Since the M23 rebellion re-emerged in November 2021, there has been a lot of noise––to call it a discussion would be to exaggerate its nuance and sophistication ––about discrimination against Congolese Tutsi and its role in the violence. At the heart of this debate are issues critical for Congolese democracy and stability.
On the one hand, there are those who argue that the crisis was above all caused by discrimination against Congolese Tutsi. This was the argument made by researcher Felix Ndahinda, writing for the Clingendael Institute and the Journal for Genocide Research, arguing that hate speech amplified by social media was a “key driver” in the current crisis, and that protesters were allegedly killing and even cannibalizing Tutsi. Similarly, on October 26, 2022 the Rwandan deputy permanent representative to the United Nations chastised the Security Council for not focusing on the “root causes” of the conflict there, citing in particular xenophobia and the longstanding presence of the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) in the eastern Congo. The New Times, the Rwandan government’s newspaper of record, has had over a dozen articles over the past year calling out the hate speech and discrimination against Congolese Tutsi, and has featured warnings of genocide issued by the M23. President Kagame, in his New Year’s message––which focused almost entirely on the Congo––spoke in similar terms:
“The reason this [conflict] prevails is because [conflit] DRC is unwilling or unable to govern its territory. Should Rwanda be the one to bear the dysfunction of this immense country? The situation of the Congolese refugees, whose very right to nationality is denied by their home country, is a case in point. It is not just a question of‘hate speech’, but of active persecution, over decades.”
On the other side, many Congolese officials have rejected allegations of discrimination. President Tshisekedi has fulminated that “the enemy has always played the victim to make a business out of it,” and has met with Congolese Tutsi and Hutu communities to reassure them that the government will protect their rights The spokesperson of the government said recently that accusations of hate speech are a “fiction: “They cannot come and invent discourses of ‘genocide’ when we have nothing that confirms such a context.”
What is the truth of the matter? There are two misconceptions that I will address here, often mentioned in this debate.
There is no such thing as Congolese Tutsi or Banyamulenge.
This is dangerously wrong. This is a popular refrain in the Congo, but at this national scale a relatively recent phenomenon. While local tensions between communities have existed since before independence, it is only in the late 1980s that these questions regarding citizenship took on national significance, as the country began to democratize and leaders developed an interest in divisionism.
Already in 1991, playing to anti-Tutsi sentiment in the East, Mobutu promised to settle the citizenship question once and for all by launching an “identification of citizens” in the East. He targeted only the Kinyarwanda-speakers of the eastern Congo, despite the existence of dozens of other cross-border communities elsewhere in the country—the Ne Kongo people, for example, regularly cross back and forth into the Congo from Angola, and the Nande migrate back and forth from Uganda. The National Sovereign Conference in 1991-1992, widely hailed as a success for stemming Mobutu’s authoritarianism, was another setback for Congolese Tutsi. Under pressure from other communities in the Kivus, its leadership barred most Tutsi delegates from participating in the conference, where over 3,000 delegates convened to discuss the country’s future.
Then, following the massive influx of refugees from Burundi and Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, Mobutu’s government passed resolutions in April 1995, demanding “the repatriation, without condition or delay, of all Rwandan and Burundian refugees and immigrants.” For many state officials in South Kivu, it was clear that this included Banyamulenge. In case there was any misunderstanding, Uvira’s mayor Shweka Mutabazi issued a circular to his officers: “I have the honor to transmit the memorandum of a certain ethnicity unknown in Zaire called Banyamulenge. I should also add that at the latest by 31.12.1995, they will all be chased from the national territory.”. In October 1996, the South Kivu deputy governor Lwasi Ngabo Lwabanji then issued a one-week ultimatum to the community to leave the country. These and other xenophobic acts have been cataloged by the UN Mapping Report.
These accusations have continued to the present day. Martin Fayulu, the presumed winner of the 2018 elections and opposition leader, has said on several occasions––including to a meeting of the diaspora in Canada last October––that “Il n’y a pas une tribu qui s’appelle Banyamulenge ici en République Démocratique du Congo.” A similar statement was made by the minister of higher education, Nzangi Muhindo, in 2021.
Academic researchers have compiled a list of other recent incidents of xenophobic speech. One typical example came from Mai-Mai commander General Makanaki from South Kivu:
I want to tell you that every Congolese should open his eyes and sacrifice himself to defend the country. Anyone still siding with the Tutsi or Rwandans will be decisively crushed, like corn in the mill . We will eventually reach Minembwe. I know the whole area very well, it is only a matter of time, we will clean it. And it does not depend on me. It is the will of God. God is on our side . Once we are done, we will head to the city of Uvira and clean the Banyarwanda from the city.
What about these allegations? Are Banyamulenge, or any Tutsi for that matter, Congolese? Congolese citizenship law says: “Est Congolais d’origine, toute personne appartenant aux groupes ethniques et nationalités dont les personnes et le territoire constituaient ce qui est devenu le Congo (présentement la République démocratique du Congo) à l’indépendance.” While that is ambiguous, it is hard to see how any reasonable interpretation of that text would exclude all Banyamulenge from citizenship.
Were there Tutsi in the Congo in 1960? Of course there were. Most historians say that the people who became the Banyamulenge immigrated to the highlands of South Kivu in the 19th century, with some dating their arrival back to the 18th century. The renowned Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel writes:
“ [L’immigration rwandaise] [The Rwandan immigration] is confirmed by oral sources from Rwanda that evoke the departure of lineages from Kinyaga (Rwanda)in the 19th century to install themselves in Mulenge. The reasons for this movement was reportedly the search for better pastures, but in particular also the flight from attacks by King Kigeri Rwabugiri 1853-1895), who was determined to bring an end to Kinyaga’s autonomy. ”
Another Congolese historian, Jacques Depelchin, in his PhD thesis at Stanford University, says that an initial migration had begun earlier, leaving Rwanda under Mutara II Rwogera (ca. 1830-60) Yuhi IV Gahandiro (ca. 1797-1830). Some Banyamulenge authors, such as Joseph Mutambo, draw on Rwandan historian Alexis Kagame, who refers to small-scale movements as early as the 16th century.
In North Kivu, one can find the following description: “In North-Kivu, Kinyarwanda-speakers were present since at least the end of the 17th century in Bwisha. This is attested by sources from the colonial period as well as by work written by Congolese historians based on oral histories. Even in Masisi, the German Kandt, later Resident of Rwanda, describes an encounter with what he calls Tutsi in Gishari in 1899.”
Of course, there were later, controversial waves of migration, including those facilitated by the colonial power. During the 1930s, as the number of colonial ranchers and mining companies increased, so did the demand for labor from neighboring Rwanda, where famine and population density made migration attractive. The Belgian government embarked on a massive migration plan, the Mission d’immigration des Banyarwanda (MiB). The lack of reliable data makes it difficult to know how many were involved in this relocation, but estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000 people. In large parts of the highlands of what today are the Masisi, Rutshuru, Walikale, and Lubero territories, these immigrants became the demographic majority.
So the answer is clear: there were Tutsi and Hutu in what is today the Congo long before independence, and even before the creation of the Congo Free State in 1885, even if their arrival was at times controversial. The problem was that these waves of migration did not jive well with the form of ethnicized governance forged by the colonial state and sustained by the post-colonial one.
The M23 was created to protect Congolese Tutsi against discrimination and abuse
This is what the M23 have sometimes stated, as did their predecessor movement, the CNDP, created in 2004. And this is what the Rwandan press have suggested.
This is difficult to adjudicate. Yes, of course Congolese Tutsi suffer from discrimination and abuse––the above section documents this. But was this the cause for the creation of the CNDP and then the M23?
There were many causes for the creation of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) in 2004 Almost every CNDP officer interviewed for my report on the CNDP/M23 cited persecution or discrimination as the main reason they joined the CNDP. There is little doubt that this sentiment was genuine—even prominent Tutsi civilian leaders critical of the CNDP agreed that discrimination fueled the movement. 133 While many other Congolese communities have suffered from discrimination and abuse—including at the hands of attacks led by Tutsi commanders—the Tutsi community felt particularly vulnerable given its small size, the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, and the spread of virulent anti-Tutsi stereotypes in the region.
Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that many other Congolese Tutsi—in particular from the Banyamulenge community of South Kivu—who had faced similar persecution and violence mostly joined the transitional government, which suggests that vulnerability itself was not enough to fuel action. There is little doubt that this sentiment was genuine—even prominent Tutsi civilian leaders critical of the CNDP agreed that discrimination fueled the movement.133 While many other Congolese communities have suffered from discrimination and abuse—including at the hands of attacks led by Tutsi commanders—the Tutsi community felt particularly vulnerable given its small size, the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, and the spread of virulent anti-Tutsi stereotypes in the region.A small number of Tutsi officers, from North and South Kivu, held leading positions in the new national army: General Malik Kijege was the head of logistics, Colonel Bonané Habarugira became brigade commander, General Jean Bivegete was a senior military judge, and General Obed Rwibasira and General Pacifique Masunzu were both commanders of military regions. A small number of Tutsi officers, from North and South Kivu, held leading positions in the new national army: General Malik Kijege was the head of logistics, Colonel Bonané Habarugira became brigade commander, General Jean Bivegete was a senior military judge, and General Obed Rwibasira and General Pacifique Masunzu were both commanders of military regions.
There are other signs that suggest that ethnic discrimination alone was not sufficient, and at times even contradicted the CNDP’s actions. An oft-mentioned grievance was the presence of 50,000-90,000 thousand Congolese Tutsi in refugee camps in Rwanda. However, the CNDP also manipulated this refugee population, suggesting that for them there was little to distinguish motive from pretext. The CNDP and the M23 carried out forced recruitment of soldiers, including child soldiers, in these camps, and descriptions of the camps suggest a high degree of militarization and intimidation by Rwandan officials and refugee leaders.
On several occasions when refugee returns took place, they were poorly managed, in particular in 2011 when ex-CNDP soldiers helped resettle 2,400 families in Bibwe, northern Masisi. According to a UN Group of Experts report: “Whereas some of these newcomers claimed that they owned land in Bibwe in the past, many of them told the Group that they had never lived there before, and some refused to identify where they had come from. According to the local and provincial authorities, none of these “returnees” have ever owned land in Bibwe.” Rather, it appears the CNDP was using the refugees as a means to resettle and control strategically important areas.
The sequence of events also suggests that ethnic discrimination alone was probably not the most important factor. In 2003, when Laurent Nkunda refused to join the national army––unlike many of his fellow Tutsi officers, who did join––and founded the precursor to the CNDP, he was especially worried about being prosecuted for his role in the May 2002 massacre of civilians in Kisangani, in which he was allegedly involved Likewise, the launch of the M23 rebellion in 2012 was at least in part linked to the individual interests of its commanders––in particular, Bosco Ntaganda was worried about the ICC warrant hanging over his head. When the Makenga and others re-launched the M23 in November 2021, they were certainly also motivated by their frustration of being left without any income or occupation in Rwanda and Uganda since 2013.
Rwanda’s protestations about discrimination are also not entirely matched by how it has treated Congolese Tutsi refugees in its own country. For example, in 2018 police opened fire on a crowd of Banyamulenge refugees protesting cuts to their food rations, killing at least twelve people. On several occasions prior to that, the CNDP and M23 carried out forced recruitment of civilians, including children, in camps in Rwanda, which was documented by Human Rights Watch and UN investigators.
The Rwandan government itself has on several occasions clamped down against Congolese Tutsi––for example, when the Banyamulenge commander Patrick Masunzu rebelled against the RCD and Rwanda in 2001, the Rwandan army conducted a violent crack-down in the High Plateau, with bitter consequences for the Banyamulenge community.
Even the Tutsi officers of the CNDP and M23 remember discrimination against them by Rwanda, of having been teased for being “Congolese peasants.” These tensions came to a head after the end of the First Congo War when Rwanda decided to withdraw most of its troops from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It ordered most Congolese Tutsi to leave with them, saying they belonged to the Rwandan army Many Congolese Tutsi officers in both North and South Kivu refused, saying they were Congolese and had only fought for Rwanda to liberate their country. In response, Congolese Tutsi officers launched mutinies in North and South Kivu; many were arrested by the Rwandans and at least one was shot in front of his comrades.
While it is impossible to deny persistent anti-Tutsi sentiment in parts of the Congo, the rebellions that claim to protect these communities often end up triggering large upticks in hate speech and xenophobia. These rebellions, like the RCD before them, also featured many crimes––including some massacres––committed against non-rwandophone communities, abuses that the rebels often justified by claims of self-defense. The rebellions thus had a sort of self-fulfilling aspect to them––they helped bring about the conditions that they were protesting against.
This is not to suggest that discrimination played no role in fomenting the rebellions––it surely did––but that other factors were likely just as or more important, and that armed violence is not likely to bring about reconciliation or protect Tutsi communities. In fact, the abuses carried out by the Rwandan army, the RCD, CNDP and M23 are frequently mentioned––with a similar mix of manipulation and sincerity––by armed groups from other communities as the reason they are fighting. The question of indigeneity––or “who is really Congolese?” ––was at the heart of the 1993 Masisi wars, as a critical contributor to the AFDL and RCD rebellions that engulfed the country. ––was at the heart of the 1993 Masisi wars, as a critical contributor to the AFDL and RCD rebellions that engulfed the country. It has been manipulated by all sides and there has been no bona fide reckoning with this question, although President Tshisekedi has made several overtures to the Kinyarwanda-speaking communities. What is needed is more than that, however: a process that will allow communities to tell their truths, bare their scars and histories, to undertake a sincere process to bring the Congolese refugees home, but also deal with struggles over land and customary power that have proved so explosive in the past, in the Kivus as well as elsewhere in the DRC. Nothing like that is on the horizon at the moment.
By Jason Stearns, director of the Congo research, author of Congo Siasa blog.