In 2003, following back-to-back wars, a refugee crisis, and more than five million dead, a peace settlement promised to end conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eighteen years later, fighting continues. For Congolese citizens battered by a quarter-century of brutal human rights abuses, that means one thing: continued despair and death.

What’s gone wrong in the Congo? Many things, but among them, according to Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay, is ineffective United States policy.

“There’s a long history of bad U.S. policy in Africa that has enabled dictators and people who are up to no good,” said Seay, an Africanist who has spent years researching conditions on the ground in Central Africa.

Seay believes that trend can be reversed, and she’s dedicated her career to being part of the solution. Her approach involves what she calls policy-relevant research that relies heavily on data-driven analysis. In the right hands, her findings influence U.S. foreign policy in Africa’s Great Lake region, including the DRC.   

Among the policy tools available to U.S. and international players are reform programs aimed at protecting civilians and enhancing institutions. These so-called security sector reform programs (SSR) take many forms, said Seay, who is currently focused on one in particular: an EU- and U.S.-backed program to train the national army, an often unprofessional, underpaid, unruly lot. After these trainings took place, however, a troubling trend emerged: a significant uptick in human rights abuses against civilians.

A coincidence?

To find out, a cadre of Seay’s student researchers are coding 18 years of human rights abuses in the DRC as reported in the independent press outlet Radio Okapi. When the dataset is complete, they’ll test to determine whether a relationship exists between troops that participated in the SSR trainings and the increase in human rights abuses.

In other words, is the Congolese army complicit in the violence?

Seay can’t say definitively yet. However, she suspects that in a weak institutional context—with limited rule of law and thus limited consequences for illegal behavior—SSR efforts “may cause more harm than good.” 

“If I have their ear, and we can prove what I think we can prove—or even if we don’t, that’s useful information too—that can have the potential to directly inform United States policy, policies in Europe, and the direction that future programs take. I think the more informed policymakers are, the higher likelihood we have of getting effective policies.” —Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay

The DRC’s weak institutions, coupled with its out-of-control army, have resulted over time in a breakdown in the chain of command, Seay said. “The president can give an order, and the generals can pass that order on—or maybe not.” That attitude trickles down until generals and lower-level officers essentially run their own armies. “They do what they want to do. And a lot of that involved the same thing that the rebels do: looting resources, terrorizing civilians, raping women—really terrible things.”

To rectify the situation, some brigades were trained. Soldiers were taught basic boot-camp skills as well as training in human rights awareness. Why, then, the increase in atrocities across the country? Seay can’t help but wonder: Did better-soldiering skills allow brigades to become more effective at abusing civilians?

The answer, she believes, lies in analysis of the news reports.

Seay’s student researchers, mostly Colby Presidential Scholars, have been methodically combing Radio Okapi’s reports—transcribed into French and posted on its website—to collect data. Year by year, story by story they’re cataloging each report of violence from 2003 to 2020.

“Each story left this lingering impression on me and deserved this reverence of individual time and care” —Isabella Marin ’23

Their spreadsheet fills up. What abuse or crime was committed? Where? By whom? How many casualties were there? Who reported it? To date, they’ve cataloged more than 1,100 stories. It’s slow going—and it isn’t easy.

I didn’t have much experience handling such heavy content in such large quantities,” said Isabella Marin ’23, who worked with Seay as a first-year. It was, honestly, nearly impossible for me to catalog those stories, read them, and then move on with my day. Everything you’re reading is just so horrific and shocking.”

With Seay’s encouragement, Marin approached the work in small chunks and took frequent breaks to help manage the emotional weight she felt. She needed time to absorb what she was reading. Each story left this lingering impression on me and deserved this reverence of individual time and care.”

Seay does all she can to encourage students to remain emotionally healthy, even pointing them to Counseling Services. It slows down the research, she said, but the tradeoff in emotional health is worth it.

Eventually, Marin developed what she said was a level-headed mindset to help her focus on the importance of the work. Now, the global studies and English double major is one of many Colby students clamoring to conduct human rights research with Seay, a seasoned mentor.

Seay never loses sight of the civilians and communities finding ways to survive in lawless and often horrific situations in Central Africa. She knows that the implications of her work and of U.S. policies on people’s lives are real. So she pushes her research forward. Seay hopes to finish data collection in the summer of 2022, after which she’ll write an article or two for publication.

The goal is to get those articles into the hands of governmental and non-governmental policymakers—people at the U.S. Department of State, for example, who Seay has already talked to about her research.

“If I have their ear, and we can prove what I think we can prove—or even if we don’t, that’s useful information too—that can have the potential to directly inform United States policy, policies in Europe, and the direction that future programs take. I think the more informed policymakers are, the higher likelihood we have of getting effective policies.”  

Seay finds the exhausting and emotional work worth the challenge. “This is difficult stuff,” she said, “but we keep pressing ahead as much as we can.”

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Seay is an editor for the Washington Post’s blog The Monkey Cage.