With more than 2 million internally displaced people, dozens of active rebel groups and several ongoing UN-peacekeeping operations, Eastern Congo remains one of the most volatile parts of Central Africa. The socioeconomic, political and humanitarian impact of 20 years of civil war has been extensively analysed by both humanitarian as well as academic experts. Where the former are especially interested in issues of forced displacement, humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities, the second are particularly focusing on underlying macro- and micro- drivers of the conflict. What they both have in common is their tendency to analyse conflict dynamics in Eastern D.R. Congo from a dominant rural perspective. Studies on the ‘transformative effects’ of this war are largely based on rural case studies. However, cities are equally crucial sites of action and change, whether for the mobilization of rebel groups, issues of land access, war economies, and security or political governance.
Moreover, urbanisation in itself is a major outcome that shows the transformative power of civil war. The DRC is experiencing a rapid rural-urban migration with 35% of the population living in urban areas and an urbanisation rate of 4 percent[i]. In the Eastern provinces, violence and insecurity are an additional push-factor to the rush into towns. The urban transition of this region has strongly affected local economies, administrations, landscapes and identities. Yet, both local government as well as donor agencies do not seem to pay much attention; the countryside remains the main site of intervention when it comes to development, humanitarian assistance and peace-building efforts.
The city as a zone of protection: A safe-haven for whom?
The picture of the city as a site of refuge is probably one of the most visible effects of conflict-induced urban reconfiguration. Waves of internally displaced persons (IDPs) coming into the cities of Bukavu and Goma generated unplanned urban extension and put severe pressure on existing urban infrastructure and administration[ii]. Yet, the image of these cities as ‘safe havens’ for IDPs has a somewhat dubious connotation, due to their simultaneous role as stable secondary strongholds for warlords. The open presence of rebels in urban areas was seen in the takeover of Goma in 2012[iii], yet is very exceptional. Armed groups mostly operate in cities in indirect ways, but their urban connection and influence from a distance is strong. Urban markets present important bases of taxation and universities serve as bases of recruitment. Rebel leaderships also establish urban connections in the form of investments in lucrative economic sectors and real estate. Finally, recent violence in Beni has revealed how creating urban insecurity provides a powerful political resource[iv].
Being the playground of local politicians, donor agencies, economic big men, warlords and blue-helmets, these cities in Eastern Congo have become critical arenas of dynamics of violent conflict.
Future peacebuilding: taking the debate to the city
Recent donor-sponsored ‘peace’ events like the Amani Festival in Goma represent the Congolese urban community as the ultimate vector for tolerance and cohabitation[v]. However, with a local society deeply fractured by civil war and an extremely weak institutional framework, urbanity that is emerging from this setting of crisis and conflict may as well be reinforcing conflict dynamics.
Uncontrolled urbanisation is characterized by fierce conflicts over land, over rights, over access to infrastructure and services and over public authority. War on the one hand reinforced the intensity of urbanisation and on the other hand the intensity of its conflictuality. ‘Typical’ urban phenomena such as organized crime networks and popular vigilantes easily become involved in ethnic-armed coalitions and the larger political economy of war.
Furthermore, war seriously hampers investments and condemns the city to ‘urbanisation without growth,’ in which urban employment is largely dependent on war-related economic markets or the humanitarian- and development sector. Finally, recent examples of anti-government demonstrations and the emergence of critical protest movements such as ‘la lucha’[vi], demonstrate the potential for urban-based political contestation.
Despite urban growth creating increased social inequality, political tensions, and new vulnerabilities in urban bases sensitive to political and violent mobilisation, the urban remains largely overlooked. Whether being the initiative of international actors or local government, programmes of conflict mediation, cohabitation, disarmament, IDP assistance, and the like, systematically target rural populations. UN habitat, for example, with its slogan “for a better urban future” almost exclusively deals with rural land conflicts in Eastern Congo. Often heard arguments stress higher needs in the countryside but also the ‘complicatedness’ of operating in an urban setting; in contrast with rural environments, the multitude of governance actors, the confusing administrative apparatus and the multi-ethnic character seems to have a rather deterrent effect on the engagement with the city.
Yet it seems crucial to address the link between conflict and urbanisation in Eastern Congo as part of an integrated approach of post-conflict reconstruction. Neglecting to do so risks squandering opportunities for development and peace. Understanding urbanisation as a political process entrenched in dynamics of violent conflict and approaching cities as critical locations of state formation and peace-building, will be necessary in turning opportunities of fragile peace into sustainable development and to tap into the potential of cities as laboratories of change.
Dr. Karen Büscher holds a PhD in political science and is currently involved in post-doctoral research at the Conflict Research Group (Ghent University, Belgium). Her research is geographically situated in Eastern D.R.Congo and Northern Uganda. The main area of her academic expertise is the complex relationship between dynamics of violent conflict and urbanisation. An overview of her publications can be found here: https://biblio.ugent.be/person/802000261734
Dr. Büscher has issued a call for papers for a special journal issue on ‘African cities in war, analysing dynamic relations between urbanisation and violent conflict in Africa.’ Read more about contributing in our opportunities section.
Photo: War in the D.R.C has reinforced the intensity of urbanisation and the intensity of its conflictuality. A contested urban plot in Goma. Karen Büscher.
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