Hypocrisy and Public Works: Local Perceptions of MONUSCO

The first time I visited Congo, I was talking with a new friend, a local leader in a small community north of Dungu, under his paillote. I had finished interviewing the radio operator there earlier in the day, and we passed some time under the thatched roof, just chatting. Amid casual conversation, joking around, and taking a photo together, one of his entourage who had been sitting with us complained about MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping stabilization mission in Congo.

As a driver for another organization, this man had witnessed the UN helping the LRA in 2010, dropping off rebels and sending them back into the bush. He described this amidst a litany of accusations, from the UN arming the rebels to refusing to let them surrender. I struggled to understand this then, and it received only a small discussion of rumor and violence in my MA thesis at the time. I’ve tinkered around with writing more about it as I continue to work through making sense of how people make sense of MONUSCO’s presence and the LRA’s ongoing activities.

In 2017, I heard a story in the village of Dungumai about a time a few years prior, when the local population there cut down trees and blocked the road in protest of the UN’s complicity in LRA violence. This story was also something I fell into—I had been visiting RTK, a radio station in Dungumai that played “come home” radio messages (the subject of my previous research), and talking with the director there about people’s complaints about such programs. An older couple had stopped by to speak with him, and as we wrapped up our conversation it turned to accusations against MONUSCO. He mentioned this to his visitors, and I ended up hearing a story from a woman as she recalled the protests there. People blocked the road, attempting to stop MONUSCO’s work and hold the mission accountable. “We had heard, but that day we saw,” the director translated for me, pointing emphatically at his eye, “that the UN was helping the rebels.”

This fieldwork trip, I’ve placed questions of MONUSCO at the center of much of my research, because one of my key research questions concerns who people turn to for security and to whom people attribute insecurity. The answer is filled with gray areas as basically everyone that is supposed to protect civilians is also accused of abusing them or abandoning them. Even the one consistent positive answer regarding who effectively protects communities—self defense groups, both ad hoc and organized—have had a history of abuse further south in the Kivus. Attributing security and insecurity to certain actors isn’t an easy task.

The MONUSCO offices in Dungu town, where protests have also occurred.

I’m still working through the transcripts of various short trips I’ve made during this stint of research so far, but during two days back in Dungumai this month I heard the word “hypocrites” used to describe MONUSCO multiple times. “Ils jouent un double jeu,” one person said—MONUSCO plays a double game. Someone else called the peacekeeping force “two-faced” for its declarations of combatting the LRA while it actually helped them. In Niangara town, rather than describe MONUSCO as responding to existing violence, several people associated the arrival of MONUSCO troops with impending violence to come (something Kristof Titeca has pointed out in explaining how people in this region make sense of increasing violence in their midsts as multiple armed actors arrived in short order).

And yet, when I put to these respondents the question of whether MONUSCO should stay or go, an overwhelming number of people in Dungumai said that they should stay, but do better. A few in other communities said they were glad MONUSCO had closed some bases in the region, and a couple said they hoped the peacekeepers would leave altogether. But a vast majority attributed some benefits to having MONUSCO around even as they criticized what they saw as not only complete failure to protect them but a betrayal of this commitment. For many, this ambivalence was attributable to the infrastructure projects that MONUSCO has engaged in, especially maintaining roads and rehabilitating bridges. A few buildings at schools had been constructed by MONUSCO, and some young men had found work with the peacekeeping force as well. Many others pointed to training the FARDC as an important practice carried out by MONUSCO. In short, there were benefits to having MONUSCO in the region, even if those benefits weren’t security.

A playground built by the Moroccan Battalion of MONUSCO in Dungumai.

The main bridge in Niangara, rehabilitated by MONUSCO’s Indonesian Garuda Contingent.

One hears news of MONUSCO packing up in Haut Uele altogether, though recent LRA incidents near and far may push this timeline further back. I should note, however, that such incidents are more than mere coincidence for some of my interlocutors, who wondered aloud why LRA attacks were increasing just as the peacekeepers’ mandate was winding down and now might have to be renewed. “No Kony, no job,” one person said in English, and I’ve heard similar phrases uttered on previous trips here. Allegations of MONUSCO complicity run far and they run deep. For over ten years the LRA has been preying on the population, and for much of that time UN peacekeepers have been performing poorly in countering the violence, in the opinions of people I’ve talked to.

Thus, while the peacekeeping force was under almost universal critique for failing at its primary objective of protecting the population and combatting the LRA, people mostly stopped short of calling for its departure, partially due to the other benefits of MONUSCO’s presence separate from security. To what extent might we think of the UN peacekeeping force as a development enterprise? Especially since several forward bases have closed and the remaining Moroccan Battalion only occasionally conducts patrols these days, the main encounter with MONUSCO seems to be through its infrastructure projects and maybe also its human rights monitoring. Most international NGOs have left the Uele region, and several people lamented being “forgotten” by NGOs and unable to get the attention of the government. But MONUSCO remains (for now), and just a few weeks ago a team of Indonesian peacekeepers smoothed out some of the major dirt roads here in town. How might we understand the public works projects of MONUSCO in the broader context of their mandate and effectiveness?

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Rumor and Distrust in the Congo

 “rumors explain; they naturalize the unnatural.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote, from Luise White’s Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, a lot as I work on my thesis. Rumor is a thing that exists around the world, and in many societies rumors play particular functions such as signaling group inclusion, fomenting opposition, etc. After conducting fieldwork briefly in northeastern Congo, I realized that rumors were going to comprise a part of my thesis.

“If there is no LRA, there is no MONUSCO,” one Congolese local government official told me as we sat under a giant hut with his friends and advisers. It wasn’t the first time that I had heard accusations that MONUSCO was either supporting the LRA or at the very least permitting the LRA to continue its dangerous actions in the region. I knew that dissatisfaction of MONUSCO was high across eastern and northeastern Congo, I hadn’t expected accusations that they supported human rights abusing rebels.

Right now, the role of rumor and distrust will be just a subheading in my broader Congo chapter, and so far it’s an underdeveloped one. I’m really interested in digging deeper into the role of rumor, a literature which has a surprising amount of depth thanks to anthropologists. I’m sure I’ll write about this some more, but for now some preliminary thoughts.

Max Gluckman has written [pdf] that rumors are exclusionary acts, and that they act within a network. People who know rumors are the in-group, those who do not are the out-, and rumors serve to make that distinction more clear. In this vain, others have stated that the content of rumors is not important, that the act of spreading and hearing rumor is what is vital precisely because of this cohesive function. This may or may not be the case in the Congo – after all, people freely talked to me about these rumors, but it may or may not have been a part of an inclusion process. I think the content is vital in this instance, however, because the rumors are about a topic with dire consequences, and because the rumors are believed.

When one man told me that he had seen a UN vehicle pull over just outside of Dungu and a band of LRA fighters got out and disappeared into the jungle, he was telling me a story he had told many times. It had happened in 2010, he surely had more interactions with peacekeepers since then, but this story was the first thing out of his mouth as we talked about perception of MONUSCO. This story was wrapped up in anecdotes that the UN was arming LRA, that they were refusing to accept surrendering LRA, that they benefited from the LRA’s presence financially.

Going back to Luise White’s quote at the top of this post, I think it goes really well with what Kristof Titeca has argued, which is that many Congolese create rumors as a means of understanding the rapid escalation of conflict in their community. He said this briefly at a panel I attended, and this notion helped me organize what I’ve been trying to understand as I look at the numerous rumors that I encountered while in the DRC.

The LRA arrived in the DRC in 2005, and were followed almost immediately by an increase in FARDC and MONUSCO presence (and a couple of a years later, UPDF operations as well). The sudden appearance and increase of armed actors makes little to no sense to most Congolese – the LRA have no reason to be here, FARDC prey on the population, MONUSCO is ineffective in protecting civilians, the UPDF have a history of exploiting war. None of these actors are doing anything beneficial, and yet they’re there. Titeca’s argument that rumor helps make sense of that is a compelling one. While the LRA do abduct and attack, the FARDC do abuse civilians, and the UPDF did exploit resources, MONUSCO hasn’t really protected people enough. And so Congolese are faced with explaining the presence of the peacekeepers in the sprawling headquarters building, and maybe that results in believing in the UN’s collusion with the other armed actors.

I’m working on unpacking all of this as I move forwards. I am still in the shallow end of the literature on rumor, but hope to wade deeper in the near future as well. If you know of things I should be reading, I’d love tips as well. With luck, I’ll write more about this aspect of my work as I trod through the thesis-writing phase.

Edit (2/6): This post has been updated to mention Kristof Titeca’s work on the subject, which helped me make sense of my findings and drove me to think through the role of rumor and distrust in the region.