• Tom Shacklock

Addressing the Banyamulenge’s Plight in DR Congo, Part 2

False Dichotomies Between Conflict and Genocidal Violence

Photo: Mikenge, in the highlands of South Kivu on June 1, 2020. (MONUSCO/Alain Likota)

The crisis in the South Kivu Plateaux in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has seen a coalition of ethnic-based Mai-Mai militias outnumber a coalition of Banyamulenge groups, has been complex, with abuses on all sides. Yet, complexities can be cited to minimize the significance of certain dynamics. Such arguments can be examples of false dichotomies, where ideas are considered mutually exclusive when they may rather intersect or be interrelated or mutually reinforcing. Denial mechanisms regarding a possible Banyamulenge genocide can sometimes be based on false dichotomies. In 2019, a source from MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping mission, said there was no genocide but “some ethnic cleansing of the Banyamulenge and other communities.” While this statement captured the suffering of all communities, it reinforced some false equivalences. Furthermore, some consider “ethnic cleansing” a term for genocide denial because it has no legal meaning, while its implications can complement elements of genocide. Even insightful research publications on this crisis contain false dichotomies. While not all areas discussed in this blog are examples of false dichotomies per se, they include important nuances that, perhaps inadvertently, can feed into a false dichotomy between recognizing genocide or asymmetric victimization and addressing complex violence.

In academic literature, explanations for violence across the DRC are often subject to dichotomization. Research findings on localized conflicts are seen to reduce the importance of national and regional dimensions, while incentives created by “conflict minerals” are seen to outweigh identarian factors of violence. Regarding the South Kivu Plateaux, one important paper titled “Mayhem in the Mountains” and other related articles challenge the suitability of the term “ethnic conflict.” They argue ethnic identity is only one of various factors driving violence, including contestations over local authority, territory, access to land and resources, the taxation of goods, and the movement of cattle (transhumance). Indeed, only focusing on ethnicity produces simplistic, essentialist explanations for violence, armed mobilization, and community-based support for armed groups. Yet, arguing the violence is “not ethnic” downplays the way this same research and previous publications show that material factors intersect with ethnicity and are susceptible to ethnicization when linked with socioeconomic insecurity and perceived security dilemmas. For example, farmers more likely feel strongly about Banyamulenge cattle trampling on their farmland than about abstract anti-Banyamulenge conspiracy theories. Given the effective popularization of such theories and narratives about being collectively victimized by Banyamulenge, they can become inseparable from material grievances.

The build-up of different factors of violence can feed into less visible undercurrents of the crisis. Kivu Security Tracker has suggested some Mai-Mai are trying to remove Banyamulenge from their homelands. Incitements to genocide may be indicative of the intent behind different anti-Banyamulenge attacks. Additionally, genocidal intent may not necessarily be the direct or stated intent behind every incident of anti-Banyamulenge violence. Instead, general intolerance towards the group can be secondary to more immediate factors. Though there may be specific triggers for incidents, including tensions over resources, a defining source of division between the two armed coalitions is the belief that Banyamulenge are “outsiders.” Separate incidents can reflect an underlying preference among Mai-Mai and some supporters for the non-existence or removal of Banyamulenge. For example, in 2020, the creation of the Minembwe municipality, which would give Banyamulenge more local political representation, was suspended after provoking hateful backlash. The “Mayhem in the Mountains” paper cautions against overstating the direct impact this issue had on violence, instead underlining its indirect effects on intercommunity relations. Nonetheless, while clearly identifying causal links between certain discourses and incidents is challenging, these indirect links remain significant. Such discourses feed into beliefs about indigeneity, rendering Banyamulenge vulnerable.

Another dimension adding complexity to the crisis is the fragmentation of the armed coalitions and the volatility of armed group relations. Such volatility has risked affecting regional stability, causing local community insecurities to be overlooked. Burundian rebels in the Mai-Mai coalition, RED-Tabara and the National Forces of Liberation, have perpetrated attacks in Burundi, which has accused Rwanda of supporting them. In past years, Rwanda accused Burundi of supporting the rebel group Rwandan National Congress, which occasionally linked with Banyamulenge armed group Gumino but has now practically left the area. Additionally, the coalitions are themselves fragmented. Nonetheless, the “indigeneity” narrative that unifies Mai-Mai causes this overarching division to override any subdivisions and threaten Banyamulenge civilians. There have also been shifting alliances between armed groups and unlikely alliances formed due to interests transcending ethnicity. Sometimes, Banyamulenge groups have reportedly linked with groups that could be considered hostile towards them. Such developments demonstrate a need for Banyamulenge fighters to strategically adapt to changing circumstances. Any alliances they previously had with Mai-Mai or other ethnic groups became irrelevant as the Mai-Mai coalition united in its anti-Banyamulenge hostility. The volatility of group relations does not reduce but rather reflects and exacerbates the Banyamulenge’s precarious position.

There are perceptions that Banyamulenge are not vulnerable because of certain protections and integration efforts within the country’s political and security structures. However, such developments create false impressions of the security Banyamulenge enjoy. Despite the 2004 nationality law being worded to include Banyamulenge, many people locally and nationally still reject their citizenship. Hostilities have necessitated that Banyamulenge move closer to the government, yet with caution. Their decisions to join both Rwandan-backed insurgencies and counterinsurgency operations later have reinforced prejudices. Tutsi and Banyamulenge elites in high-ranking state positions represent small gains made in their struggles for acceptance that risk being reversed while reinforcing conspiracy theories of a Rwandan infiltration. Government solidarity also remains precarious. At a diaspora conference in London in 2020, President Tshisekedi’s declaration that Banyamulenge were Congolese provoked a hostile reaction. Additionally, the positions of elites do not reflect the broader community’s situation. The role of elites from all communities in contributing to armed group activities links with the country’s structural challenges of militarization and ineffective governance. Meanwhile, attempts by MONUSCO and the army (FARDC) to tackle violence overshadow times where they do not prevent attacks and some FARDC soldiers support Mai-Mai. Such contextual complexities obscure the Banyamulenge’s vulnerability.

In this context, false dichotomies reflect a high bar for recognizing the significance of certain threats towards minorities in relation to other dynamics. Instead, the nuances of this crisis can be situated within its broader underlying dynamics. The obscuring effects of the country’s structural challenges have implications for the concept of a “slow genocide,” where one community’s fate is hidden by complicated, normalized violence. Recognizing genocide can mark a recognition of how severely intercommunity relations have deteriorated in this context. It could also have implications for peacebuilding and other interventions, which can become more holistic, as well as for justice. Even if practical dilemmas remain for peacebuilding actors whose work relies on neutrality, other actors can enhance peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions. In 2019, a Banyamulenge politician declared Banyamulenge would not attend intercommunity dialogue as there was no conflict but a genocide against his community. While this did not reflect the position of all Banyamulenge and reinforced some false dichotomies, it underlined the problem of relying on dialogues alone. Perhaps even more long-term efforts, including tackling ethnic-based prejudice within communities and reducing support for militias, may remain challenging unless accompanied by commitments to improving governance and security at a structural level.

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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