The first thing you need to understand about the Kivus region of the Democratic Republic of Congo 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 – tin, tantalum and tungsten, which are essential to the worldwide production of consumer electronics – were much of an issue.

Most of you are probably already familiar with the story of Belgium’s involvement in crystallizing identity in the Rwanda-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 period of greatest significance was from the 1930s-50s.)

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, and 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 Sese Seko 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. That 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. On top of that, much of the land is suitable for cattle ranching and dairy production. 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 1980s 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-1970s.

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. 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 1990s and early 2000s. When you talk to longtime 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 other times 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 Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), one of the National Congress for the Defense of the People’s (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 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.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”

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