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Posts Tagged ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo’

Balkanization in the Congo?: Language and the perpetuation of ignorance

In David Meyer on July 23, 2012 at 11:20 am

There are several regions of the world that have had trouble shaking historically ingrained Western stereotypes. Chief amongst these has been nearly the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa, usually unabashedly painted as a continent of uniform poverty, state failure, and violence. This image is under constant assault by Africanists and so much ink is spilled in attempts to discredit the Western mind’s most wild imaginings that you would think that eventually some change in perception, however so slight, would take place. Of course, mass media slacktivism campaigns like “Kony 2012” and never-ending barrages of child-sponsoring advertisements just as quickly push the average American back to square one when it comes to perceptions of sub-Saharan Africa more broadly. Though it’s possible to rail against this for pages and pages, something much more curious recently piqued my interest, given the irony of how stereotypes and misconceptions of one region are mobilized to stir up fear and call people to action in another, geographically distant region that has long been, and remains, the victim of similar prejudices and profiling.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is probably the most villainized of all the sub-Saharan African states. Authors can’t stop quoting, somewhat ironically, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or rolling out an endless litany of scary words to cast the country as a vast, Hobbesian hell. Now let’s be fair, the DRC faces a myriad of problems, from weak infrastructure to an undemocratic system of governance, from a sputtering economy to a full blown rebellion in the country’s East, but the sensationalist language that accompanies many reports on the DRC is often overemphasized and does little to build peoples’ understanding of the complex issues that the country faces. Indeed, the average American is most likely content to shrug off the violence in the country’s Eastern provinces or the relative poverty as “just how things are.” Congo watchers and scholars, including the likes of Jason Stearns and Séverine Autesserre, consistently point out the sheer complexity of the conflict in the Kivus, which features on the front page of CNN every once in awhile due to the M23 rebellion, but the majority of analyses seem happy to paint a tragic picture of a country and a conflict that no one can do anything about, because that’s just the way it is. Now, where have we heard something like this before?

Ah, of course, the Yugoslav Wars! Yes indeed, the old “ancient hatreds” argument made popular, somewhat unwittingly, by Robert Kaplan and firmly implanted as the average American’s full conception of the Balkan region. Those people there have been at each other’s throats for time immemorial, the only thing we can do is let them fight it out! Even top diplomatic officials in the H.W. Bush administration pushed this line before the pendulum swung to the opposite side under Clinton, when the new standard talking point was that the war was based around pure elite manipulation. Of course, the truth likely resides somewhere in between these extremes (and between hundreds more factors and influences) but the damage was done and the word “balkanization” reentered the English language to denote fragmentation, conflict, and hatred. I say reentered, of course, because the negative framing of the region has been a part of Western perceptions all the way back through the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and even earlier. Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian scholar, wrote a scathing critique of the origins and use of the idea of the “Balkans” as a bogeyman of the West in her book, Imagining the Balkans, which I recommend to anyone interested in the topic.

Given this shared history of being the victims of crass stereotypes, the irony is almost unbearable when one reads the July 21st statement by the Episcopal National Congress of the Congo (Cenco) calling for peace and a resolution to the crisis in the Eastern DRC. Announcing they will lead a protest march to “denounce the destabilization and balkanization of the country,” the group undercuts a noble goal with a word that is not only a hackneyed cliché, but also a framing device that has historically hamstrung progress and international engagement in a troubled region (link in French). Indeed, the portrayal of the Balkans as a land defined by ethnic conflict is an overly simplistic, plain wrong understanding of the region’s history and does a great disservice to those who have long worked for reconciliation, economic growth, and political liberalization. Many of the Balkan states still face hurdles on these issues, but recalling a false, constructed specter of “Balkanism,” even a whole continent away, only promotes unsophisticated readings of complex issues. And that really is the heart of the matter. The Congolese wouldn’t be terribly impressed by assertions that violence in the Eastern DRC is “all about greed” or “all about nearly century old land disputes” because these understandings are incomplete and often mischaracterize influences, actors, and the reality on the ground.

If the Congolese Episcopal National Congress is serious about promoting a new discourse to refocus attention on a region riven by war, they should try reformulating their own language lest they begin to share in the promotion of stereotyping and misconceptions that many Congolese have long fought to overcome. Unless they don’t mind the perpetuation of the mere utterance of the word “Congo” instantly conjuring up images of violence, poverty, and hopelessness, as it undoubtedly still does today. The people of the Balkan Peninsula have had to work hard to vanquish these same stereotypes over the past 15 years; they certainly don’t deserve the extension of this nasty legacy of Western imperialism, similar tremors of which are still felt in the DRC today. In the same way, this should serve as a clarion call to more nuanced understandings of the crisis in the Eastern DRC, so that policy makers are better able to grasp the varied influences and actors that shape the dynamics of violence and average citizens all around the world can refrain from promulgating stereotypes and misunderstandings of a complex series of conflicts that have caused immense pain and suffering in the center of Africa. I suggest reading through Jason Stearn’s blog post over at Congo Siasa alternately critiquing and praising Séverine Autesserre’s recent op-ed for a brief insight into the complexities at play in the Eastern DRC.

Terms like “balkanization” thus don’t have much explanatory power, rather they obscure complexity and plaster over truth. Let’s eliminate it from our vocabulary as a step towards combating stereotypes and oversimplified understanding. I think that’s something that both citizens of the Balkans and the DRC can get behind.

-David Meyer

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Hey, I was listening to that!: On the curbing of media freedoms in Belarus and the DRC

In David Meyer on January 10, 2012 at 11:52 pm

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for media freedom in two very different parts of the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the newly (re)-inaugurated president, Joseph Kabila, and his regime took Radio France Internationale (RFI) offline for several days, threatening Congolese access to external sources of information. Perhaps an even larger blow to personal liberty was struck in the authoritarian stronghold of Belarus, where President Lukashenka’s regime began enforcing a law that seriously undermines Belarusian citizens’ access to the internet. Both of these developments are tied to the changing political situations in the countries, but what are the implications for both states’ futures?

On December 31st, DRC Communications and Media Minister Lambert Mende accused RFI of supporting Etienne Tshisekedi’s claim to the presidency (he was Kabila’s main challenger in last year’s presidential election) and of acting with “deliberate will to create a confused [political] situation which can lead us to confrontations between Congolese,” and thus their signal would be cut off until further notice (all DRC links in French). The French radio service had also had its signal disrupted several times following Tshisekedi’s proclamation that he alone was the true president of the country on December 23rd. On January 6th, the U.S. State Department denounced the move as amounting to “censoring” the media in the country and called on the government to immediately reestablish the station’s signal. Fortunately, on January 9th RFI service was restored, with Minister Mende noting (as if there had been nothing strange about the cutoff) that the enforced outage was “finished” but ominously stating that the station needs to have submitted to Congolese law if it wants to continue to enjoy its broadcasting rights. However, this is a hollow victory for media freedom in the DRC, as two other national media chains which are regarded as close to the opposition, Radiotélévision Lisanga and New Canal futur, remain suspended. Unfortunately, the “victory” in the case of RFI may divert attention away from these other politically motivated blackouts of media outlets.

This isn’t the first time, and most likely won’t be the last, that the Kabila regime has manipulated media freedoms inside the country. Indeed, RFI had it’s signal cut off from July 2009 until October 2010 after the authorities accused the station of “lowering the morale” of the army. Perhaps more worrying was the suspension of SMS services across the entire country on December 3rd, just after the bitterly contested national elections. Vice Prime Minister of the Interior, Adolphe Lumanu, stated that the action “was taken in order to preserve public order and assure a happy outcome to the electoral process.” Service wasn’t restored until December 28th.

Infringements on media freedom directly impact citizens’ ability to participate in the political process. So, political freedom is directly connected to a free media. In the case of the DRC, geography matters, especially for communication networks. The DRC’s massive size and lack of infrastructure allows the state to clamp down easily on important frequencies or entire stations if they so desire. In addition, to shut off SMS service deprives large numbers of citizens of one of their primary means of communication, especially with friends and family. These moves by the Kabila regime show there to be considerable government concerns about possible organized protests à la Arab Spring, but they also reveal the desperation of a prototype failed state to keep control over its citizens.

This same type of desperation is on full display a little further north, in Belarus. In this case, however, the state isn’t failed, but rather inching in a more all-consuming direction. As mentioned above, the Lukashenka regime has brought into force a new law that restricts citizens’ internet usage and compels service provides, including internet cafes, to record the web traffic of each individual. Several opposition political websites have made their way onto the blacklist. This all comes on the heels of the massive crackdown on the democratic opposition following last year’s rigged presidential elections, in which Lukashenka won nearly 80% of the vote. Even as the Belarusian economy has tumbled, the regime has only been tightening its grip on power.

In contrast to the DRC, where state authorities also may have complete control over certain communications networks, Belarus has several characteristics that allow for external intervention despite regime lockdown. Indeed, Belsat, which receives Western funding and is based out of Poland, continues to broadcast satellite news from the outside to offer an alternative to state-controlled media in Belarus. Of course, Belsat operates at a low level and its journalists undertake significant risks reporting from inside the country, but as its viewership has risen above 10% of Belarusian citizens, there is hope that progress can be made on increasing Belarusian exposure to alternative forms of media. The internet crackdown, which can easily be linked to the deteriorating economic situation in Belarus, could herald new attempts by the regime to clamp down on this type of external broadcasting as well. Belarusians’ exposure to external media is critical to expanding their political consciousness, and possibly leading to further popular democratic uprisings in the country to match those that took place in the wake of last year’s flawed elections. This is a long-term goal, but the efforts of those that promote media freedom in the country are of utmost importance to Belarus’ future. In addition to these challenges to the Belarusian authorities at home, the U.S. has upped the ante, and new sanctions are due to come into effect soon.

As media crusaders battle on in Belarus, are there any lessons to take from their struggle that could be applicable in a country as different as the DRC? There already are several independent news outlets that operate in the DRC, notably Radio Okapi, which is funded by the U.N. Promoting local media sources would be important, if the money or support from the international community was there, and it clearly isn’t. In a country as vast as the DRC, especially with its infrastructural problems, it’s going to be very difficult to set up and maintain quality local news outlets without more outside aid (something Belsat continues to enjoy) and, unfortunately, as alluded to in my previous post, American policy in the DRC continues to be rather passive.

As for the possibilities of external broadcasting, they would run right into several problems. Obviously infrastructure, importantly internet penetration, is a major stumbling block, but there’s also an indelible legacy that gets in the way of any serious discussion on the topic. The history of insurgency in Central Africa is defined by rebel groups building their forces in neighboring states before launching their anti-government campaigns. Any type of external broadcasting by political exiles, who are clearly present in all of the surrounding states, would be too easily tied to ambitions of violent takeover of the DRC and the perceived threat could be instrumentalized by the Kabila regime to only further crack down on opposition groups and free media. However, the DRC is not the monolith that the Belarusian state is (or at least pretends to be), and a slow but steady approach of spreading new political ideas may be the best way towards the Congolese people undertaking a popular campaign to demand their political, civil, and human rights. If the Congolese are to take a lesson from the Belarusian activists, it should be that, although their work is dangerous, it is necessary to secure the future freedoms of all citizens, and it is their present perseverance that will define the future of their country.

-David Meyer

Little Trouble in Big Congo?: Searching for meaning behind U.S. responses to the DRC elections

In David Meyer on December 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm

As news outlets constantly remind us of the “tense” and “explosive” situation on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) following the contested Presidential poll of November 28 (and a few days after…and allegedly before), critics have appeared, not just of the clearly deficient election process itself, but also of the international response to the flawed results. In Foreign Policy magazine, Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a visiting scholar at Stanford and a member of the Carter Center observation mission in the country, decries what he sees as a lack of Western response to the manipulated election. But what explains this muted and rather tepid response by the Obama administration, which recently stood up for the democratic process in Russia, upsetting Vladimir Putin and calling into question the longevity of the “reset” strategy. In fact, the nature of the U.S. response should not be surprising, and reflects several key factors, both in the corridors of power in Washington and in the situation on the ground in the DRC.

In a Winter 2009 article for African Affairs, Nicolas Van De Waal argued that U.S. State Department institutional capacity in sub-Saharan Africa was declining and, while hopeful for the future, struck a tone of skepticism towards the Obama administration turning this situation around. Despite the fact that the U.S. government (USG) deployed election observers in every DRC region, under the auspices of the Carter Center mission, it is likely that travel inside the country by U.S. Embassy staff is extremely limited outside of Kinshasa, especially in the East of the country, where numerous rebel groups still operate in low-level insurgency. Security considerations and travel restrictions thus prevent an extension of diplomatic presence throughout the country, which is so vast it could host an economic-focused consulate in the East if the region was more secure.

The USG seconding its election monitoring out to the Carter Center’s mission gave the possibility of having it both ways, allowing the Carter Center to come down hard on the elections while freeing the USG to take a more tempered approach that ruffles fewer feathers. This despite the fact that the USG does not shy away from its complete association with, and funding of, the Carter Center’s mission. It’s a rather strange position to be in, and more than anything reinforces De Waal’s contention that USG institutional capacity in many African states is severely lacking.

What follows is a review of USG statements on the elections in the aftermath of the vote and a brief expansion on De Waal’s thesis:

December 1st, U.S. Ambassador James Entwistle delivered remarks on the elections, broadly praising Congolese citizens for voting and participating in local observation of the process. While he noted “irregularities” and regretted several violent incidents, it was mainly a positive speech that attempted to link in with the Congolese people and salute their efforts.

December 6th, nearly a week later, State Department spokesman Mark Toner gave a vague statement on “supporting the democratic development” of the DRC while noting “[v]iolence has no place in the democratic process.”

On December 10th, the Carter Center reported that the election results “lack credibility.” A few days after digesting this report, on December 14th State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland doubled down, calling the results “seriously flawed.”

However, has their been any real response behind this rhetorical posturing?

De Waal would argue that the State Department and Ambassador’s statements reflect that the USG lacks leverage inside the country to affect any serious change and thus is relegated to light scolding while rallying against possible outbreaks of violence.

On another level, the American response reveals a deep cynicism that has long dominated U.S. policy in sub-Saharan Africa. The USG knew before the elections that this was the likely result: a technically flawed poll that would comfortably return Kabila to power. For the U.S., whether a completely clean poll would have brought Tshisekedi to power is irrelevant. Kabila still controls state security forces and, though his popularity in the East of the country has fallen, this is mostly to the benefit of other candidates (besides Tshisekedi) and rebel groups. It’s clear that the State Department views Tshisekedi, along with the other presidential candidates, as a potentially destabilizing factor in the delicate balance of the DRC non-state. Whether economic interests are at play as well remains half-truth, half-conspiracy theory, but the point remains that stability and security are likely the primary objectives of the State Department and Obama administration.

On December 15th, Assistant Secretary of State Jonnie Carson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling for a “rapid technical review of the electoral process” but little more. DRC expert Jason Stearns argues on his blog Congo Siasa that this represents a “logical fallacy” on the part of the USG, which he holds is implying that irregularities should not be investigated because we do not know whether they had an effect on the actual ranking of candidates. Stearns pushes back hard on this thinking, noting that we should follow the Carter Center report in concluding: “We don’t know who won these elections. And we should.”

While I broadly agree with Stearns’ critique, it’s clear that the U.S. government is less concerned with substantial democratic progress in the country and more concerned with maintaining stability while slowly building democratic norms. Of course, how well these norms can develop through consistently flawed elections remains a point of contention. For James Talbott, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, even flawed elections can have benefits for society if they get people to react against perceived injustices. Is the U.S. government endorsing this approach? I don’t know, but without a doubt right now the Obama administration is praying for stability in the country, not necessarily democracy.

-David Meyer