Shoppers wait to be served in a Butembo office supply shop, July 2010. (Photo courtesy Laura Seay)

Several years ago, I got a request from some officials at a well-known international organization, wondering if we could chat about the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. After some polite conversation about my own research, my inquisitors got to their questions: Why is the North Kivu city of Butembo so stable? How are members of the Nande ethnic group, by whom Butembo is almost entirely populated, so economically successful? Perhaps most important, could their model be replicated to bring stability and economic growth to other parts of the Congo as part of the project to rebuild the postwar Congolese state?

I answered as best I could, based on the academic literature on the Nande that existed at the time. A few weeks later, I related these questions to Rene Lemarchand, the great Congo scholar whose influential work extends across six decades. Lemarchand chuckled and replied, “Well, you know the answer: Because they’re the Nande.”

I was relieved by Lemarchand’s comment, as I had told the officials the same thing. Ethnic solidarity, with strong ties between Nande and powerful business, political and religious leaders who enforced those ties, meant that the Nande were able to easily cooperate to get things done. And no, there is no way that this can be replicated elsewhere in Congo, because other groups do not exhibit the same degree of social cohesion and control that the Nande do.

Five months after these conversations, I found myself in Butembo, attempting to understand firsthand the dynamics of Nande group solidarity as it relates to the provision of public goods like health care and education. What I found was a far more complicated story, one that was outside the scope of my research, but that I have been hoping to learn more about ever since.

Enter scholar Timothy Raeymaekers, whose new book Violent Capitalism and Hybrid Identity in the Eastern Congo shows that while indeed Nande ethnic solidarity matters in explaining their successful governance of their territory, there’s more to it. The location of the Nande on the Uganda borderlands, far from the authority of the central state and provincial authorities, made it possible for Nande society to produce an entirely new form of governance.

Observers have traditionally assumed that the Congolese state’s collapse, which occurred before and simultaneous with the wars of 1996-2002, opened space for alternative forms of governance among groups like the Nande. But as Raeymaekers shows, the emergent form of Nande governance originated in the colonial period. Nande traders occupying bordering regions between British and Belgian-controlled colonies began to transform their society through interactions with others, including Western missionaries who encouraged the development of a Weberian Protestant work ethic. As the Nande became more educated and more successful, they began to challenge colonial rule and to take ownership of their Christianity, kicking out the missionaries. As Raeymaekers puts it, “the expanding activities of these pioneer traders would gradually cut right through the cords of this imposed colonial straightjacket.”

Nande traders today must deal with a great deal of uncertainty about their own positions and work. They are constantly negotiating — over bribes paid to border officials, with traders on the Uganda side of the border who know they can demand unfair prices for goods, with state actors and militants who demand payments to let the traders continue their work. Raeymaekers argues that these negotiated processes have produced identities that are new, not purely indigenous or imported, not of peace or of war, not of state, but of a constantly transforming and innovative society in which individuals find ways to accomplish goals against all odds.

The processes of negotiation Raeymaekers and others observe in the Nande region of North Kivu change power relationships as well. Businessmen and traders, acting as private citizens who must provide services for themselves that the state cannot, end up providing those services as public goods for everyone.

Thus, for example, leading business actors in Butembo decided to pay off armed actors, both from the state and rebel groups, to stay away from Butembo. This meant that Butembo largely escaped the violent devastation of the wars, allowing trade to continue and the city to maintain and build up its infrastructure far more efficiently than occurred in other, conflict-affected eastern Congolese cities. Raeymaekers notes that this decision was transformative:

In their tendency to solve an apparently private problem — to generate profit and protect themselves and their property from harm — these businessmen nonetheless generated a fundamental public outcome of changing rules and conventions to determine rights and duties in the domain of cross-border taxation, military security, and the redistribution of economic wealth.

This is not your Westphalian nation-state. And yet it works. As Raeymaekers argues, new forms of order like that of the Nande “continue to represent a fundamental challenge to dominant conceptions of state sovereignty in the postcolonial world.” His book is a challenging and essential read for anyone interested in state formation and alternative or emerging forms of governance.

Nande ethnic solidarity and cooperation does matter, but so does their specific location and historical trajectory. Far from suggesting that it is possible to replicate what the Nande have done with the aim of state reconstruction in mind, Raeymaekers instead suggests that what we are observing is the evolution of spatial and historical relationships creating something unique.

Well-meaning international policymakers would do well to heed his analysis.

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