Failed States”, “Fragile States” and “New Wars”: How the Democratic Republic of the Congo fits in the theory and vice versa (Part 1)

Paola Lazcano


Introducing frameworks for analysis to understand conflict and violence in DRC

The decade of the 90’s provided the field of Conflict Studies with a rich development of research and discussion on a “new” social phenomenon. One whose devastating consequences, frequency and apparently sudden outbursts shocked the newly established post-Cold War world order. Consequently, the United Nations, the humanitarian system and International Law have been in continuous evolution to adapt to the constantly changing developments regarding internal conflicts, violence and warfare.

Pioneer researchers, such as Johan Galtung, had already identified and exhibited notable awareness on this phenomenon. However, it was the international character and perspective of the Cold War that previously vastly dominated the scene within policy and literature. Nonetheless, with the end of the Cold War and the escalation of conflict in Yugoslavia, internal strife around issues of nationalism, identity, greed and grievances became highly visible within a number of recently independent states, as well as others long suffering of chronic political, economic and social crisis, like Haiti and Myanmar (Burma).

These conflicts, including their consequences and effects in the economic sphere, have very old roots. Some stemmed or were enhanced during the colonial period, when European empires exploited differences and rivalries between the inhabitants of a territory to impose and perpetuate their rule. Through struggle and resistance, group identities were also shaped.

After the wave of decolonization and the emergence of Non-Aligned States, the rivalry and geopolitical interests of the Cold War contributed to further aggravate the socio-political problems within young countries (and their many nations), while at the same time also kept them contained until the end of the war. The sudden stop of financial flows and other forms of support from the two blocks to many of these countries left ruling elites and other main actors vulnerable at a time when the social tissue was continuously disintegrating.

Within the African context, young conflicted States are key in the understanding of non-international armed conflicts and have spurred the development and growth of new terminology and research in recent decades. In this series of articles, we will focus in two core, though fairly contested, theoretical- conceptual frameworks developed in the 90’s that remain pivotal in current research and practice: Failed State Theory and New Wars. Both frameworks are briefly elucidated in the context of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

State failure and fragility

The recurrent crises, turmoil and instability in DRC, carefully analysed within Failed State theory, help to understand the sources of conflict and violence in the Third World. These were either outside of, or contradictory to, the major postulates that realists (whom dominated International Relations theory) used to explain the grounds for armed struggle - previously understood as a product of external rather than internal threats.

All of DRC´s independent life has been characterized by protracted conflict and violence. This ranges from profound political instability rooted in a legitimacy crisis and identity politics to a predatory relationship between ruling elites and citizens resulting into poor economic performance, inexistent welfare and meagre economic distribution. All of the multiple problems within the country seem tied together by a single thread: failure or fragility of the State in its many dimensions. But what are the social, political, economic and security dynamics that constitute State failure or fragility/weakness and how?

As K.J. Holsti (1995) prompts us, Woodrow Wilson’s ethnically-based concept of self-determination, together with the developments of WWI, were catalysers towards the association of nationhood and statehood with ethnicity, history, language and culture. European political theory previously did not question “the bases of the communities upon which a State is created” (Holsti, 1995, p.324). Yet, nowadays, identity and affiliation towards a group, nation or state play as precious a role as differentiation from the other. Colonial rule in DRC, like in most of Africa, was highly dependent on the differentiation strategy, both between native groups and with white colonials. Settlers did not intend to build statehood (and citizenry) and borders were abruptly and arbitrarily made. This played a very important role in the dynamics towards State fragility and failure.

Self-determination, as we attempt to frame it today, and its relationship with nation and statehood is a difficult concept to implement in a country where a long history of suffering, fragmentation and neglect is embedded in politics. The venture of the Belgian king Leopold II in the Congo basin and the following administration by the Belgian Parliament greatly contributed to dislocate the social fabric and deprive native inhabitants of education, dignity, resources and skill-building for the government and administration of the Weberian State and its social compact.

Pueaa Web Blog Post Img

Source: ICRC, Julie Schnieder 2016.

The next part of this series will further analyse the dynamics of political instability, legitimacy crisis and identity politics in the context of national fragmentation in DRC.


Holsti, K. J. (Oct., 1995), War, Peace, and the State of the State. International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale de Science Politique. Vol. 16, No. 4, Dangers of Our Time. Les Dangers de Notre Temps, 319-339.

Fecha de Publicación: 10/08/2019