“A Rwandan disguised as a mentally disturbed person beaten to death in Tshangu”. This was the subject of a tweet I chanced upon some weeks ago, months after the Congolese rebel group, M23, had resumed fighting the Congolese national army, FARDC in the North Kivu region of eastern DRC. The causes of the renewed fighting and the overall armed struggle that M23 is waging against the DRC government have been examined and re-examined and positions taken by, among others, regional governments, the DRC government itself, human rights groups, academia and media.
We can argue as much as we like about the centrality of minerals or the DRC’s wealth in this conflict. We can argue about the roles of external actors, especially Rwanda and to some extent Uganda in the immediate neighbourhood of the DRC. Do they arm M23? Do they have forces in Congo? Do they have legitimate reasons for doing whatever they are accused of doing? All these questions are worth asking by anyone seeking to make sense of the broader conflict and the wars that erupt as a result, from time to time.
The most important driver of the broader conflict and the current war is whether people of Kinyarwanda cultural heritage are Congolese and whether, as a result, they are entitled to the same rights as members of other cultural groups. Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese live in large swathes of North and South Kivu. Colonialism found them there, as did independence. There are also descendants of migrants from Rwanda who arrived several decades ago, many of them brought in as labourers by the colonialists. Others came in on their own in search of greener pastures and stayed. Their descendants were born in Congo and were raised and educated there and know no other country as home. For reasons that may be as diverse as the people concerned, some of the descendants of the different waves of migrants joined the war that culminated in the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) taking power in Rwanda. Some went to live in Rwanda after the war. Others stayed in their country, Congo, alongside other Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese whose only link with Rwanda is the language and culture which they share with Kinyarwanda-speaking Rwandans.
The reasons why some Congolese harbour animosity towards Banyarwanda, are varied and complex. We shall therefore not go into them here. However, the incident mentioned at the beginning of this article testifies to the animosity and the dangers it poses for Kinyarwanda-speaking inhabitants of the DRC. A disclaimer is in order, though: it is not all Kinyarwanda-speaking people that face the animosity. Rather, it is a section of that community that bears the brunt of the animosity: the Tutsi, or those who fit what their Congolese tormentors construe as the archetypal Tutsi morphology. In a recent chat with a Congolese friend from the Nande community in South Kivu and a long-time rights activist currently based in Europe, he referred to this animosity. He referred to “a broader campaign against M23” being “active in Congo”, adding that this campaign included “denying them citizenship”. He saw this campaign as rooted in “intense dislike of Batutsi which is present across the country” and whipped up by “Kinois, Baluba and others”. He believed that the Tshisekedi government’s “disinformation” that “presents Rwanda as invaders and aggressors and M23 leaders as playing Kagame’s plan of balkanising Congo” had further aggravated the situation.
The conversation had started with him referring to Bunia where he was at the time, being “peaceful and calm”. However, he added, “moving in the direction of Djugu and south irumu, armed groups, tensions between Lendu and Bahama North; and competition between Ba Nguti (FRPI) and Ba Bira (FPIC) are intense”. Struck, I asked him: “So why do people focus on M23 as if it is the only source of instability?” He was as intrigued by the disproportionate focus on M23 as I am: “I don’t understand why Congolese are contesting M23 but accept Mai Mai groups such as CODECO”. His theory was that this was the result of “Kinshasa and FARDC” linking M23 to “Rwanda and Rwandan invasion”.
Sometimes when discussions arise about how the M23 rebellion could be ended, there is a tendency among some commentators and analysts to recommend a robust armed response from the Congolese government, the UN forces and various forces that international and regional actors have organised. These recommendations disregard one of the most important reasons for the emergence of this insurgent group. That reason is their professed commitment to fighting for the rights of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese who over the best part of the last almost 30 years have suffered not only mistreatment, but violence and eviction from their ancestral lands, as well as forced displacement into neighbouring countries, Rwanda especially, and beyond, where large numbers now live as refugees. Part of M23’s broad agenda is to ensure that the Congolese Tutsi community are able to live in their country and enjoy the same rights as other communities.
Trouble is, with the government in Kinshasa fanning hatred and encouraging or turning a blind eye to anti-Tutsi violence in the Kivus and across the country, presumably on the grounds that the Congolese Tutsi community are agents of Rwanda or promoters of “Kagame’s plans” and that they are not Congolese, prospects for the insurgency ending any time soon are remote. They are rendered even more remote by collaboration between elements of the Congolese army in the Kivus and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia linked to the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, whose activities have usually included harassing, persecuting, displacing and killing members of the Congolese Tutsi community, and fanning popular animosity against them. It is this animosity, that is responsible for the violence inflicted on members and presumed members of the Tutsi community in the Kivus and elsewhere, as far as the capital city, Kinshasa, where they have sometimes been attacked and maimed, even killed in broad daylight.
Working out a long-term solution must necessarily include addressing this “popular menace” against Tutsis and presumed Tutsis. This must be led by the Congolese government whose responsibility includes public education and law enforcement against violators of rights. It is probably too much to expect of a government whose reach across the country is severely limited, to do these things effectively. However, where the Congolese state has an effective presence, being seen to combat the ‘popular menace’ of anti-Tutsi violence would go some way towards assuring the Tutsi community that their security is a priority for the state and not the responsibility of insurgents. More importantly, it would begin to undermine protection of the rights of the Tutsi community as justification for the M23 insurgency, and contribute towards ending it. Ultimately, solving the M23 challenge does not lie in defeating the insurgency militarily, let alone holding Rwanda – or even Uganda – responsible for its emergence and sustenance.