On May 1, 2021, President Félix Tshisekedi announced an “état de siège” – effectively martial law – in Ituri and North Kivu, two eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Since then, the Congolese army, Ugandan armed forces and the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, have all played their part in a major battle against the region’s numerous armed groups.
The état de siège has been extended no less than 22 times. But the violence continues to get worse: kidnappings have more than doubled and property destruction tripled in the past year, according to the Kivu Security Tracker project coordinated by Human Rights Watch.
This part of Congo, green and rich in minerals, has been ravaged by conflict for decades. By some estimates, the DRC has experienced the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. More than five million people are still displaced. Elections for 2023 could further escalate the violence.
All of the DRC’s eastern neighbors have a security interest and are much closer to the conflict than the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa. Uganda, for example, is keen to secure the route of a pipeline destined to export its rich but landlocked oil reserves. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a particularly vicious armed group, has ties to ISIL (ISIS) and similar groups in northern Mozambique, raising fears of a wider arc of instability. So the leaders of East Africa are sharpening their military strategy.
A summit chaired by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on April 21 agreed to deploy a new regional force in eastern DRC, issuing an ultimatum to the armed groups to initiate a dialogue to face the consequences. But a new military wave risks another failure. To turn the tide of conflict toward peace will require three major shifts.
The first starts in Kinshasa. Leaders in the distant capital have long struggled to make sense of the Congolese state’s presence and authority in the east. They have to urgently. It is crucial to build stronger civilian institutions. So is a more serious effort to reform the DRC’s corrupt security forces.
Analysts suggest that for every three Congolese soldiers supposedly deployed in the east, only one is actually fighting: of the other two, one is fictitious (their salary is used to line officers’ pockets), and one is deployed to guard a mine, to secure the armies. income from the mineral resources of the DRC.
As long as this continues, the DRC’s security forces are unlikely to win the fight or gain the public’s trust. Kinshasa must also deliver on long-promised plans to give the armed groups in the east an incentive to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate productively into their communities.
In the second major shift, the region’s leaders would address the underlying factors that keep eastern DRC in conflict. The DRC’s recent entry into the East African Community could provide new economic opportunities, but measures are needed to mitigate the risks of an influx of cheap imports and the departure of local businesses to more favorable environments.
Most importantly, the DRC’s neighbors need to break their dependence on the shadow mining economy. The estimated 1,000 artisanal gold mines in the east probably produce 8-10 tons of the precious metal each year, but only two percent of that is legally exported from the DRC itself, according to the United Nations. Much of the rest is smuggled across the border and sold there, benefiting the neighbors’ tax revenues and the wealth of the well-placed smugglers. The necessary measures to legalize and regularize this trade will therefore entail costs. But the costs of conflict financed by illegal and shadow mining are much higher. Both the European Union and the US have introduced conflict mining regulations, and the Dutch government supports work to certify artisanal mines in eastern DRC as compliant so they can benefit from legal, conflict-free exports. The many international companies whose mineral supply chains go back to the DRC also need to stand up for this.
The third and most important shift in eastern DRC is to be made from military violence to community peacebuilding. Relations between communities and the armies involved in the état de siège are beginning to deteriorate as the promised security is not forthcoming. Ituri and North Kivu parliamentarians left the chamber last month instead of approving further expansion of the état de siège.
Military action shifts the problem elsewhere, as armed groups simply move to new areas. It doesn’t solve it. But Congolese peace workers have shown that working courageously and patiently on the underlying issues — often village by village — can change the context. Communities have come together to implement local security plans, funded by their mining revenues. By involving young people in serious dialogue within communities, recruits turned back from the armed groups and surrendered their weapons.
The restoration of traditional leadership structures has given communities a point to unite, and trade and economic opportunities are returning. It would be foolish to pretend that the solutions to violence in eastern DRC are simple. Spend time speaking with the people and communities most affected by the conflict, as I did this year, and it quickly becomes apparent. But after a year of état de siège, and with little end in sight, it’s definitely time to start listening to their answers about what could ultimately 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.