‘Rwandophones―Others’ & No Mistaken Identity: Politics, Medias and ‘Judgement in Absentia’

A ‘judgement by default’ is a picture one can visualize when reading Lars-Christopher Huening’s book.  Published by LIT Verlag GmbH & Co.KG Wien in 2015, the book’s title “No Mistaken Identity―Kinshasa’s Press and the Rwandophone ‘Other’ (c.1990-2005) brings out how preconceived opinions have kept linking ‘Rwandophones’ as unitary group to ‘Rwandan’ involvement and its expansionism ambitions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The book is among unique collection and an analysis of Kinshasa’s newspapers from 1990-2005 with regards to allegedly ‘Rwandan descent’ in DRC. Though primarily considered as local issues in the Kivu that kept pitting communities against others, it has gained momentum far west in Kinshasa specifically through the influence of Medias as the Capital City remains a realm of power competition among different political actors. In an ethnically polarized context, the study establishes extensively the relation between politics and Medias to influence the public opinion. In a likely simultaneous relation, Medias have served as a channel through which political actors rally the mass while the former can still feed the politics. The book contributes largely to unveil how the heterogenous group called ‘Rwandophone’ has allegedly been portrayed as the bridge for the “Balkanization” or serving ‘Rwandan interests’. This is a worthy reading book for anyone who have been puzzled by how Congolese public opinion had widely believed that Hutu, Tutsi from North-Kivu and Banyamulenge from South-Kivu are the ‘new comers’. The book helps to uncover why an individual as Bishop Damien Lukoki who had ever meet a Munyamulenge, whose whole life he lives in Matadi/Kongo Central would call for a collective response to curb the ‘invaders’.   

Though colonial “misinterpretation” of settlement history in Eastern Congo has slightly been overlooked in his analysis, Lars-Christophe’s book recounts historically and systematically decades of monologue debates around citizenship within the printed medias. The author has demonstrated the way Medias can influence the public opinion in a somewhat bendy direction. The floppy position of medias with regards to the ‘Rwandophones’ question has mostly been guided by the fact that Kinshasa based Medias are and were likely disconnected from the reality on the ground. Kinshasa, the Capital City is approximately 2000 miles away of this region where communities have been fighting and competing locally. To larger extent, Medias in Kinshasa have followed Kivutians political views that can encompass some political manipulation. Moreover, as Kivutian’s discourse tends to dichotomize the Eastern Congo population between ‘Autochthonous’ and ‘immigrants’, one can easily read the same trend within the Kinshasa based Medias reporting. These are Medias with limited financial rooms of maneuvers largely dependent of the willingness to pay and publish an argument.   

Besides relying on ‘journalists’ and ‘reporters’ whose accounts had hardly been free of manipulation, Kinshasa based Medias have encountered the challenge of being funded through “le coupage” and state funding survival. Notwithstanding with any form of generalization, State funding such as CASPROM during a volatile period of war has played a great role in painting ‘Rwandophones’ communities as the enemy of the State. Medias have unlikely sustained their stance or editorial lines when political circumstances twisted. Moreover, Kinshasa’s newspapers have been challenged by the lack of ideological editorial lines and have changed all along the political debates. Furthermore, book’s accounts reveal that journalists who have been reporting on the Kivu were mainly recruited from the self-styled ‘autochthonous’ groups. Hence, findings from this study had discovered that incidents and events in Eastern Congo were reported by Kivutians journalists, mostly reporting from the rooms in Kinshasa than touching on firsthand the reality.      

Even though they were subjected to huge campaigns aiming to marginalize them, ‘Rwandophones’ were likely absent during these debates either on political scene or within the Medias schemes. Being absent during these debates had worsened their position within the Congolese society. It is likely a ‘judgement in absentia’ when someone becomes criminal without any transparent and fair prosecution. As someone who closely follow Congolese Social Medias, I see the same move being reproduced. ‘Rwandophones’ are likely absent due to collective guilty and rejection as ‘strangers’ that has an origin from these dynamic processes. Am I expressing that there was a “smoke without fire”? Not at all.

During the three last decades, ‘Rwandophones’ have been involved in many insurgencies that could spark fear among the Congolese society generally. Moreover, many of these insurgencies were activated for the interests of the ‘Mastermind’ whose objectives had possibly nothing to do these ‘marginalized communities’. My reading which sounds slightly different from that of the author is that insurgencies were not projects conceived by these communities. In addition, it seems that a malleable position of these Hutu, Tutsi and Banyamulenge communities may have originated from such history of exclusion and marginalization. The trans-border alliances and “soldiers without borders’ are partly a direct consequence of rejection and instrumentalization. For neutrality and ethical requirements (I assume), this study sheds light on these cyclical processes though it downplays to take this stance in the general conclusion. However, it contradicts the argument when stressing that transborder and transnational activities―loyalties are “significant factor not only fueled their exclusion…. But also reinforced powerful visions of a looming Rwandan menace to Congo’s body politic” (page 301). I wonder if this argument includes the factor these activities took place after the Conférence Nationale Souveraine (CNS)and the Vangu’s commission.   

Scholarships and researches do find ways to oversimplify complex issues by either overlooking some realities or reproducing “blindly” what have been written by other scholars. Oversimplification or reproduction of written scholarships are one of the key challenges around the Tutsi, Hutu and Banyamulenge settlement. When reading Lars-Christophe’s book, I seem to disagree on the use of ‘Rwandophone’ concept. It resonates as an oversimplified and misleading label; politically fabricated to justify some interventions. It tends to affiliate millions of people on Rwanda while evidence can show that not all have originated from what become Rwanda. It dissociates and place the entire community in a dichotomy position against/versus the Congolese society. It disregards the fact that there are thousands of Bafuliro, Babembe and Bavira who have originated from Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and probably Tanzania and they never felt disturbed. It needs to be debunked and decolonized. Moreover, I suggest that strong statements such as “…, it is most likely that their [Banyamulenge] migration occurred during the late nineteenth century”. Along with other mythical and popular beliefs that have been retransmitted―reproduced into the academics require efforts to demystify them. From scholarships of “combat”, some of these accounts feed the public opinion and the medias keep giving them ‘validity’. The era of unregulated Social Medias has or will facilitate(d) their propagation.  

One of the example can be found in Lars’ book. During the hot debate around 1981 nationality law, a letter allegedly written by ‘people of Rwandan origin in Zaire’ demanded the “permission to create a separate, independent state in North Kivu”.  The letter was addressed to the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of the African Unity (OAU). Many scholars, mainly local have repeatedly referred to this letter as proof of the “Balkanization” but also the establishment of ‘Hutuland, Tutsiland, Volcanoes Republic, The Hima Empire…’. Any informed observer of the Congolese politics would easily understand how this debate such as 1981 letter have created a popular prejudice and source of mobilization to curb the enemy of the state. To my surprise, such letter reproduced into hundreds of papers and books never existed (Huening 2015:45-6). From the monologue political dissemination of the Kivutians actors have disseminated such popular beliefs that keep fueling violence at local levels.

Though minor in terms of relevance of its contribution, I would like to point out that Masunzu Pacifique has never left the national army since his reintegration late 2002. What rather happened was the split among the group that fought the 2002 insurrection in Minembwe against RPA-RCD military. The disagreement led to an in-fighting when a group led Michel Rukunda and Bisogo Venant against the other led by Masunzu Pacifique fighting on a behalf of the FARDC. It is the former group that reintegrated the National army in 2011 while Masunzu was the regional military Commander in Bukavu. The origin of the disagreement has not been deeply documented but it has partly to do with the co-opting strategy that Kinshasa keeps playing to integrate rebels than solving the root causes of the conflict. Some insights on this incident can be found in Stearns et al (2013) “Banyamulenge: Insurgency and Exclusion in the Mountains of South-Kivu”, Rift Valley Institute (See mainly p. 31 onwards).

As my PhD project design intends to work on debunking and ‘decolonizing’ the Eastern Congo conflict, I really have appreciated reading this book and find that there is a strong need to demystify some of commonsense narratives. The Eastern Congo have largely suffered by the way academics and scholarships to some extent have oversimplified stories. 



PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com

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