Issue 29 - Article 12

Predatory governance in the DRC: civilian impact and humanitarian response

March 24, 2005
Edward B. Rackley, independent consultant

Since 1996, conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has claimed between 2.5 million and 3.5 million civilian lives, making the Congolese war the deadliest in the world. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a further 3.25 million refugees and internally displaced people are in need of assistance. Regular violence has decimated the population and finished off what remained of the national health, judicial, education and transport systems after three decades of misrule under President Mobutu Sese Seko. Physical violence, coercion and deprivation are common experiences for the country’s 53 million people, 31 million of whom OCHA classifies as ‘vulnerable’.

Corrupt and brutal governance – ‘predatory governance’ – has exacerbated the DRC’s humanitarian crisis: civilians perish not from gunfire or mortar shells, but from infectious diseases and food insecurity, sexual violence and gross human rights violations. Impunity, corruption and civilian-directed violence are rife, despite the presence of over 15,000 UN peacekeepers, a transitional government anticipating national elections in June 2005 and well-funded efforts to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate ex-combatants into civilian life. In such an environment, humanitarian agencies cannot remain inactive in the face of predatory governance and its disastrous consequences for human health and safety.

‘Your gun is your salary’

What distinguishes predatory governance in the DRC from the crime and brutality of other corrupt states? State corruption is typically associated with illegal financial manoeuvring, such as embezzlement, which bends or breaks the law to favour the few or the one. Corruption à la congolaise combines the acquisitive impulses of a felonious state with the incapacity to pay or control the public forces of order. Civil servants, soldiers and police officials rarely receive their monthly salary of $10. Unable to meet the economic needs of their soldiers, military commanders inform them ‘Your gun is your salary’. Physical assault, armed robbery, rape and murder are common, particularly in the eastern provinces, where tens of thousands of unpaid soldiers extract their salaries and ‘benefits’ from civilians. Predation – the exploitation, armed extortion and physical abuse of ordinary civilians – has become the default mode of governance. Congolese often joke of a constitutional amendment, Article XV, imploring the population to ‘fend for yourselves’ (‘debrouillez-vous’).

High mortality and morbidity are the direct effects of predatory governance. Yet the gravest consequence for humanitarian operations and vulnerable groups is physical inaccessibility. Although this is a particular problem in the eastern provinces, where conflict is ongoing, access difficulties are countrywide. Roads, bridges and waterways are unmaintained and dilapidated, and air transport is expensive and unsustainable.

Confronting the impacts of predation

Humanitarian agencies are responding to the consequences of predatory governance in the following areas.

Corruption, economic paralysis and food insecurity

While qualitative overviews of Congolese kleptocracy exist, concrete analyses of institutionalised corruption and its consequences for human development are rare. One exception is a recent study by the US organisation Innovative Resources Management (IRM) of illegal taxation of river traders in Western Congo, where 80% of commercial produce travels by water. Results showed that 92% of traders’ operating costs are accounted for by illegal taxes and fees imposed by unauthorised civil servants for trumped-up or fictional services (‘loading rights’, ‘docking permission’, etc.). Only 8% of fees are authorised; even less accrues to the state. A crippled rural economy and urban food scarcity are the results. River traders, subject to illegal taxation by unsalaried civil servants stationed at ports throughout the interior, are forced to raise prices in Kinshasa to compensate for the high costs of corruption upriver. The Congo River Basin, once the breadbasket for 10 million Kinshasans, is now devoid of commercial traffic.

In the volatile eastern provinces, food insecurity stems primarily from unruly, unsalaried military personnel. In the Walikale area of North Kivu, for example, mobile armed groups, including government soldiers, terrorise rural farmers, steal livestock and pillage local plantations. Local authorities follow in the wake of the armed attackers, picking over the remains and delivering leftovers to their families. As a result, all forms of small livestock (chickens, ducks, goats) have disappeared from rural communities. World Relief, an agency operating out of Goma, has reported that rural farmers now request guinea pigs as livestock donations because they are more easily hidden from military thieves and are easily transported when families are forced to flee fighting.

Sexual violence and reproductive health

The impunity enabled by predatory governance creates a ‘no-risk environment’ for perpetrators of sexual violence, particularly in the eastern provinces. In the town of Baraka, South Kivu, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has reported 620 rapes by men in uniform between July 2003 and April 2004. Three-quarters of these violations were committed by groups of two to five men. While the vast majority of perpetrators are not held accountable, in one exception a military court in Equateur Province sentenced a soldier from the Congolese armed forces to 36 months’ imprisonment for raping a five-year-old girl. The highly publicised scandal over UN peacekeepers and child prostitution in Bunia in 2004 has added another layer to the crisis. In January 2005, a UN inquiry upheld allegations of sexual exploitation against seven UN staff in DRC, six of them peacekeepers.

Besides monitoring, documenting and advocacy, humanitarian agencies concerned with sexual violence in eastern Congo focus on responsive support mechanisms, as preventive efforts are deemed to have little impact. Four basic forms of direct assistance are available: (1) medical exams and treatment (including HIV testing); (2) psychosocial care; (3) helping with community or family reinsertion (as rape survivors are blamed/rejected); and (4) legal assistance, if desired. Demand for services far exceeds supply, and the scarcity of medical services means that most cases go untreated. Psychosocial services are non-existent except in the few large centres where international humanitarian agencies operate.

Children associated with armed groups

Child soldiers have been a persistent feature of Congolese conflict since 1996. Humanitarian agencies involved in protecting and assisting children associated with armed groups use monitoring, documentation, sensitisation and advocacy as their primary protection tools, but admit to seeing little impact on the problem.

In North Kivu, there are three ‘orientation and transit centres’ to receive and process children recovered from armed groups. After a three-week stay in the centres, families are traced and children begin the process of reinsertion into their communities of origin. Approximately 2,000 have been reintegrated into civilian life. In Ituri, UNICEF cites a working figure of 6,000 children associated with militias, but cannot confirm this as militia leaders under-report the numbers of minors in their ranks.

Lack of protection for minors also stems from the breakdown of traditional support mechanisms for vulnerable children and child soldiers at the community level. According to UNICEF, the militarisation of society and the severe destitution caused by the war have created a situation where the ‘family is now a primary violator of children’s rights’. The abuse of children is also enabled by separation, be it forced or accidental (e.g. the banishment of children accused of sorcery (‘enfants sorciers’), child soldiers, orphans, children separated by displacement). This makes family tracing, accompaniment and physical security essential components of child protection in the DRC.

Impunity, accountability and the judicial system

Confronting the ‘judiciary void’ is essential. In a functioning state, civilians have recourse to institutions that provide for the legal settlement of disputes, such as courts and tribunals. This is not a widespread or reliable option in the DRC, where judicial corruption is pervasive. Legal judgments are bought and sold, and the ‘business’ of impunity is highly lucrative and countrywide. While humanitarians cannot physically reanimate an entire legal system, they can document abuses, monitor developments and report to international donors, human rights groups and relevant national officials. Important efforts are underway to combat impunity and revitalise the beleaguered judiciary system, specifically in the East. For example, the European Commission and the French government’s development agency Cooperation Française are engaged in a joint effort to restore the local criminal justice system in Bunia. Results from this initiative, begun in January 2004, will help to frame a strategy for the planned reconstruction of the national justice system.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works with regional military commanders to improve troop control and curb civilian abuses, but concedes its impact is minimal. Military discipline is unlikely to be maintained when the authorities fail to provide soldiers with salaries or benefits. As one ICRC delegate in Goma complains: ‘Even if you punished every soldier in this town by cutting off their right hand, they would still have to find a way to feed themselves’.

UN officials in Ituri advocate regularly for troop restraint and accountability for civilian killings, mass rapes, livestock theft and crop destruction. While conceding that this has minimal impact on military predation, aid officials in Ituri maintain that documenting and investigating abuses nonetheless serves to record the civilian costs of the war – an important task in a largely oral society. Similarly, documenting violations and demonstrating the links between the lack of civilian safety (forced displacement, for example) and increased mortality and morbidity are important strategies for bearing witness to civilian devastation. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and MSF have conducted numerous mortality and morbidity studies across the country allowing them to advocate more forcefully and to evaluate the impact of their rural health programmes.

The ICC began an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ituri in September 2004, where over 50,000 people are thought to have died in ethnically motivated violence since 1999. Humanitarian agencies with protection components have contributed evidence and documentation to the UN’s civil affairs division, and this material was taken into account in the ICC’s decision to begin work in the DRC.

Disarmament, demobilisation and security sector reform

Ending impunity is an urgent priority in Eastern Congo, but a comprehensive solution must recognise that violence against civilians is largely motivated by economic necessity, and that troop control is first and foremost an economic question. International donors and the diplomatic community are in the best position to demand greater government control over Congolese troops. The current disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process began in September 2004 in Ituri. It is producing mixed results. Militia groups are so far unimpressed with DDR, and recent executions by militia leaders of child soldiers preparing to enter a reorientation site indicate a deep-seated opposition to the process.

International support for the process of disarming, demobilising and reintegrating the tens of thousands of ex-combatants, many of them child soldiers, stands at around $200 million. South Africa and Belgium, Congo’s former colonial occupier, have signed a memorandum of understanding for the training, reinforcement and modernisation of Congo’s forces of law and order, but the initiative is stillborn for lack of funds. Even in the event of a successful DDR programme, this is no substitute for wider security sector reform. The national military and police require a complete overhaul, new equipment, training and civilian oversight. Without this, the national army will remain an unaccountable, undisciplined gang of armed child-men. Particularly for civilians, the consequences will remain dire.


Congolese civilians face extreme violence and insecurity, largely at the hands of armed groups. Third-party efforts to protect civilians seem to be having a negligible impact. Impunity and unaccountability have normalised predation as the principal modus operandi of the Congolese military, various militia groups and self-defence forces across the east. International peacekeepers have done little to halt this practice. Nonetheless, there is a role for humanitarian agencies to play in communicating to international donors the scope and scale of predatory governance, particularly its grave consequences for human health and civilian protection. As eyewitnesses, agencies are ideally suited to argue the important link between effective emergency response and the improved security and safety of civilian populations.

Edward Rackleyis a consultant to international agencies operating in conflict and post-conflict contexts, primarily in Africa. His writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and French journal Multitudes. His email address is:

References and further reading

IRM’s research on links between corruption and economic paralysis can be found at

See also:

USAID, ‘Sexual Terrorism: Rape as a Weapon of War in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’,

Médecins Sans Frontières, ‘I Have No Joy, No Peace of Mind: Medical, Psychosocial, and Socio-Economic Consequences of Sexual Violence in Eastern DRC, April 2004’,

UN Security Council, Fifteenth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, S/2004/251, 25 March 2004.


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