To well grapple the meaning of this blog post, the reader would recall that Colette Braeckman was convinced that horns of Banyamulenge’s cattle can shoot an AK47 bullets. That is the same story while this time, it is the UN body reporting.
Part of my blogging and personal interests, I have been following the crisis in Minembwe-Bijombo since 2015. In one single sentence, one can state that the crisis is too complex due to many actors involved and their maneuvers to wrap up some of its features. This complexity has limited appropriate interventions possibly due to how the crisis has fallen within the popular narratives that have been constructed from 60s onwards. Some of these narratives have interfered within processes through which recommendations and conclusions are drawn. Therefore, international organizations and the UN system have unlikely managed to carefully examine how they are being thrown on a wrong path. One of these structures is Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The blog refers to a recent note (signed on 16th October 2019) and shared to many international organizations working in the Eastern Congo.
Through informal networks, I received one of OCHA’s briefing note which raises concerns over why this crisis will never get to an end until it smashes the weaker―vulnerable. The short summary was elaborated by an influential official within the OCHA and whose position can mislead the whole world; and mainly, the UN system. For the sake of fairness, I will argue those interested to crosscheck my bias by requesting a public release of this document and rely on informal UN networks. My intent is to only suggest that Bijombo-Minembwe crisis can constitute a case study to learn―review how UN structures work in polarized contexts. It is an opportunity to warn over consequences that have arisen from oversimplifying violent crises. I am afraid, there might be nothing to save in Minembwe though this contribution can help to grapple the way these reports are elaborated in different contexts. How did it go?
- OCHA’s Report and Its Shortfalls
An official mission comprising NRC, OCHA, UNFPA and UNICEF members visited Minembwe and Mikenke. The most recent mission was conducted between 24th to 27th September 2019. It intended to touch the reality on the ground and understand contours of this Humanitarian crisis. The note fails on a first place when it comes to defining its causes. The note stipulates that the main problem in the region turns around land use and its subsequent call for “changes in administrative boundaries”. Though highly debatable, I would restrain to discuss the term changes in administrative boundaries. Moreover, the brief note defines the background of the crisis in three main orientations: conflict between Banyamulenge and Bantu tribes (1); refusal to pay grazing rights to customary chiefs (2); burning vegetations (with a possibility of burning fields) during dry seasons to turn these into pastures (3). Strikingly, the report doesn’t refer to the presence of foreign armed groups involved in this crisis. The UN affiliated note considers that ‘Bantu’ are Babembe, Banyindu, and Bafuliro while Banyamulenge remains unidentified. One can guess that these officials would implicitly call Banyamulenge ‘Nilotes or Tutsi’.
An oversimplification of the crisis is: During the dry season, the note confirms that Banyamulenge’s cattle, all the way to grazing region, pass through lands belonging to Bantu chiefs. Here’s the quote taken from the document: “In the dry season they [Banyamulenge] lead their herds to lower ground to graze passing through land that belongs to the Bantu chiefs.” At the same time, Banyamulenge’s refuse to pay grazing rights (namely ituro) which has triggered assassinations of Bantu chiefs when the latter attempt to chase off herds. The ‘targeted killings’ of Bantu’s chief retaliate into attacks against Banyamulenge. Consequently, members of the Bantu tribes have a single choice of fleeing this region; that is why it becomes later a ‘HAVEN’. This a straightforward and clear accusation that determines who is guilty. Without any hesitation, the wrongdoer is the one who refuses to pay grazing’s rights while exploiting others’ land; instead, he kills customary chiefs. Besides isolated cases, the alleged killing of customary chiefs has become a mobilization narrative Had OCHA a database of how many customary chiefs were killed in the grazing region? That is extremely worrying if the UN can record and give credit to such information.
In the same line, burning vegetations is an explanation of the current crisis; though likely a recent one. Looking for grazing spaces falls within the dichotomized scheme of farmers and herders. One missing point is that, these officials have no clues that Bafuliro and Banyindu have become cattle herders. Thousands of families have their own cows, and these have never been subjected to such debates. Moreover, the region we have grown up, burning spaces of vegetations (thousands of kms) is something common to all communities. It is even the same technique that traditional agriculture uses when farming (known possibly as slash-and-burn agriculture). My question was then, how come so that burning vegetations (as called) would be a fault to those who are not Bantu?
- Oversimplify and Downplay Incidence of Violence
The OCHA briefing report notes that 15,000 out of 334,000 heads of cattle have been “rustled” while the remaining have been dying for lacking grazing spaces. Unless OCHA had met Monusco’s sources, local population have reported that, around the period of March 2019 onward, more than 26,850 heads of cattle were looted violently by Maimai. The sense of reporting a half of it may be subjected to diverse interpretation. Moreover, I am slightly convinced that 334,000 cows are in Minembwe. I tend to read something aiming to downplay the strategy of impoverishing cattle owners. Whenever you have accused someone of killing Bantu chiefs to get grazing spaces; if Maimai ‘steal’ 4.5% of your cattle; that is reasonable. Nonetheless, the blogger believes that cattle looting is a systematic military strategy, well-thought, to impoverish cattle herders. In addition, the OCHA’s note seems to overstate the power of traditional chiefs in relation to cattle Razzias. OCHA’s senior official disregards that gunmen use this force to coerce even customary chiefs and the latter have limited abilities to leverage Maimai when they decide to loot cattle.
The UN went further by identifying that within security services, some are Banyamulenge other are “Bantu”. The report states that there seem to be tensions between these dichotomized groups. In addition, one reads that FARDC soldiers have accused Banyamulenge officers of being rude when it comes to protect “Bantu”communities. Such accusations are taken as granted and likely inspired from the Holy Spirit. The report gives credit while there was no single member of the Banyamulenge community when these accusations were being presented. There was no member of Banyamulenge community who attended discussions with traditional leaders and FARDC officers. That is sincerely boring note when comparing the two following statements: (1) “Several FARDC members said unprompted that the senior Banyamulenge officers were not interested in protecting members of the three tribes [Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro]”; (2) “In the discussion with traditional leaders and FARDC no Banyamulenge were not present. This suggests that this equilibrium is unstable and could fall into violence.” I hope the reader would try to check what went wrong somewhere.
To cut short this story, I would argue OCHA to never consider currently Minembwe as the safer location for the Banyamulenge. Whilst facing regular and systematic attacks, it sounds WEIRD to share with colleagues that “The area [Minembwe] has since [September 2019] become a haven for Banyamulenge and their cattle from clashes in surrounding mixed areas.” The statement seems resulting from the fact that other tribes have fled this region. There indications that some have fled because they were warned of attacks to destroy the rural municipality. Instead, I wish OCHA’s officials have read that Minembwe has become a HELL than a HAVEN. Otherwise, OCHA seems expressing that a plot against the “world order” could emerge from this HAVEN. Lastly, the note highlights the village of Kalingi in relation to an “assassination of Bantu chief” in a vague presentation. It is hard, except the author, to understand what is meant there. How many Bantu chiefs were assassinated? Briefly, I will suggest that, the UN system needs to learn from this experience and well-read historically violence at micro-level.
NTANYOMA R. Delphin
PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics
The Institute of Social Studies/
Erasmus University Rotterdam