Humanitarian Crisis & Vulnerability of Local Population in Minembwe-Bijombo: What can be done to Alleviate Tensions?

Background

The Democratic Republic of Congo (here after DRC) has, for decades, been going through recurring wars, specifically its Eastern part. The region covering Kivus and Ituri are mainly the epicenter of violent conflicts; sometimes opposing ethnic groups through proxies of armed groups. More specifically, the region covering Fizi, Uvira and Itombwe in South-Kivu Province is currently under an unprecedented humanitarian crisis getting worse on daily basis.

Since 1996, the region under consideration has been rolled under recurring violence with countless armed groups. Following the 2003 Sun City agreement that led to the reunification of the country, it was expected that the country will smoothly stabilize. However, the new settings of violent conflict seem to express that local problems were slightly covered during the 2003 agreement. Instead, the agreement opened doors for local grievances to mount. Some of these local problems are expressed through armed confrontation.

Recent Statistics estimate around hundreds of active armed groups operating in the Eastern Congo Region[1]. Around twentieth of these armed groups are located in Uvira, Fizi and Itombwe[2]. Some of these groups are likely small and keep splitting for different motives including power struggles within-groups. Armed confrontations and groups formations are dynamic to the extent that there tends to be no clear demarcation line between civilians and combatants while national security services are either overwhelmed or less equipped to confront such complexities.

Next to local complexities, the involvement of foreign armed groups creates another complicated layer. The presence of Burundian and Rwandan foreign militias in the High Plateau of Uvira-Minembwe has led to unprecedented humanitarian crisis where inter-community contestation constitutes the center of violent conflict.

Territorial Contestation & Vulnerability of Local communities

Local grievances and armed mobilization in the Uvira High Plateau and Minembwe are largely grounded on ethnic collective mobilization; consisting in dichotomizing ‘autochthonous’ versus ‘immigrants’. Babembe, Bafuliiro, and Banyindu communities are considered ‘autochthonous’ while Banyamulenge extended to Barundi of the Ruzizi plain are said ‘immigrants’[3]. Though the origin of violent conflict is multifaceted, the contestation of Banyamulenge as a Congolese ethnic group plays an important driver when it comes to narratives that opposes these two “dichotomized groups”. In addition, the definition and confrontation between cattle herders versus farmers help to mobilize for use of violence[4]. Though largely wrong, ‘Autochthonous’ are allegedly seen as farmers while ‘immigrants’ are cattle herders.  

The stance of considering some communities as new comers builds on inconsistent colonial accounts that have been reproduced, distorted within medias and scholarships. Consequent to these narratives feeding collective mobilization, the region has been prone to recurring violent conflict since 1996. Gun clashes keep opposing armed groups waving survival of their respective communities whilst combatants can use guns to hold local communities into perpetuate uncertainty.

Local confrontation in Uvira, Fizi and Itombwe is traced back from 60s during post-independence rebellions. During this period, local communities clashed over the perspective of rebel movement, namely Simba-Mulele, aiming to halt capitalism[5]. At local level, cattle herders were considered as richer and hence viewed as capitalists. 60s rebels in Uvira-Fizi region launched mass looting of cattle, killing herders and this triggered inter-community violence. From 80s onward, Banyamulenge have been denied eligibility rights but also their citizenship revoked. The shaky decision and politicized nationality laws had partly triggered and served a bridge to the cycle of 1996 wars. These recurring wars have led to countless massacres of innocent civilians ranging to millions. Each incident revives memories and serves as mobilizing opportunity within the region where some communities are considered as invaders. Therefore, mobilizing youth with such widely distorted information is likely easier and helps armed groups to rely on wider security void to further insecure local communities and pull them into fighting for collective victimization.

Whilst violent conflict builds on numerous grievances, in this region of Uvira High Plateau and Minembwe it is mainly circumscribed around contested territorial management. Though contested, Bijombo groupement is the sole local chieftaincy managed by a member of Banyamulenge community. Other communities living this groupement have been contesting a Banyamulenge customary chief on the basis that he has no legitimacy as non-native. The contestation has contributed to mobilize between the dichotomized groups. In Minembwe, the attempt to create this territory around 1999-2000 by one of the 1998 rebel movement, Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD)[6] has undermined recent efforts to enact few localities in this area as a Rural Municipality. A Prime Minister decree of 2013 establishing Cities and Rural Municipalities as part of the Decentralization process has fiercely been contested by neighboring communities of Banyamulenge. Mobilization through social medias and public speeches all over the world have vehemently been linking Minembwe Municipality as an effort to ‘Balkanize’ Congo and annex it to Rwanda[7].      

Along these territorial claims and contestations, local population have been targeted and killed by assailants who could be any gunman, including the national army. Many of the incidents that fuel large violence would have been contained if there was committed and equipped national security services and police. To some extent, the national army is in many of cases been suspected of taking partial stances though one cannot clearly demarcate to FARDC inability to confront armed combatants. However, the security void opens breaches that roll the region under cyclical revenge; by targeting the community of the opponent armed group. The recent crisis has been amplified by the presence of foreign armed groups from Rwanda and Burundi.     

Rwanda versus Burundi: Regional Crisis Spillover

From 2015 up to recently, Uvira-Minembwe high plateau is facing an unprecedented and likely unnoticed humanitarian crisis. The region covering Bijombo (Uvira Territoire) up to Kamombo-Minembwe (Fizi Territoire) and Mibunda (Mwenga Territoire) has been under heavy gun clashes opposing local and foreign armed groups supported by DRC’s neighboring countries. Local armed groups are mainly Mai-Mai and Biloze-Bishambuke[8] affiliated to Babembe, Bafuliiro, Banyindu communities; and Gumino-Twirwaneho affiliated to Banyamulenge. However, there has been an active involvement of foreign groups from Rwanda and Burundi; possibly motivated to find empty spaces for their own agenda in their respective countries.

The following foreign armed[9] are involved Resistance pour un Etat de Droit au Burundi (Red-Tabara), Forces Populaires du Burundi (FPB) formerly known as Forces Républicaines Burundaises (FOREBU) and Front National de Libération (FNL/Nzabampema) who have actively participated next to Maimai. Red-Tabara, FPB, and FNL/Nzabampema are Burundian groups willing to overthrow Nkurunziza’s regime. These three groups are believed to have a in/direct support form Kigali willing to get rid of Bujumbura’s regime. On the other hand, Gumino-Twirwaneho[10] is said to have hosted elements loyal to Kigali’s dissident, General Kayumba Nyamwasa. With an implicit support from Bujumbura, Rwanda National Congress (RNC) of Kayumba Nyamwasa has likely received a support from Nkurunziza’s regime. RNC is willing to overthrow Kagame. From November to December 2018, many of those allegedly called RNC/P5 have moved from Minembwe towards North-Kivu where most of them have been snared and killed by the Congolese army with a probable support of Rwandan force. Few injuries are currently being tried in Rwanda. All these foreign groups as well as local ones had established their strongholds in this region while DRC security services has reluctantly been willing to fight them.

As early pointed out, FARDC is less likely equipped and less motivated to confront these armed groups. Nevertheless, FARDC has launched military operations by late 2018 to fight all armed groups in the region. These military operations have likely gone wrong for several reasons including FARDC incapacity to fight all groups at once. FARDC inability to launch wide military operations had created suspicion over possible collusion with some local groups. There have been accusations of FARDC colluding with some groups to fight others. Whether this is a military tactic or simply a constrained option; in different settings, FARDC had been colluding with some local armed groups to fight others[11]. The process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) led by the national army and other institutions has had many loopholes. Its failure in this region has fueled violence. Consequent to these clashes targeting mainly civilians, the region of Minembwe-Uvira High Plateau has widely been devastated. There are thousands of displaced people whose security is becoming uncertain along these dynamic confrontations.

Unprecedented Humanitarian Crisis

Intense violent clashes had been going on in Uvira-Minembwe High Plateau since 2016 up to now. From Bijombo to Minembwe, this is an area of rough 3000 Km2. From 2016 and recent attacks that broke between February-September 2019, reports have confirmed that hundreds have died; roughly 150 villages have been burnt down; 60% would be villages belonging to Banyamulenge. From Bijombo to Minembwe, around 200,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes and live without shelter[12]. Those who have fled are facing cruel living conditions leading to an unprecedented disaster. This region is inaccessible in terms of roads infrastructures; hence, there are limited humanitarian aid to thousands in needs. Many of the local population have had their properties, such as cattle, raided by armed groups. It is estimated that between February and September 2019, around ten thousand of cow have been looted by gunmen. Cattle around 30000 have been looted by Maimai militias in collaboration with Burundian groups (namely Red-Tabara)[13].

Schools facilities estimated around 60 and 20 heath facilities have also been decimated. Particularly, based on the narratives of fighting ‘invaders’, Banyamulenge community is at large in danger by Mai-Mai militias supported by Burundian groups. It is largely believed that Maimai militias have, for decades vowed to have Banyamulenge either expelled from Congo or wiped out of the map[14]. This threat constitutes an extreme concern that requires an attention of the international community; regardless of armed groups wrongdoing.

Recommendations

Though the context is very complex and multifaceted, the short background enlightens the footprint of suggestions. Departing from the discussion above, this blog post suggests the following interventions in order to particularly stabilize the Uvira-Minembwe High Plateau. On one hand, Bijombo and Minembwe needs an international leverage to find regional solutions in Burundi and Rwanda. Therefore, foreign armed groups operating in this region must be facilitated through all possible means including political debate in their respective countries to alleviate this burden on the shoulder of Congolese. In addition, there is strong need to have Monusco well deployed in these volatile localities to implement its mandate of protecting population so long as the army is relatively weak.

On the other hand, there is a need of working to deflate narratives originating from colonial legacy. There are evidence that some of the colonial accounts were highly distorted for political reasons. Therefore, extensive researches would help to dilute widely believed narratives. Secondly, Bijombo-Minembwe region has limited economic opportunities for young people to find alternatives to guns. Therefore, there is a need of creating conducive economic environment that helps the youth to hope for their future and embark in alternative options.

The era of technology offers arrangements to many people around the world to access and share any sort of information. The Eastern Congo region has unlikely experienced classic Medias. Thus, social medias are main sources of information. Some of the shared information on socil Medias are distorted to serve collective mobilization. Therefore, there is a need of understanding mechanisms through which social medias can contribute largely to positive role. An establishment of this conducive environment must be complemented by clear mechanisms to support demobilized combatants. The DDR has many loopholes to the extent it pushes towards recycling combatants. Lastly, the Congolese government has to take its responsibility to reinforce order within local entities especially within traditional chieftaincies. DRC government must implement and push forward the process of security sector reform. More particularly, the Congolese State must be pressured in this line of having its mission responsibly accomplished.

NTANYOMA Rukumbuzi Delphin

PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com

[1] Suluhu (2017) ‘New mapping & biographies of armed groups in eastern Congo’, December 6. Available at https://suluhu.org/2017/12/06/new-armed-groups-mapping-biographies/ (Accessed on 12th September 2019).

[2] For details on the list of South-Kivu armed groups, see Kivu Security Tracker: https://kivusecurity.org/about/armedGroups (Accessed on 12th September 2019)

[3] Jackson, Stephen (2006) ‘Sons of Which Soil? The Language and Politics of Autochthony in Eastern DR Congo’. African Studies Review, 49:2 (2006) pp.95–124.

[4] Verweijen, J., & Brabant, J. (2017). Cows and guns. Cattle-related conflict and armed violence in Fizi and Itombwe, eastern DR Congo. Journal of Modern African Studies, 55(1), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022278X16000823

[5] Vlassenroot, Koen (2002), ‘Citizenship, identity formation & conflict in South Kivu: the case of the Banyamulenge’, Review of African Political Economy, 29:93-94, pp. 499-516, DOI: 10.1080/03056240208704635

[6] Verweijen, Judith (2015a), ‘From Autochthony to Violence? Discursive and Coercive Social Practices of the Mai-Mai in Fizi, Eastern DR Congo’, African Studies Review, Volume 58, Number 2, pp. 157-180

[7] Fayulu’s speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=619&v=0ZxErT85BIw. This one the influential speech in Lingala of the Martin Fayulu, the 2018 Presidential Candidate. The meeting took place in Kinshasa on 4th August 2019 and he had confirmed that Minembwe is to be annexed to another country, implicitly referring to Rwanda as narratives have been circulating. Honoré Ngbanda has also claimed, Minembwe Rural Municipality has been created to serve secession of Congo (Here’s Ngbanda speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=77sMtKdBuiA )

[8] The group Biloze-Bishambuke is a local armed group that had been initiated by Bafuliro/Banyindu ethnic groups and would literally mean “let it break”. To some extent, the group’s denomination tries to mean that there was something being co structed in an exclusive way and its initiators would mean that if you cannot involve ‘us’, you let it break. Local sources tend to corroborate that it has likely been formed to counter-balance the power of Mai-Mai dominated by Babembe; while confronting Banyamulenge.    

[9] See for details: Vogel, Chritoph and Jason Stearns (2018). Kivu’s intractable security conundrum, revisited. African Affairs, (August), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/ady033; but also Vandeginste, S. (2015). Briefing: Burundi’s electoral crisis – back to power-sharing politics as usual? African Affairs, 114(457), 624–636. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adv045

[10] Gumino is a Banyamulenge affiliated armed group that was initiated sometimes around 1997. It is literally, a concept in Kinyamulenge’s language combining “kuguma ino”; that is, ‘stay here’. It seemingly got initiated to mean a rejection of leaving someone’s ‘home’ when Banyamulenge’s soldiers in AFDL were fighting over multiple explicit and implicit threats that aimed to expel them from Congo. On the other hand, Twirwaneho comprises mainly Banyamulenge civilians who had taken guns as part of their own protection. The Banyamulenge’s concept means “fend for ourselves”

[11] Stearns, Jason, Judith Verweijen and Maria Eriksson Baaz (2013), ‘The national army and armed groups in the eastern Congo: Untangling the Gordian knot of Insecurity’. Rift Valley Institute: Usalama Project. Available at http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1148231/FULLTEXT01.pdf (Accessed on 12th September 2019)

[12] By Deutsche Welle, internal displaced were estimated around 140.000 local population. See for details: Bashi, W. (2019). RDC: situation sécuritaire préoccupante dans les hauts plateaux de Minembwe. Retrieved September 12th, 2019, from https://www.dw.com/fr/rdc-situation-sécuritaire-préoccupante-dans-les-hauts-plateaux-de-minembwe/a-49328274

[13] Reports from local Civil Society organization has pointed out there have been cattle looting since February 2019. Cows raided are estimated around ten thousand. See also different blog’s posts on www.easterncongotribune.com

[14] Stearns, J. (2013). Banyamulenge: Insurgency and exclusion in the mountains of south kivu. The Rift Valley Institute, 1–64.

 

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PhD fellow @ErasmusUnivRotterdam/ISS: Microeconomic Analysis of Conflict. Congolese, blogger advocating 4r Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC In the top of that, proud of being "villageois"

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