On May 1, 2021, President Félix Tshisekedi announced “état de siège” (martial law in practice) in Ituri and North Kivu, two eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Since then, the Congolese army, Ugandan forces and the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, have all played their part in a major push against the myriad armed groups in the region.
The état de siège was prolonged no less than 22 times. But the violence continues to worsen: kidnappings have more than doubled and property destruction has tripled in the past year, according to the Kivu Security Tracker project coordinated by Human Rights Watch.
Green and rich in minerals, this part of the Congo has been plagued by conflict for decades. By some estimates, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. More than five million people remain displaced. Elections scheduled for 2023 could further escalate the violence.
All of the DRC’s eastern neighbors have security interests and are much closer to the conflict than the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa. Uganda, for example, is interested in securing the route of a pipeline intended to export its rich landlocked oil reserves. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a particularly vicious armed group, has links to ISIL (ISIS) and similar groups in northern Mozambique, raising fears of a broader arc of instability. So East African leaders are fine-tuning their military strategy.
A summit chaired by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on April 21 agreed to deploy a new regional force in eastern DRC, giving armed groups an ultimatum to engage in dialogue or face the consequences. But another military surge risks another failure. If the tide is to be turned from conflict to peace, three larger changes are needed.
The first begins in Kinshasa. Leaders of the faraway capital have long fought for the presence and authority of the Congolese state to be felt in the east. They urgently need it. Building stronger civil institutions is crucial. So is a more serious push to reform the DRC’s corrupt security forces.
Analysts suggest that of every three Congolese soldiers supposedly deployed in the east, only one is fighting: of the other two, one is fictitious (his salary is used to line the pockets of officers) and another deployed to protect a mine, securing army security. income from the mineral wealth of the DRC.
There is little chance that the DRC’s security forces will win the fight or the public’s trust as long as this continues. Kinshasa must also deliver on long-promised plans to provide eastern armed groups with incentives to disarm, demobilize and productively reintegrate into their communities.
The second big change would see the region’s leaders address the underlying factors that keep the east of the DRC in conflict. The recent accession of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the East African Community could open up new economic opportunities, but action is needed to reduce the risks of a flood of cheap imports and the exit of local businesses to more favorable environments.
Most importantly, however, the DRC’s neighbors must stop relying on the shadow mining economy. The estimated 1,000 artisanal gold mines in the east probably produce 8 to 10 tons of the precious metal each year, but only two percent of that is legally exported from the Democratic Republic of Congo itself, according to the United Nations. Much of the rest is smuggled across borders and sold there, increasing the tax revenues of neighbors and the wealth of well-placed smugglers. Therefore, the necessary actions to legalize and regularize this trade will have a cost. But the cost of the conflict financed by illegal and shadow mining is much higher. Both the European Union and the US have implemented conflict mining regulations, and the Dutch government is supporting work to certify that artisanal mines in eastern DRC comply so that they can benefit from free and legal exports. of conflicts. The many international companies whose mineral supply chains trace back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo must also step forward.
The third and most important change in eastern DRC must be from military force to community peacebuilding. Relations between the communities and armies involved in the état de siège are beginning to sour as promised security fails to materialize. Members of parliament from Ituri and North Kivu walked out of the chamber last month rather than support further extension of the état de siège.
Military action moves the problem elsewhere, as armed groups simply move into new areas. It doesn’t solve it. But Congolese peacebuilders have shown that courageous and patient work on underlying problems, often village by village, can change the context. Communities have come together to implement local security plans, financed by their mining income. Engaging youth in serious dialogue within communities has caused recruits to turn away from armed groups and hand over their weapons.
The restoration of traditional leadership structures has given communities a point to rally around, and has seen business and economic opportunities return. It would be foolish to pretend that the solutions to the violence in eastern DRC are easy. Spend time talking to the people and communities most affected by the conflict, as I have been doing this year, and that becomes clear quickly. But after a year of état de siège, and with little end in sight, it is surely time to start hearing your answers about what could finally build peace and security in the region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.