"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


minerals week: history

The first thing you need to understand about the Kivus is that the tension that drives conflict there - over ethnicity, citizenship rights, and land rights - developed long before the 1994 Rwandan genocide and long before the trade in the 3T minerals was much of an issue.

Most of you are probably already familiar with the story of Belgium's involvement in crystallizing identity in the Ruanda-Urundi colony. What is less known is that the Belgians moved many Rwandans - mostly Hutus - into North Kivu to work the plantations there during the late colonial period (the 1930's-50's was the period of greatest significance). When independence came to the Congo in 1960, the status of the persons of Rwandan origin immediately came into question. Anti-Tutsi violence broke out just after Rwanda's independence in 1962, driving hundreds of thousands of Tutsis into Uganda - including most of the country's ruling clan from which the traditional kings, the mwamis, were drawn.

The first five years of Congolese independence were turbulent, to put it mildly. The government never fully established control over the territory, several rebellions broke out in the east, what is now Katanga tried to secede and take its mineral wealth with it, and, long story short, until Mobutu took over in 1965, the east was a mess. Mobutu initially provided welcome stability, but he eventually went off the deep end of kleptocracy and nationalism, which sent the country's economy into a decline from which it's never really recovered.

Mobutu, however, was a key beneficiary of Western Cold War patronage, which he used to great effect in his own patronage networks, thereby enhancing his ability to stay in power. In the Kivus, this meant (among other things) that he used money, influence, and the citizenship status of Kinyarwanda-speakers as a political tool. When it would help him to gain support in the region, he took away their citizenship rights. At other times, he gave them back. The important thing to keep in mind is that Mobutu always - always - used patronage to further his political goals.

Why is citizenship status so important? For one thing, it's directly tied to land rights in the DRC. You can't own property there if you aren't a citizen, and property in the Kivus is a mighty valuable thing indeed.* (And I'm not talking about the mines, although those became increasingly important later on.) North Kivu in particular is incredibly fertile land, a result of the volcanic soil that can yield up to three harvests per year. Add to that that much of the land there is suitable for cattle ranching and dairy production, and, well, everybody wanted the land.

Mobutu used this fact to great effect. Along with his manipulation of citizenship rights, he handed out land to anyone from whom he needed support. The Catholic Church, prominent Tutsi and Nande businessmen - whatever suited his needs at the time, Mobutu did. Of course, as with citizenship rights, that also meant that whatever Mobutu giveth, Mobutu taketh away, especially in the 1980's, when the collapse of global commodity prices for copper and other Zairian exports fell, exacerbating the economic decline that began with the nationalization program of the mid-1970's.

When the Cold War ended, Mobutu lost his Western donors' resources and could no longer use money to manipulate the country's politics. He was forced to allow a national conference about democratization, civil society groups were allowed to form, and, because he couldn't pay his soldiers enough cash to keep them loyal, Mobutu gave them a couple of chances to freely loot Kinshasa and terrorize its citizens.

It was against this backdrop that tensions between Kinyarwanda-speakers and other Congolese - who refer to themselves as the autochthones, or "natives" - erupted into ethnic violence, both in South Kivu's Haut Plateau (where Kinyarwanda speakers had christened themselves the Banyamulenge in part in order to distinguish themselves as a distinct ethnic group apart from Rwandan, Hutu, or Tutsi) and in North Kivu. Then the Rwandan genocide happened, sending at least a million, mostly Hutu refugees into the Kivus, where they were housed in camps that were rapidly militarized by those who perpetrated the genocide.

To say that the Rwandan genocide had an effect on life in the Kivus would be an understatement, and that's not just because its effects set off the wars of the late 1990's and early 2000's. When you talk to long time residents of Goma and Bukavu, they note that life became much, much more difficult when the refugees arrived. Environmental degradation caused by refugees who cut down trees and stripped the land in order to eat, the spread of epidemic diseases (especially cholera), and increased pressure on food supplies and the mechanisms of public order all sent the region into even greater decline.

Once Rwanda invaded, and later, when it supported the RCD-Goma government, for most Kivutians of non-Rwandaphone origin, that was it. The RCD-Goma used its power to redistribute North Kivu's valuable land, particularly to Tutsi elites in its ranks and in Rwanda. And then the wars ended, Rwanda eventually formally pulled out, the RCD-Goma's leadership joined the DRC government, and ever since, the Kivus have been left with a giant mess when it comes to who owns what land.

Non-Rwandaphones in the region blame the Rwandaphones - particularly the Tutsis, and particularly Rwanda's government - for most of their problems. Sometimes that criticism is valid, but others it is not. Regardless, the perception that anyone who speaks Kinyarwanda is not a legitimate Congolese citizen - and therefore not entitled to own land in the region - is widespread and hugely problematic. The 2006 constitution guarantees citizenship rights to ethnic groups that were in the country at the time of independence, which includes most Rwandaphones in the Kivus, but the constitution doesn't list the groups by name, which leaves them vulnerable.

It's critical to understand this context when thinking about the region, because these issues - not minerals - motivate much of the current fighting. Although their stated goal was protecting Rwandaphones from the FDLR, one of the CNDP's main purposes was actually to guarantee rights and influence for Rwandaphones in the region after the demise of the RCD-Goma. That's not to say that Rwanda only backed them for that (clearly, funding the CNDP helped Rwanda maintain access to minerals and to keep an eye on the FDLR and the Congolese government), but there is a real cross-regional concern in Kigali about the status of Rwandaphones in the Congo, and Tutsis in particular. The Mai Mai militias initially formed to defend local populations and their land.

As I've repeated many, many times, it's not that the mineral trade doesn't matter in the Kivus. It certainly does. But it is not what started the conflict there, and it is not what ultimately motivates the ongoing violence.

In the interest of not letting this post get even more ridiculously long than it already is, I'm going to hold off on discussing ideology until tomorrow. We're also going to have some guest posts in the week to come about the gold trade and the international effects of the minerals legislation. Stay tuned.

*For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Pierre Englebert's latest book.


Anonymous Blair said...

Hi there - long time reader here. Love the blog, and please keep it up.

Have you read Gerard Prunier's history on the region? I did, and thought it to be extremely good, though I certainly wouldn't call myself an expert.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 8:53:00 AM

Blogger Nkunda said...

Again, this is excellent Laura.

Rene Lemarchand talks of the Kanyarwanda wars (1963-66), which first sprung up in Masisi.

The wars appear to be essential driven by competition for land.

So, how much attention is being given to land reform by activists and diplomats?

Also, is it true that some Rwandans (Tutsi elites) have taken advantage of this conflict to amass huge chunks of land in the Kivu?

So, how do you ensure that only genuine Congolese of Rwandan descent keep ownership?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 9:42:00 AM

Blogger James North said...

This is a great post; I've never seen the issues explained more clearly and succinctly before.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 10:25:00 AM

Anonymous Peter said...

The way in which Mobutu and other elites appear to have manipulated property rights for their own political ends reminds me of Onoma’s argument regarding other African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe).
When elites benefit so directly from poorly defined property rights it is hardly surprising that so many attempted land reforms across Africa have failed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 5:57:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, guys.

@Nkunda, you'll want to read Severine Autesserre's new book for a discussion of the amount of attention paid to the issue by the international community. Some Tutsi elites definitely amassed land during and after the war (and some of it was stolen from other Tutsis who didn't support the RCD-Goma - it's definitely not just about ethnicity), but a lot of that has changed in the post-war period. Basically, it's a huge mess that no one has any idea how to sort out.

@Blair, Prunier's history is overall pretty good, but some of the specifics are very questionably supported by available evidence, which has made the book controversial in academic circles. I'd say you should definitely read it, but it shouldn't be the only source you read if you want to learn about the conflict and the region's history. You might try Lemarchand's latest as a good compliment.

Sunday, August 01, 2010 8:44:00 PM


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