The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Men with Guns (Goma)

November 21, 2012

First off, this is my first post.  Thanks to Dan and the rest of the crowd for inviting me, though I fear they – and Duck readers – may soon tire of hearing about how building effective control over a given territory is just really damn hard.  But, then again, why else would one invite an Africanist comparativist to hang out on an IR blog?

So Goma fell to rebels yesterday.  In the midst of war in Gaza, the loss of the largest city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo didn’t make it onto All Things Considered, merited a few sentences on Newshour, and, so far as I’ve heard from others, didn’t get mentioned on CNN or the networks.  It’s very hard to figure out if that’s just general neglect of DRC, or if we’ve reached the point where the media has just thrown up its hands and declared the place done.

We know little about the motley band going under the name of the March 23rd movement (for what we do know, see here).  It’s been around for only 18months, it’s grown from a starting size of 200-300 to a few thousand men, and it’s currently headed by Bosco Ntaganda, who’s under ICC indictment for war crimes and is generally seen as a Rwanda proxy.  All are betting that Rwanda and Uganda are behind this most recent offensive.  If so, their support likely comes in the form of a big bag of money, as it’s hard to imagine any other way Ntaganda could have knit together a force out of the shattered landscape of rebel bands in eastern DRC.  Laura Seay and Jason Stearns are the people to trust for Congo analysis, but I’ll make two predictions:

(1)  The cohesion of the M23 is unlikely to last.  Repeated rounds of conflict and rebel fragmentation have effectively selected for rebel leaders with short time horizons and for rebel recruits who are loot-driven.  I can’t imagine that the DRC government will agree to sit down with Ntaganda, even if M23 does march down to Bukavu, so he’ll start losing recruits to challengers within his organization and without.

(2)  With each iteration of the conflict, the likelihood of anyone establishing stable territorial control (and any degree of attendant relief to civilians) lessens.   Uganda and Rwanda both have material interests in maintaining the status quo.  Even if they were somehow removed from the equation, we’ve got the afore-mentioned character of rebels problem.

A final thought.  Nearly every semester, I assign Tilly’s “War-Making and State-Making” to undergrads.  One of the most interesting things about teaching the article is the degree to which the gifted, mostly middle class students at AU are resistant to the idea that states are built atop extortion and veiled threats of non-protection.**  And one of the most rewarding things about teaching the article is watching them slowly come to appreciate how superior Tilly’s (and others’) “stationary bandit” is to its roving short-horizoned rivals.  Right now, eastern DRC needs a good stationary bandit that wants to extort the people of Goma for taxes.  Contra Tilly, however, warfare in DRC is sadly throwing up a very different kind of organization.


** When I taught at CUNY-Hunter as a grad student, on the other hand, there’d always be a fair contingent of students, American and foreign alike, who’d greet this portion of the argument with a shruggling “yeah, tell us something we don’t know.”

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