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.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The stakes of the Kampala summit

For the fourth time in three months, the eleven countries from the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICLGR) will meet in Kampala tomorrow. Their discussions will focus on ways to deal with the crisis in the eastern Congo, in particular the creation of a neutral force.

Preliminary meetings have already begun - various UN and AU delegations have spoken with ICLGR's military advisors, and a report from the Joint Verification Mechanism (JVM) is being provided. A diplomat attending the summit told me that they will need some more time for the military planning, and a Military Assessment Team (MAT) will apparently brief the ICLGR again on October 24-25.

The mood in Kampala is skeptical - the meeting comes on the heels of the mini-summit organization on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27. Little concrete came out of the summit, and the UN said that the neutral force idea would have to be further refined for it to receive the backing of the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, relations between the Congo and Rwanda have reached a new low. Kagame, in an interview with TIME and a speech in front of parliament, has described Kabila's government as "ideologically bankrupt" (along with the M23), and "does not respect or work for its citizens." He has also accused Kinshasa of incorporating genocidaires into his army. A member of the Congolese delegation, on the other hand, has said the Rwandans weren't acting in good faith during the negotiations, taking the M23's side (Kagame has said publicly that there needs to be a political solution, the M23's demands need to be listened to).

But the biggest obstacles to the so-called neutral force are logistical: Until now, only Tanzania has pledged troops, and even then it is unclear whether those troops would accept to conduct risky counterinsurgency operations in the mountains and jungles of the Kivus. And no one has figured out how to finance the force - while many African countries are enthusiastic about it, the funding would mostly likely come from western donors, who are largely skeptical.

While the Congolese and the M23 have had some informal contacts in Kampala, both sides are already planning for further military operations. The Congolese have moved thousands of troops to the Kivus for reinforcement, and the M23 have trained  hundreds of new recruits in recent months. The Congolese have also reached out to southern African countries for bilateral military support, and there are suggestions (largely coming from Kinshasa) that the Angolans and South Africans might be willing to back them if push comes to shove.