As many as 200 ethnic groups live within the borders of the DRC. Divisions in Congolese society, however, run deeper than ethnic heritage, with separations also running along language, class, political, cultural and citizenship lines. Ethnic, cultural or language groups are often allied with other groups, political parties, governments and organizations, blurring the exact lines between warring parties. The continuing conflict in the DRC has often been referred to as “ethnic”, despite the fluidity of ethnicities and the fact that ethnic segregation is something most ordinary Congolese resist, having lived in multi-ethnic communities for generations. Ethnicities in the DRC are incredibly overlapping and heavily inter-mixed by marriage, and continue to be inter-mixed despite the war.
In the DR Congo, colonialization is still playing its role in inequitable systems. Belgian colonial powers attempted to separate the Lendu peoples (a cultural group) from the Hema peoples, giving them strict administrative boundaries (although they had lived together intermixing for generations before this). The Belgians regarded the Hema as a superior race, and gave them privileged access to education, land, administration and commerce. They decided who was in which cultural group rather arbitrarily, sometimes based solely on outward physical features. From the 1930s to the 1950s the Belgian administrators started to deliberately transplant Hutus and Tutsis from Rwanda into the Congo to help and alleviate the demographic pressure in famine-prone parts of Rwanda and to meet growing labor demands in colonial plantations and mines in the Congo. These people, commonly referred to as Rwandophones often stayed on in the DRC and had families here.
At Independence, it was decided by Constitutional decree that only one Congolese nationality existed and only those ethnic groups (not individuals) who were declared as occupying the territory prior to 1908 were granted this privilege. Many Rwandophones whose families had been residing in the Congo since the start of colonialization, were denied citizenship rights on this basis. The citizenship decree was annulled in 1981, and the occupying date was pushed back to 1855, still excluding many.
In 1973, authoritarian ruler Mobutu Sese Seko began his zaireanization process in an attempt to reverse the colonial policies. Post-colonial reorganization attempts to incorporate another ethnic group (the Ngiti) resulted in depriving them of access to Lake Albert (the main water source) and created ethnic tensions which can still be felt today.
Mobutu also began transferring ownership of ex-colonial plantations in Ituri (in the North of the country) over to elite Hema individuals. He manipulated ethnic divisions over identity and land ownership to reward his political followers. His General Property Law of 1973 allowed land to be privatized (including ancestral land), and sped up the process where Hema cattle herders could displace Lendu agriculturalists. The elite Hema, who dominated local governance, passed this law because it was beneficial to them.
Much of the population wrongly believed they could still inherit ancestral land, but this new law allowed land to be sold privately, without the occupier’s notice. The Law stipulated that occupiers should be given a two year grace period to leave their land, which was subsequently ignored by the Ugandan troops (assisting the Congolese government) in the area who instantaneously evicted mostly Lendu from their lands.
Another deal between Mobutu and Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana allowed one ethnic group (the Banyarwanda) to take over territories in North Kivu. Local chiefs and non-Banyarwanda, fearing encroachment by these land expropriations began forming local militias to protect themselves. Between 6,000 and 10,000 people were killed and more than 250,000 were displaced in clashes in this one area over land in 1993 alone.
A fragile peace was achieved soon after, but was subsequently destroyed when more than one million Hutu refugees (including members of the interahamwe militia responsible for the Rwandan genocide) fleeing the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) settled in the DRC in 1994-5. Many of the refugees were heavily armed and with the help of local Congolese Hutu and propaganda, transferred the conflict and began killing the Congolese Tutsi. The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire headed by Laurent Kabila, scattered the interahamwe militia throughout the DRC (then named Zaire) and captured Kinshasa in 1997, overthrowing Mobutu from his 32 year rule. Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, angered that they did not receive remuneration expected for helping to topple Mobutu, stayed in the country and began extensively plundering its wealth. In response, Kabila’s new government began arming the interahamwe and other local militias (especially the Mai Mai) in an attempt to drive these foreigners out. Rwanda responded by attacking the largest towns in the Kivus through proxy armies such as the Rassamblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RDC).
This type of political and citizenship manipulation is separating ethnic groups and creating hatreds among them, and is still happening in the DRC to this day. In fact, the examples go on and on. It is happening also all over the world, in many other countries. The next time you hear a story about ancient ethnic hatreds, think twice and do some digging. You may just find there is much more to the conflict than meets the eye.