“Dominant Narratives versus State Building”: What is Misunderstood (Missing) in Autesserre’s Reflection?

The idea developed in this blog post builds on a personal experience as a native of the Eastern Congo, a Blogger who have regularly been following events in this region but also a researcher working on micro-level violent conflict in the Kivus. Following a fieldwork experience undertaken from September 2018 up to May 2019, the author has been understood the relevance of Sévérine Autesserre’s argument in her article the “Dangerous Tales: The Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences”[1].

Humanitarian Crisis and “Inter-ethnic Narrative”: Relevance of Autesserre’s Argument

Autesserre’s article is one the great pieces written on the Eastern Congo but particularly on micro-level conflict. The article discusses dominant narratives surrounding the Eastern Congo violent conflict that pays more attention on conflict minerals, violence against women and girls, but also state-building interventions. Her argument questions the way these narratives have obscured other causes of conflicts at local level including “land conflict, poverty, corruption, local political and social antagonisms, and hostile relationships between state officials, including security forces, and the general population” (Autesserre 2012:205). While highlighting its relevance, the blog post tries to guess what has been misunderstood (or missing) in her article. Particularly, this blog post refers to an ongoing humanitarian crisis taking place in the South-Kivu Province; specifically, in Uvira High Plateau, Minembwe, and Itombwe in relation to state building.

Though gathering reliable statistics in this volatile context remains a hardship work, the above-mentioned crisis has led to hundred death (approximately 300 since early May 2019). Around 200,000 people have been displaced in different directions and have difficulties to get shelter; school and health’s facilities have been destroyed; more than 160 villages have been burnt down since 2017 up to recently (from Bijombo to Minembwe). Clashes that oppose armed groups affiliated to ethnic communities have not spared private properties to the extent that civil society organizations’ report have estimated 26,850 cattle raided between February 2019 up to last weeks[2]. Information in this vast region may suffer from what Autesserre calls “the lack of contextual knowledge” for many of the interveners. In addition, the polarization of the society infers inevitably on what is produced as information to the wider public.

Displaced from Mibunda/Tulambo finding shelter in a School facilities in Mikenke

Strikingly, this tragedy is indifferently watched by international actors, Medias, civil society organizations, the clergy and faith-based organizations, research-oriented schemes, and the Congolese society in general. Hence, it seems that this a “likely contested tragedy” not by marginalized by rather in three angles. On one hand, one can question objectivity―neutrality of local informants who feed these international actors. These actors are hesitant to confront general public opinion’s views that have constructed (20 years) an image of the region where the Congolese’s evil originates. On the other side, one can suspect that the international community is fed up and tired to hear the same confrontational stories. The least angle includes the fear and reluctance of pointing fingers to real actors in this crisis. For strategic motivations, one needs therefore find a “dominant narrative” that saves her face.

The humanitarian crisis is linked to multiple layers of causes and actors ranging from locals to foreigners. Whilst this is a great lakes regional problem, an explanation has been found from different actors working in the region to narrate as an ‘inter-ethnic confrontation’. Foreign armed groups supported by Congo’s neighboring countries are actively involved; though clashes have a local component. At local level, confrontation between groups called ‘autochthonous’ against those seen as ‘immigrants’ play an important role in a seemingly collective mobilization. As per my personal experience, successive events have shown that the latter group faces a systematic campaign in different places painting them as ‘invaders’; and hence, be marginalized in their plight vis-à-vis the Congolese society.

What is Misunderstood (Missing) in Autesserre: Is State Predatory, Incapable or Absent?

The case discussed above can reflect Autesserre’s argument that questions the effectiveness of efforts deployed to build a state from 2000 onwards. Despite huge involvement of bilateral and multilateral interventions to build the state, the latter remains unable to protect its citizens and fall instead in “predatory” one. To some extent, those called to protect are victims of the predatory system which is supported by these interveners. Besides dysfunctional structures within the security services, rank and file within the national army and the Police are more victims of the predatory regime as do those expecting to be protected.

Since 2015 up to now, armed groups have been crossing borders with an aim to create an empty space (inside Congo) for political and military tactics. Though these groups are primarily interested to overthrow ruling regimes in their respective countries; the Eastern Congo and the Uvira High Plateau serve as a rear base where military preparation will be organized for this purpose. This is very complex debate and this post intends to raise an attention over how since 2015, the “Congolese state” has overlooked the establishment of these armed groups. It took years for the Congolese national army (FARDC) to launch military operations while the presence of these groups had unlikely been unnoticed.

FARDC’s feeble military operations were launched by late 2018 and it was somewhat late because these foreign groups have found a conducive terrain linked to demobilization process. The state has failed to implement an effective disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process. In addition, since February 2019 when recent clashes have erupted by, state officials including military generals have visited the region for several times; though nothing stable has yet been achieved. In the name of ‘neutrality’, there are hundreds of soldiers who indifferently keep watching civilians suffering by attacks from armed groups. Next to military promises and huge presence, countless consultations have unsuccessfully been organized to seek local solutions. The presence of the UN peacekeeping mission has likely been overwhelmed. All these efforts have failed to bear fruits due to the volatility of the context that requires a ground of monopolizing violence. Military officials have promised to impose peace, though nothing tangible can be presented. Rather, the situation keeps worsening in front of the United Nations Peacekeeping mission and the national army and police deployments.

Young kids victims of a regional barbarism. Their future at stake?

As Autesserre has rightly pointed out, Congolese local population alike international actors involved in state building have continued to see state building as a single alternative to move out of these messes. This post adds that local population will continue to expect a state that is neutral, impartial, and capable as the only alternative to its myriad of issues. This option could last for a quite longer as a panacea to have many of these issues resolved or at least attenuated. It seems that, unless otherwise, state’s institutions remain an umbrella in which divergent interests are channeled. There might unlikely be, at this point, any other alternatives to the national security services, the army and police if not organizing “dysfunctional armies”[3] as it appears in this region.

Autesserre argues that instead of viewing a state in the single lens, local population in Eastern Congo could get insights from James Scott[4] modes of social organization. Scott discusses the Zomia’s[5] model of social organization that keeps the state at hands’ length. Nonetheless, Scott underscores that living outside of the state is contemporary “fast vanishing”; hence, one can draw that the Eastern Congo would hardly stand an exception. Though James Scott suggests an idea of warding off a “barbarian state” in Zomia through “escape social structure”, Autesserre seems unlikely disapproving that armed groups in this region are likely “criminal bands”. Otherwise, she would have conceptualized these “dysfunctional armies” as an expression of what Scott calls culture and routines initiated to thwart state concentration and its exploitative power. It should be noted that State building in the Eastern Congo has not only been empowered to prey over its citizens but also to smash any raise of these “dysfunctional armies”. Besides local perception in relation to the role of the state, what seems missing in “dominant tale” is why and up to when international and bilateral interveners should continue to support a state that operates similarly since Mobutu’s era? Is this question to be answered by those wishing a responsible state or those investing in State building?


PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com


[1]Autesserre, Sévérine (2012), ‘Dangerous tales: dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences’, African Affairs, vol. 111. No. 443, pp.202-222

[2] See for details the Voice of America’s reportage on the following link: https://www.facebook.com/RadiyoyacuVOA/videos/389610298370133/. If one adds cattle ransacked in the last three weeks, the figure skyrockets up to 33,000-35,000 cows belonging to individuals (these are private properties).

[3] By “dysfunctional armies”, the author of this post refers to multiple and conflicting armed groups operating in the Eastern Congo region. For lacking a clear sense of nation-state, these groups keep clashing among them but also preying over local population.

[4] Scott (2009:9) “Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia” Yale University Press, New Haven

[5] Zomia in Scott’s book refers to “a new name for virtually all the lands at altitudes above roughly three hundred meters all the way from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India and traversing five Southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma) and four provinces of China (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and parts of Sichuan). Long of 2.5 Million Km2, it contains around one hundred million of minority people of “ethnic and linguistic varieties”. Zomia “is not yet fully incorporated into nation-state [contemporary models]”.

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PhD & Visiting researcher @POLISatLeeds. Interest: Microeconomic Analysis of Violent Conflict, Genocide Studies and violence targeting minority groups. Congolese, blogger advocating for Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC. On top of that, I'm proud of being a "villageois"

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