Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Guest blog: The Gordian knot of identity-based conflicts in the Kivus: the case of the chefferie of the Ruzizi Plain

This is a guest blog by Judith Verweijen, a PhD candidate at the Center for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University. She has spent several years living among and studying armed groups in the eastern Congo, especially in the Uvira-Fizi area.

 In his recent post on the possible spread of the M23 rebellion into South Kivu, Jason mentioned the attack on the military base of Luberizi in the Ruzizi Plain in Uvira territory. This attack was at first ascribed to one of the two parties of an ongoing conflict around the chefferie  (customary chiefdom), of the Ruzizi Plain, pitting Barundi (perceived as belonging to the “rwandophone” camp) against Bafuliiru (self-styled “autochthones”). 

The intensification of this conflict – which is decades old – dates back to April this year, when the mwami (traditional paramount chief) Floribert Nsabimana Ndabagoye of the Barundi was killed, leading to protests and violent incidents. When the Luberizi army camp, which lies at the heart of this chefferiewas attacked this month, it was immediately assumed that it was related to this conflict.  It was only later established that the events were the work of armed groups related to M23. 

However, one of the two groups cited as responsible for the attack, that of Mufuliiru Major Bede Rusagara, is believed to be also implicated in the conflicts surrounding the killing of the mwami.  Born in Mutarule, at a stone’s throw from Luberizi, Bede started his military career in the Mai-Mai of Col. Baudouin Nyakabaka.  He was subsequently co-opted by the RCD, then briefly served in the CNDP, and eventually integrated into the FARDC.  At the start of 2011,he deserted in order to form his own armed group in the hills near Kahanda, close to his home village. Given this past, it is not surprising that he is described by local sources as un aventurier (an opportunist, a brigand). 

Bede is the cousin of Bike Rusagara, who was acting Chief of the Ruzizi Plain at the moment the murder occurred. That this post was assumed by a Mufuliiru is related to the turbulent history of the chefferie.  In 2004, when Ndabagoye was in Kinshasa, where he served as Member of the Transitional Parliament for the RCD, a Mufuliiru was installed as mwami (allegedly with the help of Col. Nyakabaka, current Deputy Commander of the 10th Military Region). Since then, repeated attempts of the Barundi chief to resume power have failed. 

What then, is at the root of this conflict? And what is the relevance of taking a closer look at these seemingly never-ending quarrels between ethnic groups? Firstly, the story of the chefferie of the Ruzizi Plain shows how much conflicts around local administration and access to land continue to be defined in ethnic terms, often along the “ autochthone/rwandophone” divide. Secondly, it illustrates how easily more localized conflicts become linked to larger conflicts that play out at the provincial, national or sub-regional levels. Thirdly, the conflict around the chefferie of the Ruzizi Plain elucidates the ease with which power conflicts between civilian actors become militarized, in the face of the omnipresence of armed factions. This sounds, I am sure, very abstract, so let me explain.

As the name indicates, the Barundi are a people whose origins can be traced back to Burundi. They moved into what is now the Congo in the course of the 19th century. At that time, there were no international boundaries, population movements were ongoing, and not all territories were permanently inhabited or controlled by local chiefs.  In general, the organization of power was not always rigidly delineated in a territorial sense, as it was mostly tied to control over people. When the colonial authorities arrived, they started to drastically reorganize the local administration in Uvira, regrouping various chiefs and their clans into bigger groups, delineating administrative boundaries, and eventually creating a system of chefferies headed by paramount chiefs.  The Barundi too were granted their own chefferie-secteur. However, in the immediate post-independence era  of the 1960s, when the Mulele rebellion rocked the area of Uvira, the Bafuliiru started to claim control over the chefferie of the Barundi.  They said it had been unjustly awarded by the colonial authorities, as the Barundi were “foreigners”, who had immigrated to a piece of land of which the Bafuliiru claimed to be the original inhabitants. However, if one reads the history of the Ruzizi Plain, as documented for example by professor Bosco Muchukiwa, it becomes clear that these claims are based on a rather selective reading of history. 

What makes these conflicts so explosive is that, at various times in history, they have become linked to events at the national or sub-regional level, often reinforcing the autochton/foreigner fault lines.  This was for example the case in the era of the RCD rebellion (1998-2003), when the mwami of the Barundi, under siege by the Bafuliiru Mai-Mai, allied himself to the RCD.  More recently, the reorganization of the armed opposition in Burundi and the M23 rebellion have kindled similar dynamics. Just after the assassination of the mwami, the Barundi were first accused of seeking reinforcements from Burundian armed groups and mercenaries across the border. This is not strange, given that fighters thought to be linked to the FNL, but also to other Burundian armed opposition groups that operate on a near-permanent basis in Uvira territory.  For their part, it was thought that the Bafuliiru had sought reinforcement from Bede’s group, whereas some also cited the implication of a local defense militia created by mwami Ndare Simba of the Bafuliiru. (Interestingly, the latter recently lost the elections, in which he ran as an independent candidate, and is said to try to use the current upheaval to restore some of his eroded popularity).

The M23 rebellion has given a new twist to this conflict.  As said, Bede is believed to be associated with this group, which is not strange given his ex-CNDP background. However, whereas the M23 are uniquely associated with rwandophones, Bede is believed to defend the autochthone (Fuliiru) side in the conflict in the Ruzizi Plain. This shows the complexity of the political and military dynamics of the Kivus, and that we can not assume divides to mechanistically follow identity-based lines. This is also illustrated by the fact that the Banyamulenge, an ethnic Tutsi group, have thus far overwhelming resisted any overtures from the Tutsi-led M23 (except the small fringe of Nkingi Muhima, mentioned in Jason’s blogpost).  Similarly seemingly unnaturalcoalitions have emerged in Masisi, where Hutu have allied with the government, while some Tembo groups – who traditionally label themselves anti-Rwanda – have established shaky alliances with the M23.

Hence, conflicts in the Kivus continue to be the product of multiple socio-economic, political, and military developments, of which (ethnic) identities are but one dimension.  Whereas this makes things immensely volatile, given the resulting constantly changing alliances, the good news is perhaps that it demonstrates that self-styled autochthones and rwandophones are by no means automatically opposed to each other (although some would call cross-ethnic alliances mostly opportunistic). Rather, identity-based alliances, and to a lesser extent identities, continue to be relatively flexible.  Although perhaps in a distant future, this could eventually serve as a basis for a society where identities are less polarized and ethnicity plays a less pronounced role in social interactions.


blaise said...

I think there is a need,more than ever,to reestablish the state's authority in those part of the country. Justice has to be the main focus of any plan forward.
as I stated before, we need to rethink our defense strategy:what are we trying to achieve.
In my opinion,the sate should leave businesses to private citizens and focus on reinforcing justice and rebuilding the army. For the latter, I picture the army as a tool for development not just a deterrent force.The army should absorb all those young unemployed,form them in soldiering but also in life skills.We should have a reserve force that can be call on if necessary. For each battalion,we should have those initiative such camp base
To further inspire soldiers,we need to have "heroes" or role model.

blaise said...

The Gordian knot analogy is quite interesting.Maybe that where the solution can be found to.
Instead of trying to disentangle the "complex" network of alliance,why not, to follow Alexander the great's lead, cut to the chase with our justice's sword?Let's reestablish people in their right and defend those right. As Blaise Pascal stated:"La justice sans la force est impuissante, la force sans la justice est tyrannique." or roughly :" justice without enforcement(strength) is powerless,enforcement(strength) without justice is tyrannic"

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Janosch N. Kullenberg said...

The Mwami situation in the Ruzizi Plain is also a good example for the failings of the Congolese authorities and I would ascribe the responsibility for the killing of the Mwami earlier this year to them.

The legitimacy of the Barundi Mwami had been recognized in Kinshasa and Bukavu for years. Contrary to his orders, the administrateur (d'Uvira) has however proven unable or unwilling to take action to reinstall the entitled Mwami. I would guess that the major reason for this is the reduced importance of the Barundi community in terms of numbers, influence and weapons, whereas the Bafuliro have made the opposite development and repeatedly made clear that it will be difficult to change the control of the Ruzizi Plain.

The debate about legitimacy in ruling the Plain is thus difficult for two reasons: a.) the historical and b.) the majority/ influence argument. It is clear that reinstalling Ndabagoye (the Barundi Mwami) would have made the administrateur, who is also ex-CNDP by the way, very unpopular for the majority of the population in the Uvira territory. On a practical level, support from the central government in Kinshasa or the Governor would have probably been needed.

Ndabagoye seemed quite helpless and had for years tried to build up some momentum for his unlikely reinstallation. I guess his sympathisants were never quite strong enough or the situation simply wasn’t seen important to push for action. As a result the conflict was prolonged, Nsabagoye personally put in danger and eventually killed. Not very surprising but unnecessary.

blaise said...

@Janosch N. Kullenberg,
from my experience,customary chiefs are not "in the middle of the village" anymore.Most of them lost their wisdom in their guest for money.It's unfortunate that the state doesn't organize clearly the responsibility and formation of those leaders.

Unknown said...

Beautiful, is it not!

It has been a battle against the wind and in the dark for Congolese people for more than a decade now. At least NOW the task of both the Congolese people and the Kinshasa cabinet is cut out. Masks are off; Congolese now know their mistakes, their enemies and their friends.

Yes Kagamist armada has worked into overdrive for the UNSC seat, and I see triumphalist processions all around on the hills of Kigali. It is more complicated than that, now the behavior of the UNSC will be constantly scrutinized for the “conflict of interest”. Interesting!

Just a question for the DRC government: why are Congolese diplomats speaking French at UN and internationally? Can’t they realize that the world of int’l communication is Anglo-Saxon and Jewish.

The ineluctable future of Congo is great. For obvious and practical reasons, English has to be the official language in DRC now. Though DRC is the future of French in the world, what dividend or diplomatic support do Congolese get from France? Nothing if not just neo-colonial negativity.

Unknown said...

Thanks a lot for great sharing!!

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congo man said...

@wuana Congo
I agree with you.I was also very disappointed to see the Congoles delegates speaking in French at the UN even after what most CONGOLES thought was a very disrespectful even Recist attitudes from the FRENCH president HOLLAND aka TINTIN HOLLAND at that francophone wast of time in Kinshasa. I was very disappointed to see our delegation shouting in French even though 90% of the ambassadors don't understand or speak that language.

congo man said...

Who are this so called BARUNDI tribe? most people from south KIVU that i have talked to have never heard of a tribe called BARUNDI. BARUNDI means BURUNDIANS in Congoles SWAHILI and the only Rwandophones who live in South KIVU who have roots in BURUNDI are known as BANYAMULENGE. the BARUNDI or BURUNDAIS are BURUNDI nationals and every one from that region that i have talked to or shown this article have never heard of a Congoles tribe called BURUNDIANS(BARUNDI). all I know is that before PAUL KAGAME and his JUNTA invaded this region from UGANDA, all those tribes lived together in peace and Harmony .the first RWANDO-UGANDAN invasion of Congo was portrayed as just a conflict between the Nyamulenge ,BABEMBE....the second invasion in 1998 was also covered as an ethnic conflict Between Rwandophones and others .now RWANDA and UGANDA after failing to portray this 3rd invasion as just a mutiny buy some 300 angry soldier,they are trying to do anything to mislead the world about their plans.PAUL KAGAME ,YOWERI MUSEVENI and JAMES KABARERE needs to pull their troupes out of north KIVU and stop sponsoring terrorists activities and tribal tensions in SOUTH KIVU and elsewhere in that region. that region was peaceful before PAUL KAGAME and YOWERI MUSEVENI start meddling and it will become peaceful again after this bloody dictators stop meddling or are thrown out of Power.

congo man said...

@ blaise
I totally agree with you Oct.10,2012 6:44 AM.
unfortunately we still have a lot of BOSCO guys in the FARDC ,whose only mission was to weaken the army,turn it into nothing but a tool of their criminal mafia in order to achieve their land grabbing mission .this people and their partners have to be dealt with no matter what . I heard that there was a massive recruitment in BAS CONGO ,BAS NDUNDU ,and some parts of KASAI. this is a good news and I hope they start giving more incentive to young unemployed people to encourage them to join the army.

blaise said...

Do you have a link on those new recruits?I didn't hear about that resurgence.
The problem is not about the number of recruits but is the whole culture in the army and security forces.
I believe there is a flaw in the army that can be dated since the Force publique morph to the ANC(troops travelling with families,sold problems,refusal to fight,etc)
I believe we need to reinvent the army.Our security forces have to be in the service of development while protecting our freedom.
In this regard, the army should be a place where people will learn discipline,organisation and leadership.
There is a need to think things through to determine our needs and how the army can help achieve those different goals.
I see the army first as a sector that will attract young people.We need to offer them decent conditions of living,a future.We need to nurture their potential.The army should be a platform from where people should start businesses,do researches,innovate.
There is so much the army can do: ease trade by opening/rehabilitating roads(genie), assist in case of disaster, help improve life of people.
The army is not only a military tool but a mixing pot where people can discover the other.

congo man said...

PAUL KAGAME is now once again starting to spread his campaign of terror to the rest of the KIVU .Last night's failed assassination attempt on Dr DENIS MUKWEGE for his heroic work and advocacy for victims of sexual violence,and other crimes that PAUL KAGAME and YOWERI MUSEVENI's M23 and other terrorist groups have been Committing against the people of eastern DRC. It's a shame that the British taxpayers are Continuing to pay for such crimes .It's time for the world to stand up and stop this brutal dictator (PAUL KAGAME ) from pursuing his endless campaign of terror against the people of CONGO.

congo man said...

No I don't have the link,I was tald by a friend who just returned from KIN ,but another friend tald me that the recruitment is not going well, I also doubted that young people will just unlist massively under current situation. I agree with you a 100% .we still have long ways to go and a lot of clean up to do. I think we need a massive clean up job .60 or more % of the FARDC leadership has to go first before any serious reform can take place.

tresor said...

@Congo man.
As much as I agree that Kagame has contributed to the war in Kivu,but i would abstain from making accusation without any substantial evidence. do you have proof that kagame is involved in the attempted assassination of the doctor?

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