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. 

Towns in the Kivus Hit by a Spate of Armed Robberies

Joint patrol by the United Nations Police, Congolese National Police and Congolese Army in Goma on May 20, 2020. Photo Monusco / Kevin Jordan

The decision was not taken lightly. In the month of May 2020, the new coronavirus had been spreading through the DRC for several weeks, and the town of Beni, like the rest of the country, had been placed under a public health emergency outlawing any gatherings of more than 20 people (in French). However, there was a something of greater concern in the eyes of militants of the citizens’ movement, the Struggle for Change (LUCHA). “Drastic steps have been taken to fight this epidemic, yet no cases have been recorded here,” recalls Steward, one of the collective’s members. “However, Beni residents are suffering much more from insecurity, which doesn’t seem to worry anybody,” he recalls.

For years, this town in North Kivu has lived under the menace of armed groups and particularly of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist uprising, which regularly commits abuses against civilians and plagues the region. However, in recent weeks, a new phenomenon has made the already dire situation worse: over the course of the first three weeks of May, at least six armed robberies were committed in the town.

For LUCHA, it had become unbearable. So on May 20, the citizens’ movement wrote to the Beni municipality to inform it of its intention to organize “peaceful demonstrations” to denounce “the upsurge in insecurity and the wave of killings in Beni town.” The protests organized for the following day were severely repressed. One of the protesters, Freddy Marcus Kambale, a 19-year-old schoolboy, was shot by police and 21 of his classmates were arrested. The trial of the police officer suspected of this killing is still ongoing (in French).

Beni is far from being an isolated case. For several weeks, the exasperation of locals living in the large urban centers of the Kivus has been growing in the face of a perceived increase in crime. The police, sometimes suspected of complicity with the criminals, are finding it difficult to contain social unrest. In Butembo, on May 27, taxi drivers also took to the streets. The day before, one of them had been killed by armed men. Once again the protests degenerated: one of the protesters was shot and wounded by the police.

The rise in urban insecurity does not appear to be limited to the Kivus. In Lubumbashi, on May 19, Mgr Jean-Pierre Tafunga warned of the upswing in “indescribable” insecurity (in French). And the same day, National Assembly members of the Defense and Security Commission challenged the Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde, on the increase in insecurity in the country’s cities (in French). “We have received calls from nearly everywhere in our electoral districts alerting us to this phenomenon,” explained its rapporteur, National Assembly member for Walikale, Juvénal Munubo, to KST. The phenomenon has different names in different towns: “40 voleurs” in Goma, “Kasuku” in Butembo, “Kuluna” in Kinshasa… However, the general trend of a rise in urban violence is clear to see.”

It remains difficult to come up with a precise number for this increase due to an absence of statistics on insecurity in the DRC. The lengthy reply penned by the Vice-Primeand Minister of the Interior to National Assembly members provides no statistics, even though it acknowledges the issue.

Data collected by KST nevertheless appears to confirm this trend: an increase in the number of armed robberies was recorded from April in the towns of the Kivus (Beni, Butembo, Goma, Bukavu, Uvira, and Baraka). Twenty incidents of this kind were recorded in April and 24 in May, compared with a monthly average of 11.7. This is unprecedented since March 2018.

The town of Butembo was particularly impacted with 11 such incidents in May (compared with 1.7 in average). This is unprecedented since KST began logging such data in June 2017.

Why is there such a rise? According to Juvénal Munubo, the public health crisis COVID-19, the steps taken to contain it, and the economic crisis are all possible obvious candidates.

Elsewhere in the world, however, isolation measures have inversely caused crime to drop. But it is possible that the consequences of the pandemic are different in the DRC. Except for rare exceptions, such as the Gombe neighborhood in Kinshasa, and the Ibanda neighborhood in Bukavu, residents of Congolese towns have not been ordered to observe strict self-confinement. Most criminals have therefore been free to roam towns, like the rest of the population.

The economic crisis on the other hand has not left DRC cities unscathed and could partly explain this upswing in robberies. On international markets, the Congolese franc has lost approximately 11% of its value since March, dropping from 1700 francs for one dollar to nearly 1900 today, eating into the purchasing power of the Congolese paid in national currency.

In Kinshasa, deadly clashes took place between the police and protesters calling for the reopening of the large market located in the town of Gombe, where food is available at affordable prices (in French). In total, the Central Bank of Congo has revised its 2020 economic forecasts downwards to -2.4% (against -1.9% previously) and now estimates inflation at 9% against the planned 7% (in French). According to the Central Bank, the crisis is essentially due to the “both internal and external population isolation measures.”

Since March, towns in the Kivus have been particularly impacted by border closures with three neighboring countries (Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) with which traditionally there is intensive trade.

Traffic between the towns of North Kivu (Goma, Butembo, and Beni) was also suspended for three weeks in April, as it was between Goma and Bukavu.

The fact that the town of Butembo, usually a thriving trade hub, has been the most impacted by an upsurge in armed robbery may also point to a link between the slowdown in trade and the increase in urban insecurity.