).
But what about now? Are we in a post-conflict phase? Obviously not, as in some areas of the country (North & South Kivu) the conflict is as bad as ever. Nevertheless, as President Kabila often reminds us, 130 of the 145 territories in the country have been pacified (many of them never saw any conflict previously, either). So the country is not in a state of civil war, either.
We are in a bizarre, neither-fish-nor-fowl situation, not quite war, not quite peace.
One question I often ask myself: Why all these killings of human rights activists and journalists now? I lived in Bukavu between 2001 and 2004, and I remember that for those of us in civil society, the RCD troops and their Rwandan allies seemed brutally abusive; all we wanted was for them to leave. And yet, during those years, I can’t remember a single one of the civil society activists in Bukavu being killed. The RCD would regularly arrest members of civil society and torture them terribly. But we would know that it was the RCD and we could take measures against them.
Since the peace deal in 2003, we have seen the assassinations of Pascal Kabungulu (Heritiers de la Justice), Serge Maheshe (Radio Okapi) and Didace Namujimbo (Radio Okapi) in Bukavu. Now in Kinshasa Floribert Chebeya (VSV) has been killed. For the first three, all efforts to try to figure out who the culprits were have been in vain – the investigations have been farcical, the trial plagued with irregularities and nobody has paid too much attention to the convictions, as they are not convincing. I fear that the same may be the case for Chebeya’s murder, as well.
We have therefore moved into an era of uncertainty. In South Kivu, the problem used to be clear: The RCD must go, they were clearly the cause of most of the insecurity in Bukavu town and in many parts of South Kivu (not to minimize the violence carried out by the FDLR and Mai-Mai). Now, we don’t even know who the culprits are. People are gunned down in the middle of the night for unknown reasons – it could be the initiative of a low-ranking officer or of the governor; it could be bandits wanting to kill for money or the presidential guard wanting to intimidate the opposition. Of course we always assume the darkest conspiracy, but we are almost never given the satisfaction of proof. Serge Maheshe’s widow told me that she would never know who killed her husband, and had stopped wanting to know. She didn’t want to have any more problems.
Part of this is because the Congo used to be a Manichean, black-and-white world, especially for people in the Kivus. Rwanda was bad, they needed to end their occupation. Now, power is much more diffuse and fragmented. There is the government, but it is difficult to know who is at the root of any given incident – it could be the presidency, acting through the special services of the police; then again, it could be a rogue brigade commander, acting on his own accord. Then, of course, there are the 20+ militia in the Kivus, most of which are acting in conjunction with business and political leaders. Who is to blame now? You can hate Kabila, and many do, but he may be more to blame for the lack of order than for the orders given to kill your journalist friend.
So what should we call this era? Inevitably, it will be called the Kabila years. But it may be better to resurrect a name from the early 1960s, when the state had descended into chaos, the government was weak and large parts of the country were outside of state control. La pagaille. Of course, many things were different then. But the key thing to highlight is the lack of certainty and moral clarity. If you need to get out of prison, pay a bribe; if your friend is killed, forget about knowing who did it; if your husband is always out drinking with other women, he is possessed by the devil. Kabila and Kagame made a deal – it was probably to split up the riches of the Congo between the two of them, but you will never know for sure.