The conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau: a comparison


At a first glance, Kinshasa and Bissau are many miles apart. Each city stands as the formal capital of two different geographical extensions in the African continent. The sub-regions to which they belong are noticeably different in their setting and their dynamics with the geographical centrality of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) putting it a “small step away” from most African sub-regions. This is an important geopolitical characteristic to take into account in order to understand how, at one point in time, there were eight countries directly involved on different sides of the conflict (Lemarchand 2000: 324). Guinea-Bissau on the other hand is a almost a micro-state, with 1.5 million people and located on one of the edges of the unstable West Africa Region, bordering Senegal and Guinea-Conakry. Perhaps the single most important material difference in distinguishing how the conflicts unfolded is the distinct protractor material agents of each case. The resources funding the factions in the two conflicts were, respectively, diamonds, coltan and other minerals in the case of DRC and a handful of cashew nuts, possible privileges of holding office in Bissau and foreign assistance from Senegal and Portugal in the case of Guinea-Bissau.
In order to dig deeper into the conflicts though, the different time spans and intensities of the conflict will be initially accounted for, followed by an understanding of the distinct political economies of the two conflicts and a look at the characteristics of the actors involved in the conflicts. Afterwards the discussion moves into an analytical discussion of the nature of the patrimonial networks involved in each case and conclude with a look at the distinct roles of ethnicity in Guinea-Bissau and the DRC.

To put the conflict in Guinea-Bissau into a few words, the struggle consisted of a fallout between two patrons. A fallout between two strongmen (Vieira and Ansumane Mane) that were quick to activate their patronage and diplomatic networks and take part in what was to become a thunder high-intensity war, a civil war. The conflict was fairly short, lasting only 11 months (between January and November 1998) and was mostly concentrated in the areas surrounding the capital. The diplomatic tensions between Senegal and Bissau surrounding the Casamance rebels were at the end used as a “trigger-excuse” for the conflict (UI 2004:15). The separatists, Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) have historical and ethnic ties with Guinea-Bissau. The extensive illegal trade in cannabis and arms between the two regions is of special importance, as this trade was one of the rents the Guinea-Bissau military informally collected to finance itself (Ostheimer 2001). Problems with the military started growing from the middle of the 1990s onwards, mainly as a result of a change of policy towards Senegal. In 1995, the long-standing president João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira claimed that Guinea Bissau was to fight the rebellion in Casamance, threatening this lucrative business, in which not only ordinary soldiers, but also high-ranking army officers, were taking part (Uppsala Conflict Database 2006). Though the causes lie deeper in the patrimonial structures of power, this bilateral illegal trade can be seen as the apparent trigger of the war that started in June 1998, since the responsibility of the supply of arms to the Casamance rebels was inculcated by the president on the chief of armed forces, Ansumane Mané. The latter reacted against this dubious accusation and was able to mobilize vast sections of a chronically underpaid army. Vieira had successfully tried to show that he was opposed to the MFDC, and was therefore supported by Senegal during the war. However, it was later discovered that officials very close to Vieira had been involved in the arms trade with the separatists (Uppsala Conflict Database 2006; UI 2004:15).
Putting the DRC conflict into such a systemic analysis is even harder as the interconnectedness of its events cannot be underestimated. Labelling it a civil war would be falling short of its actual scope and complexity. Lemarchand (2000:327) traces the inherent volatility of the Great Lakes, of which the problematic DRC Kivu regions is a part of, to three factors: lack of coincidence between ethnic and geographical maps; population density; and colonial policies. Also according to Lemarchand, in the DRC, the origins of the conflict can be traced all the way back to the 1962 Rwandan revolution. This was the first spark that ignited the antagonism between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes followed by flow after flow of hate; distrust; grievance; coups; pogroms; genocides and refugee surges. Conflict has been a daily affair in the area until today. Endless refugee flows made sure that the entire region was covered by a complex web of violent cross-border ethnic strife politics. A case in point is how the rush to the Kivus after the 1994 Rwanda genocide brought “mayhem” to the areas. The resident Tutsi population (then renamed the Banyamulengue) was the first to suffer from the flight of hot blooded Hutus to the Kivus. The response by the Rwandan government in 1996 was sharp and even bloodier, doing “what no one else had the capacity or the will to accomplish” (Lemarchand 2000:335), tragic massacres in Hutu refugee camps in the Kivus followed. The resentment of the rest of the local population, particularly embodied in the Mai Mai militia completed a rough “ethnic picture” of the situation. The follow-up Rwandan and Ugandan incursion, that officially was seeking self-protection, gathered momentum and, by following close behind Laurent Kabila’s ADFL rebellion, was able to topple Mobuto in 1996. When in 1998 Kabila’s intimacy with Kigali and Kampala was costing him his popularity, a 180 degrees shift in attitude towards the Great Lakes neighbours finally set the stage for Africa’s “First World War”. Kabila was supported by Zimbabwe, Angola, Sudan, Chad and Namibia while on the other side was the Ugandan and Rwandan backed CRD (later to split into CRD-Goma and CRD-Kisangani) and Burundi. It was amidst this confusion that the economy of plunder settled in, and the rich mineral areas of the Kivus were informally and frequently illegally stripped out of its resources by mercenaries and soldiers of the different factions. The strategy of war in that area slowly seemed to become “hypnotized” by the glitter of alluvial diamonds and gold and the dull blackness of coltan.

The different nature of the two conflicts is also reflected on the distinct characteristics of their direct participants. First of all, the similar personality and background traits of Mobuto, Kabila, Mane and Nino (such as charisma, ruthlessness, ambition and military background) are worth a mention since, as is discussed below, they made them greatly suitable for operating in a systemic political setting characterized by a set of competing patrimonial networks. Besides the previously mentioned armies of the patrons, other aspects and actors should be looked at. In the DRC, the unique economy of war comprised alien national armies such as the Ugandan and the Rwandan ones that contained a commercial branch responsible for strategically exploring DRC’s natural resources whilst the conflict was ongoing. The Zimbabwen/Congolese OSLEG and COSLEG as well as several business carried out by the state-owned Gecamines represented another variant of conflict profiting. Though frequently engaging in high risk projects, these peculiar organizations represented mining consortiums that explored privileged commercial and mineral licenses in Congo (for example by Zimbabwe) in exchange for political and military support during the conflict. (Nabudere 2003:57). Moreover, the role of for example Swedish and Anglo-American Multinational Corporations (MNCs) that had invested great amounts in the region (before and during the conflicts) has to be accounted for since they directly and indirectly intervened in the conflict on the sides of those they had commercial contracts with (Nabudere 2003:41). Unsurprisingly enough the factions and the particularly economy of war of DRC became highly attractive for various Private Military Companies (PMCs) such as Sandline and MPRI (Snow and Barouski 2006:40) who could profitably put their strategic firepower to work on behalf of governments and mining consortiums in a region that was sprinkled with a great number of localized pockets of richness. In terms of warlordism, this phenomenon was not witnessed in Guinea-Bissau, the spoils of war were always limited to power-seeking agents and the geopolitics of the country did not offer any kinds of conditions for post Cold-war Taylor-like or Savimbi-like characters to survive. Both Nino and Ansumane Mane’s factions were office-seeking. In the DRC one can argue that some top officials from the Rwandan and Ugandan armies were acting as warlords, with a de facto economic exploration of the Kivus while political governance was consistently disregarded and office-seeking ambitions were obviously inexistent. There was almost a sort of accomplice state-warlordism in the region with the officials of the two countries being well aware of the situation. Militias in the DRC conflict played a central role as was seen in the actions of Hutu interhamwe militias operating in the Kivus after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the Mayi Mayi militias that had operated with little consistency always in the limits between being militia, rebels and warlords. Militias were not ostensibly used in the conflict in Guinea Bissau except for later in the war, when the conflict was re-ignited by Mane after the peace deal. Mane claimed that Vieira was so desperate as to recur to “recruiting young militia members from the Papel and Bijagos groups” (Ostheimer 2001). Lastly, while the dimension of the child-soldier phenomena was much more extreme in the DRC with recurrent abductions and abuses by a great number of the intervenients such as RCD-Goma, the Congolese government army, the mayi-mayi, the RCD-ML and the armed groups of Ituri. Child soldiers also constituted a central problem in the case of the 1998-1999 war in Guinea-Bissau (Amnesty International 2003; Coalition to stop the use of child soldiers 2004).

New Wars and the economy of coping

Unlike in the case of Guinea-Bissau, when looking at the different causal factors of the conflict in the DRC one of the most engaging aspects is how the conflict seems to fit nicely within recent theories of “new wars” (Kaldor 1999). This new notion is groundbreaking in claiming that the conditions of modernity and the way most conflicts are waged today represent more than just an updated version of old grievances. Indeed, the economy of war in the DRC appears to be the clearest of cases of how the classic concept of warfare is outdated, however, one should still be cautious about carelessly labelling it strictly as a “greed war” (Collier 2000). Tendencies to simply distinguish between political and criminal conflict , for example, can also at times lack an understanding of an important tension present in sub-Saharan Africa that is a blurriness between an economy of criminality and an economy of coping (Jackson 2002). The example of the Kivus in the Democratic Republic of Congo shows how from the moment that a conflict is labelled as criminal, the actions of all actors taking part in the informal economy funding the armed factions are understood as criminal. The overarching label of the conflict as criminal is however unsatisfactory at the individual level since, to use the words of Jackson, the line between individuals dwelling in criminality and those coping with their surrounding system of power is not drawn (Jackson 2005:531).
Still, regardless if you can put aside ethnicity as in Guinea-Bissau or look at grievances as historical as in the DRC for example, one must look at new phenomena including the Diaspora, humanitarian aid, small arms trade and money laundering as just some of the recent developments that have transformed the way wars are waged and sustained. The two conflicts, one a “single showdown” by two very peculiar political characters and the other a protracted affair, are cases in hand of some of the changes in military warfare in regards to how they stretch into different dimensions. Guinea-Bissau because its trigger was rooted in arms smuggling and the “shaddy” patrimonial interests of office-holders in its relations to the outside world and the DRC given its surreal chain of involvement. This chain directly links corrupt army officers supervising a digging site in Bukavu, and the guy in the living room that spends too many hours playing a coltan-equipped playstation2 in Brighton (Snow & Barouski 2006: 39).

Role of external actors in triggering, sustaining and dealing with the conflicts

Both states remain inseparable from their respective regions and from the transnational actors that took part in them. Whilst in the case of DRC one must look at the entire chain of economic processes that goes from a small child soldier/miner in northern Kivu to the diamond trader in Antwerp, the conflict in Guinea-Bissau is better understood if one sticks to a framework of analysis at the national and regional level. According to Galtung (1964:2), peace can be conceived of in two different ways, either as negative or as positive. The former differs from the latter in that negative simply implies an absence of war and violence, whereas positive peace involves a sustained integration of states and peoples. Considering this, the sets of interstate relations both in the Great Lakes Region of which the DRC is a part of and in Bissau’s West Africa constitute an example of negative peace. Factors that could potentially contribute to inter-state conflict, such as artificial boundaries and transnational ethnic groups, are present. However, while the DRC has been tormented by de facto interstate conflict, though not for classic Clausewitzian land-grabbing reasons, there has hardly been any inter-state conflict in West Africa in the post-colonial years. While the power brokers in the Great lakes such as the ancient colonial power (Belgium) and the US have done little more than add fuel to the fire, in West Africa a positive rapprochement between France and Nigeria did occur in the region. Nigeria takes it on itself to be the leading hegemonic power in West Africa and ECOWAS has been an interesting, though very fragile, experiment in regional integration politics. In contrast, the Great Lakes region lies in the “middle of nowhere” in the game of geopolitics. Caught between: impoverished and problematic Congo Brazzaville, Sudan and the Central African Republic; overpopulated and genocidal Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi and; for a long time, Savimbi’s rebel north-western Angola. Nowadays, it is in the DRC that the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world is, with over 15000 troops (MONUC). MONUC has been stationed in the country since 2000 and is strategically concentrated on the problematic Kivus regions in the east, having been able to hold the peace together successfully and helping out with the electoral procedures of 2006. While in the DRC, “’the rebellion’ is very largely an externally sponsored insurgency, in which Rwanda and Uganda are the key players” (Lemarchand 2000:325) in Bissau’s civil war Senegal and ECOMOG in particular were key players but remained secondary to the individualized power politics of Mane and Nino.
A common trait between the countries and their relations with the regions they inhabit is that economic cooperation remains very low at the official level while informal international trade and migration thrive in ever closer ties across the borders. These close ties, and above all their informality, contribute to the diffusion of internal conflicts into neighbouring regions and bordering states. Trans-boundary fluxes of refugees, arms, diamonds and mercenaries are consequences of conflict but can also exacerbate underlying tensions. As a result, the fact that the integration is mainly at the informal, instead of at the official level has prevented Western Africa from presenting a set of inter-state relations of positive peace (Kacowics 1997; McGowan 2006:247). The exact same can be said of the DRC.
The ending of the conflicts in 1999 for Bissau and in 2000 for DRC also had a regional dimension to it, with the Community of Portuguese-speaking countries (CPLP) taking the initiative to try and moderate a resolution of the conflict and the UN having a crucial role in the latter. Despite advances mainly through the more recent EU framework for aid, when comparing Guinea-Bissau to the DRC and other countries in the region, it becomes clear that the relation of the international community towards Guinea-Bissau has been low-profile and somewhat limited (Ostheimer 2001). Similarly, the country has received comparatively little attention with academics, something which is not easily justified. Paradoxically, Guinea-Bissau is highly dependent on foreign aid which greatly influences the country’s foreign policy (UI 2004:14).

Patrimonial networks

An important similarity between the two countries is how the weakness of the government and state institutions at the macro-political level is closely related to the diffusion of patrimonial structures at the micro-political level. The main function of patrimonial networks is the distribution of political support and loyalty on behalf of the client and the distribution of resources on behalf of the patron through a network of personal relationships (Vigh and Whyte 2003:111). In a situation where the most important economic sector is the informal one, combined with the fragility of the central administration and its disconnection from the larger parts of society, patrimonial structures thrive. When the local constituencies are the main source of resources and legitimacy of the government, they will inevitably influence the actions of the government. However, when the government does not rely on local constituencies for support, it is easier to revert to patrimonialism and factionalism to build a support base.
Within the state, these personal power networks are more influential in de facto distribution of political power than the formal bureaucratic institutions. The consequence is that certain individuals, top-level patrons of patronage networks, and their factions achieve dominant positions in politics based on their ability to gather informal support both in Guinea Bissau (Forrest 2002:239; 249) and in DRC (Vlassenroot&Huggins 2005:131). Both states lack accountability and are dependent on: external financial support in the case of Guinea Bissau; and on revenue from the exploration of mineral resources in the case of DRC. This means that, while in Bissau centripetal forces concentrate power competition in the government since it constitutes the primary locus for financial resources, in the case of the DRC the exploration of mineral resources can very hardly be monopolized by the state.
In patrimonial networks, resources flow from a top-down patriarchal-pyramid of hierarchy, on whom the rest of the networks are dependent. If these persons lose their resource bases or positions of power, large amounts of people are negatively and dramatically affected at once. The result is a situation of perpetuated structural insecurity and unpredictability (Vigh and Whyte 2003:148).

The distinct roles of ethnicity

While religion played a secondary role on both cases and is unhelpful for our comparison, ethnicity instead can be insightful when comparing the two conflicts. The case of Guinea-Bissau represents a truly fascinating object of analysis for the ambiguous role of ethnicity at two levels: firstly in the discourses and empirical daily relations of people and groups in Guinea Bissau; and secondly in the subsequent academic interpretations of its role within social and political processes. While Vigh and Whyte (2003) find ethnicity to be a key underlying factor in explaining patterns of patrimonialism and the mobilization of young militias, others disregard it as unhelpful and as lacking explanatory power for their analysis (Rudebeck 2001). It remains a fact that there has been an outspoken tradition of inter-ethnic unity and cooperation in Guinea-Bissau. Considering this, the conflict remains one of the very few witnessed in Africa that, on a first read, could be fairly well understood without analysing the ethnic composition of the country.
By adopting a circumstantialist approach to ethnicity, instead of a primordialist one (Eriksen 2002:54), we will look at ethnicity as a fluid social construction. In the case of Guinea-Bissau, and despite some religious and ethnic divergences, this appears evident, with multi-allegiance, conversions and shifts in the identities and belongings of different individuals occurring across ethnic lines over time. In the case of Congo these social constructs solidified and played a central role, particularly when it came to the historical ethno-class divide between Hutus and Tutsis. The civil war in Guinea-Bissau arose out of a high level political brawl and the conflict in the DRC out of a complex synergy between hatreds born out of an unequal ethno-class colonial design and competition for resources in an overpopulated era (Tshitereke 2003:86; Homer-Dixon 1995). Indeed, “Rwanda is at the top of the list of all African states in terms of population density, with Burundi and North Kivu close behind” (Lemarchand 2000: 330). In Guinea-Bissau, overpopulation was not a problem and this resulted in the top leaders involved, for one reason or another, not overtly fractionalising the conflict along ethnic lines while in the DRC leaders were overwhelmed by the greater genocidal narrative.
Discontentment in Guinea-Bissau was basically fomented by a revolt of unhappy, unpaid soldiers, and broadly supported by a majority of the population while in the DRC it was about the unfair highly ethnicized structures of political and economic power distribution. One case saw non-ethnicized division, between those “for or against the regime that had ruled the country since independence in 1974” (Rudebeck 2001:29) and the other saw highly ethnicized divisions replicating themselves across the entire region resulting in genocidal turmoil. This can explain why some, such as Rwanda, called for a second Berlin Conference in order to redesign state borders along ethnic lines. (Nabudere 2003:53).


In retrospect the tensions were inherent to the two societies that shared the similar problem of patrimonial politics. These however were practiced in essentially different ways. In the case of Guinea-Bissau they remained “big man” affairs and non-ethnicized charismatic politics and in the case of the DRC, patrimonial politics was also present but it was moulded within cemented ethno-class fractionalization between Hutus and Tutsis. The length, form, nature and modus operandi of the actors interacting in the two conflicts were therefore substantially different.
In a civil war such as in Guinea-Bissau the war objectives of each participant is more or less straightforward (i.e. office-seeking). In the DRC finances were generated even while the conflict was in progress as long as if you were in the right business and aligning with the right side. Both of them saw external intervention but in the case of the DRC this went beyond simple geopolitics and security-seeking, comprising of the added dimensions of historical ethnic hatred and in-conflict-profit maximizing, which deeply complicated the rational of conflict where factions usually seek the quickest victory possible.
The most insightful comparison however remains how in the case of Guinea-Bissau ethnicity never remained overtly institutionalised or stable, but insistently underlying the “constantly changing political configurations” (Vigh and Whyte 2003:44). Both countries are now facing a crucial moment of democratic consolidation, let us just hope that this consolidation does not imply fragility and added grievances over the division of power. That the “price” to wage war becomes, once and for all, unaffordable in economic, political and moral terms.

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