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  • Human Rights Research Center

Nomadic Lives Series: The Place Called Home to a Persecuted Congolese Minority

February 29, 2024



In a remote area of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in the province of South Kivu, thousands of displaced civilians have been facing desperate conditions in small localities after fleeing their homes. These displaced civilians are primarily Banyamulenge, an ethnic community related to the Tutsi of Central Africa and have taken refuge as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in a small number of localities, including Minembwe, among others, for several years. They are a traditionally pastoralist, semi-nomadic community that has been subjected to decades of discrimination, persecution, and hate speech as they are considered “outsiders” or “invaders” in their homelands. Land and territorial belonging are central to multiple conflicts and perceptions about who does and does not belong in the DRC. In recent years, self-styled “autochthonous” (indigenous) ethnic-based armed groups known as Mai-Mai, along with Burundian rebels and a group called Biloze Bishambuke, have fought with armed groups representing the Banyamulenge in a crisis uprooting thousands of civilians.

 

Though the conflict has been conventionally downplayed as “intercommunal conflict” due to various complexities, Mai-Mai have systematically attacked and burnt hundreds of villages and displaced thousands of Banyamulenge. The Mai-Mai, whose attacks have been accompanied by extreme levels of often genocidal hate speech, have killed hundreds of people. They have also looted thousands of cattle belonging to Banyamulenge, which severely threatens their livelihoods as a pastoralist community. Even while displaced in Minembwe, Banyamulenge have faced further attacks and have been besieged by Mai-Mai. The United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) often fails to prevent attacks, despite its proximity to Banyamulenge IDPs. This humanitarian crisis appears to be a continuation of efforts to remove Banyamulenge from their homelands. Yet, the area of Minembwe, as a place to seek refuge and come under continued attack, is itself of sociocultural, political, and symbolic significance to the community. It is considered a key location to address the political marginalisation of the Banyamulenge.


Even while ineffective governance enables over 120 non-state armed groups to perpetuate insecurity, Banyamulenge have not abandoned the political aspiration to have their own local political territory or similar political entity. In October 2020, Minembwe became the subject of an episode of intense, national-level political hostility. The government was overseeing the official creation of a rural commune, or a local municipality, in the area. Following immense political backlash, which entailed an intensification of anti-Banyamulenge hate speech, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi suspended the creation of the commune. Discourses surrounding Minembwe have captured the way the Banyamulenge have been viewed historically. The Congolese government had avoided creating such an entity in Minembwe due to various possible reasons, including the tensions it risked provoking, political calculations, and anti-Banyamulenge biases. However, it opened up to its creation through a nationwide decentralisation process. The Minembwe commune was finally created following a decree in 2013, becoming operational in 2019, while decentralisation minister Azarias Ruberwa, a Munyamulenge (member of the Banyamulenge community), oversaw the creation of multiple other similar entities.

 

Amidst the backlash to its attempted installation in 2020, opponents to the commune selectively alleged that its creation entailed procedural irregularities, though similar allegations could be applied to other entities. Beyond the legalistic arguments, the commune has been described as being part of a Rwandan plot to “balkanize” the Congo, despite being created alongside hundreds of communes nationwide. This highly popular conspiracy theory frames Banyamulenge and Tutsis as agents of a Rwandan plot to fragment the DRC and build a Tutsi-Hamitic empire. Politicians and other public figures also used such descriptions as calling the commune a “cancer.” The conspiracy theory also overlaps with tensions around transhumance (cattle movements), wherein crop-trampling gets framed as malicious acts by invading pastoralists encroaching on farmer territory, justifying anti-Banyamulenge violence.


It was under Belgian colonial rule that the Banyamulenge were deprived of a local customary authority, or chieftaincy. This entrenched a colonial myth, the Hamitic Hypothesis, which constructed Banyamulenge as outsiders. Following the country’s independence in 1960, the Banyamulenge enjoyed a period of increased emancipation. An influential Munyamulenge politician, Frédéric Muhoza Gisaro, unsuccessfully sought the creation of a territory where Banyamulenge would constitute a demographic majority. In 1979, a low-status administrative entity or “groupement” was created in the Bijombo area, though its appointed chief was not a Munyamulenge. It was also during the post-independence period that the community adopted its name, meaning “the People from Mulenge,” named after a hill in Uvira where their ancestors had lived called Mulenge. The community’s adoption of this name helped its members distinguish themselves from newer Rwandan refugees and immigrants arriving in the country. “Save Mulenge” remains a community slogan for survival today.

 

The period of Banyamulenge inclusion was reversed with the removal of their citizenship in 1981. Though the Banyamulenge had lived in what is now called the DRC since before colonial rule began in 1885, they and other Tutsi and “Rwandophones” or “Banyarwanda” (groups considered to have historically come from Rwanda) were now classed as outsiders. Growing hostility led to expulsions and massacres in the build-up to the Congo Wars (1996-2003). Even since the wars ended and the country’s new nationality law was worded to include Banyamulenge and Rwandophones, the community has struggled with both political participation and being perceived as Congolese. The 2004 nationality law requires ethnic communities to have lived within the country’s borders before 1960 to be considered citizens, though Banyamulenge are still considered outsiders. Furthermore, territoriality remains embedded in the new constitution, with territories being viewed through an ethnic lens and defined as belonging to specific ethnic groups.



The Minembwe commune has triggered resentment in no small part because it is linked with memories from the Congo Wars. It is a partial revival of a territory that existed from 1999 to 2003, though it is to be of a lower administrative status. During the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the region was occupied by a Rwanda-backed insurgency, the Rassemblement Démocratique du Congo (RCD). The RCD followed an earlier insurgency backed by Rwanda, the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo (AFDL), during the First Congo War (1996-97). After the Congo Wars and RCD occupation ended, Minembwe territory was suppressed in 2003 since it was considered unconstitutional. Both insurgencies recruited Banyamulenge fighters, among many others, providing the community with some security and solidarity. Like other warring parties, members of these insurgencies committed abuses that “autochthonous” actors selectively cite today, even though Banyamulenge and Rwandophones were systematically targeted. The Banyamulenge hence remain associated with traumatic RCD-era memories, while the Minembwe commune has been viewed with deep suspicion.


The Minembwe issue has also demonstrated the agency of Banyamulenge fighters to struggle for political equality independently from Rwanda. By the “post-war” years, Banyamulenge had started distancing themselves from Rwanda, partly due to concerns that their relation with the country was harming their citizenship rights and that the Rwandan government was using the community for its own interests. However, an armed group called the Forces Républicaines Fédéralistes (FRF), which would later produce the offshoot Banyamulenge armed group Gumino, made the recreation of the Minembwe territory a key demand. The FRF had been created as a political party by some Banyamulenge in 1998 and favoured federalism over reliance on Rwandan support for Banyamulenge to achieve their political aspirations. For years, as rightful Congolese citizens, Banyamulenge have struggled to elect candidates to parliament as a minority in three different territories around Minembwe. It is thought that a territory in Minembwe would enhance Banyamulenge political representation by including areas where they have formed the majority. Meanwhile, a commune is not an electoral constituency and primarily facilitates access to public services.

 

For a community facing targeted violence and severe humanitarian conditions, the creation of a municipality may not seem a priority. Yet, the hostilities linked to Minembwe are a crucial indicator of the community’s vulnerability to persecution beyond political implications. Additionally, the aspiration of having a political territory is linked with the idea of community-based self-defence. Meanwhile, in the DRC’s current ethnicized political context, the official establishment of a territory to which Banyamulenge belong is itself an existential question. Attempts to achieve this aspiration have entailed the community navigating the ethnopolitics of the DRC as a proud, traditionally semi-nomadic, pastoralist community that belongs and has also long settled in their homelands in South Kivu. Such efforts not only challenge the simplistic binary between nomadic and settled communities, which can be exploited to justify anti-Banyamulenge discrimination. They display the community’s resilience and defiance to live these fluid and complex identities against efforts to deny their rights and existence.


 

Glossary


  1. Autochthonous: Pertaining to autochthons; aboriginal; indigenous. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]

  2. Commune: The smallest unit of local government in some countries. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  3. Conspiracy Theory: A belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  4. Emancipation: The process of giving people social or political freedom and rights. [Source: Cambridge Dicitonary online]

  5. Federalism: The system of giving power to a central authority. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  6. Genocide: An internationally recognised crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. [Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum]

  7. Immigrant: A person who has come to live in a country from some other country. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]

  8. Indigenous: Used to refer to, or relating to, the people who originally lived in a place, rather than people who moved there from somewhere else. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  9. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs): Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border. [Source: United Nations]

  10. Marginalisation: The act of treating someone or something as if they are not important. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  11. Nomadic: Moving from one place to another rather than living in one place all of the time. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  12. Norm: An accepted standard or a way of behaving or doing things that most people agree with. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  13. Pastoralist: A person who raises livestock, esp. a nomadic herder. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]

  14. Persecution: Cruel and unfair treatment of a person or group, especially because of their religious or political beliefs, or their race. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]

  15. Semi-nomadic: Belonging or relating to an ethnic group or people who migrate seasonally and cultivate crops during periods of settlement. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]

  16. Transhumance: The seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]

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