Kinshasa’s socio-political debates have been the weekly breaking news in the mountains and jungles of Eastern DRC, where people are beset by violence, thousands of miles away. A few weeks back, the political debate focused on the expected breakup of the “FCC-CACH” ruling coalition. President Tshisekedi Felix had finally resolved to get rid of his controversial ally, former President Joseph Kabila. The two allies had been playing a game of cat and mouse, and Tshisekedi was unexpectedly the winner. Within two years, Felix Tshisekedi was kick out Vital Kamerhe’s political party and reverse the political balance in both parliamentary bodies in Kinshasa. Tshisekedi’s political party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) seems set to do any deals necessary – through deals even with the devil himself – in order to stay in political power for some years to come. As the 2023 general elections are approaching, members of UDPS have requested that the 2023 general elections should be conditional on a general census of the Congolese population for the first time in almost 40 years.
The last full Congolese census of the population was in 1984. Conducting a new census is clearly a project of national importance, and should be a priority. However, making the 2023 general elections conditional on the census is problematic. These are two different issues, each with different and distinct objectives; the long-awaited population census should not be politicised in this way. It was the UDPS who was vehemently against the idea of former President Joseph Kabila to delay elections on the basis that a population census should first be conducted. Current UDPS General Secretary, Augustin Kabuya commented at the time (2015), of Kabila’s plan to organize the census, that « Comme ils se sont rendus compte que la communauté internationale ne veut pas entendre parler de révision constitutionnelle, ils mettent en place d’autres stratégies pour dépasser le délai ». Since it is possible to update the voters’ registry through existing mechanisms, collecting information about those eligible to vote, in reality the population census has nothing to do with organizing elections.
The DRC still struggles to fairly allocate its budget, and given this the cost of the census exercise is prohibitive, estimated around 350 million US dollars. Whether the proposal of the UDPS is based on good faith or not, it seems that national priorities should be based on ending widespread violence in Eastern DRC and improving the overall socio-economic conditions of ordinary Congolese people. Alongside the threat of terrorism in Ituri and Grand Nord, Eastern DRC has been experiencing violence that targets specific ethnic groups living on the very edge of survival. The most dramatic examples include persecution of the Hema of Ituri (see paragraph 81) and of the Banyamulenge of the High Plateau of Uvira/Fizi (mainly Minembwe). Felix Tshisekedi promised to end the violence if he was elected. But instead, he seems to be sending smoke signals that push his supporters across DRC to believe he is cast in the same mold as his predecessor, and is willing to use the ‘ethnic’ card to his own advantage. As well as giving a bad impression of his administration, in Beni, Djugu, Masisi, Minembwe people are slightly preoccupied with both the general elections and the question of conducting a general census. Below are a few questions about the kind of despair facing the population in Ituri, Minembwe and others living through similar situations of violent persecution.
- What is the current military situation in Minembwe after the Italian ambassador’s assassination?
On February 22, 2021, the late Ambassador of Italy in DRC, Luca Attanasio, was cruelly murdered by unidentified killers in North Kivu, 25 kms from Goma the capital city. The assassination of an Ambassador this short a distance from Goma, within a few meters of areas under national army control, raises many questions that can only be answered by an independent investigative enquiry. What the assassination of Luca Attanasio has revealed is just how volatile and uncertain it still is to live or move about in Eastern DRC. Even though the local population daily experience the threat of violence, the international community can learn from Luca’s assassination that where violence replaces the law, its effects do not spare anyone. Although the ambassador was killed in Kibumba, and this is some distance from Minembwe, the insecure setting implies has similar implication in both places.
The socio-security situation in Minembwe has been worsening over time, with Banyamulenge people already living under siege for around two years now. Military officers within the FARDC operating in Minembwe still ally themselves with MaiMai forces, while Burundian rebel groups such as Red Tabara reinforce their military positions via support from Kigali, among other sources. Recently attacks took place in Uvira territory where different communities were still managing to live in relative harmony. Four people were killed in mid-March, and hundreds of cattle were looted. Villages were burned down once again, as elsewhere in Eastern DRC. In late February, Col. Sematama Charles, former commander of the 3411th FARDC operating in Masisi (North Kivu) deserted. He then decided to join the Banyamulenge self-defence group, Twirwaneho, because of his frustration that military officers whose ethnic community is facing extermination were forced in the army to serve as accomplices of a slow genocide. His desertion will add to the rhetoric around the “Banyamulenge military”, said to be organising a rebellion, but in reality, fighting to ensure the survival of the civilian population. Locally, the presence of Col. Sematama may somewhat counterbalance the military power of the MaiMai, who are busy attacking Banyamulenge already internally displaced. Of course, the level of trust among FARDC officers will be damaged, once again.
The assassination of Ambassador Luca Attanasio also raises another concern around the general situation in Minembwe. This dramatic assassination in North-Kivu of an international diplomat was followed by controversial declarations from within DRC, as well as regionally. Observers have noted how quick the DRC government was to accuse dissident Rwandan rebels operating in Eastern DRC, notably the FDLR. Later DRC government declarations contradicted these early accusations, to some extent. This assassination took place as Kinshasa-Kigali negotiations opened, with a view to neutralizing armed groups in Eastern Congo through cooperating on the ground. There have already been three rounds (talks) of negotiations between Rwanda and DRC between security officials. Rwanda wishes to cast the FDLR as prime suspects in Luca’s assassination. The FDLR has dismissed these accusations. Can this assassination reinforce RDF-FARDC cooperation, with a view to ending the violence in Eastern DRC? The RDF’s intervention alongside FARDC will certainly be perceived as a threat to the armed groups engaged in attacks on Minembwe and Ituri. Since the evidence suggests that Kigali has been supporting Red-Tabara, and since they have allied with MaiMai to attack and impoverish Banyamulenge, the RDF’s intervention in Congo might end this unholy alliance?
- How do you see the future of Minembwe municipality, given the total indifference of Congolese political leaders?
One could speculate that President Felix Tshisekedi recently suspended Minembwe rural municipality because of “rational” electoral calculations. No other rural municipality is subjected to the same contestation. The wider Congolese public appears to have been led to believe that even one single administrative entity in the hand of the Banyamulenge, is one too many. Though decentralisation is intended to devolve central and provincial tasks and responsibilities to decentralized entities, supporting this rural municipality does not necessarily chime with the President’s own agenda and priorities. Is Felix Tshisekedi willing to buy the support of the majority of the South Kivu population for 2023, in exchange for sacrificing the Banyamulenge on the altar of political convenience? It appears that he took this decision to compensate the breach created by the divorce with Kamerhe’s political party and arrest.
Nonetheless, what matters for the Banyamulenge as for other Congolese in rural and remote areas is their own security and safety. Like many other Congolese civilians, Banyamulenge people have never much felt the direct presence of state authority in their everyday lives. In Minembwe, local people are literally hovering on the edge of extermination, and no rural municipality in the Banyamulenge name can save these civilian IDPs, until there is an end to rejection and discrimination against ‘Rwandaphones’ en masse, by other Congolese. The significance of Minembwe municipality for the Banyamulenge all over the world is linked mainly to challenging the agrarian and racially-based idea of ‘autochtony’ as belonging to all but the “Rwandaphones” in today’s Congolese society. The fact that even those Banyamulenge living in the US or Australia care about the suspension of rural Minembwe municipality, shows the powerful symbolism of Banyamulenge being entitled to “manage” at least one local entity, and thus fully ‘belonging’ to the DRC population.
Irrespective of whether there may have been irregularities in the creation of such rural communes and cities through decentralisation measures, this is not why rural Minembwe municipality was dissolved. The argument was simply, to put it crudely: “they are not native Congolese”. Anyone who has followed the debate that took place when the Decentralization Minister was summoned by Parliament can appreciate that this sentiment of rejection is what lies behind countless hate speeches against the Banyamulenge in recent times. During parliamentary debates, Members of Parliament made shameless and misleading claims, including by associating this single rural municipality with plans to dismantle and ‘Balkanise’ the DRC by Rwanda. The question of rural Minembwe municipality or any other initiative to devolve state powers to a Banyamulenge or Rwandaphone community at local level in DRC, is thus entirely political. The very survival of the Banyamulenge in the face of an on-going slow-moving genocide, is at stake. Serious efforts are lacking to sustainably solve the problems at the grassroots, and end the violence against minorities, the prime example being the on-going violence against Banyamulenge.
- What can you say about identification of Banyamulenge as Congolese citizens, for the 2023 election, and in case the government in Kinshasa fails to recognise Minembwe as a municipality?
It seems strange to be discussing the question of the census of the population, in a context of being part of a community that does not know if the day they will still be alive. This is why simply recognizing Minembwe as a rural municipality, whilst it is important, does not solve the Banyamulenge question in Eastern DRC. Rather there is a much wider problem of the underlying contestation of this community as authentically Congolese. Whilst the shrinking Banyamulenge population of the Minembwe High Plateau hope the international community will eventually come to their support, their last resort is self-defence against attacks and starvation. Neither the 2023 general elections nor the census, if it is conducted, will change that situation. We can expect the Hema of Ituri to take a similar stance, as well as victims of ADF barbarity in Grand-Nord (Beni, Butembo) and Ituri.
Nevertheless, in case a census does take place, there are a few aspects that need to be considered. Firstly, hundreds of thousands of Banyamulenge as well as many other Congolese have already fled en masse from Eastern Congo to seek shelter in neighbouring countries such as Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, as well as further afield. Some fled between 1996 and the present day. The Congolese state has never made any effort to identify those who fled or invited them to return to Congo. This speaks volumes, in itself. Will the proposed census help the Congolese refugees across the great lakes region to return home? Some of those who sought refuge in these neighbouring countries have attempted to return to Congo and were unfortunately not welcomed due to their status of being contested. But those who have fled their villages since 2017, are mostly still in the DRC, and are literally starving in the limited localities where thousands are besieged without any humanitarian assistance whatsoever. Apparently, they have been completely forgotten or overlooked by the international community. In such conditions, Banyamulenge and other persecuted Rwandaphones will keep leaving the Congo and will flee towards neighbouring countries to find protection and refuge. It seems a supreme irony that the state will ask those displaced internally among persecuted communities to fill in a census form and be promised free and fair elections, when in fact they are living in extremely harsh conditions.
For most Congolese people living in Eastern DRC, there remains a notable lack of physical security, along with widespread and chronic poverty and socio-economic insecurity. It is hard to see anything positive about the proposals to conduct a population census soon, given the scale of these unmet needs among Congolese civilians. Rather, it can be suggested that Felix Tshisekedi and his administration should focus on ending the terrible cycles of violence continuing to ravage Eastern Congo, and that the state work harder to establish basic infrastructures throughout the country. Only with better transport, schools and good health facilities will the entire population’s needs finally start to be met, reducing the attractions of resorting to arms as a way of earning a living.
Although the presidential elections were tainted by numerous irregularities, one might still hope that President Tshiskedi would decide to spend his years in office concentrating on supporting the Congolese and living up to their early expectations of him. The president does not obtain legitimacy through elections alone, but through the hope of the population that he is going to change their conditions of life, as he promised in his inaugural speech. It seems that with all the “good intentions” and the promises he made to the Congolese, his hands are still tied by the same Congolese who want him to work for the country, but not necessarily for all those who are Congolese.
Ntanyoma and Hintjens
NB: for readers interested in the French version, Congo Virtuel has published it.
The UDPS Secretary General’s statement can be translated as “As they [Kabila’s regime] realize the international community does not want to hear about the constitutional change , the regime is putting in pace other strategies to delay the  general elections.”