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  • Writer's pictureTom Shacklock

28 Years After Rwanda, Anti-Tutsism Still Kills in Congo

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

Banyamulenge men at a herder's funeral (Credit: ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images)

By Tom Shacklock

Each year, April 7th marks the day to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when around 800,000 ethnic Tutsi, Hutu moderates, and Twa were exterminated by Hutu extremists. It is also a day to reflect on the international community’s decision not to intervene, instead leaving this role to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Uganda-based rebel group of Tutsi refugees who had fled persecution by Rwanda’s Hutu Power regime after independence from Belgium. In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda to end Tutsi persecution, fighting the French-backed Rwandan army in a civil war that subsequently led to the 1994 genocide. Although the RPF also perpetrated serious abuses during this period, it ended the genocide as it took control of Rwanda in July 1994. However, the “domino effect” that the genocide and civil war had across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, then Zaire), where many Rwandan Hutu refugees fled fearing reprisals from the RPF, contributed to more violence and death in the region in the Congo Wars (1996-2003). This was the case particularly for the Congolese Tutsi of North Kivu province and the related Banyamulenge of South Kivu.

The Legacy of Colonialism

The Rwandan Hutu refugee crisis collided with a socio-political crisis that had been intensifying in Zaire for years, in parallel with conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi. Furthermore, the crises in these countries concerned the same ethnic groups and were fueled by similar narratives. One particular colonial-era myth tied the three countries’ crises together: the Hamitic Hypothesis. This myth constructed pastoralist, historically nomadic Nilotic groups of Central Africa’s Great Lakes Region, including Tutsi, as racially superior people who had come from the Horn of Africa to dominate “indigenous” or “autochthonous” Bantu farmer groups, such as Hutu. Its effects on anti-Tutsism have played out differently in each country. Whereas anti-Tutsi resentment in Rwanda was based on the Tutsi’s higher status under colonialism, the Belgian rulers excluded Banyamulenge from having their own chiefdoms, establishing the perception they were not “indigenous.” Hence, by constructing “exploiters” and “outsiders,” colonial-era mythology entrenched anti-Tutsism regionally.

Congolese Hutu and Tutsi are known collectively as “Banyarwanda” or “Rwandophones”. They largely migrated to North Kivu under Belgian colonial rule. Anti-Rwandophone sentiment is prominent in the DRC today, partly due to Rwanda’s role in the Congo Wars. Rwandophones were affected by Zaire’s 1981 nationality law, which revoked citizenship for groups that had arrived in the country after 1885 when colonial rule began. Hostilities continued with the DRC’s post-war 2004 nationality law, which moved the cut-off date to 1960. While this more recent law included Hutu, it has been seen as a way to exclude Tutsi from citizenship, as many Tutsi refugees arrived in North Kivu after 1960. In contrast, Banyamulenge have lived in South Kivu since before 1885. In theory, they should have been protected under both nationality laws. However, in practice, they have not been able to escape the DRC’s anti-Tutsi policies.

The Congo Wars and Their Aftermath

In the 1990s, Zaire’s attempted democratization process exacerbated existing ethnic divisions. The state's collapse was accompanied by the formation of ethnic-based, self-styled “autochthonous” militias that became known as “Mai-Mai.” In 1993, in North Kivu, militias started targeting ethnic Hutu and Tutsi. In 1994, this conflict was compounded by the influx of Rwandan Hutu refugees, including Hutu extremists who allied with Congolese Hutu to target Tutsi. In 1995, the Zairian Parliament ordered all Rwandan “immigrants” and “refugees” to leave, indiscriminately grouping all of Zaire’s demonized Rwandophones into this category. In 1996, Banyamulenge and Tutsi joined a Rwandan-backed insurgency, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), which aimed to overthrow long-time Zairian Dictator Joseph Sese Seko Mobutu, whom most Mai-Mai now supported. The AFDL insurgency triggered an intensified persecution of Banyamulenge that developed into a time of devastation for many, including Rwandan Hutu refugees, in the First Congo War.

Once the First Congo War ended in 1997, and Congolese AFDL leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila became president of the newly renamed Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), diplomatic relations deteriorated between Kabila and Rwanda. The latter backed a new insurgency, starting the Second Congo War (1998-2003) and the Kabila government propagated anti-Tutsi rhetoric, including incitements to a genocide that caused massacres of Banyamulenge and Tutsi. When peace talks ended the war, Tutsi remained vulnerable. In 2004, Burundian Hutu rebels massacred 150 Banyamulenge at Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Meanwhile, most Banyamulenge were distancing themselves from Rwanda, which continued supporting insurgencies in North Kivu from 2004 to 2013, including the March 23 (M23) movement. These insurgencies were driven by Tutsi insecurities, but their brutal actions reinforced anti-Tutsi prejudices. Additionally, though most Banyamulenge and Hutu opposed these insurgencies, all Rwandophones remain collectively associated with them. Past decisions Banyamulenge took to secure their survival also remain a source of anti-Banyamulenge sentiment.

Hatred With Consequences

Anti-Tutsism is often articulated through the “balkanization” conspiracy theory. This claims Rwandophones are conspiring to help Rwanda annex the eastern DRC and build a Hamitic empire, displaying similarities with the “great replacement theory” in the West. Civilians in North Kivu have expressed concern that the return of Tutsi refugees from Rwanda would complete Rwanda’s annexation. Politicians have cited the theory to oppose attempts to grant Banyamulenge a local political entity. The theory also feeds into intolerance towards the Banyamulenge’s pastoralist way of life, as reported incidents of cows trampling on farmers’ crops are framed as malicious acts of trespass by invaders. There are also similarities between anti-Banyamulenge sentiment and forms of anti-nomadism worldwide. Such intolerance is particularly dangerous in a context where a history of traumatic war has been followed by years of ineffective governance and protracted insecurity, including socioeconomic insecurity, where elites capitalize on people’s fears and grievances. In South Kivu, Mai-Mai have been targeting Banyamulenge with expressive violence, accompanied by incitements to their extermination, and recognized by Genocide Watch as a “slow genocide.”

The deadliness of anti-Tutsism is threefold. First, Tutsi are demonized and attacked because of their ethnicity. Second, the insecurity this creates leads some Tutsi to form armed groups, causing more abuse and civilian deaths. Third, these responses are seen to reinforce narratives that justify anti-Tutsi rhetoric and violence, often with genocidal implications. The recent M23 re-emergence will likely exacerbate anti-Tutsism. From a peacebuilding and justice perspective, it is important to confront difficult truths about abuses by all actors, but without overlooking the main socio-political dynamics of violence in the region. Combined with the complexities and multitude of the country’s neglected challenges, anti-Rwandophone sentiment remains a strong current in Congolese society. Recent footage of a mob murdering a Banyamulenge army major signaled to his community the levels of hatred against them. Internationally, there appears to be an institutionalized disinterest in taking this threat seriously, despite the link with the Rwandan genocide. Instead, a show of global solidarity could help protect Tutsi and their fellow Congolese citizens from more devastation.

Tom Shacklock is a Senior Research and Advocacy Manager​ at Genocide Watch.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.

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