Where is the ‘state’ in D.R. Congo? A possible explanation using Herbst (2000) and Reno (1998)


A news article published by the UN wire service IRIN this week asks “Where is the State in North Kivu?”.  Summarizing recent scholarship on the region in Eastern D.R. Congo, the author concludes that the Congolese state is virtually absent from the region.

As a result, critical state functions – like health care, roads, schools, and security – are increasingly being managed by traditional leaders, armed groups, international humanitarian/development organizations, and the Catholic church.

Why has the Congolese state failed to project itself and provide public goods across the entirety of its vast territory?

Jeffrey Herbst (2000) would argue that the Congolese state remains weak because of pre-colonial and colonial notions of power on the continent.  Because power in Africa has always been about control over people, rather than territory as it was in Western Europe, African leaders are not interested in projecting power into the hinterland where population density is low.

Originally put forth by Robert Jackson (1993), Herbst’s argument rests on principle that at independence African states gained “negative sovereignty”, or international recognition as sovereign states, and thus have not had to earn “positive sovereignty”, or legitimacy from their citizens’ approval.

But his arguments also contend that because African states were formed in a time period when international norms precluded the changing of state boundaries and the seizure of new territory through warfare, the principle focus on power has remained on people rather than land.  Thus, provision of public goods by the state have remained largely an urban phenomenon, with rural areas relatively ungoverned by official state institutions.

While Herbst bases his work on the argument that domestic and international forces in the hinterland provided no real threat to African governments, and thus have been ignored, William Reno (1998) contends that African rulers realized early on that the development of functioning, well-established, formal bureaucratic institutions throughout the state would pose a real threat to their positions in power.  As a result, leaders have intentionally kept their bureaucracies weak and nearby so that they can keep an eye on bureaucrats to ensure they remain mired in patronage networks and do not pose opposition to the existing ruling elite.

The main difference between the Herbst (2000) and Reno (1998) arguments is the relative significance of the hinterland region in the minds of African rulers.  While the former emphasizes indifference toward a hinterland that provides no tangible benefits to a leaders’ power base and no real threat, the latter maintains that African leaders avoided establishing formal bureaucratic networks in these areas out of a fear that they would become a threat.

Perpetual Weakness of the Congolese State

If we look specifically at the case of the Congo within these two theoretical frameworks, we easily see that the weakness of the state in Africa could be explained using both.

After independence, Congolese leaders emphasized weak institutions and failed to project power beyond Kinshasa and to a few other key urban centers because the rest of the country is sparsely populated.  These areas posed no real threat to power and thus limited state funds were concentrated in areas where patronage networks were most necessary to maintain incumbency.

However, over time these areas, particularly Eastern Congo, proved to pose a real threat to leaders in Kinshasa. Tensions in Eastern Congo between the Banyamulenge, a group who immigrated to Congo from Rwanda prior to its independence, escalated in the late 1960s when Mobutu attempted to install a form of indirect rule in the region with the Banyamulenge as administrators.  This violence continued throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

In addition, as a result of the remoteness, the relative weakness of state institutions, and the availability of resources from mining in the region, by the mid-1990s, Eastern Congo had become a safe haven and regrouping point for numerous armed groups seeking to overthrow the klepotcratic Mobutu regime.

Operating under the assumption that the region faced no real internal or external threat to sovereignty, Mobutu’s patronage networks failed to capture key elements in the East.  By the 1990s, the region increasingly posed a threat to the regime’s power.

In a tragically serendipitous moment in history, just as Mobutu’s patronage networks were nearing bankruptcy and groups in Eastern Congo were gathering momentum, the genocide in neighboring Rwanda sent hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees across the border.

Contrary to Herbst’s analysis, Congo presents a case of external threats to sovereignty in Africa.  While the Mobutu regime relied on its ‘negative sovereignty’ from the United Nations, its neighbors were interested in ethnic ties and the possibility of accessing precious minerals.   This meant that unlike other cases, Congo faced a real external threat making control of its hinterland incredibly vital for state stability and longevity.

The new Rwandan government took a special interest in protecting the Tutsi population and in routing out the Hutu génocidaires who were continuing their murderous campaign within Eastern Congo.   In 1996, after the Mobutu government began assisting the génocidaires and issued a proclamation that everyone of Rwandan and Burundian descent be repatriated, Rwanda decided to invade.  Meanwhile, with the help of Uganda and Rwanda, as well as other regional actors, Laurent-Desire Kabila led the Alliance of Democratic Forces of Congo (AFDL) on a 9-month campaign, which culminated in Mobutu’s exile and eventual death in Morocco.  In September 1997, Kabila took power.

As these events show, the Mobutu regime made major mistakes in assuming that the ‘negative sovereignty’ it enjoyed from the international community would allow it to operate indefinitely without projecting power across all of its territory.  The events that unfolded during the First Congo War show a rare case where a failure to project power into sparsely populated areas resulted in both internal and external threats to the regime.

Unfortunately, Laurent-Desire Kabila and presently, his son Joseph Kabila who succeeded him, have also failed to see the importance in establishing formal state institutions throughout the hinterland and especially the Eastern Congo region.  They have continued to focus on a highly centralized state both in terms of power and projection of that power.

Due to uncertainty and chronic underpayment, state authorities in the hinterland are forced to focus their energies on extracting their rents-based salaries from local communities.  Little time or money is left for public goods provisions, which in turn are left up to non-state actors.

As a result, little has changed in the legitimacy of the Congolese state or in the every day lives for ordinary Congolese citizens.  Civil war and extreme poverty continue in the DRC today.

For more work on this topic see:


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