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Interview: Stabilizing the Kivus––lessons learned, the path ahead

Guillaume Lacaille is an independent political analyst who specializes in conflicts in Africa. He has previously worked as a political officer with MONUC and as the senior Congo analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG). In 2012, he was seconded by the Swiss government to MONUSCO to support the UN stabilisation unit in redesigning the international stabilisation strategy for eastern Congo (I4S). 

The result of this revision has just been presented to the UN Security Council in a special annex to the report of the UN Secretary-General on the DRC that was released on 15 February.


Once a major conflict has ended following peace talks and elections, the international community usually funds stabilization activities in conflict-affected areas. Such programs aim at helping a fragile new government to restore state authority and provide the general conditions that would allow for long-term development to pick up and victims of the conflict to resume a normal life.

In the Congo, donors drafted this kind of a stabilization plan in 2007, but it was only in 2009 that the security and political situation was seen as propitious for implementing the International Security and Stabilisation Support Strategy (ISSSS or I4S). Indeed, 2009 was marked by a peace deal with armed groups in the Kivus and the diplomatic reconciliation between the DRC and Rwanda. As a result, the Congolese government rolled out its own programme, the Stabilisation and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern Congo (STAREC).

Together, these interconnected-plans were supposed to take advantage of the relative improvement in security to build infrastructure, redeploy state agents, support a political dialogue process and allow economic recovery to facilitate the return of refugees and IDPs.

At the end of the first 3-year implementation phase, hundreds of miles of roads had been rehabilitated and dozens of administrative building and police stations built, but the Kivus little progress toward long-term stability. After much criticism of STAREC/I4S, donors began questioning the impact of the $270 million already spent for this first phase of I4S. In late 2011, MONUSCO launched a major strategic review of the stabilization efforts, in which Lacaille played a key role.

Q: There has been a lot of criticism of STAREC and I4S. Briefly, what do you think their major failings were?

A: The initial plan for I4S was drafted in 2007 by a small group of people in the UN headquarters in Kinshasa on a counter-insurgency model of ‘clear-hold-build’. It has good intentions, […] but it was based on a lot of problematic assumptions.

It assumed that the Congolese government and its foreign partners would work together; that the military operations conducted by the national army with UN support would improve security; and that Congolese authorities would hold a political dialogue involving the communities. Also, it was believed that national reforms and local elections would contribute to improving governance in the country.

These assumptions proved incorrect. The leadership of the UN mission in Kinshasa lost interest in making stabilisation a priority, despite the renaming of MONUC into MONUSCO in mid-2010. The successive heads of MONUSCO’s stabilization unit were discouraged from raising key questions with their Congolese counterparts regarding the political choices that were impeding stabilization. Over time, the I4S approach became more and more technical and less political.

Q: Do you think this is the right time to have a major stabilization effort, given the escalation of conflict with M23 and other armed groups? Shouldn’t we try to broker an end to the fighting first, and then engage with stabilization?

A: What you suggest is precisely the sequence tried in 2009, with negotiations leading to the 23 March agreement followed by the launch of I4S/STAREC and UN-supported operations to disarm the remnant militias. This failure should be a lesson to us. Firstly, negotiations shouldn’t be opaque like they were in 2009. Secondly, negotiations must be informed by the simultaneous pursuit of an inclusive process to address the causes of the fighting at all levels.

In their initial version, I4S and STAREC did not have the expected results less because of insecurity on the ground than because there was no reconciliation and dialogue processes, and no improvement of the legitimacy and capacity of the state representatives at the local level. Despite continuing military operations against the FDLR and Mayi-Mayi groups, I4S implementing partners were still able to work throughout the Kivus with some good results.

The new I4S that is now presented to the Congolese government and its international partners aims at improving local governance and reducing ethnic tensions through local dialogue mechanisms. Redirecting international resources towards empowering the populations in identifying sources of disputes and formulating responses will positively impact local dynamics in which only rebel leaders and unaccountable Congolese officials currently have influence.

Q: How did the review process take place? Given that there has been a lot of criticism of the absence of Congolese civil society in STAREC and I4S, were their voices and those of the Congolese institutions taken into account?

A: Well, since I also made those criticisms in late 2011, I hope we tried to do a better job for the review. Congolese people in the eastern provinces have looked at stabilisation as another top-down initiative that does not benefit them. In early 2012, when we discussed within the UN stabilization team how to review I4S in coherence with STAREC, we knew inclusiveness was going to be key.

A one-year review process was designed to engage the Congolese STAREC team and political authorities, civil society, UN agencies, donors and implementing partners. We first produced a contextual analysis to understand the weaknesses of the past approach for which twenty different organisations were consulted. Then, the stabilization team started hosting one workshop for each of the 5 pillars of I4S where Congolese and international people from Kinshasa, Goma, Bukavu and Bunia could discuss the strategic principles and content of the new I4S.

Initially, the donors, the UN stabilisation team and a few UN agencies were the most eager to save the mutually interconnect I4S and STAREC from irrelevance, but the Congolese provincial authorities understood very quickly that this could become a locally driven program that could work for them. Even NGOs like OXFAM that were critical in the past now support the revised version of I4S.

The difficulty relies on how to generate interest in Kinshasa. The Congolese national leaders are typically just focused on the M23 crisis. When they do look at the stabilization programs, I think they have mixed reactions. On the one hand, it could be a good stream of international funding for a lot of projects. On the other hand, if implemented as designed, they know it would shift some power to provincial and local authorities, away from Kinshasa. This is why the central government sometimes complains about the lack of consultation in an attempt to subtly block the elements of I4S it doesn’t like.

Q: You have followed the review process closely––what are its main proposals for how to change I4S?

In the past, the focus was on restoring state authority in areas vacated by rebels through the building of infrastructure and the deployment of state agents. These agents were often unpaid and the provincial authorities had no resources to support them. Without inclusive political settlement of the conflict, reforms of the state administration and the army, as well as decentralisation, I4S was criticized for extending the reach of a “predatory state”.

The revised I4S maintains 5 clusters of activities (security, democratic dialogue, state authority, early recovery, and fighting sexual violence). The outcomes of the new platforms of dialogue -between communities, the civil society and the local state administrations -will inform all the I4S-funded activities within these 5 clusters.

The democratic dialogue pillar is in fact transversal and should partly compensate for the absence of an inclusive peace process. I4S security projects will improve the FARDC’s ‘holding capacity’ and facilitate the cohabitation of locally deployed soldiers and civilians. Socio-economic projects will be informed by discussions with the communities with the aim of building social cohesion in areas of return and refuge.

During the workshops it was decided to focus the ‘state authority’ pillar on helping states agents to answer better and more equally the most basic needs of the people through the provision of incentives. The population will be regularly asked for prioritizing these needs and for performance feedback to try to bring in basic accountability for state agents (as well as the international partners).

Q: One of the central complaints has been the lack of Congolese government ownership––it only pledged $20 million of the $340 million in projects for STAREC/I4S, and three quarters of that has not been disbursed. While the proposed changes to I4S give greater voice to local communities, there is little here than suggests more genuine involvement from the government in Kinshasa.

You are totally right, and this is partly because the international community has failed to present the political benefits of a stabilization program to the government in Kinshasa. To be fair, until recently, diplomats at the UN Security Council and Secretariat had barely heard of the existence of I4S/STAREC.

The Congolese leadership has consistently favoured a military approach to put an end to the successive crises in the Kivus. This approach is yet again encouraged by the talks of a new international brigade under MONUSCO to defeat the rebels who resist the FARDC.

When the M23 recently attempted to mobilize support beyond the Tutsi community, it pointed at the failure of President Kabila to fix the abysmal Congolese governance. Most people in eastern DRC, even those who opposed the M23, agree with that the government in Kinshasa isn’t delivering and call into question President Kabila’s legitimacy.

It is in Kabila’s political interest to demonstrate that he is actively working on the causes of conflict in eastern DRC. By promoting STAREC in the Kivus and showing initial positive results, he would demonstrate to the Congolese people that the rebels have no legitimate agenda that justifies their actions.

Q: The Secretary-General’s special report on MONUSCO was published just a few days ago. It included a section on I4S, giving some ideas about the way forward. What do you make of the report?

To be honest, I am puzzled. The special report talks about the need to address the root causes and is meant to inform discussions on how to streamline MONUSCO’s mandate. It doesn’t include a section on I4S, it just briefly mentions it once under the humanitarian chapter.

It is curious that the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Congo excludes from its political priorities its own $340 million stabilisation strategy, which is precisely the only platform that has been collectively designed at the ground level to address root causes. I fear that the promoters of a “peace enforcement” mandate for MONUSCO downplay the important role to be played by the UN civilian specialists in Goma, Bukavu, or Bunia to actually help promote peace.

I’m also worried that with the new regional Peace and Security Framework the focus will remain on unmonitored commitments made at the regional and national levels, and on military offensives at the local level. I4S can only work as part of a holistic approach that integrates the diplomatic, political and military strategies at the regional, national and local levels.

The top leadership of the UN is in the best position to promote coherence among these interdependent strategies. And if the donors are not confident that this coherence exists and that MONUSCO is capable of leading on stabilisation, there will likely be little funding for the next phase of I4S. Then, the result of the one-year strategic review of I4S will just remain an interesting concept paper.

Posted by Jason Stearns

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