Why Violence in the South Kivu Highlands Is Not ‘Ethnic’ (And Other Misconceptions About the Crisis)
Judith Verweijen is a lecturer at the Department of Politics & International Relations at the University of Sheffield (UK). Her research looks at the interplay of armed mobilization, violence and conflicts around natural resources. Her main focus is on eastern DRC, where she has conducted extensive field research since 2010.
On August 10, 2020, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (UNJHRO) published a report on the unfolding crisis on the highlands (Hauts Plateaux) at the intersection of Fizi, Uvira, and Mwenga territories in South Kivu. Curiously, the report focuses on a limited area of the highlands only: it omits the Bijombo area, where fighting first escalated mid-2018, after three years of conflict.
Despite this omission, the report gives an indication of the enormous toll that the crisis has taken: it documents the destruction of at least 95 villages, 128 deaths from summary and extrajudicial executions, 47 victims of sexual-related violence, and the looting and killing of thousands of cattle. This violence has led to a dire humanitarian situation, with over 110,000 people displaced.
The UNJHRO report does not provide much analysis of the drivers of this violence. It acknowledges that the conflict and its origins stem from multiple factors at the national and sub-regional level, but is limited to the inter-community aspect. This is unfortunate, as it advertently gives off the impression that this is the most important factor.
Similar to other conflicts in eastern DRC, the crisis on the Plateaux is characterized by profound complexity. It involves a range of different drivers of conflict and violence that play out at different levels–from the local to the sub-regional. Narratives emphasizing simple explanations provide only one piece of this complex puzzle. Here are three such narratives and why on their own they are incomplete, if not inaccurate.
1. The violence on the Hauts Plateaux stems from “ethnic” or “inter-communal” conflict
Ethnic identity has featured prominently in explanations for the recent violence. From this perspective, it stems from animosities between the Banyamulenge on the one hand, and groups that label themselves “autochthonous”–including the Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliiru, and Bavira on the other.
This narrative needs to be nuanced. There are certainly numerous conflicts on the Plateaux that pit Banyamulenge against other groups. These conflicts relate to contestations around local authority and control over land and resources, including the taxation and regulation of markets, mines, and cattle movements.
However, these conflicts do not always turn into armed violence. Violence is committed first and foremost by armed groups and “local defense” militias. True, these armed actors claim to defend particular ethnic communities and are often supported by members of these communities seeking protection. Yet most ordinary citizens are not involved in planning, organizing, directing, inciting, or committing violence. We therefore cannot ascribe such violence to “ethnic groups” writ large. More importantly, we must pinpoint and analyze when, why, and how conflicts turn violent. As an extensive body of research shows, violence labelled as “ethnic” is often driven by a range of other motives and objectives, including inter-personal conflict, economic and political competition and disputes about land and other property.
Another problem with the “ethnic conflict” narrative is that it assumes there are two homogeneous blocks: the Banyamulenge and groups calling themselves “autochthonous.” Yet these groups themselves have numerous internal divisions, which are reflected in the plethora of armed groups linked to either side.
There are at least three Banyamulenge armed groups: the Twirwaneho–a coalition of local militias, which are also developing a political branch; the Gumino, led by Shaka Nyamusharaba; and an armed group commanded by FARDC deserter Michel Rukunda, aka “Makanika,” which has numerous Banyamulenge youth from the regional diaspora (Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi) in its ranks. The armed groups linked to the Babembe, Bafuliiru, and Banyindu are even more numerous. They include the Mai-Mai of Ebuela Mtetezi–which encompasses Bembe commanders who previously had their own groups, such as Aoci and Ngyalabato; the Mai Mai Mulumba; the Mai Mai “Mupekenya” under the command of Kati Malisawa, and a range of mostly Fuliiru and Nyindu groups operating under the label “Biloze Bishambuke.” The latter include the groups of Ilunga, Kashomba, Mushombe, and in the Minembwe area, those led by Luhala Kasororo and Assani Malkiya.
These armed groups operate in broad coalitions, but there are regularly tensions and occasionally even clashes between groups that are supposedly on the same side. For instance, on August 2, the Biloze Bishambuke under the command of Ilunga clashed with the troops of Kati Malisawa near Maheta village, allegedly due to a dispute over stolen cattle. This indicates that certain armed group leaders, and the political actors that help mobilize and support them, also have different agendas than protecting their communities. They often aspire to enhancing their own political and economic clout and some have national political aspirations. This further undermines the argument that the violence is primarily driven by “ethnic conflict.”
2. The violence on the Hauts Plateaux is related to the creation of the commune rurale of Minembwe
Another popular explanation for the violence, which is closely linked to the ethnic conflict narrative, is that it stems from the creation of the “rural commune” of Minembwe– a non-customary decentralized local governance entity. The commune became operational at the start of 2019, following decrees issued in 2013 and 2018, and the nomination of its leaders in February 2019.
The commune is undoubtedly a source of conflict. It is located in Fizi territory, on lands that members of the Babembe community consider to be theirs. They therefore see the creation of the commune as encroachment on or the occupation of their ancestral grounds. Some have also contested the designation of the mayor, who is Munyamulenge. But most importantly, the creation of the commune is seen as the first step for the resurrection of the territoire (sub-provincial administrative entity) of Minembwe.
During the Second Congo War, the rebel administration of the Rwanda-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (Congolese rally for Democracy or RCD) created Minembwe territory, which encompassed large parts of the Hauts Plateaux and the adjacent Moyens Plateaux. The territory fulfilled a longstanding wish among the Banyamulenge, whom the colonial authorities had denied a chiefdom or groupement–local governance entities generally formed along ethnic lines. Consequently, they became subject to rule by customary chiefs from other communities. The territory, where they dominated the administration, resolved this. Moreover, anticipating future elections, the territory, which is an electoral district, would have allowed the Banyamulenge to increase their political representation in parliament. Being a minority in each of the three territories that comprise the Hauts Plateaux, they had struggled to get their candidates elected. Finally, the territory brought local administration closer to the people in this isolated region, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and other official documents there.
The creation of the territory–which was formally abolished in 2007– was heavily contested by other groups, who perceived it to break up their ancestral lands. In addition, it appeared to confirm a conspiracy theory that the Banyamulenge were the vanguard of a foreign invasion attempting to expropriate and displace “autochthonous” groups, and usurp their local authority. Members of these groups therefore have bad memories of Minembwe territory. In addition, it has left a legacy of leadership conflicts. Numerous former appointees have continued to behave as de facto local authorities, even if they no longer hold an official position.
For these reasons, Minembwe territory has a highly symbolic function, as a marker of division and violence. The commune rurale evokes similar strong feelings, being deeply inscribed in struggles around local authority and identity. It has also become a national political affair. While prominent Banyamulenge leaders––including Azarias Ruberwa, currently the minister of decentralization–– endorse the commune, many Bembe, Fuliiru and Nyindu politicians, such as Pardonne Kaliba, have denounced it. The commune has also stirred heated debate among Congolese in the diaspora.
Yet the violence on the Hauts Plateaux, as well as the emergence of most of the armed groups involved in the current fighting, predates the creation of the commune. Violence on the Plateaux has been a regular occurrence since 1996. The current cycle started in 2016 and escalated mid-2018. This escalation first occurred in Bijombo groupement. This groupement is not included in the commune rurale, whose surface is many times smaller than the (abolished) territory of Minembwe. Bijombo also has distinct conflict dynamics. The latter revolve to a large extent around the position of the chef de groupement–for which there are multiple contenders linked to different ethnic groups. Another site of significant violence is the Itombwe area, which is equally not included in the commune.
In sum, even though it is an important source of conflict and figures prominently in the belligerents’ discourses, the commune is only one of many factors in the current fighting. It does not explain why and when armed groups emerged on the Plateaux and who they target with their violence.
3. The violence on the Hauts Plateaux is the result of foreign interference
As documented by, inter alia, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC and Radio France Internationale, the coalitions of belligerents fighting on the Plateaux include foreign armed groups, notably the Burundian groups Résistance pour un état de droit au Burundi (RED-Tabara) and Forces nationales de libération (FNL), as well as the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). They have occasionally also included soldiers linked to the governments of neighbouring countries, which have moreover hosted recruitment and supply networks. At the same time, eastern DRC has a history of wars kickstarted by foreign interference. The conclusion that the trouble on the Plateaux results from foreign meddling is therefore easily drawn.
Yet this explanation glosses over the many conflicts around local authority mentioned above. It also overlooks the role of provincial, national and diaspora political actors in supporting armed mobilization and polarization. Moreover, the language of “foreign interference” is somewhat misleading. It suggests that all power resides on the side of foreign forces, who manipulate Congolese intermediaries as they see fit.
This reading obscures that Congolese armed group leaders and political actors have significant room for maneuver regarding what foreign forces they ally with. Occasional shifts in such alliances testify to this leeway. These shifts also demonstrate that such alliances are mutually beneficial. Through their foreign allies, Congolese groups gain in military capabilities, for instance, by acquiring heavy weaponry. This, in turn, allows these groups to better advance their position within conflicts around local authority and access to resources. As such, the involvement of foreign actors cannot be seen in isolation from local dynamics of conflict and violence; they are interwoven and mutually reinforcing. That said, foreign interference has clearly contributed to a significant escalation of the violence, even if it has not caused it.
What, then, is at the root of this terrible violence? There are a number of interlocking mechanisms at work. First, the narrative of “ethnic violence” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: all types of conflicts and incidents of violence are seen primarily through an ethnic lens, even if there are also other factors at work. This activates a second mechanism, which is the attribution of collective responsibility for individual acts of violence. As a result, civilians are attacked in retaliation for violence committed by armed groups. This blurring of the boundaries between armed groups and civilians is an important driver of cycles of revenge violence. Widespread impunity has further aggravated this: as individual perpetrators are not held to account, the blame is shifted towards groups as a whole.
Another key mechanism is militarization, or the tendency by local leaders and politico-military elites to resort to force in order to gain the day in disputes and power struggles. This does not only involve politicians, business people and military leaders in the DRC, but also governmental actors and other elites at the level of the Great Lakes Region.
The emergence and persistence of armed groups, however, is not only the result of militarization: it also stems from local security dilemmas related to mutual distrust between communities. The presence of armed groups seen to defend particular ethnic communities prompts members from other communities to equally sustain armed groups. The same logic propels these armed groups to maintain a military balance of power, which motivates attacks to weaken the enemy. Local security dilemmas crucially hinge upon a generalized lack of trust in the state security forces, which are accused of partiality by all sides. It is also rooted in a history of violence dating back to the Congo Wars, which has instilled bitter feelings and deep distrust between different groups.
These various mechanisms play out at different levels and become mutually reinforcing. For instance, the involvement of foreign armed actors is in part the result of the strategies of politicians and military leaders operating at the national level. Once present, these foreign forces exacerbate local security dilemmas and conflicts around local authority and resources. In this manner, dynamics of conflict and violence at different levels become entwined. Monocausal explanations, such as the lazy trope of “ethnic violence” do no justice to this complexity. In fact, they may exacerbate the situation. They further essentialize identities and legitimize attributing responsibility for armed group violence to civilian communities. When describing violence in eastern DRC we must therefore try harder to find an adequate analytical language.