Demystifying the violence in Congo
I’ll be the first to say it. When I went to Rwanda, I was concerned about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I didn’t know why there was fighting. Living in a border town with Congo helped me to better understand what was going on. And it is by no means simple.
The explanation that follows is not comprehensive, and it probably has errors. That said, it is an account of the situation as I have understood it from both books and discussions with Congolese and Rwandans.
I will start from the 1860s, during the time of colonial rule. Lake Kivu, the lake that forms the Western border of Rwanda, had been entirely Rwandan, including quite a bit of the territory on the other side. During the colonial carving of boundaries, Lake Kivu was cut down the middle, and Rwandans who lived on the other side found one day that they were suddenly Congolese.
They continued to speak Kinyarwanda, becoming known as Congolese Rwandophones. As a result of their difference in language (and, I imagine, as a result of their tribe difference and distance from Kinshasa), the Rwandophones felt that they were sidelined by the government, that they had fewer rights and were not treated as if they were Congolese.
In the meantime, the country as a whole was facing problems. The Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960, after which point the government (with the aid of the Belgians) was overthrown by Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was an eccentric and tyrannical leader who changed the name of the country to Zaire. He exploited the multitude of Congo’s natural resources to fill his pockets but not that of his people. Unrest grew. In 1997, supported by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan army (Kagame was Minister of Defense at the time, and it should be noted that the Rwandan army at the time was little more than a new name for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi rebel army that effectively ended the genocide), a new, democratic leader marched all the way to Kinshasa. His name was Laurent Kabila. After assuming power, Kabila changed the name of the country back to Congo.
Relations between Laurent Kabila and Paul Kagame soured as a result of disagreements over refugee camps that were allowing genocidal forces to regroup, but the ill-feeling was short-lived; Laurent was assassinated in 2000 and replaced by his son Joseph Kabila, who has shown Mobutu-like characteristics.
After the Rwandan genocide, genocidaires, both those who planned and carried out the murders, escaped to Goma, Congo via Gisenyi, Rwanda—along with all of their light and heavy artillery. There, the Interahamwe began to generate insecurity in an area that was already a powder keg because of strained relations between Rwandophones and non-Rwandophones.
To remedy the problem, Joseph Kabila welcomed the Interahamwe to Kinshasa, where they were incorporated into the Congolese army, thus protected from facing justice in Rwanda. The Rwandan government was angered by the decision. Simultaneously, in the forests of Eastern Congo, several Congolese rebel groups sprung up with the aim of killing or chasing Congolese Rwandophones out of the area. The reasons are more than just linguistic, as many of the rebels can also speak Kinyarwanda, but simply refuse to. Eastern Congo (Goma, Rutshuru, Masisi, Bukavu, etc.) is rich with resources and suffers from weak governance as one of the furthest areas from the capital. (Congo is the size of Western Europe.)
Unluckily for the Congolese Rwandophones, many belong to the Tutsi tribe, making them targets for the ex-FAR (the genocidal government’s army) and Interahamwe that continue to roam through the forests. Collaboration between anti-Rwandophone rebels (such as the Mayi-Mayi) and Interahamwe is far from rare, as their aims are aligned. Worse, when the Congolese army is sent to stabilize the situation, nothing changes—after all, the army is composed of Interahamwe, and they won’t fight their brethren.
In recent years, the Rwandophones have decided to fight back, under the leadership of Laurent Nkunda. He may or may not receive assistance from the Rwandan government, which has a bone to pick with Kabila and is not thrilled about receiving more Rwandophone refugees fleeing violence.
In response to the growing insecurity in the Kivu region, Kabila decided to bring all of the rebel groups (except the Nkunda Rwandophones) into the Congolese government, giving a party operative from each a ministerial position. If you can’t beat ‘em, get ‘em to join you, I guess. Violence has not dropped—it is estimated that 1,000 civilians die every day in the Kivu region from fighting.
This is probably a good opportunity to insert my thoughts on the Congolese elections, which took place on July 31 (but polls re-opened the following day). Kabila made a brave move, allowing the people to vote for their leader for the first time since 1970. The people didn’t just vote for a president—they also voted for a parliament and a constitution. Very ambitious.
Kabila’s not stupid. He has such a monopoly on political power and influence that it seemed like it was inevitable that a presidential election would be an easy win for him. I believed that, as did all the Rwandans I spoke with, and I’m sure Kabila believed it too.
The early speculation, however, shows that Kabila didn’t win in the capital, and that the majority of his supporters were in Eastern Congo. I am curious to see what his reaction will be. I’m not particularly optimistic. I do know that the Rwandophones didn’t care for the presidential elections—they saw it as a given. For them, the parliamentary election mattered. For the first time, they would have a shot of electing Rwandophones to represent their views and interests in Kinshasa.
So now the waiting begins. And while the election itself seems to have gone fairly well, it is the weeks and months following the election that will be the true gauge of the election’s success. The best-case scenario? The people, while divided, will accept the results peacefully and, if need be, there will be a civilized handover of power. The worst? The people reject whomever is proclaimed the victor, Kabila asserts his power, violence breaks out, and 25,000 Congolese refugees flee to the most secure country in the region: Rwanda. Like every case of insecurity in East Africa, only time will tell: Uganda has worsened, Burundi has worsened and improved, and Rwanda has improved dramatically. It’s Congo’s turn. Let’s hope that it surprises us.