North Kivu’s nationality and the manipulation of ethnicity: A toxic mix
The relationship between nationality and ethnicity in Africa’s Great Lakes region is much debated – sometimes verbally, but more often violently. And this relationship is also a key component to any discussion on citizenship. Ethnicity is not intrinsically violent, despite media portrayals that suggest otherwise. But its relationship with national dynamics, specifically its position vis a vis national citizenship, has allowed it to become an object of manipulation for political elites and a substantial source of instability. Thus the role of ethnicity within the national arena remains unresolved, and this ambiguity is a critical driver in cycles of violence throughout the region.
Yet all too often this root cause of conflict is overlooked, with attention focused on the symptoms of conflict. Nowhere is this more the case than in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where discussions of the conflict tend to focus on its many tangible facets, including the role of minerals in exacerbating conflict; high levels of militarisation; and the chronic use of rape and sexual violence. All of these factors are extremely important and need to be addressed. Yet ultimately, they are symptoms of root causes that are driving the conflict. And if those are not addressed, peace and development cannot take root.
Recent research carried out by the International Refugee Rights Initiative and the Social Science Research Council (Who Belongs Where? Conflict, Displacement, Land and Identity in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo) illuminates some of these root causes. The research among those displaced from the conflict in eastern DRC’s North Kivu province suggests that ongoing violence remains rooted in a lack of clarity over the critical question of citizenship in the region, and specifically over the relationship between national identity and ethnic allegiance. The war is seen as both an external conflict that is being played out on Congolese soil, and one that draws upon pre-existing localised divisions. Both of these aspects relate to disputes over the definition of who legitimately belongs as a citizen in DRC, and are mostly expressed in ethnic terms. The fact that this dispute over citizenship has persisted throughout the recent fighting emphasises the fact that the cyclical forces that drive the conflict have not been broken. It is therefore apparent that the ebb and flow of the war – reduced hostility leading to increased optimism for sustainable peace followed by renewed bouts of fighting – could persist indefinitely unless root causes of conflict are addressed.
So how can ethnicity be accommodated within this highly charged environment? For many of those interviewed the solution to ethnic-based fractures within communities, and therefore to violence, was to construct a Congolese national identity that could over-ride ethnicity. If properly realised, national identity represents political systems working in ethnically neutral ways that would offer genuine protection – an antidote to the ethnic allegiances that are seen to be the cause of conflict and suffering. As a displaced man in Rutshuru said, “This thing could be settled by making us feel that we are one people and are Congolese.”
However, there was something of a paradox at the heart of this discussion: on the one hand there was a strongly anti-ethnic and pro-nationalist emphasis. Yet at the same time it was clear that the basis for national belonging was inextricably tied to ethnicity. While Congolese identity might offer an alternative to violent expressions of ethnicity, in practice the links between Congolese identity and ethnicity are hard to separate and disputes over their relationship is at the root of much of the violence. This paradox is further reflected in a new law on nationality adopted by the country’s transitional government in November 2004. This law is an improvement on previous legislation. It is generally inclusive and offers the possibility of asserting citizenship to most of the contested populations. However, it keeps the philosophy of ethnicity as the basis for national membership alive, ensuring that ethnicity retains its linkages with citizenship – and, therefore, remains a potential source of violence.
In particular, the extent to which groups and individuals have apparently identified along ethnic rather than national lines during the conflict has revealed a level of split allegiance that is considered unacceptable within a strong nationalist discourse on Congolese identity. For instance trans-national ethnic identities – in this context, Hutu and Tutsi – are seen to negate national allegiance and to be the cause of violence that has been exported from Rwanda. In other words, those who show ethnic allegiance that crosses borders are seen as somehow un-Congolese. This subjective interpretation of nationality shows the huge gap between law and the lived reality of citizenship. As a displaced woman living in Masisi said, “there are those we refer to as Banyarwanda. These ones feel they are Congolese, and yet at the same time they have that feeling that they are Rwandan – at least they know that they had an origin from Rwanda. Others even keep going and coming back.” Those who went voluntarily to Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide are viewed as particularly suspect: their “return” to Rwanda is seen as evidence that they were never truly Congolese.
However, many interviewees also suggested that Kinyarwanda speakers could be legitimately recognised as Congolese if they renounced their cross-border ethnic ties. In this respect, Congolese identity was seen not only as a potential antidote to violence – an alternative to the destructive articulations along ethnic lines – but as a means for individuals to distance themselves from what is taking place. As one refugee woman living in Uganda said, “this war can only end when the Tutsi agree to stay under the government of Congo and leave tribalism.”
These perceptions reflect the extent to which those living in North Kivu (or displaced from it) see the potential, even if not the reality, of a functioning Congolese national identity – an identity that somehow supersedes the current fragmentation and parochialism that is proving to be so destructive. Yet because the state to which this nationality is supposed to be attached has fundamentally failed, ethnicity remains vulnerable to manipulation. And so the whole cycle of violence begins again.
So what is the way forward? If proper functioning of political power based on a fair understanding of Congolese national identity is, indeed, part of the solution, what does this show us with regard to moving towards this end – however idealistic this outcome might seem? The failure of the Congolese state is a well rehearsed fact. Yet its theoretical value is somehow recognised by those who, in reality, have been a victim of this failure. Somewhat perversely, this offers a degree of hope.
However, citizenship needs to be built on something more substantial than what is, effectively, a weak state – as experienced through partisan power structures and widespread displacement caused by a lack of state protection. Indeed, the challenges currently facing DRC are immense: weak institutions, a demoralised and ill-disciplined army, a cornered militia hiding in impenetrable forest, and hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced and traumatised. In addition to the immediate need to de-militarise the region and restore law and order, long-term stability will only be ensured through state reconstruction at both a local and national level: local power bases must become genuinely democratic and interact with national processes – and vice versa. This will create the context in which citizenship can be de-ethnicised and allow for ethnic identities, and other forms of localised allegiance, to function freely alongside national understandings of belonging.
*Dr. Lucy Hovil is Senior Researcher, Citizenship and Displacement in the Great Lakes region, a joint research and advocacy initiative of the International Refugee Rights Initiative and the Social Science Research Council.