Understanding the Conflict in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Re-posting of Dave Zarembka's emails #2
Report from Kenya #195 – November 21, 2012agli-fpt.org
People like to have simple explanations for foreign policy issues – anti-communism, war on terror, axis of evil, bad guys versus the good guys, them and us. While I doubt that these simplistic terms of reference are very useful, they are impossible in describing the conflict in North Kivu because the situation is complex and ever changing. I will attempt to outline the conflict so that anyone can understand it. I am leaving out many of the names and details that can confuse the situation. The conflict is also polarized with various sides having their “true” explanation of the events. I will try to be as even-handed as I can, but I am sure I will not satisfy partisans to the conflict.
The first issue to realize is geography. Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, is roughly 100 miles from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, but 1000 miles from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Moreover there are no roads, rivers, or railroads that can take people or goods from Goma to Kinshasa – the only option is to fly. Therefore all goods, all imports to and exports from North Kivu travel through Rwanda and Uganda. Swahili, like in most of East Africa, is the common language of North Kivu. North Kivu is much more closely tied to the east than to the west.
Moreover North Kivu is 2 ¼ times the size of Rwanda, while it has only half the population (5,767,945 in 2010). Therefore it is much less densely populated. This has been true for a long time so Rwanda’s surplus population – encouraged during Belgian rule which ended in 1961 – migrated to North Kivu.
Historically there are a number of issues of interest. When Rwanda was part of German East Africa before World War I, northwestern Rwanda was not part of the kingdom of Rwanda but two independence Hutu kingdoms. The people in this area were called Bakiga. With the help of the German led soldiers, the Mwami (king) of Rwanda was able to conquer these two kingdoms. These had no Tutsi among the population so the Mwami imposed Tutsi chiefs loyal to him. Since the Bakiga live in a mountainous area not conducive to cattle-keeping, but small scale farming, over time these Bakiga became labeled as “Hutu” as in the rest of Rwanda. Most of the main leaders of the Rwandan genocide came from this region of present day Rwanda and had an intense hatred of the Tutsi overlords that were imposed upon them by the Mwami and Germans and then the Belgians.
The second historical issue is that the Europeans did not set the boundaries according to language or ethnicity. Consequently, there were many Kiyarwandan (the language of Rwanda) speaking people who live in the area close to the Rwandan border including Goma and Rutshuru. Their dialect is slightly different from that spoken in Rwanda, so these Kiyarwandan-speaking Congolese are obvious to other Rwandans. Some of these fled to Rwanda during the conflicts of the mid-1990’s and they are still held in refugee camps where they are not allowed out without official permission. These Kiyarwandan-speakers are not considered Rwandan nationals and are usually referred to as “Congolese.” When the situation was still tense in Rwanda in the early 2000’s, there was a proposal -- that was never implemented -- to expel all these “Congolese” from Rwanda.
During the colonial period seven Italian families obtained large estates (over 10,000 acres each) in the hills of Masisi, high above Goma and Lake Kivu. When I visited there in 2008, these estates reminded me of Switzerland with European grade cows contently grazing on the mountain slopes. The Italians hired Tutsi cattle-keepers from Rwanda to take care of these herds. Then during the chaos after Congolese independence, these Italian families sold their estates to elite Tutsi. Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda, two of the leaders of the Tutsi rebel forces in North Kivu, are the owners of two of these formerly Italian estates.
During the colonial period, since North Kivu was relatively under-populated, the Belgians encouraged Hutu farmers to move to the very fertile, well-watered hills of Masisi. Usually these Hutu farmers lived in separate villages from the local Congolese tribes. After the Rwanda genocide in 1994, many of the Hutu genocidaries fled to North Kivu and are still one of the many armed groups in North Kivu.
There are numerous small local tribes in North Kivu. One of the larger ones, the Hunde, who live also in Masisi, is perhaps half a million people. The local non-Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese tribes do not distinguish between the various Kiyarwanda-speaking groups listed above, but consider them all “Rwandan” and “foreigners” in North Kivu. To counteract the Tutsi and Hutu rebel groups in North Kivu, the local Congolese have formed their own militias, known as Mai-Mai. But the Mai-Mai are not one group, but a number of ethnic warlords, each with their own agenda, frequently combining with other groups including at times with the Rwandan rebel groups. Nonetheless, the Kiyarwandan-speakers are by far the largest single group in North Kivu, but as indicated above, far from united.
Another side of the conflict is the Congolese army, which is supposed to bring order and security to the province. Alas, they do not do this. It is unclear exactly how large the Congolese army is because there are many “ghost” soldiers on the payroll whose salaries the generals embezzle. They are not from eastern Congo and therefore do not speak Swahili and cannot communicate with the inhabitants of North Kivu. They bring their wives and children with them. Their pay is low and frequently they do not receive it. Consequently, they too have to live off the land by attacking local people and looting the countryside. A number of Congolese army generals have captured a mine or two like the other rebel groups, exploit the local people, and keep the proceeds for themselves. The Congolese army is also known for human rights abuses including rape, looting, and destruction.
Lastly, there is the United Nation’s Peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, which has 19,000 soldiers in the Congo, 6700 which are in North Kivu province, and 1500 again in the city of Goma. Their hands are tied, not only with the usual constrains that UN Peacekeepers are not supposed to be engaged in fighting, but rather in protecting civilians, keeping order, and being a neutral force between combating forces. In addition, though, in order for them to get approval from the Congolese government, the United Nations had to agree to support the Congolese army. Therefore, it is also a partisan force. Now if one wants to determine who the “good guys” are from the “bad guys,” the UN forces are also suspect. One contingent was sent home after it was alleged to have been running a prostitution ring. Others have been accused of selling guns, ammunition, and other equipment to the various rebel groups. More to the point, they have been ineffective in protecting the civilian population even when the fighting was only a few miles from one of their bases.
In the latter half of the 1990s, Rwanda and Uganda invaded the Congo twice. The first time they deposed the long-time dictator, Mobutu, and the second time they almost deposed their hand-picked puppet, Laurent Kabila, who had turned against them. At the end of Africa’s World War in 2003, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to withdraw their troops from the Congo, but it was clear that they left proxy forces behind. In one illogical moment, two rebels forces, both supported by Uganda, fought against each other. Another time when the Rwandan and Ugandan armies were in the Congo, they found each other, leading to a souring of relations between the two countries. This has since been patched up and Rwanda and Uganda are cooperating in their approach to the issues on North Kivu.
Throughout all of this, the United States and Britain have been strong supporters of Uganda and Rwanda. This is particularly true of the US and British military. Uganda has supplied the largest contingent of troops for the African Union in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia and Rwanda for the United Nations forces in Darfur, Sudan. Recently when Rwanda and Uganda were accused by the UN of supporting the M23 rebels in North Kivu, both threatened to remove their peacekeeping forces from Somalia and Darfur. Recently a number of countries have withheld aid to Rwanda because of their support of the M23 rebels and Uganda for extensive theft of aid funds.
Behind all this conflict is the fact that North Kivu has hundreds of tin, coltan, gold, and other mines. These are small, pick and shovel type of operations. Laborers are poorly paid or even forced to work. Child labor is common. There are no health or environmental protections. Consequently, the rewards, the profits from these mining operations are substantial. Moreover there is a large group of middlemen who get the minerals from the mine to the international market. A rebel group does not even need to secure a mine to profit as it can tax any minerals passing through the area it controls.
By this point in this report, you have the lay of the land in North Kivu. You can see how complex it is and how so many different actors, each looking out for its own best interests, make innumerable possibilities.
To explain the current conflict with M23 taking control of the major, capital city of Goma, M23, for the benefit of Rwanda and Uganda, now has secured a strong hold on the whole illegal trade in minerals for North Kivu. I would anticipate that they will slowly but surely take over not only the mines in North Kivu but all roads leading to their export. On the other hand, the international community is going to condemn, in fact, already has condemned, this fragrant violation of international borders. I expect Rwanda and Uganda to continue to hold tight, deny any involvement, and wait out the international condemnation until it becomes the “new normal.” The Congolese government in far away Kinshasa will vent and fume, but will be unable to do anything significant about the new reality.
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Since 1998, David Zarembka has been the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region (available at www.davidzarembka.com).