Saturday 8 June 2013


by Jacques Depelchin

Photo: On Wednesday 26 September Jacques Depelchin presented a talk on the topic: ‘The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Africa’s First World War?’. The talk was organized by Thinking Africa, a project of the Department of Political and International Studies. Jacques Depelchin is a Congolese historian who is currently spending six months in the Departments of History and Political and International Studies as the 2012 Hugh le May fellow.

Visiting scholar Jacques Depelchin recently presented two talks on the topics: ‘The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Africa’s First World War?’ and ‘Reclaiming African History, Reclaiming Humanity’. The talks were organized by Thinking Africa, a project of the Department of Political and International Studies. Jacques Depelchin is a Congolese historian who is currently spending six months in the Departments of History and Political and International Studies as the 2012 Hugh le May fellow.Jacques Depelchin, a [former] leader of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, was interviewed by SAR's Congo correspondent David Moore in August [2000], just as the Democratic Republic of the Congo's latest round of peace negotiations under the rubric of the Lusaka Accord was, once again, being pronounced a failure. Readers will recall that, in August 1998, the RCD was the first rebel group to mount a challenge to Laurent Desire Kabila, at much the same point as Rwanda and Uganda also turned against their ally of 1996 and 1997. Led by University of Dar es Salaam History professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the RCD articulated the most progressive and democratic policies of all the Congolese rebel groups that mushroomed up during this period. More recently, however, the RCD has been plagued by a major split: a more militarist faction led by Emile Ilunga and backed by Rwanda has forced the Wamba dia Wamba group into the Bunia region of north-east DRC and away from the more newsworthy centres such as Kisangani where the Ilunga forces are currently in a situation of stalemate vis-a-vis Kabila's forces.

While such a situation might seem at first to suggest a weakening of Wamba dia Wamba's group, this repositioning may also be having positive effects. Certainly, it appears to have influenced Jacques Depelchin's own thinking about peace and reconstruction, encouraging him to shift away from the state (and rebel-group) centred approach of the Lusaka Accords and towards a more "people-oriented" stance. This position is articulated clearly in the course of the following interview. The positive aspects of this shift are clear to see. At the same time, when one also takes into account the entrenched state-centredness of international relations and of peace-keeping discourse what can it mean in practice to say that "global civil society" has to work with the popular forces for peace? Needless to say, there are some tough issues for SAR readers to consider here.

For their part, Jacques Depelchin and his group continue to negotiate the conflicts that emerge over such issues as land tenure relations and the like - even as, in doing so, they brush up against the complexities of the interface of "tribe" and class and the difficulties offered up by colonially imposed boundaries and by the various state-driven armies and bureaucracies that swirl around them. Yet they have seen enough and done enough to eschew any notion of the "end of history" that the post-Cold War "world order' was supposed to have delivered. In their corner of Congo, Depelchin seems to suggest, it's more like history is restarting.

Before assuming a leadership role in the Rally for Congolese Democracy Jacques Depelchin worked as a professor of economic history at the Universities of Dar es Salaam, of California-Berkeley, and of Eduardo
Mondlane (in Maputo, Mozambique). Most recently he taught at the Protestant University in Kinshasa where, from 1996 to 1998, he also worked on the transformation of the DRC's educational system. He is the author of From The Congo Free State To Zaire (1885-1974); Towards a Demystification of Economic and Political History (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1992).

SAR: Why you think the Lusaka Accord talks have failed?
Depelchin: The primary factor is President Kabila himself. He has refused to go along with the agreement. Ever since he signed, he has been complaining about one thing or the other while at the same time violating the Lusaka Agreement.

Of course, the agreement has faults. Some go back to what we would call the state of the rebellion against the state. After all, the people in the Congo were rebelling because Kabila was turning his back against the process of democratization, so the peace everybody was expecting did not occur.

The Accord's timetable is another example of why these things don't work. Given the Congolese situation it was clear that it couldn't. The concept of the timetable itself is flawed: unless this or that happens nothing can be done. So the UN says it cannot deploy troops unless the treaty conditions are realized. With that kind of situation Kabila has room to create the kind of problems that in effect allow him to prevent deployment.

Yet we have always said that the issue is not one of peacekeeping troops. You can't have peacekeeping troops on the ground when the conditions for actually building and making peace aren't there. The framing of the Lusaka agreement has not taken this into account.

SAR: What might be some conditions for reinvigorating discussions at a different level and towards building peace? You have been involved in negotiating a peace process between the pastoralists and the agriculturalists - the Hema and the Lendu - in Ituri province near Bunia. Perhaps some of the experience you've gained there could be built on more broadly.
Depelchin: This is not just from our own experience, but from that of others as well. But, as an example, when we went to Bunia we had to bring under control a conflict involving, fundamentally, the Hema and the Lendu. (Although it's an oversimplification to reduce it to a matter of these two ethnic groups, they were in fact the two main protagonists.) We simply went to those who were most interested in seeing that peace should return. We discovered that the majority of the people wanted the war to end. We felt that the question of who was responsible for the war and where the blame should be put should be handled later, because you will never reach an agreement if you get bogged down on figuring out who is to blame. We combatted that way of thinking about it. Also, the emphasis was on engaging the people most likely to gain from the peaceful resolution.

During the conflict's height there was a great deal of news coverage, but nobody talked about the success of such a process. Sure, there are still people being killed, unnecessarily, here and there - there are sellouts - but in the end we can say that the conflict has died down.

In Angola, to take another example, there is a process involving initiatives from religious groups. The notion is anchored in the idea that people really wanting peace should get together. It is hoped that all protagonists - including UNITA and government representatives - would come on board eventually but it is interesting that, in the first instance, the process takes place in line with the population's own logic as opposed to a logic rooted in state-to-state, party-to-party negotiation which is then delivered downwards to the people.

To look beyond the UN - not to put down all the efforts it undertook to bring about the Lusaka Agreement, of course - and the difficulties it has had over the last few years with regard to the Lusaka Agreement, to the DRC or to Angola, and then compare those stumbling failures to the Mozambican case, one can distinguish between processes with a logic rooted in the state and another rooted in ensuring that the people most likely to benefit from the agreement were made central to the process. This difference even affects how the representatives organize the discussions. Sure, in Mozambique government representatives were essential to the process, but what was central was the government's concern to make sure it responded to wishes of the majority of the population.

SAR: A state logic involving Rwanda, Uganda and other states is seen by many Congolese as being a main factor in perpetrating the war. There is an internal logic of rebellion but many Congolese see the rebels as other states' proxies. Can one get beyond that dichotomy? Can armed opposition groups talk to unarmed groups, as the Accord proposes?
Depelchin: True: in this case regional states involved make that process more difficult. But if you really look - whether in Rwanda, whether in Uganda, in Angola, whether in Zimbabwe, in Congo - you find that the majority want to see an end to this war. This majority is very, very, very tired of war. People just want to see it end. If these countries were led by peoples' governments they would follow the route taken by Mugabe at the end of the Mozambican civil war. That is to say, "let's make sure that you really respond to the wishes of the majority of the population." So while that inter-state logic is true, that difficulty is primarily one of appearance. Those state signatories should really make an effort to satisfy the wishes of the majority.

In that sense, today's Angolan internal process is leading to a national dialogue. It's a new initiative based simply on people saying: "Listen, let's get all the protagonists together to discuss fundamental issues keeping us at war and let's put an end to this war."

It is what we ourselves have tried to do. During our work of social reconstruction and peace-building, we are working to establish processes, not advance individual interests. Moreover, these processes are fundamentally Congolese. We do this on the basis of democratic prescriptions for the state. This is fundamental.

In contrast, the state-logic which continues to wreak havoc on the people is a colonial inheritance, a fact often overlooked. Regardless of the accommodations we have made to them subsequently, the present states are colonial and conquest states organized in order to divide and rule people. They have created the very conditions we see today. The Great Lakes Region crisis is an exacerbation of that kind of rule. The leaders in the region must now take stock and decide that conducting low-intensity warfare against their own population must end. For whom? For the benefit of their own population.

SAR: There's much talk about a "global civil society" alternative to an international state logic. What initiatives could global actors other than the United Nations and states play in facilitating a process like that which you advocate? Clearly, there are many Congolese who desire to get together at a level other than states, but lack the means. What international organization of people could facilitate a dialogue?
Depelchin: One has to be very, very careful here. In the case of Mozambique or that of the inter-ethnic conflict in Ituri which we have discussed, the key to a successful exercise was that it be rooted within the area and the population with most to gain from peace. That is fundamental. Unless that view is taken then we will continue convening peace conferences here and there with nothing happening. In Angola, people on the ground are taking hold of the whole process. Those who have resources and mandates from their organizations can, however, push for such processes and help such Angolans to realize them. In the DRC there are initiatives, too. But the conditions must be created so that the entire local population can come together within their own areas and be at the core of the whole process, thus bringing about what everyone really wants to see happen. That can happen in a national and global way too, but only if it is anchored and rooted in people in the areas most in need of need of the desired outcome.

SAR: Che Guevara's Congo diaries say that the Congolese aren't good fighters. Of course, this could be a very positive thing: many Congolese say, "we are a peace-loving people." You yourself seem to be leaving the military or armed option and moving towards reimagining the possibilities in more peaceful processes. Why have you changed your thinking about these things?
Depelchin: Our August 1998 political declaration said specifically that we took up arms as a last resort to make Kabila understand the Congolese crisis could only be resolved politically. In our statements regarding Kisangani [where, as noted above, a group in the RCD split from Wamba dia Wamba in mid-1999 and joined the Rwandans, instigating a war between the two RCD groups] we said that the present war was the eleventh in the Congo since 1959. These wars have never resolved the question of getting a sustainable democratic regime in place. This defines, in fact, the crisis of the Congo.

There are two camps or lines regarding the question of militarization. One says the crisis is political. It must be resolved politically. We must not resort to military means to resolve the contradiction. It also says that we do not have to enter Kinshasa to bring about transformation. The process of democratization takes place as the rebellion goes on. That is one reason why many people did not like Professor Wamba's leadership in Goma. People said democratization can not take place during war. But the results of the alternative view can be traced in the careers of Mobutu and Kabila. It leads to rule by coup d'etat following coup d'etat. That process has itself to be transformed.

The Congolese people have learned one thing over these last few years: they know very well what they no longer want. Yet it is much more difficult to begin building what they actually do want. This is what we are trying to do in the area we control. We involve the population in dialogue. After all, how can one say you are going into the National Dialogue without allowing people to exercise that very method? We are making public the treasury function, and transforming administration into something of the population, for the population, by the population. This requires a series of dialogues day in day out so that people can internalize what we understand by dialogue. Then people can resort to dialogue to resolve any kind of issue - including those too often solved by life-or-death methods in other situations.

SAR: The outside world only sees the logic of armed force. And yet it is apparent that various movements have different dynamics across the country, however difficult it sometimes seems to get inside such processes.
Depelchin: I repeat and I emphasize: the central issue is which group responds to peoples' needs not just simply in speeches and declarations but concretely on the ground. Which one helps things to happen that the population wants to see? That is the only way people are mobilized. Sooner or later it is not how many troops you have that counts, but whether the population supports the position and the processes in which your group is engaged.

And we have seen this reality at work, even though misleading propaganda continues as people try to push Professor Wamba aside by alleging all manner of things. But people will eventually ask why the group without military force comparable to the others has withstood those who are trying to eliminate it. We were supposed to be eliminated in Kisangani last year. Over the last few weeks in Bunia all kinds of efforts have been made to undermine the process of democratization by people who say "first of all let's get to Kinshasa." But this is, to repeat, the mentality of the coup d'etat. We feel that's over, that's something from the past. We must get away from of that mentality. As long as you stick with what the population wants, you are likely to emerge as the leader it wants.

SAR: Small groups from all sides benefit from the political economy of war. Who benefits in this one? What process makes people aware of who benefits? What can break the cycle?
Depelchin: I can respond generally. It would require an international investigation to specify the pillaging of the Congo's resources - the names and so on. The UN has proposed that. It would be a welcome exercise. However, remember that this is not the first time our resources have been pillaged. It was underway during colonial occupation. Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost states that 10 million Congolese disappeared simply because the process of pillaging the country took precedence over their welfare. That can only be genocide, although Hochschild refuses to use the term. Any war situation benefits a "mafia" - people organized to take advantage of the resources of Angola, Congo and the like.

SAR: Are you making progress?
Depelchin: I think that if everybody tried to go in the direction of which I have spoken, we would move, however slowly, but we would move forward.

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