Rich ecosystems of power exist in the most unpropitious of circumstances. The Democratic Republic of Congo is often seen as a failed state, with the population, particularly in the east, suffering from anarchic violence. But to call that a ‘power vacuum’ is a highly misleading caricature. Power is everywhere, and it is multifaceted.
During a visit to DRC in 2014, I met one village official, Kabuya Muhemeri, in his ‘office’: tin roof, floor of volcanic rubble, no glass in the windows, bare plank walls covered with heavily logoed NGO and UN posters on sexual violence, torture, HIV and land rights, plus a hand-drawn map of the area. On his desk, the classic tools of the functionary: a rubber stamp, a mobile phone and a pile of files and notebooks.
He had been in the post since 2008. He laughed when asked if the state gives him training: ‘We rely on the NGOs for that. They help us with what the law says – don’t torture, don’t lock people up for unpaid debts. There are lots of rights and laws I didn’t know.’ In his world, state officials and customary authorities are all part of public administration. ‘The chefferie (traditional authority) collects the taxes. I report to the mwami (traditional leader) as well as to the ministry.’
Later, I talked to a traditional leader, on the veranda of his rather smart house at the top of a steep mud path. The chief spoke softly, radiating authority and cradling his two mobile telephones. ‘I’ve been chief for 20 years, my father was chief before me. The state authorities are in charge of roads and bridges, tax is collected from shops, restaurants and markets by the chef de cheferie, [his superior in the traditional hierarchy]. I encourage the population to pay.’
Several other poles of power vie with civil and traditional authorities: armed groups, the army, the police, humanitarian agencies, faith organizations, civil society organizations, even sports clubs. Activists, whether local or from outside, need to understand the nature and distribution of………
 Author interview, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, June 2014
The post No such thing as a power vacuum
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