A New Technology to Understand an Old War

Cathy Nangini and Robert Muggah on how data can be used to better understand the conflict in the DRC.
By: , /
February 10, 2014
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For more than two decades the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been plagued by what is often termed Africa's "great war." With the situation in the east of the country deteriorating once more, the United Nations Security Council renewed sanctions against the country last month. There are, of course, many factors fuelling the country's protracted conflict. And there is also a bewildering assortment of armed groups keeping the embers burning. But who, really, is driving the conflict on the ground? How do they operate? And why do efforts to bring peace so regularly fall flat? 

Hundreds of analysts and academics have devoted their careers to attempting to understand the stubborn persistence of DRC's violence entrepreneurs. They have broached the issue from sociologicalpolitical, and other social science perspectives. And while generating important insights, new thinking is more urgently needed than ever to clarify the situation. A new article we recently published in Stability provides fresh thinking and helps shed some light on the protagonists of Congo's interlocking conflicts. 

At the center of the article is a multi-dimensional dataset featuring detailed information on hundreds of armed groups, political elites, businessmen, and others. The information is drawn exclusively from a 2012 UN Group of Experts report that documents social and financial networks as well as the procurement of military equipment. We present an interactive data visualization to map the links between them; consolidating complex links into a single snapshot:

One of the most vicious protagonists of DRC's latest round of fighting is the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), a rebel group formed in April 2012 in the wake of a failed peace agreement penned a few years earlier. With ready access to military-style small arms, stolen cobalt and copper, and ties to other Congolese militants, the M23 emerged as one of the most formidable fighting forces in the DRC. From the beginning, there was evidence that M23 had foreign backing. 

The extent of assistance provided by neighboring governments to the M23 is the subject of considerable acrimony. Among the most controversial allegations is that the rebels received direct military intelligence, assistance, and equipment from Rwanda and Uganda, in clear violation of an existing arms embargo. Meanwhile, the M23 has also established pacts with other armed groups in the Kivu, Ituri, and Kasai-Occidental provinces of the DRC. All the while, they have carried out brutal attacks, executed prisoners of war, and recruited child soldiers.

The M23 movement quickly reached its zenith with the fall of the Congolese city of Goma on 20 November 2012. Within a year, the group experienced a speedy demise following its defeat by Congolese armed forces and a recently established UN stabilization brigade. In spite of plans to quickly disarm and demobilize the group, a UN Group of Experts found that a number of sanctioned M23 leaders were still moving freely in Uganda. Adding insult to injury, the rebels attacked the UN stabilization mission and openly recruited new members in Rwanda despite declaring an end to their rebellion in November 2013. 

Owing to an apparently resurgent M23, the Security Council unanimously voted to renew its arms embargo and sanctions against the DRC on the 30th of January. It also urged the UN and member states to increase their vigilance against former M23 combatants to ensure that the rebels did not regroup or resume military activities. A challenge for the international community, however, is keeping track of the identified leaders, governments, and networks responsible for sustaining the M23 both inside and beyond the borders of the DRC. Data visualizations that render these linkages visible to the world make it harder to hide and conceal illicit activities. 

The diplomats, soldiers, aid workers, and civil society groups working to bring peace to the DRC are only just beginning to appreciate the ways in which new technologies can change the landscape of peace-building. When prepared carefully and with attention to local context, these tools may revolutionize the way host governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies understand and engage with questions of early warning and conflict prevention. At a minimum, they offer new ways to hold warring parties and recalcitrant armed groups to account.

This post is based on a new peer-reviewed article released this week: Nangini, C., Jas, M., Fernandes, H. and R. Muggah (2014) "Visualizing Armed Groups: The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s M23 in Focus", Stability: International Journal of Security & Development.