Lines through the lake: Why the Congo-Rwanda border can’t be redrawn
Long-standing cultural affinities of Rwandophones in the Great Lakes may appear to bolster Kigali’s historical claims to parts of eastern Congo, but it’s more complicated than it seems.
Two weeks ago, Rwandan President Paul Kagame gave his historical take on the border that separates Rwanda from Congo, prompted by the resurgent M23 rebellion. “The borders that were drawn during colonial times had our countries divided,” he said. “A big part of Rwanda was left outside, in eastern Congo, in southwestern Uganda and so forth and so forth. You have populations in these parts of other countries who have a Rwandese background. But they are not Rwandans, they are citizens of those countries that have absorbed those parts of Rwanda in the colonial times. So this is a fact. It is a fact of history…And these people have been denied their rights.”
While there was no explicit territorial claim in his proposition, it was interpreted in Congolese circles as a desire to redraw the borders of Rwanda and to annex part of the Congo. This interpretation is not wholly unsurprising given a longer history of such territorial claims in Rwandan public discourses going back to at least the First Congo War in 1996-1998. Moreover, it feeds into Congolese fears of ‘balkanisation’: the idea that Rwanda (and sometimes Uganda) are out to annex a part of Congolese territory in order to benefit from its natural resources to the detriment of the Congolese. The battle on the ground in North Kivu is thus extended as a battle of words, in which history has become a weapon in power struggles over identity and geopolitics.
While, in Rwanda, these historical arguments go back to the period before German and Belgian colonisers divided the region amongst themselves, in Congo these arguments use imperial claims as well the principle of the intangibility of African borders as stipulated by the Organization of African Unity in 1964. Eminent Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, for instance, retorted that instead of Rwanda having lost out to Congo, the opposite was true: “As far as the Rwandan-Congolese borders are concerned, there is no ambiguity. If we go back to the first map of the region…of 1885, it is Congo that has land to reclaim from Rwanda, and not the other way round, because on this initial map, the western part of Rwanda was Congolese”.
The scramble for maps
Yet, it was precisely these maps – there were three of them – that caused the ambiguity. They had been drawn by Europeans who only had knowledge of a lake at an approximate location; no European had set foot in the Kivu area before 1894. The first map, produced by the Germans in 1884, in the context of the Berlin Conference claimed the border was in fact located on what is today Congolese territory. One of the other maps divided Rwanda almost in half to add it to the Congo Free State. It is the existence of these different maps that led to disagreements between European powers thus provoking the Kivu border conflict between Germany and the Congo Free State and, from 1908 onwards, Belgium. It was only in 1910 that European powers came to an agreement, and on the ground the border was only demarcated in 1911.
My argument here is not that the current borders should be redrawn, nor that I know where the ‘right’ border could or should have been – the problem is more with what these borders did and do, than with where they were drawn. I am also not interested either in trying to explain whether a certain place was ‘Rwandan’ or ‘Congolese’ at a particular time. As I argue in my forthcoming book, this question is impossible to answer: not only did ‘Congo’ only come into existence as a political entity as a result of this colonial border-making; we also have to be clear what we mean when we say ‘Rwanda’, and how we define it.
‘Every historical fact is open to multiple interpretations’
Indeed, ‘Rwanda’ existed as a kingdom for over a hundred years before colonization. However, it would be wrong to think that we can understand what it was then by looking at it now. What ‘Rwanda,’ meant was never static: in terms of its identity, geography, and political structure, it varied dramatically over time. Current debates about this border are political. Every historical ‘fact’ is open to multiple interpretations, and those interpretations are a manifestation of other, political tensions. So there can likely never be an end – a final, ‘true’ historical interpretation – that ends the debate over the border.
Contrary to much popular belief in Congo, people speaking Kinyarwanda – those we would call today ‘Hutu’, as well as ‘Tutsi’ – lived within the boundaries of what is today the Congo, long before Europeans decided on dividing the continent amongst themselves in 1885. In Rutshuru for example, they had their own land – often marked by the ficus-tree of their ancestors -, their own forms of socio-political organization, and their own leaders – ‘Hutu’ as well as ‘Tutsi’, depending on the locality. In South-Kivu as well, they were present. Today, according to Congolese law they are Congolese – but some Congolese politicians cast doubt on their citizenship, and many Congolese contest it.
But could these places and communities therefore be considered ‘Rwandan’? On this count, it depends on who you would have asked. There was more than one possible answer to this question back then, and that answer depended on the context, and what you mean exactly by ‘Rwandan’. Rwandan historian Emmanuel Ntezimana for example distinguished ‘being Rwandan’ culturally [ikinyarwanda]—a cultural community—from “political facts and military events” – ‘being Rwandan’ politically. In the current Rwandan nation-state these two indeed coincide, but this has not always been the case. Not all Kinyarwanda-speakers have always been included in the Rwandan kingdom. Nor have all those linked or included in the Rwandan kingdom always been necessarily of Rwandan culture – they often had origins elsewhere.
Many of the clans in Bugoyi for instance, around what today is called Rubavu in Rwanda, – just across the border from Goma – claimed their descendance in Gishari, in the mountains of DRC’s Masisi territory. Today we would probably call these people ‘Hunde’ and nobody casts doubt on the ‘Congolese-ness’ of Hunde people. The rulers of the small Bukunzi kingdom – Mbirizi – in Rwanda’s current-day Rusizi district, claimed their origins in Bushi, in DRCs South Kivu. Even until the beginning of the twentieth century, many communities today in Rwanda’s frontier areas defended some kind of independence vis-à-vis the kingdom. And, for many people in western Rwanda, ‘Rwandan’ national identity would never have been the only nor most important label people identified themselves with in the nineteenth century. For many it was regional and/or clan-identities that were most important.
While some would like to frame this defense of political independence as a Tutsi/Hutu divide, they are mistaken. The best example of this are part of the group we call nowadays Banyamulenge: mainly of ‘Tutsi’ origin, they fled the violence of the Rwandan state. Back then they were ‘culturally’ Rwandan yes, but politically they wanted to be independent. ‘Rwandan’ in one sense, then, but not in the other when they moved; and today Congolese. Hence the incongruence of projecting current identities and nationalities into the past when the meanings of these labels were fundamentally different or contested back then.
Some inconvenient pre-colonial truths
Another way history is sometimes used to express territorial aspirations within Rwanda, is to refer to its military prowess. For this, it is relevant to go back to the last three decades of the nineteenth century, during mwami Rwabugiri’s reign (r. 1867-1895), one of Rwanda’s most infamous bami. It was also during his reign that the western part of what is nowadays Rwanda became much more firmly integrated into the Rwandan kingdom. Rwabugiri is also known by lakeside people both on the western and eastern shores, because of his military campaigns. On the western shores – present-day Congo – most of them did not result in long-lasting occupation. For Bushi and Idjwi for example we know that most Rwandans associated with these military campaigns had left – were chased away – before even the Europeans occupied the area.
For what is nowadays Rutshuru (DRC) on the other hand, we know that more successful attempts of territorial occupation had been undertaken: Rwabugiri had constructed courts in several places in the area – even one in today’s military camp in Rumangabo for example. There, he leaned on local rulers – ‘Hutu’ as well as ‘Tutsi’ – to levy taxes, and these rulers were listening to his orders “from a distance”, maintaining links, while keeping a relatively autonomous position. And in other ways, society in Rutshuru differed from that in the heartland of the Rwandan kingdom.
The fundamental question is not – or should not be – whether these events took place, but how they are recounted today and the meanings attributed to them. In Rwanda, these histories are often triumphant renderings of the power and might of the Rwandan kingdom. But they omit the contestations of this power within these areas under (in)direct control. They also leave out that it did not mean that because some of these principalities had accepted alliances and/or delegates from the Rwandan kingdom, that all land and people in between these islands of (in)direct control had accepted Rwandan overlordship. Resistance continued until the turn of the twentieth century. Resistance rallying around the Nyabingi cults in the region that nowadays forms the Rwanda, Congo and Uganda border triangle not only targeted European colonialism but also (delegates from) the Rwandan kingdom. Caravans bringing tribute to the Rwandan mwami were often attacked – a political act.
What colonial boundaries fixed – and what they divided
Before the Westphalian system of (colonial) borders fixed the limits of political power in those spaces ‘for eternity’ (or at least until the downfall of the current state-system), state-formation was a continuous and ongoing process accompanied by territorial expansion as well as retraction; integration as well as disintegration; and changing alliances. Claims that borders should have to be drawn based on a contested situation in the nineteenth century are thus based on a snapshot of a particular time, only consider one perspective, and erase contestations. What colonial borders did was to fix forms of territoriality that had been less permanent before, and that were not necessarily unilaterally accepted. Projecting back such fixity on a pre-colonial past is thus anachronistic.
Finally, the colonial border did not only divide those ‘being Rwandan’ culturally from each other. It also divided communities who might not have shared the same language and culture, but who nevertheless had very similar cultural practices. They were furthermore tied together through kinship, bloodpacts, and commercial links – and they often provided refuge to each other in times of trouble, even before the arrival of the Europeans. While Rwabugiri’s campaigns are easily mobilized today in order to ‘prove’ that Rwanda is Congo’s natural enemy, this hides internal struggles in, for instance, the Bushi region. More importantly, it also hides the histories of connections and solidarity across the fluid boundaries of communities around lake Kivu.
Colonial borders are a tangible inheritance of the violent, racist and extractive system that colonialism was. They made ethnic as well as national identities more rigid and exclusive. Moreover, Belgian colonialism contributed to shaping the perception of Kinyarwanda-speakers, and especially Tutsi, as ‘eternal immigrants’ in Congo. But there is a reason why the Organization of African Union decided in 1964 on the intangibility of African borders. Today, there are no straightforward historical arguments which can justify that the Rwandan-Congolese border should be redrawn. Who could govern where, and on what basis that authority was based, was contested already back then, and not only now. It is a political, not a historical question. The concept of being ‘Congolese’ did not exist at the time these borders were drawn. The concept of being ‘Rwandan’ did exist, but did not necessarily mean the same thing, or did not mean the same thing everywhere throughout those areas today claimed and/or considered ‘Rwandan’. Arguing about ‘who belongs where’ today by projecting these contemporary identities back into the past before borders were demarcated makes little sense. What these identities mean today is – at least partially – a product of these borders, and not the other way around.