DRC: Transforming the Congolese Armed Forces

The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen the deadliest conflict since World War II. Following the overthrow of former President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, the country was plunged into several civil and regional wars, involving dozens of non-state armed groups battling with remnants of the Congolese army. The result was a death toll reaching 6 million, the destruction of rule of law, and a complete breakdown in the role of the Congolese Armed Forces in their obligation to protect Congolese civilians. The conflict led to the DRC being labelled the “rape capital of the world”59 due to the frequency and intensity of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) inflicted by soldiers, non-state armed actors, bandits, criminals and even community members against women and men.

International civil society organisations responded to these extreme abuses largely through condemnation or seeking to use the UN or other international channels to pressure the government to discipline its soldiers. However, this had little effect on the abusive behaviour of the soldiers, and resulted rather in polarizing relationships between the civil society organisations and the Congolese Armed Forces, who felt attacked and not supported by these groups.

In 2006, faced with this situation, Search for Common Ground took another approach, building buy-in from the Congolese Armed Forces themselves for a programme that would use the military’s own in-house capacity to sensitise their own units and build bridges of cooperation with the communities they were meant to protect.

“We began another type of conversation with them. One about enabling them to become protectors, not perpetrators,” explained Lena Slachmuijlder, SFCG’s Country Director atthe time. “We listened, and heard that deep down, they also wanted to change. They knew that if the communities didn’t trust them, but feared them, that their own security was in danger. And they weren’t proud of their record of abuses. We created educational tools to resonate with the soldiers’ sense of self-esteem.” [1]

SFCG also recognized that part of the obstacle was deep trauma and resulting prejudice and stereotypes by the communities, particularly in eastern DRC. These attitudes prevented the type of information sharing and collaboration that the soldiers depended upon to be able to effectively combat the armed groups and protect the communities under attack. The programme was thus designed to seek to change the perceptions by these communities, and have them participate in the overall reform process of the security sector in the DRC.

The first iteration of the program, entitled “Tomorrow is a New Day: Transforming Security Forces from Perpetrators to Protectors” began in 2006 with a pilot in the South Kivu province. Since 2006, SFCG has expanded the programmenationwide, reaching more than 40,000 Congolese soldiers of all ranks across the country in a programmethat is “about them” and “not against them.”

The project aimed to shift perceptions and attitudes around civil-military relations. It aimed to raise general awareness about the Congolese Armed Forces’ responsibility to respect human and protect civilians and build bridges of trust and collaboration among soldiers and civilians, particularly in the war-affected communities.

A key factor of success was the internal support the project was able to secure. The ‘Armed Forces Pastors’ (“Aumoniers”, in French), which occupied hierarchical ranks within the Congolese Armed Forces, and the Programme of Civic and Patriotic Education, a unit which had been legally mandated by the Congolese Armed Forces Headquarters to train soldiers and that was headed by an experienced and respected General, were in favour of the project. The collaboration with the Education Unit permitted the pilot project to scale to a national level and maintain official buy-in at all stages of the project over the last 10 years.

Some of the program’s key elements were:

Interactive Training Materials for Soldiers

SFCG designed innovative training materials, which the soldiers themselves were able to understand and then deliver to their peers. This included translating human rights, civilian protection, SGBV and conflict transformation training into accessible ‘image boxes’ with simple training manuals, supported by pre-recorded audio sketches in local languages and comic books. The soldiers were trained in how to shift from one-directional communication to participatory methods in their trainings. The soldiers were even trained in how to build improvised participatory theatre sketches to translate the human rights and protection principles into accessible real-life examples in front of their units. SFCG worked with a documentary filmmaking team to produce a curriculum-driven educational film with a focus on sexual violence and masculinity, with a discussion guide, for outreach to the units. SFCG trained soldiers to be able to use this film and facilitate discussions, which included discussions about their role as soldiers, their own trauma, their own sense of strength and masculinity. [2] 

Community Outreach

After the project had gained traction by training thousands of soldiers within the various brigades and battalions, the Armed Forces committees then were coached as to how to design solidarity activities to build bridges of trust with the communities they were meant to protect. The criteria for these events relied on the soldiers and the local civil society organisations’ joint assessment of the most damaged relationships. This meant that, for example, the Congolese Navy initiated actions with the local fishermen; the Military Police initiated collaboration with University Students, and Units in Bukavu worked closely with local women’s organisations. These activities included soccer matches, clean-up activities, town hall meetings, marathons, and longer-term collaborations including joint farming projects.

Changing Social Norms

SFCG also used its expertise in communication for conflict transformation to reach a mass audience through radio and television programmes and comic books. A radio drama series in Lingala and Swahili was broadcast nationwide, featuring a dynamic cast of military and civilian characters whose daily lives reflected the drama, crises and collaborative solutions that were gradually coming to be a reality through the project. The programmes clarified key issues around the Security Sector Reform process, including how civilians and the army could best collaborate to ensure civilian protection. Other magazine format radio programmes reported on efforts to combat impunity by the mobile courts (“audiences foraines”), which were moving around communities to sentence military perpetrators of serious crimes. Hundreds of thousands of comic books were distributed around the country, portraying the negative and positive roles of soldiers and civilians, reinforcing and popularizing the social acceptability of the changes that were underway. Billboards were put up in specific communities, as well as murals painted on the regional military headquarters with powerful imagery demonstrating the protective role of the Congolese Armed Forces working hand in hand with civilians.

These various forms of media also reinforced each other. The main character in the comic book and radio drama was a certain ‘Captain Janvier’; his name became so popular amongst military and civilians as the ‘bad guy’ that it became a frequent reference in every day conversations and discussions within the military units and amongst the general public. SFCG also launched complementary media initiatives, including one called ‘the Real Man’ (“Vrai Djo”), which highlighted examples of men, including soldiers, doing the ‘right thing’ faced with a temptation to abuse or harass a woman. This was also used in outreach and discussions with soldiers and the communities.

Measuring Impact

Within the highly fragile context of DRC, traditional monitoring was often challenging. A major measure of change however was the shift in perception of protection by the civilians before and after the project worked with soldiers deployed in their community. For example, in one evaluation, 54% of the populations of the areas of intervention reported relationships with the military as being good to very good, compared to only 32% in control areas. There were also powerful qualitative measures of change, such as the ability of a military unit that had participated in the programme to undertake an important, high-risk military operation in Katanga, without committing any human rights abuses. And the relationship building between communities and the soldiers led to numerous examples of collaborative problem solving and a de-stigmatization of the relationships.

Overall this programme has inspired multiple projects within Search for Common Ground in Tanzania, Nigeria and Nepal. These experiences continue to reinforce the value of the Common Ground approach to the security sector, grounded in strengthening relationships of collaboration and enabling people to drive forward their own transformation.

Excerpt from the book Local Ownership in Security: Case Studies of Peacebuilding Approaches edited by Lisa Schirch with Deborah Mancini-Griffoli and published by The Alliance for Peacebuilding, The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


[1] See https://www.sfcg.org/a-soldiers-story-ending-military-abuses/. (Accessed on 28 August 2014)
[2] See A Soldiers Story: Ending Military Abuses. Found at: https://www.sfcg.org/a-soldiers-story-ending-military-abuses/ (Accessed 28 August 2014).