The news from eastern Congo is, as it has long been, not good. I understand why outside mediators and observers want to keep trying to patch up old cease-fires or broker new ones between the ever-shifting array of combatants in the region. It’s a pointless effort, however.
Cease-fires work between combatants who have been using warfare as a means to achieve a political end which is separable from war itself. They work when those combatants are mutually convinced that further attempts to achieve those ends by military means are likely to be fruitless, or that there is more risk involved in continuing to fight than there is in ending the fight. They work when one power has achieved all that it reasonably can hope to achieve through military means and the other power is looking for a graceful way to acknowledge defeat or loss.
War in the eastern Congo is politics. There isn’t any state or sovereignty outside of armed combatants. The state which exists around Kinshasa may technically own the territory of eastern Congo, but it has no real governing authority there beyond its own projection of military force. As Thomas Turner has written, the political economy of eastern Congo is plunder. People who are not part of a band of armed men are resources to the armies, nothing more. They are not ruled or controlled or part of a sovereignty. If you want an analogy in European history, the Hundred Years’ War in France is fairly close: mercenary bands composed of men from many parts of Western Europe prowling the countryside, taking what they please, killing, maiming and raping the peasantry, sometimes working for established nobles or the monarchy, sometimes against them.
Though if that’s the analogy, the Congolese peasantry has yet to have its jacquerie, more’s the pity. Without the civilian population who surge from refugee camp to refugee camp, these armies would struggle to survive. They’d have no labor to conscript for pit-mining, no farmers whose crops they could steal, no women to rape. But there is no way to take the civilian population permanently out of the picture. I almost wish that the U.S., Canada and Western Europe could offer residency permits to every single resident of eastern Congo, agree to transport everyone accepting the offer, and give each of them a transitional allowance until they get established in their host country. That can’t happen, and the local alternative forms of refugee housing simply move the bullseye target for victimization around from place to place, border to border.
No cease-fire will hold until the armed men themselves want to stop fighting because they’re tired of it, see no future in it, or until some regional power (the Congo government or some other) is able to project overwhelming military force in a sustained way throughout the entire region. Given its topography, that’s very unlikely barring a massive investment by outside parties. So the mediators will fret, the UN will rattle its very small sabers, and the suffering will continue.