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Considering the scale of violence that has accompanied the crisis in eastern Congo, the avalanche of academic writings on the subject is hardly surprising. Whether it helps us better understand the region's tortured history is a matter of opinion. This critical article grapples with the contributions of the recent literature on what has been described as the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. The aim, in brief, is to reflect on the historical context of the crisis, examine its relation to the politics of neighboring states, identify and assess the theoretical vantage points from which it has been approached, and, in conclusion, sketch out promising new directions for further research by social scientists. A unifying question that runs throughout the recent literature on the eastern Congo is how might a functioning state be restored or how might civil society organizations serve as alternatives to such a state – but there is little unanimity in the answers.

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I gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to Severine Autesserre, Lola Haskins, Marie-Eve Desrosiers, David Newbury, and Crawford Young for their judicious comments and criticisms whilst trying to rethink and revise earlier versions of this text.

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1 The quote above is borrowed from Sémelin, J., Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide, trans. C. Schoch (London 2007), 23.

2 See my Political Awakening in the Congo (Berkeley, CA, 1964) and Rwanda and Burundi (London, 1970); for a comparative discussion of more recent developments in these states see The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Philadelphia, 2009).

3 Turner, T., The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality (London, 2007); Reyntjens, F., The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996–2006 (Cambridge, 2009); Prunier, G., Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford, 2009); Autesserre, S., The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (Cambridge, 2010); Stearns, J., Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (New York, 2011); Kisangani, E. F., Civil Wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1960–2010 (Boulder, CO, 2012); Van Reybrouck, D., Congo: une histoire, trans. I. Rosselin (Arles, 2012). Finally, no attempt to deal with the historiography of the Great Lakes would be complete without mentioning L'Afrique des Grands Lacs, a yearbook published since 1997 under the auspices of the Antwerp-based, Centre d'Etude de la Région des Grands Lacs d'Afrique, an indispensable source of continuing information and ongoing research.

4 I have in mind, in particular, Karimumuryango, J., Les réfugiés rwandais dans la région de Bukavu, Congo RDC: la survie du réfugié dans les camps de secours d'urgence (Paris, 2000); Niwese, M., Le peuple rwandais un pied dans la tombe: récit d'un réfugié étudiant (Paris, 2001); and Umutesi, M. B., Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire (Madison, WI, 2004).

5 Verhaegen, B., ‘The method of ‘histoire immédiate’: its application to Africa’, in Jewsiewicki, B. and Newbury, D. S. (eds.), African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa? (Beverly Hills, CA, 1986), 236248.

6 I have in mind, in addition to Autesserre's brilliantly iconoclastic prize-winning book, The Trouble with the Congo, the contributors to a special issue of the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE), a treasure-trove of outstanding research papers: Larmer, M., Laudati, A., and Clark, J. F. (eds.), special issue “Neither war nor peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): profiting and coping amid violence and disorder,” ROAPE 40:135 (2013).

7 ‘A lovely pool of green water, set among some of the most splendid forests and mountains of all Africa’, is how Moorehead captured the lushness of the Kivu region; Barns for his part found Kisenji (sic) to be ‘in some ways the most beautiful and restful place I know, with just a touch about it reminiscent of the South Seas’. Moorehead, A., No Room in the Ark (London, 1962 [orig. pub. 1957]), 70; Barns, T. A., The Wonderland of the Eastern Congo: The Region of the Snow-Crowned Volcanoes, the Pygmies, the Giant Gorilla, and the Okapi (New York, 1922), 55.

8 This is the term used by K. Büscher and K. Vlasseroot in their discussion of ‘The humanitarian industry and urban change in Goma’, Open Democracy, 21 Mar. 2013, (

9 Ibid.

10 For a fuller exploration of this theme, see Raeymaekers, T., Forced Displacement and Youth Employment in the Aftermath of the Congo War: From Making a Living to Making a Life, MICROCON Research Working Paper, no. 38, (Brighton, 2011).

11 Bartov, O. and Weitz, E. D., ‘Introduction’, in Bartov, and Weitz, (eds.), Shatterzone of Empire: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington, IN, 2013), 1.

12 The term Banyarwanda includes Hutu and Tutsi; both speak Kinyarwanda, and trace their origins to Rwanda. But this does not take into account the date and circumstances of their migration into eastern DRC, which, along with their places of residence, point to further distinctions among them. See Huening's, Lars-Christopher excellent analysis, ‘Making use of the past: the Rwandophone question and the “Balkanisation of the Congo”’, ROAPE, 40:135 (2013), 1331.

13 Newbury, D. S., The Land Beyond the Mists: Essays on Identity and Authority in Precolonial Congo and Rwanda (Athens, OH, 2009).

14 Here defined as ‘an area of poorly defined contours and quickly changing perceptions’, Ibid. 6.

15 Ibid. 3–4.

16 On the Bula Matari concept to denote an oppressively strong state syndrome, see Young, C., The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective (New Haven, CT, 1994), 77140.

17 Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st Century, pub. for the Human Security Center of the University of British Columbia (Oxford, 2005), 134.

18 Recent statistics from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicate that in 2012 alone, fighting in North Kivu displaced some 590,000 people. By 2013, according to Refugees International (RI) the number of IDPs for the province had reached nearly a million (914,000); of these 802,000 were reported to be living outside the formal camp settings. According to RI advocate Caelin Briggs, ‘Across the board, we found extremely harsh conditions, particularly in the non-official camps … . Food is the number one need mentioned. For instance, between July and December 2012, there was no food distribution in Masisi [territory]. They try to get day labour on nearby farms, but there is just not enough work to go around.’ ‘Boosting support for IDPs outside DRC's formal camps’, International Research Information Network (IRIN), (Nairobi), 21 Mar. 2013, (

19 Prunier, Africa's World War; Reyntjens, The Great African War, passim.

20 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the Mapping Exercise documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003 (Geneva, 2010). For an excellent short analysis, see J. Stearns, ‘Bombshell UN Report leaked: “Crimes of genocide” against Hutus in Congo’ guest blogger to the Christian Science Monitor online, 26 Aug. 2010, (

21 Leaning, J., ‘Enforced displacement of civilian populations in war: a potential new element in crimes against humanity’, International Criminal Law Review, 11:3 (2011), 446.

22 Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence, 20; see also Weiner, M., The Global Migration Crisis: Challenge to States and to Human Rights (New York, 1995).

23 Reyntjens, The Great African War, esp. 80; Reytnjens, and Lemarchand, , ‘Mass Murder in Eastern Congo, 1996–1997’, in Lemarchand, (ed.), Forgotten Genocides: Oblivion, Denial and Memory (Philadelphia, 2011), 2036.

24 Vlassenroot, K., ‘Reading the Congolese crisis’ and ‘Land and conflict: the case of Masisi’, in Vlassenroot, K. and Raeymaekers, T., Conflict and Social Transformation in Eastern DR Congo (Gent, 2004), 3960 and 81–102; Vlassenroot, K., ‘The promise of ethnic conflict: militarisation and enclave formation in South Kivu’, in Goyvaerts, D. (ed.), Conflict and Ethnicity in Central Africa (Tokyo, 2000), 59104.

25 Turner, The Congo Wars, 114.

26 Newbury, D., ‘Canonical conventions in Rwanda: four myths of recent historiography in Central Africa’, History in Africa, 39:1 (2012), 54.

27 Braeckman, C., ‘Zaïre et ses régions’, Enjeux Nationaux et Dynamiques Régionales dans l'Afrique des Grands Lacs: interventions et communications de la journée d’étude (Lille, 1992), 3341.

28 Prunier, Africa's World War, 49. The author, however, offers no evidence in support of this astronomical figure.

29 Reyntjens, F. and Marysse, S. (eds.), Conflits au Kivu: Antécédents et Enjeux, (Antwerp, 1996); Human Rights Watch, Zaire: Forced to Flee – Violence Against the Tutsis in Zaire, 8:2 (July 1996).

30 Reyntjens, The Great African War, 61–3; Larmer, M., ‘Local conflicts in a transnational war: the Katangese gendarmes and the Shaba Wars of 1977–78’, Cold War History, 13:1 (2013), 89108. I am grateful to Miles Larmer for drawing my attention to both Reyntjens's and his own contributions.

31 Titeca, K. and Vlassenroot, K., ‘Rebels without borders in the Rwenzori borderland? A biography of the Allied Democratic Forces’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 6:1 (2012), 154.

32 Prunier, G., ‘Rebel movements and proxy warfare: Uganda, Sudan and the Congo (1986–99)’, African Affairs, 103:412 (2004), 359–83.

33 Reytnjens, F., La Guerre des Grands Lacs: Alliances Mouvantes et Conflits Extraterritoriaux en Afrique Centrale (Paris, 1999).

34 Among Kagame's corporate praise singers, the Howard Buffett Foundation deserves special notice for its blistering and largely gratuitous criticisms of the 2012 UN Group of Experts on the DRC, listed in this commissioned report: Assessing the 2012 UN Group of Experts Report on the DRC: An Analysis of Methodology, Cooperation and Implications (1 Apr. 2013). For a more persuasive argument, see Turner, T., ‘Will Rwanda end its meddling in Congo?’, Current History, 112:754 (2013), 188–94.

35 Adelman, H., ‘The use and abuse of refugees in Zaire’, in Stedman, S. J. and Tanner, F. (eds.), Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering (Washington, DC, 2003), 95134, quotes from pages 99, 100, and 120. For a similarly tendentious interpretation of Rwanda's role in DRC, see Adelman, H. and Rao, G. C. (eds.), War and Peace in Zaire/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention, 1996–1997 (New York, 2004).

36 Edelman, M., Constructing the Political Spectacle (Chicago, 1988), 103.

37 Thelen, K., ‘How institutions evolve: insights from comparative historical analysis’, in Mahoney, J. and Rueschemeyer, D. (eds.), Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge, 2003), 218.

38 The crucial role played by the Résident Spécial, Colonel Guy Logiest, in orchestrating the Hutu revolt, and institutionalizing the transfer of power to Hutu elites, is made clear in his autobiographical account, Mission au Rwanda: Un Blanc dans la Bagarre Tutsi-Hutu (Paris, 1988).

39 The term is borrowed from Crawford Young's seminal analysis of the three major variants of ethnicity, primordial, instrumentalist, and constructivist, in The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 19602010 (Madison, WI, 2012), esp. 318.

40 Turner, The Congo Wars, 8–10.

41 Carr, E. H., What is History? (London, 1990 [orig. pub. 1961]), 11.

42 Van Reybrouck, Congo: une histoire.

43 The Hema, whose homeland is in the Ituri district, are ethnically distinct from the Tutsi or Hima people but share some of the same historical experiences as a privileged minority during the colonial era; through ethnic favoritism or skullduggery they were able to claim ownership of large tracts of land previously owned by the majority Iru populations. Quote is from Van Reybrouck, Congo: une histoire, 492–3.

44 Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, 10.

45 Ndikumana, L. and Emizet, K. F., ‘The economics of civil war: the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo’, in Collier, P. and Sambanis, N. (eds.), Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis, Volume 1: Africa (Washington, DC, 2005), 82.

46 See Stearns, J., Raia Mutomboki: The Flawed Peace Process in the DRC and the Birth of an Armed Franchise (Nairobi, 2013); PARECO: Land, Local Strongmen and the Roots of Militia Politics in North Kivu (Nairobi, 2013); North Kivu: The Background to Conflict in North Kivu Province of Eastern Congo (Nairobi, 2012); From CNDP to M23: The Evolution of an Armed Movement in Eastern Congo (Nairobi, 2012). All of the above have appeared in print as part of the Rift Valley Institute's DRC-centered Usalama Project, of which Stearns is the Director.

47 Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo, 38, emphasis added.

48 Among other contributions on that theme, the following deserve special mention: Vlassenroot, K. (ed.), Dealing with Land Issues and Conflict in Eastern Congo: Towards an Integrated and Participatory Approach (Conflict Research Group, Ghent, 2012); Adeape, Arche d'Alliance, et RIO, Au-delà des ‘Groupes Armés’: Conflits locaux et connexions sous-regionales: L'exemple de Fizi et Uvira (Sud-Kivu, RDC) (Life and Peace Institute, Kalmar, Suède, 2011); Huggins, C., Land, Power and Identity: Roots of Violent Conflict in Eastern DRC, (International Alert, London, Nov. 2010); Willame, J.-C., Banyarwanda et Banyamulenge: Violences ethniques et gestion de l'identité au Kivu, Cahiers Africains, Collection Zaïre, années 90 (Paris, 1997).

49 Au delà des ‘Groupes Armés’.

50 Young, M. C., ‘Rebellion and the Congo’, in Rotberg, R. I. and Mazrui, A. (eds.), Protest and Power in Black Africa (Oxford, 1970), 972.

51 Interview with Floribert Ndabagoye, Bukavu, 20 Sept. 2008. Space limitations prevent a fuller discussion of how Kibinda allied himself with Mai-Mai warlords (Nakabaka and Zabuloni) against Ndabagoye, and how the latter in turn received the full support of the RCD governor of South Kivu, Leonce Chibalonza, to make good his claims to the mwamiship of the Barundi. For a more detailed account, see Au delà des ‘Groupes Armés’, 75–6. An outstanding in-depth discussion of the ongoing conflict surrounding the Barundi chieftaincy can be found in the International Crisis Group report, ‘Comprendre les conflits dans l'Est du Congo (I): la plaine de la Ruzizi’, Rapport Afrique no. 206 (23 July 2013), 1–25.

52 Huening, ‘Making use of the past’, 13–31; Vlassenroot, K., ‘Citizenship, identity formation and conflict in South Kivu: the case of the Banyamulenge’, ROAPE, 29:93/4 (2002), 499516.

53 Here as elsewhere in DRC, access to landed property is contingent on proof of citizenship, a point stressed by Eric Kennes in his commentary on ‘the fundamental importance of the Congolese nationality law: It determines access not only to political power but also to economic power through land rights.’ Kennes, E., ‘The Democratic Republic of the Congo: structures of greed, networks of need’, in Arnson, C. J. and Zartman, I. W. (eds.), Rethinking the Economics of War (Washington, DC, 2005), 145.

54 Van Puijenbroek, J. and Ansoms, A., ‘A legacy from the past hindering the future: land conflicts in Ituri (DRC)’, in Ansoms, A. and Marysse, S. (eds.), Natural Resources and Local Livelihoods in the Great Lakes Region of Africa: A Political Economy Perspective (New York, 2011), 4967.

55 Mararo, S. B.Land, power, and ethnic conflict in Masisi (Congo-Kinshasa), 1940s–1994’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 30:3 (1997), 503–38; Mathieu, P. and Willame, J.-C., Conflits et Guerres au Kivu et dans la Région des Grands Lacs: Entre tensions locales et escalade régionale (Paris, 1999); Vlassenroot, ‘Land and conflict’, 81–102; Huggins, Land, Power and Identity.

56 Autesserre, S., ‘The trouble with Congo: how local disputes fuel regional conflict’, Foreign Affairs, 87:3 (2008), 106.

57 Clapham, C., ‘Peacebuilding without a state: the Somali experience’, in Curtis, D. and Dzinesa, G. A. (eds.), Peacebuilding, Power, and Politics in Africa (Athens, OH, 2012), 295309.

58 ‘NGOs concerned about new DRC Intervention Brigade’, IRIN (Goma), 31 May 2013.

59 Clapham, ‘Peacebuilding without a state’, 302.

60 Claessens, K., Mudinga, E. M., and Ansom, A., ‘Competition over soil and subsoil: land grabbing by local elites in eastern DRC’, in Ansom, A. and Hillhorst, T. (eds.), Everyday Forms of Land Grabbing in the Great Lakes Region of Africa (forthcoming).

61 Ibid. 10.

62 Seay, L. E., ‘Effective responses: Protestants, Catholics and the provision of health care in the post-war Kivus’, ROAPE 40:135 (2013), 8397; Leinweber, A. E., ‘From devastation to mobilisation: the Muslim community's involvement in social welfare in post-conflict DRC’, ROAPE 40:135 (2013), 98115.

63 Leinweber, ‘From devastation to mobilisation’, 111.

64 Herdt, T. De, A la Recherche de l'Etat en R-D Congo: Acteurs et enjeux d'une reconstruction post-conflit (Paris, 2011), 22–5.

65 Giovannoni, M., Trefon, T., Banga, J. K., and Mwema, C., ‘Acting on behalf (and in spite) of the state: NGOs and civil society associations in Kinshasa’, in Trefon, T. (ed.), Reinventing Order in the Congo: How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa (London, 2004), 103.

66 Tull, D. M., ‘A reconfiguration of political order? The state of the state in North Kivu (DR Congo)’, African Affairs, 102:408 (2003), 429446.

67 Laudati, A., ‘Beyond minerals: broadening “economies of violence” in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’, ROAPE 40:135 (2013), 3250; Verweijen, J., ‘Military business and the business of the military in the Kivus’, ROAPE 40:135 (2013), 6782.

68 Stearns, J., ‘Repenser la crise au Kivu: mobilisation armée et logique du gouvernement de transition’, Politique Africaine, 129 (Mar. 2013), 2348.

69 Geenen, S., ‘A dangerous bet: the challenges of formalizing artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Resources Policy, 37:3 (2012), 324.

70 Autesserre, , ‘Dangerous tales: dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences’, African Affairs, 111:443 (2012), 212.

71 I am indebted to Oumar Sylla, Head of the Eastern office for UN-Habitat in DRC for alerting me to the large number of Kivu-based civil society organizations involved in mediation and participatory activities, including Centres de Médiation Communautaires (CDM) and Noyaux de Résolution des Conflits Fonciers (NRCF), as well as his assessment of the Comités Locaux Permanents de Conciliation (CLPC) operating under MONUSCO's supervision. For further information, see Sylla, O., ‘Land and property disputes impeding return and reintegration’, Forced Migration Review, 36 (Nov. 2010), 1819.

* I gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to Severine Autesserre, Lola Haskins, Marie-Eve Desrosiers, David Newbury, and Crawford Young for their judicious comments and criticisms whilst trying to rethink and revise earlier versions of this text.

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