Why Violence in the South Kivu Highlands Is Not ‘Ethnic’ (And Other Misconceptions About the Crisis)

Students from a school near Minembwe, June 2007. (Photo Julien Harneis)

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. 

Why were the Virunga National Park Rangers Killed?

Two Virunga National Park Rangers gaze upon the lava of Nyiragongo crater. MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh

In the heart of the forest, Mikeno Lodge, and its spacious bungalows, is the most luxurious accommodation in the Virunga National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fireside drinks of Champagne are served in the evening. During the day, visitors can meet orphan chimpanzees, brought up by the park rangers, and visit mountain gorillas in their natural environment. Virunga Park is one of the few in the world to host this critically endangered emblematic species.

On the morning of April 24, however, the lodge was empty due to the new coronavirus pandemic and tourism had been at a standstill for several weeks. But another scourge was about to strike.

Towards 11 o’clock, combat weapon shots suddenly tore through the forest calm. A few hundred meters from the bungalows, three vehicles, including two belonging to the rangers, had fallen into an ambush in Mahura. Half an hour of crossfire later, the death toll was horrific: 12 rangers, their driver and four civilians were dead. The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) had never suffered such a heavy attack in Virunga Park.

Its rangers, however, were used to such danger. From Mount Rwenzori, which is often used to shelter the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist rebellion), to the Nyiragongo Volcano, overlooking the city of Goma, the 7,800 km2 Virunga National Park is regularly used by armed groups as their battlefield, smuggling route, or source of raw materials for looting.

This dangerous environment justified an arms race in the 2010s which led to the creation of the ICCN Quick Reaction Force (QRF), a paramilitary unit, sometimes deployed offensively, comprising 270 elite rangers (in French).  In this way, and as noble as their nature conservation mission may be, the rangers have in effect become actors caught up in the conflicts in the Kivus. The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has recorded 28 clashes involving ICCN rangers since it started logging such incidents in 2017. This figure most likely only represents part of the true total.

The rangers often cooperate with the Congolese army in attacks which can cause collateral civilian damage, such as against the Mai-Mai Mazembe on May 23, 2019. “The park believes, rightly, that rangers are not legitimate targets under international humanitarian law, but the specific status of the QRF and the nature of their operations places them in a gray zone,” says Christoph Vogel, a researcher at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and former member of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC.

Furthermore, a long and complex conflict on the limits of the park’s boundaries has pitted them against some local communities. The park covers a quarter of the territories of Beni, Lubero, Masisi, Nyiragongo, and Rutshuru and deprives some farmers of access to land on which they are used to farming. This conflict is particularly acute in the region of Nyamilima, although the ICCN has recently authorized harvesting on a temporary basis from April 27 to July 26 to allow them to better cope with food scarcity caused by the pandemic (in French).

ICCN rangers therefore do not lack for enemies, especially its most feared unit, the QRF, which was decimated in the attack. On the same day, park authorities were able to publish several highly detailed statements on the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The first states that in fact it was a civilian vehicle which was targeted by the ambush. According to our information, this was a white Toyota Prado TX which was attacked with RPG rocket launchers and PKM machine guns. According to the statement, the assailants were reported to be none other than Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca).  More specifically, the assailants appeared to be approximately sixty combatants from the Maccabé group, formerly known as the Commando de recherche et d’action en profondeur (CRAP), an FDLR commando unit.

ICCN rangers, who happened to be passing by on the drive back to their headquarters in Rumangabo, were reported to be only the collateral damage of the ambush and only targeted because they tried to assist some civilians. The second version slightly amended the first statement, which only stated that a civilian vehicle in close proximity had been attacked before the arrival of the rangers.

So why would the FDLR possibly have carried out an attack on a civilian vehicle with combat weapons? Several diplomatic, university, and ICCN sources outlined the scenario to KST. According to them, the FDLR is reported to have received information that FARDC Colonel Claude Rusimbi, deputy commander of intelligence operations of the 3409th Regiment, was going to use that road, between Goma and Rutshuru, on the same morning. It may well be that the FDLR mistook the rangers for his escort.

The FDLR had cause to hold a personal grudge against Rusimbi. On April 13, one of their main strongholds in Kazahoro, a few kilometers from the attack, had been attacked in a major offensive by the Congolese army (in French). According to several military and diplomatic sources, Rwandan army (RDF) Special Forces had secretly participated in this attack. However, according to several military and university sources, Colonel Rusimbi is just one of the Congolese officers in charge of coordination with their Rwandan counterparts. The colonel was also aware that he was the target of the FDLR, according to a member of his entourage.

Whether it was targeted retaliation against Rusimbi or not, the responsibility of the FDLR seems highly probable. It fits with both the weapons used and the modus operandi of the armed group, as well as the area known for attacks by this group.

The attack against the Virunga Park Rangers (red star) is located in an area where the FDLR-Foca regularly carry out attacks (other colors: incidents in which they were implicated, since June 2017)

In addition to the ICCN, who holds the FDLR responsible for the ambush, President Paul Kagame also accused the armed group during a press conference on April 27 (37th minute).

The FDLR also had its own motivations for attacking the ICCN. These rebels regularly suspect the park rangers of collaborating with the Rwandan army to hunt them down. In addition, according to several reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, one of their main sources of funding is the sale and taxation of “makala,” or charcoal, produced by illegally burning trees from within the park. This effectively places them in conflict with the ICCN, including the QRF.

The FDLR have, however, put forward their own theory: according to them, the Rwandan army is responsible for the attack (in French). But this scenario appears convoluted: the ICCN is alleged to have knowingly lied, by wrongly accusing the FDLR so as to demonize them and justify, after the fact, the presence of the RDF on Congolese soil. Such a plot, involving several different actors, appears difficult to put together.

“The FDLR statement is totally disconnected from the reality of the facts,” claims an expert on this group. “It was only released to respond to the Rwandan authorities in the war they are waging in the media.”

“Members of the FDLR admit in private that they are behind this attack,” indicates Christoph Vogel. “According to them, this was a ‘mistake’ and they claim that their target was Rusimbi.”

How the Coronavirus Risks Further Weakening the Kivus

A MONUSCO Blue Helmet in Kibati (North-Kivu) in September 2012 (Monusco/Sylvain Liechti)

For the last 20 months, eastern Congo has been fighting the longest and most complex Ebola epidemic in DRC’s history. It has also been the most lethal, killing 2,276 people.

On top of this, a new communicable disease appeared in the Kivus in March: the coronavirus, or COVID-19. On March 29, the first two cases were confirmed in Bukavu. Since then, others were recorded in Goma and Beni.

This analysis is an attempt to anticipate the effects that this epidemic might have on peace and security in the Kivus, even if, due to its unprecedented nature, such an exercise is difficult. COVID-19 is the first coronavirus pandemic in history. It is currently still in its early stages around the world, and even more so on the African continent. Above all, it too has not hit a conflict zone before.

Although the Ebola epidemic can provide useful insights, the two situations are not the same. The Ebola epidemic only affected a limited area of the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri. While its death rate was very high (over half of those infected died), the disease was only transmittable after the dramatic and easily identifiable symptoms appeared and was therefore traceable. A vaccine was used to help control its contagion. The DRC also received support from the international community to cope with this epidemic totaling over 800 Million USD (in French). Health workers became targets (in French) and the capture of resources allocated by the international community became an objective, which seems to have escalated the conflicts.

Conversely, COVID-19 has shown no signs of stopping its geographical progression and nothing indicates that it will remain limited to certain areas in the east of DRC. Control strategies by means of tracking and confinement are extremely difficult with this virus, which can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers. Only a handful of countries around the world (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan or Vietnam) have until now been able to implement them with any success. All were countries with strong states, and it is unclear whether the DRC has such capacity, particularly in the east. This is also a pandemic which is affecting every continent. Although China and the European Union (EU) have committed to assist the continent (the EU announced that it has pledged 15 billion euros in aid), this assistance, targeted in part to the whole of Africa, will necessarily be more diluted than that of the response to the Ebola epidemic.

In such conditions, any prospective analysis is necessarily speculative, and any trends identified can only be provisional at best.

Observable Consequences

The arrival of the virus in the region has, nevertheless, had observable consequences in the Kivus. All the surrounding states have closed their borders to travelers: this was the case for Burundi since March 15, followed by Rwanda since the 21st and Uganda since the 23rd. These decisions have cut transport routes regularly used by Kivutians, such as the Bukavu-Goma road via Kibuye in Rwanda, or the Bukavu-Uvira road via Rwanda and Burundi. Some of the traffic has therefore been diverted to roads in poorer condition or that are more dangerous, exposing travelers to more risks. A rise in insecurity was seen at the start of April in the Ruzizi Plain (in French), without direct proof that this is due to the closing of borders. Also, provincial authorities have decided to close access roads to the main urban centers of the region, namely Bukavu, Goma, Butembo, and Beni.

Such restrictions do not apply in principle to the transport of goods. However, reports obtained by KST indicate that these decisions have been interpreted overly strictly and have in effect slowed down trade. Most of the region’s trade, and specifically that of small traders who physically move with their goods, have been affected. Additionally, these borders – particularly between Goma and Gisenyi in Rwanda – see thousands of workers cross them daily under normal circumstances.

The crisis has therefore led to a loss of such economic activity as well as to a rise in the price of basic necessities, which has eroded the purchasing power of inhabitants. On March 26, shortly after the closing of the borders, inflation had already reached between 5 and 88% for basic necessities according to KST data in Goma.

However, the economic situation could deteriorate further if local authorities adopt strict confinement measures, such as those put in place in the municipality of Gombe in Kinshasa since April 6 (in French). These could have devastating consequences on employment and income in urban areas where wage labor is the exception, remote working rarely feasible and where the informal sector represents most of the work available (the urban informal sector represented 81.5% of jobs in 2012 in the DRC). If implemented, such measures could lead to tension by negatively impacting the basic interests of most of the population.

Furthermore, the international economic slowdown is also affecting the Kivus. Similarly to previous economic crises, transfers of remittances by the diaspora, overrepresented in the most vulnerable classes of industrial societies, could dry up. The price of raw materials on international markets has also fallen considerably. The impact is already visible including on tin prices whose ore, cassiterite, is mined in Walikale and Shabunda territories.

One-year gold price history in USD in tons (source: lme.com)

However, the value of other ores produced in the Kivus such as gold, considered a refuge currency, remained at a historically high level.

One-year gold price history in USD in ounces (source: lme.com)

The security implications of the global economic slowdown remain difficult to predict, however. The economic slump, particularly when it affects the young, could facilitate their recruitment by armed groups. The previous global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, however, did not have a direct impact on the scale of the conflicts. 2009 was even a year of relative calm, with the signing of the 23 March Agreements which put an end to the most powerful of uprisings of the time, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). These peace agreements, however, were the result of regional reconfigurations rather than the international financial crisis.

Preventative measures

Above all, the effects of the coronavirus epidemic are not confined to the economy but impact all human activity in different ways. The UN Mission to the DRC (MONUSCO) is, for example, unusually affected by this crisis. While there has not been any known case among its ranks to date (according to a spokesperson asked by KST), it has taken preventative measures to avoid becoming a vector of this epidemic.

It has urged its staff who are at risk to return to their home country. Its civilian staff who have remained in the DRC have to work remotely from home. The rotations of uniformed personnel have been suspended for an initial period of three months, which in the medium term could have a negative effect on troop morale. MONUSCO’s network of regular air links (the densest in the country) has been suspended, which poses logistical problems for many organizations who depend on it, including the FARDC.

Despite such precautions, hostile reactions from local communities towards UN staff could increase, as the coronavirus is, for the moment, largely seen as a problem that came from abroad. This kind of phenomenon has been seen by KST many times during the Ebola epidemic (in French). Moreover, hostile reactions to foreigners have also been seen in Kinshasa since the start of the coronavirus epidemic (in French).

Over the course of the coming months, MONUSCO donor states, who provide troops and finance, could focus their resources on their own countries, relegating the crisis in the Kivus to the back of their minds. Mediation and demobilization initiatives for armed groups, which require travel, meetings and other gatherings, risk becoming more difficult due to the measures aimed at fighting the health crisis. Some bases where combatants were gathered have been closed (such as in Mubambiro near Sake), with probable negative consequences for security.

It follows that MONUSCO’s effectiveness will likely suffer for several months. Its ability to maintain pressure on armed groups, already found lacking by many Congolese, will be further weakened.

Regional impact

Countries in the region, which are often more closely integrated with the international economy, are also likely to be severely affected by the crisis. In recent years, Rwanda in particular has heavily invested in the air transport, tourism, and conference industries (in French). The exceptionally severe impact of the coronavirus crisis on these sectors could result in a shock leading to a review of the country’s priorities.

Also, if the crisis there were to lead to political instability in neighboring countries, including among the elite, turning their focus abroad – and particularly to the DRC – could be a survival strategy for those in authority. Furthermore, this shock comes at a time when levels of distrust between Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are exceptionally high, despite the efforts of the DRC to bring them together.

The war by proxy being waged by these countries on Congolese soil, particularly in the highlands of the South-Kivu, could therefore continue or even escalate. Controlling smuggling routes, particularly for resources which have maintained their value such as gold, could become even more critical at regional level.

Further, Congolese security forces risk having to deal with mounting challenges. The imposition of social distancing measures could force them to deploy their very limited resources to urban areas. Additionally, in the Kivus, the maintenance of order frequently leads to abuses by the security services, which can degenerate into local conflicts. The Congolese state’s budget crisis, which is likely to worsen mainly due to the global economic slowdown, will make financing military operations harder. Even if MONUSCO were to seek to do everything possible to continue to support the FARDC in their fight against armed groups (in French) – particularly the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Beni territory – the weakening of both the FARDC and MONUSCO may have an adverse impact on such operations.

Armed groups and militias are also likely to be affected by the current crisis. Although it may be difficult to quantify, a large part of their income comes from taxes collected at roadblocks, where activity has already dropped, and in all probability for a prolonged period.

This could incite such groups to use other means, including violent ones, to make up their shortfall in income: cases of kidnappings for ransom, looting and abductions may rise. Also, the issue of controlling smuggling routes could become even more critical.

The growth of self-defense groups (Mai-Mai or Raia Mutomboki) has also historically been linked to perceived threats from abroad, such as the presence of neighboring countries’ armies in the 1990s or of uprisings backed by foreigners in the 2000s and 2010s. Even though the coronavirus pandemic is a different type of threat, armed groups could exploit the need for more security by carrying out checks on movements within communities, for example, since the virus is currently widely seen as a threat which came from abroad.

Lastly, the desire to appropriate part of the international aid allocated to fight the disease – regardless of whether it is financially significant – could add to continuing insecurity, as was the case during the Ebola epidemic.

A paralyzed international community, an escalation of regional conflicts, a weakening of the state… If confirmed, these trends may foster the emergence of new militias and armed groups, accelerating the fragmentation of the security landscape in the Kivus. Within a decade, the number of armed groups has increased from 30 to 130. Their numbers could rise further still in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

“Balkanization,” Regional Tensions or State Weakness: the Real Threats to Stability in the Kivus

A FARDC (Congolese army) camp close to Kibumba (North Kivu) during the March 23 Movement (M23) crisis in 2012 (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

The scene took place in Baraka, in South Kivu, on January 17. A young militant from the Congolese Lamuka opposition coalition, wearing a white headband, whipped up the crowd in a hate-filled frenzy. While giving the Banyamulenge 48 hours to leave the country, he ordered that those unwilling to do so be forced out and issued threats against all those who assist or give refuge to members of this Rwandophone Congolese minority.

Was this a random event? This outburst was the result of a national protest called by the opposition (in French) against the “balkanization” of the country. In DR Congo, this term refers to the fear that there is a plot by neighboring countries, in league with certain communities living in Congo, to annex its rich land in the country’s east. According to this theory, these states are alleged to have clandestinely sent their citizens to DR Congo to prepare this annexation. Often, it is the Tutsi communities of the region, and specifically those from Rwanda, who are labeled as conspirators.

This topic, regularly raised in Congolese public debate, was strengthened in the nineties and noughties, by the occupation of large parts of the Congo by rebels partly led by members of the Rwandophone Congolese community, who were backed by Uganda (RCD/K-ML) and Rwanda (RCD-Goma).

In recent weeks, it has become increasingly popular, particularly since a press briefing by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo (in French), the highest ranking Catholic authority in the country, during a visit to Beni. In his speech, he claimed that the massacres committed in that territory since November had been “planned” with the “aim of balkanizing our country.” “This [can be] verified by the replacement of displaced populations by populations that are generally Rwandophone and Ugandophone (sic)” he added, denouncing the “discharge” of populations by neighboring countries into Congo, namely Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Despite the prelate’s careful language, which also confirmed the Congolese nationality of some Rwandophone communities, including the Banyamulenge, the dissemination of this argument could heighten mistrust of these communities. Several hateful messages, similar to those of Baraka, have circulated on social networks throughout the month of January.

These suspicions have also been increased by the awkward comments of Vital Kamerhe, the president’s chief of staff, who was recently in Rwanda to attend the wedding of the son of the former Rwandan Minister of Defense, James Kabarebe. He was said to have offered 30 cows to “strengthen relations”  between Rwanda and Kivu (in French), as though the eastern provinces of DR Congo were a separate entity to the rest of the country.

Martin Fayulu, the opposition politician and candidate in the last presidential elections who has been using the rhetoric of balkanization for several years (in French), took advantage of this situation to repeat his argument, even publicly accusing President Félix Tshisekedi and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, of carrying out this project (in French). In private, he even claims that Félix Tshisekedi is seeking to complete the project of “balkanization” together with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

This argument, which offers a simple explanation to complex problems, has met with genuinely popular success. And the intense clashes, which have affected three areas in eastern Congo in recent months, have contributed to its increased popularity.

First, Mgr. Ambongo cited the clashes in Beni territory in support of his speech. There, 312 have been killed since November, mostly by the enigmatic Islamist uprising of Ugandan origin, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), according to the latest death toll by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST, in French). This modus operandi, which is particularly brutal and difficult to understand, has in fact led to the internal displacement of civilians fleeing the massacres.

The second area affected by intense clashes is the highlands of Fizi and Uvira. There, armed groups from local Banyindu, Babembe, and Bafuliru communities are disputing the creation of the rural commune of Minembwe, which is located in a Banyamulenge-majority area. Violent acts have been committed against civilians in addition to cattle theft. At the same time, Banyamulenge armed groups, claiming to defend their community, have also committed abuses against civilians. Many villages have been burned during this crisis, which has also led to population displacement. The defection from the Congolese army of Colonel Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, himself a Munyamulenge, at the beginning of January, has fed into the idea that a vast Banyamulenge uprising is being created. This is “Banyamulenge expansionism,” a political leader from Bukavu told KST.

The third conflict feeding suspicions is that which was started at the end of November by the Congolese army to dislodge the Rwandan Hutu uprising of the National Congress of Resistance for Democracy (CNRD) in Kalehe territory. Similar to Rutshuru territory in recent months, many local sources contacted by KST have reported the presence of soldiers from the regular Rwandan army in Congolese uniforms. According to many of these sources, frightened inhabitants have, in turn, deserted the villages of Kigogo and Kasika.

However, these three situations in effect appear to obey different local realities, and it is difficult to see a coordinated plan on a regional level.

In Beni territory, the ADF arrived some 25 years ago with the aim of fighting against the influence of Kampala. They established relations with local communities and have taken advantage of their conflicts, according to research by the Congo Research Group (CRG). This group may, to a certain extent, have territorial ambitions, but it is difficult to imagine that they would one day obtain international recognition from an independent state or annexation to Uganda.

Yet, in his speech on January 3, Mgr. Ambongo stated that “Rwandan immigrants driven out of Tanzania some years ago” have been “dumped” in areas emptied of their inhabitants due to massacres. This is a reference to the migrations of Hutu populations who, in recent years, have left the Congolese territories of Masisi and Lubero to move to Ituri province, and who passed through Beni. The scale and current status of these migrations, however, remain difficult to evaluate. On the surface, they have had very little impact on the urban areas of Beni territory, where the bulk of recent massacres have taken place.

In the highlands of Fizi and Uvira, armed Banyamulenge groups appear weakened and divided, and are highly unlikely to have the means to act on any ambitions of political independence. The profile of the renegade colonel, Makanika, fits uneasily with the notion that armed Banyamulenge groups are associates of Rwanda. Makanika, on the contrary, took part in many uprisings against Kigali in the noughties, and was still described in 2013 as “strongly opposed to Rwanda” (in French). Several members of Banyamulenge civil society also express distrust towards Rwanda, in particular claiming that Mai-Mai uprisings and groups are supported by Kigali, which is reported to want to punish them for having given refuge to a Rwandan rebellion: the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

Moreover, despite many rumors, few Congolese officers seem to have followed in the footsteps of Makanika, although it is the case that former soldiers from abroad have joined him, such as Gakunzi Masabo and Alexis Gasita, in his stronghold of Kajembwe. However, most Banyamulenge military leaders active in the Congolese army, such as Masunzu, Venant Bisogo, and Mustafa, are currently stationed very far from the front, in the west of the country. The former rebel chief, Richard Tawimbi, is also in the Congolese capital. And the other Banyamulenge officers are kept under close watch by their colleagues. Three Banyamulenge officers suspected of wanting to defect – Lieutenant-Colonel Joli Mufoko Rugwe, Major Sébastien Mugemani, and Sub-Lieutenant Aimable Rukuyana Nyamugume – are under arrest in the camp of Saïo in Bukavu, according to military and local civil society sources.

The last territory where the reality on the ground does not fit with the theory of balkanization is that of Kalehe. Several local customary authority, UN, diplomatic, and Congolese military sources have in fact confirmed to KST the presence of elements of the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) during the offensive against the CNRD. Estimates of their numbers diverge considerably, from a handful of intelligence officers to several battalions. However, according to a Congolese military source, who claims to have witnessed the discreet arrival of a Rwandan battalion, these operations are one-offs and accepted by President Félix Tshisekedi. Their presence is alleged to only have been hidden due to fear of a hostile reaction by local inhabitants. Above all, rather than “dumping” Rwandophone populations in DR Congo, they have on the contrary led to a repatriation of some 2500 members of the rebel Rwandan CNRD (combatants and families) from DR Congo to Rwanda.

The theory of balkanization therefore inadequately describes the conflicts affecting the Kivus. Contrary to the situation between 2000-2013, no Rwandophone Congolese uprising appears in reality to be supported by Rwanda at this time.

This does not necessarily mean that the current situation is reassuring. Tens of thousands of eastern Congolese live in territories controlled by more than a hundred armed groups and which are, in fact, beyond Kinshasa’s control. Rather than a coordinated regional plan between neighboring states to carve up DR Congo, it is the tensions among these states, along with the weakness of the Congolese authorities, that appears to threaten stability in the Kivus.

Uganda and Burundi on the one hand, and Rwanda on the other, accuse one another of backing dissident groups in eastern Congo and waste no time in fighting them, either directly or by way of allied groups.

Kigali specifically accused Burundi and Uganda of supporting the RNC, which was partly confirmed by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC. The RNC has however been considerably weakened in mysterious circumstances in 2019: it has less than some fifty men near the village of Miti, according to sources from MONUSCO intelligence and civil society.

Several attacks originating on Congolese soil have also affected Burundi and Rwanda in recent months. This was the case of the attack on Kinigi in Rwanda on October 6 attributed by Kigali to the Rwandan Hutu uprising of the Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUD), which is reportedly supported by Uganda. Then there was the attack of October 22 in Musigati (Burundi), which was claimed by the RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group operating in South Kivu. Lastly, on November 16, Burundi suffered a new attack, in Mabayi, which the Burundian president blamed on Rwanda.

Additionally, several Burundian uprisings hostile to the Gitega government are present in South Kivu, such as the RED-Tabara, FRODEBU, or the FNL. According to a Congolese military source and a report by the UN Group of Experts, the RED-Tabara has in recent years been supported by Kigali. Also, the National Defense Force of Burundi and Imbonerakure militia (close to the Gitega government) regularly carry out incursions into DR Congo, according to reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC as well as security officials contacted by KST. Some members of the Burundian authorities are reported to support several Congolese armed groups, such as the Mai-Mai Mbulu, in the Ruzizi plain, probably to prevent possible attacks on their soil.

Were the Burundian presidential election, scheduled for May, to provoke violent protests comparable to the last one in 2015, South Kivu could rebecome a battlefield. This would not, however, mean that the “balkanization” of the country is underway.