The breakdown of societal order in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

19 Pages, Grade: 10 out of 12



What’s the strategic purpose of putting an AK-47 assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Or cutting out a woman’s fetus and making her friends eat it? - New York Times, 20121

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the biggest headaches of the international community. It involves a multitude of state and non-state actors, a myriad of abbreviations with different motives, fighting methods and ethnic bases. There are no clear delineation between foreign and domestic actor, civilian and rebel, soldier and terrorist. The conflict challenges the classical categories used civil wars and assumption about rationalities of war.

In the first section, I will argue that theories on civil war today are insufficient as to fully explain the reasons that the violence in Democratic Republic of Congo[DRC]2 has reached an intensity and persistence, that not even the UNs second-largest peace-keeping force is to control the violent forces. The second section provides an investigation of the evolution in social structures in DRC during colonialism and independence before and after the Cold War. This will show how a breakdown of social structures and institutions led to fragile or dysfunctional neopatrimonialism under President Mobutu and a social structure after the Cold War that revolves around violence. This will lead to a discussion of reasons for the persistence and the character of the violence in DRC.

The two civil wars have primarily been treated as forms of proxy war during the Cold War or as a result of Rwandan, Angolan, Ugandan and Burundian conflicts fought on Congolese territory. In the following I will discuss the Congolese conflict. This is not to say that the before-mentioned bore no importance in the outbreak and course of violence in DRC. However, tensions in DRC, even in Eastern DRC, are still a part of the Congolese political entity. The Alliance for Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo(AFDL) of Congolese factions emerged in 1996 and joined the RPF not only to fight Hutu, but to Final Paper in Order, Conflict and Violence by Vivek Sharma, Spring 2013. Malene Mortensen, cbq821. change the political situation in their country. The reasons for the Rwandan effect on Congolese political play are to be found in DRC, not in Rwanda.



This section will provide a critical exploration of some of the prevalent theories on civil war.

The first, the “Cold war theory”, sees conflicts in Africa as a part of the Cold War and subsequently as a result of the power void and decline in foreign aid after the Cold War(Keen 1998: 10, Engel&Mehler 2005: 90). Though this explanation certainly accounts for contributory factors to the violence, it neglects specificities of countries and regions. The countries, often described as “puppet states”, are perceived as blank, ahistorical social structures. It precludes this theory from dealing with the different levels in violence. For example, why did genocide happen in Rwanda and not in Burundi?

The second is the theory of grievance, arguing that the tensions between ethnic groups were unleashed by the end of the Cold war. This caused an evil, chaotic and aimless violence influenced by superstition and drug use(Keen 1998: 10, Engel&Mehler 2005: 90). While ethnic groups are key actors, they change and intermingle in shifting alliances to a degree, where unleashed ancient hatred is more likely a symptom of a deeper underlying driver for conflict.

Lastly, there is the UN approach of the vicious circle of civil war that needs to be broken by rehabilitation and reconstruction(Keen 1998: 10, Engel&Mehler 2005: 90). The conflict is perceived a disruptive event that is essentially different and decoupled from the “normality”. In this view the civil war in DRC essentially only lasted from 1996 till 2002 and disrupted the country’s economy, political unity and local society. One might argue that the country’s economy was never sustainable, the political unity was never instituted and the local society has never existed as a singular grammatical form. The social structure that pre-existed the civil war was a patrimonial prebendalism(Lewis 1996: 80), based on aid, resource extraction and corruption, which UN would undoubtedly not want to reconstruct.


In the light of these insufficiencies theories, a new approach to the conflict is required, that emphasized the societal context in which the violence happens. Clausewitz said:

Final Paper in Order, Conflict and Violence by Vivek Sharma, Spring 2013. Malene Mortensen, cbq821.

“Politics, moreover, is the womb in which war develops--where its outlines already exist in their hidden rudimentary form, like the characteristics of living creatures in their embryos” - Clausewitz 2007: 100

Supplementing the famous quote “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, this highlights how civil war is not a sudden violent outbreak, but rather the culmination of a process. A civil war is often preceded by more limited extents of violence prior to military violence, such as boasting, provocations and threats. To perceive a civil war as a process is to include history, social organization, societal norms and ways of life in the analysis in order to seek new answers to what determines the stakes of a conflict and the characteristics of the violence. The distinction between war and warfare is irrelevant, because both the reasons for the war and the way the war is fought are expressions of the social interactions within a society. The following analysis and discussion will explore which social context the wars in DRC have been fought and why the violence has been as intense and constant as it seems.


This section sheds light on the evolution in social structures in DRC in the last 150 years. Three main events have profoundly changed the social structure in DRC. Colonization changed the existing social structure rooted in the family and kinship. Then followed the neopatrimonial regime under Mobutu from 1965-1997, which proved unsustainable and the economy deteriorated. The end of the Cold War marked an end to the US backing of Mobutu, the neopatrimonial system mutated into a multiplicity of patrimonial structures, funded by violence and crime.


The basic unit of analysis was and to a great extent still is the family and the extended family. The Kuba, Luba, Kongo, Mongo, Warega ethnic groups for example comprised of patri- or matrilineal extended families with exogenous marriage which tied sub-units of extended families together through monogamy or polygamy. The extended family thereby provided many of the welfare functions of the state, such as care for sick, elders and kids, and redistribution of wealth(Mukenge 2002: 117). The kinship ties were especially strong in rural areas, but remained in urban areas as solidarity network(Young 1965: 238) The following graph illustrates the different levels of corporation or sophistication of Congolese societies. All political entities included by no means all of these layers.

Final Paper in Order, Conflict and Violence by Vivek Sharma, Spring 2013. Malene Mortensen, cbq821.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Kingdom or Empires: 2 known kingdoms. Ethnically diversified. King derives power from the supernatural.

Chiefdom. Inherited authority. The chief was given tribute.

Village; network of extended families or direct lineage. Ofte nruled by a council of family elders

Extended family or clan

Nuclear family

The politico-social structures had several common traits, as mentioned above.

All types of social structures except the band society of hunter-gatherers were tied to a certain territory of ancestral lands or villages. The largest majority was and still is farmers, but also a substantial group of herders of Upper Congo and the Kivu region (Mukenge 2002: 7).

Land was held collectively owned and distributed by the traditional chief. He granted user rights in a contract to tribesmen, ensuring their loyalty and dependency. Land was inherited by the firstborn son, who then redistributed land to the other descendants (Ansoms&Marysse 2011: 29).

The chief or clan leader was also often the authority in the religious hierarchy. Deceased ancestors are active in the life of their living descendants, and the chief or the witch doctor is the link of communication to them(Mukenge 2002: 38). Also, the Congolese believe in a supernatural divine power inside each human being that is sovereign and the Creator. The relationship is more of a relationship of dependence and than in Christianity.


1 Jeffrey Gettleman for new York Times 2012:

2 I refer to The Democratic Republic of Congo[DRC] as the territory that it signifies today throughout the paper regardless of the historical context in order to avoid any confusions.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The breakdown of societal order in the Democratic Republic of Congo
University of Copenhagen  (Institute of Political Science)
Order, Conflict and Violence
10 out of 12
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
696 KB
democratic, republic, congo
Quote paper
Malene Mortensen (Author), 2013, The breakdown of societal order in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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