Neo-Liberal State Building under Question: The case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Posted on Posted in Africa, Analyses

By Evangelos Koulis, Analyst KEDISA


The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo started in 1998 as an indirect result of the Rwandan genocide. Although the war ended in 2003, until today, the precarious peace agreements and on-going conflict between several warring factions and the government has cost the lives of more than 6 million people, with 2.5 million displaced and 6.4 million in need of food (UN News Centre, 2016). At the moment, 20,000 United Nation’s (UN) peacekeepers from various African countries are based in DRC. In November 2012, rebels occupied the provincial capital Goma, displacing another 100,000 people. More recently in October 2016, the decision by President Joseph Kabila (in power since 2001) to postpone the planned elections until 2018 has sparked another row of violent clashes in the country. Thus, as part of the on-going internal conflict between the weak Congolese government and armed groups, massacres, sexual violence, poverty and failing institutions are just a fragment of Congo’s problems.


International institutions and Non-governmental Organisations (NGO’s) provide humanitarian aid to vulnerable people and rebuild Congo’s institutions (e.g. army) to expand its authority. Although Congo is often considered a collapsing state, it also faces one of the most complex internal conflicts. In terms of peacekeeping and peace-building, Congo surely does not represent a successful example of establishing peace. Until now priority was given to: (1) stop the internal conflict, by UN-Congo joint military operations against the rebels; (2) provide care for victims of sexual violence and malnutritioned people; and (3) the democratisation and marketisation of Congo which is the focus of this essay. As such, this paper questions liberal peace-building practices to illustrate the monumental gap between the expectations and the results. Along with the latter, it argues that these practices fail to address the underlying reasons of the conflict.




Since the late 20th century, peacekeeping has been envisaged as a multidimensional process that has to undertake social, political, economic and development missions for a lasting peace. In most recent conflicts, such as DRC, Kosovo, Cambodia, this model of intervention was interpreted by democratisation, promoting civil society, liberal free market frameworks, rule of law and development. Thus, this liberal model of peace is inextricably correlated with governance and it is based on the assumption that peace can only be possible under a strong state. This emphasis on institutional building came to be known as “state-building”.


Despite the appealing ideology of liberal peace-building, by the end of the Cold War, out of the 18 attempts of democratisation, 13 turned to authoritarian regimes (Call & Cook, 2003). Furthermore, the Western concept of rapid marketisation had many destabilising effects such as high rates of poverty, unemployment, “grey” economies and in some cases refuelling the conflict (Richmond, 2008). These failures have cast doubts, even in the UN, around the assumption that these practices automatically sustain peace (Call & Cook, 2003). In the case of Congo, where elections took place for the first time in 2006, and then again in 2011 amidst violent clashes and controversies it is important to ask: Did this democratic element manage to prevent corruption, sexual violence and massacres of millions of Congolese. To be explicit, the criticism does not lie on the concept of democracy per se, but rather on its priority, in an unstable and hostile environment. Nevertheless, instead of abandoning, or even seriously questioning the liberal peace concept, academics in favour argue that it only needs to be reformed (Paris, 2010). They argue that market-oriented development does not guarantee a successful outcome, but without it the outcome will surely be negative (Paris, 2010).



This ‘unnatural peace’ created in the DRC merely addressed the grass-roots of the conflict. In 2012, Congo has dropped twenty places (from 167 to 187) in the Index of Human Development, officially becoming the least developed country on earth (Severine, 2012). Nevertheless, the response to these failing practices drew the need for a stronger institutional approach (Severine, 2012).


On the contrary, as many academics (Kabamba, 2012; Mamdani, 1996) have vividly illustrated, liberal peace-building has neglected the cultural and historical context of the conflict. The colonial state in 19th century, reflects in a way the situation in Congo today. Similar to other cases, in order to rule the indigenous majority, the colonial state, fragmented the society into small ethnic minorities. The political elites that emerged from the national independence in the 20th century maintained the colonial status quo and used it as a means of exploitation and mutual alienation between them and the masses (Kabamba, 2012). For Mamdani, post-colonial African elites are predators like their colonial masters rather than real leaders (1996:p.179). In other words, the current situation in Congo only reflects the fact that the societal transition to a more ‘humane’ state was never realised. These historical elements depict the situation in which governments in Africa suffer from constitutional failures, and their inability to enforce the law and reduce corruption.


It is this context that liberal peace-building practitioners failed to take into account when they implemented strategies in Congo. Until now, as many academics realise (Paris, 2010), these issues have barely been touched on. Thus, in a context where, for 150 years, colonial state and dictators had an opportunistic approach towards the society, state frameworks that emerge from liberal peace-building, house empty institutions of little benefit for individuals in their everyday life (Richmond, 2008).



To conclude, what has been illustrated in this paper is the ineffectiveness of the some liberal peace-building practices along with the neglect of the DRC’s context. Indeed, the more probing questions we ask about issues that are being taken for granted, the more closer we get to understand the fallacies of liberal peace-building, enmeshed with illiberal practices. In terms of the on-going conflict in DRC, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Sudan and other African countries, as Galtung said: ‘do not be deterred by those who say ideas are too idealistic, or not realistic enough…When a conflict does not die down, it is because ‘realistic’ ideas are often not realistic (2000:p.101).




Call, C T and Cook, S E (2003) “On Democratisation and Peacebuilding”, Global Governance , Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 233–46.


Galtung, J. and Jacobsen, C J (2000) “Searching for Peace: The Road to TRANSCEND”, London: Pluto Press.


Kabamba, P (2012) “The Real Problems of the Congo: From Africanist perspectives to the African Prospectives”, African Affairs, [online], Available at:


(Accessed on 28 October 2013).


Mamdani, M (1996) “Citizen and Subject”, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 179.


Paris, R (2010) “Saving liberal peacebuilding” Review of International Studies, 36(2) 337-366.


Richmond, O (2008) “The Contribution of Peace and Conflict Studies” in Peace in International Relations.


Severine, A (2012) “Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Intended Consequences”, African Affairs, 1-21.


UN NEWS CENTRE, (2016) “DR Congo: new attack against UN helicopter draws condemnation from senior officials”, [online], Available at:


(Accessed on 19 October 2016).