Student activism, Stanford STAND, and a brief intro into the conflict in eastern Congo

by Caity Monroe, M.A. student in the African Studies program

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This op-ed is by no means a complete account of the recent conflict in eastern Congo, but is instead intended to engage the Stanford campus with an international issue and the way students on campus are addressing it. To learn more, follow the links, contact the author, attend a STAND meeting, or come to our event today with UN Group of Experts coordinator, Steve Hege, at 4:15pm in the CISAC conference room of Encina Hall Central.

The first paper I ever wrote about Congo received two main pieces of feedback. The first was that I should have done a better job including Congolese agency in my account of Congo’s independence crisis of 1960-65. I was told that while Lumumba was indeed constrained by a polarized Cold War global context and that Tshombe did in many ways work with his Belgian backers, the story was in fact more complicated than this. (Little did I know that years later I would be sifting through Belgian archives studying this exact period, yet looking at a completely different aspect of this story which involved the effects of colonial-era labor migrations and a small-scale war over land, cattle, and citizenship.) The second piece of advice I received about that paper was that I probably should have chosen a less complicated topic, and maybe even a “less complicated country.”

Around this time, I joined the Stanford chapter of STAND, a national anti-mass atrocity student group. Our chapter was in the process of launching a “conflict mineral campaign” that ultimately succeeded in making Stanford the first university to pass a proxy voting guideline concerning “conflicts minerals.” I also vaguely remember hearing reports about Laurent Nkunda, the CNDP, the support they were receiving from the Rwandan government, and a “game changing” meeting, which resulting in the arrest of Nkunda and the integration of the CNDP into the Congolese national army. Yet at this point, campus activism was focused on the single narrative of conflict minerals, rather than the broader problem of state weakness and poor governance.

Some of you reading this article might be familiar with Congo. Or, you might be old enough to remember not only these events but also those that preceded them: the end of the cold war, the fall of Mobutu and the crippling of the Zairian state, riots in Kinshasa, growing tension in the Kivu and Ituri provinces, the Rwandan civil war and genocide, the subsequent influx of refugees and ex-génocidaires fleeing into eastern Congo, the eventual invasion by Laurent Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda into the Congo, and the two Congo wars. If you are one of those people, you may have already stopped reading after realizing the recentness and the naiveté that characterizes the initial study of the Congo. I wouldn’t blame you — in the weeks following M23’s capture of Goma there has been plenty of news coverage, and much of it worth skipping.

Yet STAND and Stanford more generally is increasing its focus on Congo, with new initiatives, events, and speakers. Thus it seems like an appropriate and necessary time to reflect on what it means to be a student on Stanford campus who studies, works on, or advocates against conflict in the Great Lakes region. The weakness of that CNDP army integration that I ignored in favor of the simpler minerals narrative demonstrated itself when M23 defected from the national army last spring. Furthermore, the small-scale war in the east and the related issues surrounding migration from Rwanda and its impact on community level tensions in the east that dates back to colonialism is absent, which is unfortunate, given the continued relevance of more local dynamics. The importance of Congolese agency and Congolese voice is absent from too many of the news articles I’ve read depicting the recent spike in violence. Those Lumumba years are usually only harkened back to in an effort to portray the Congo as a country that is constantly complicated, consistently chaotic, or perpetually victimized by foreign actors. Nearly every recent account of violence, impunity, or rebel group activity demonstrates the need for a better understanding of the state weakness and political root causes that are sometimes neglected by activist or humanitarian approaches.

After piloting the conflict free campus initiative, Stanford STAND decided to reprioritize. While members of Stanford STAND vary in their opinions on Dodd-Frank and conflict mineral approaches (because, of course, few groups are without internal inconsistencies — a lesson those writing about politics in eastern Congo would also do well to remember), we were unilaterally frustrated by a college campus rhetoric that was almost entirely dominated by only one of the many issues in need of attention. As I was told early on, Congo is complicated… but what country, when studied fairly and comprehensively, isn’t? Thus we briefly debated a host of other options. Yet what could a group of relatively well-informed but geographically removed, politically powerless, and relatively naïve non-Congolese students really do? And, moreover, what should we do? If nothing else, watching the debates surrounding international efforts to address conflict in eastern Congo has taught me that knowledge, just as it is empowering, can be paralyzing, and the more I know the more I hesitate to act. Yet that knowledge is the only hope of avoiding too-common pitfalls.

With this in mind, STAND decided to launch an education campaign. This doesn’t mean we are giving up on action-oriented agendas. It simply means that we’ve seen enough examples of oversimplified news stories or unintended consequences to want to focus on knowledge — which should always precede action — for now. The first component of this plan is self-education. Second, STAND is expanding the initiative to include on-campus education events and an outreach program targeting local high schools. Having just started this second phase, we’ve already become disheartened and cringed at questions from students like, “Why are Africans always killing each other?” Hearing our rambling, delicately worded responses that try to explain unbalanced media portrayals, American appetite for victimization and tragedy, the legacy of colonialism, problems of state capacity and institution building, ethnic mobilization, unequal access to resources and political representation, and the importance of avoiding blanket statements like “always” and “Africans,” is likely amusing. Teaching this material, just like acquiring it in the first place, is a learning process and an exercise in humility. Yet at least maybe by the time a few of these students reach college, a few less of them will get papers back reminding them to include the plentiful examples of African agency. The initiative will include these presentations but also Skype calls with Congolese civil society leaders, speaker events, and ultimately a conference on Stanford campus in the spring with some people better equipped to teach about the conflict than we might be at this point.

One of the first of these events is being held today, Monday, December 3rd, at 4:15pm in the CISAC conference room. Steve Hege, the coordinator for the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC, will report on the group’s most recent findings. This report has been garnering significant attention for its role in implicating Rwanda and Uganda in their support for M23. If any of this article, or what you have been reading in the news, sparks your interest, we encourage you to come learn more. When I interviewed Congolese civilians, refugees, and ex-combatants for my thesis research, many of them found it hilarious that I had chosen this field of study. A group of Rwandan boys simply couldn’t understand why I had — and I’m still not sure I have sufficient justifications or explanations for the focus. Yet I am confident that given this choice, the best way forward — at least for now — is to read (everything), learn (from mistakes, other opinions, research, and travel), and listen (to criticisms, to suggestions, to high school students, to experts, and to Congolese).

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Caity Monroe did her undergraduate degree at Stanford in African history and is now an M.A. student in the African Studies program. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on historical memory and conflict over land and citizenship in Masisi, North Kivu, DRC and is a member of Stanford STAND. She is always more than happy to talk about Congo and would welcome any feedback or criticism of this post — email her at cmonroe@stanford.edu.

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One thought on “Student activism, Stanford STAND, and a brief intro into the conflict in eastern Congo

  1. on a slightly related note, you guys should check out our graphic novel about a young girl’s experience of being caught in the conflict in the DRC at http://www.stanford.edu/group/cwstudents/graphicnovel/virunga.html

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