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So there are 69 armed groups in the Congo. What next?

A week ago, we published a map of armed groups in the Kivus, along with an essay on the recent trends on the conflict. In sum, we argued that armed groups are more numerous, less linked to regional dynamics, and less likely to be used as bargaining chips to obtain cash or positions from the central government.

But what does all of this mean in terms of policy? Our research was focused on the armed groups themselves, not on the complex policy processes designed to address them. While our researchers will be delving into those processes soon, it shouldn’t prevent us from some informed speculation. (Isn’t that what blogs are for?)

We did examine the deeper processes underlying armed mobilization in this paper, but as I have argued here and here (see also relevant articles by Judith Verweijen and Koen Vlassenroot), the crux of the conflict is less about local conflicts over land and identity and more about the weakness of the Congolese state, the use of armed groups by political and military elites to extract resources and bolster their power, and a society in which tens of thousands of young men (fewer than 5 percent are probably women in these groups) have been or are currently insurgents.

If that is true, what should be done? According to this diagnosis, the Congolese state should be the main policy target. That is because it is part of the problem––many armed groups have links to the Congolese army, which uses them as proxies against its rivals. For example, the FARDC collaborated with the Mai-Mai Shetani against the M23 in 2013, and have reportedly supported the NDC-Guidon group against the FDLR this year. They have also used armed groups to extract resources––there have been reports of joint racketeering between the FARDC and the UCPC in Lubero territory (marijuana), or between the FARDC and the FDLR in Rutshuru territory (poaching and charcoal), for example. More broadly, FARDC officers benefit from being in active combat––almost all of the opportunities for legal and extra-legal enrichment accrue to officers deployed in the field, while those in the barracks receive next to nothing.

But the Congolese army has been resistant to reforms from the outside––it has repeatedly said it will only accept bilateral army reform projects, and has been irascible when donors try to tie their support to political conditionality. In 2013, the FARDC developed a new roadmap for army reform, which had many good elements––the demobilization of around half of the current army, who are deemed physically or intellectually unfit to serve; the differentiation of defensive and offensive units, along with mechanized units and special forces; and a new recruitment drive to infuse the army with new blood and morale. Some reforms have been implemented: three new regional commander centers were created, the zones de défense; there has been some new recruitment (but only a fraction of that needed); and some donors have continued to train individual battalions (albeit at a slower pace).

But the framework into which these new recruits and units are being injected is still frail and dysfunctional: the military justice system is still venal, under-resourced and politicized; there is no functional civilian or legislative oversight of the army; and the internal auditing body is all but dormant. The late Colonel Mamadou Ndala once said: The country needs a moral revolution. That has not yet happened, either in the army or elsewhere, and one can wonder whether this particular policy avenue has dead-ended.

The other major policy process is demobilization. Here, too, there was a new program (UEPN-DDR) announced in December 2013. The plan was extremely expensive, running at a proposed $100 million for around 12,000 members of around 50 different armed groups, of which the government asked donors to contribute almost 90 percent. Given past DDR experiences, donors were reluctant to back the program, especially since it required all combatants, even those who do not want to join the army, to be transported to army camps in Kitona (Bas-Congo), Kamina (Katanga), and Kotakoli (Equateur), hundreds of miles from their homes. To make things worse, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch documented dozens of soldiers dying due to disease and starvation in the Kotakoli camp. The government has since reduced the budget and tried to address some of the other donor concerns, but serious questions remain, and little funding has been forthcoming. For an armed group member in the eastern Congo, the new DDR program does not yet offer an attractive alternative to his current life.

Finally, donors have tried to make headway with a revamped demobilization program in the eastern Congo, the so-called International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy (I4S), now in its second, improved iteration. The first round of stabilization met with little success, largely due to a lack of government ownership, and this round is much less ambitious and targets more local peacebuilding efforts rather than the reform of state institutions.

So where do we stand? In sum, policy has been stymied by a lack of synergy between the Congolese government, which does not appear to want to carry out the radical reforms necessary, and its donor partners, who have been reluctant to finance controversial projects in the security sector. In addition to this bleak picture, we can’t expect much progress on institutional reform during the ongoing electoral process, which, if we can judge by past elections, will lead to raids (legal and illegal) on public coffers and the distraction of officials’ attention for the next 12-24 months.

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