This article explores how decentralisation policy and specifically the establishment of communes rurales in DR Congo turned into a profoundly destabilising juncture, shaking existing governance arrangements. In particular, we examine how this has led to a reshuffle of power and a renegotiation of public authoritiy. By analysing the impact of decentralisation on the construction of and competition over public authority in three Congolese towns – Rubaya, Minembwe and Fungurume – we demonstrate how decentralisation is deeply politicised, with conflicting governance actors mobilising their power in an attempt to secure their claim to public authority. We argue that the establishment of communes rurales in eastern and southeastern DRC should be therefore understood as a strongly destabilising moment, changing the access of governance actors to resources and repertoires from which they build and legitimise their public authority. Depending on the specific context of the local political arena and its entanglements with larger struggles for power and control, this destabilising moment bears the potential for (violent) conflict. As such, we conclude that decentralisation has failed to live up to its promises of stability and peace while generating new sets of political fault lines and a re-activation of (violent) conflict.
- There is a strong need to critically assess the destabilising and conflict inducive effects decentralisation reforms. Given the high stakes, the creation of new administrative units and the changes in public authority, access and rights it entails is a highly sensitive issue with an extremely high potential for conflict.
- International and local policymakers pushing for decentralisation as a means to achieve increasing local political and economic autonomy need to be aware of its opposite effects linking local-level realities to national elite politics through heavy political lobbying.
- In an effort to render the decentralisation process less top-down, a thorough consultation and negotiation with the communities and involving them in the decision making process is a priority to avoid further conflict.
- Donors’ support for decentralisation in a context of highly militarised politics should invest in mappings of the local political geographies of power and public authority, and how these are connected to translocal provincial and political clientelist networks. Decentralisation policy must fully take this mapping into account and address the issues as far as possible taking the context and risks into account.