A Crisis of Belonging: Rwanda's Ethnic Nationalism and the Kivu Conflict

By Fofana, Idriss | Harvard International Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

A Crisis of Belonging: Rwanda's Ethnic Nationalism and the Kivu Conflict


Fofana, Idriss, Harvard International Review


The recent outbreak of conflict in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has elicited numerous calls for reconciliation both within Africa and in the West. The consensus seems to be that peace must be reestablished urgently. Such a convergence of opinion seems rare for an African conflict; however, the DRC clashes have acquired a special significance due to their long and violent history.

The breakdown of peacekeeping efforts in the eastern DRC is particularly troubling given the country's heralded return to democracy following the much-anticipated 2006 national and regional elections. The elections were depicted as a pivotal moment by many observers, closing the page to what was, with over five million deaths, the world's deadliest war since World War II.

However, as recent events have demonstrated, peace in the region remains fragile. In addition to the already tense dynamics between different armed factions in the North and South Kivu regions, the area has been destabilized by distrust between Congolese President Joseph Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame.

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Relations between Rwanda and the DRC have been long affected by a crisis of belonging among ethnic Rwandans in the eastern DRC. Since early colonial times, the Kivu Provinces have served as the refuge of choice for the losers of Rwanda's brutal power politics. Every new large migration into the DRC has raised the question of who among the country's many ethnic Rwandans should count as Congolese.

The alienation of ethnic Rwandans in the DRC laid the seeds for a conception of ethnic citizenship inconsistent with the modern theory of civic citizenship. Successive Rwandan governments have formulated a sort of Zionist policy around the notion of ethnic citizenship in order to claim responsibility for the wellbeing of the Banyarwanda community living in the eastern DRC. These clashing notions of belonging are at the root of Rwanda's destabilizing role in the DRC today. Any lasting solution to the conflict must therefore emphasize the essentially local aspect of the Kivu crisis without ignoring the international factors necessary to transition the region out of its unstable state.

Who Belongs?

When the DRC gained its independence from Belgium in 1960, residents who had belonged to an indigenous ethnic group officially recognized by the colonial administration became Congolese. However, the law remained ambiguous on the official status of ethnic Rwandans in the Kivu region. Whereas some ethnic Rwandan groups, such as the Hutu Banyaruchuru and Tutsi Banyamulenge, had either always or at some point benefited from "indigenous" status, others did not. As a result, the civic citizenship of the Banyarwanda, the general term for people of Rwandan origin, has been vulnerable to political manipulation.

In 1972, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, upon the recommendation of his Tutsi chief of staff, sought to end the confusion over the citizenship law by granting citizenship to all Banyarwanda residing in the DRC at the time of independence. This law proved controversial and triggered widespread nativist sentiment. Indigenous Congolese groups feared that the Banyarwanda were using their influence over Mobutu to organize a power grab. Moreover, by granting citizenship to all those present on Congolese territory at the time of independence, the decree erased the distinction between the groups considered to be indigenous, later settlers, and refugees from 1959.

Social scientist Stephen Jackson has found that as early as 1973, some local authorities sought to deny national identity cards to the Banyarwanda despite the law granting them citizenship. This practice, which continued in later years, meant that although many Banyarwanda were officially citizens, they never truly "lived" this citizenship. This discrepancy between civic and lived citizenship fostered a Banyarwanda identity based on the sentiment of exclusion from Congolese society. …

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