50.50: Opinion

Why ‘liberal peacebuilding’ isn’t delivering for DR Congo’s ethnic minorities

Focus on elections, investment and climate change has ignored serious threats to vulnerable Congolese groups

Tom Shacklock head shot - Copy image_6487327 (1)
Thomas Shacklock Delphin Rukumbuzi Ntanyoma
6 December 2022, 9.43am

Members of the Congolese diaspora at a 2019 rally in Manchester, UK, at which they expressed opposition to “Tutsi-Rwandese” in eastern DRC and called the Banyamulenge a “pseudo-Congolese tribe”.

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Barbara Cook/Alamy Live News

A cessation of hostilities in the decade-old conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was declared in November by African leaders in the Angolan capital of Luanda.

The M23 rebel group, composed primarily of fighters from the country’s persecuted Tutsi ethnic minority, has been fighting the Congolese army since 2012. The group was considered defeated in 2013, but resurfaced a year ago.

Two days after last month’s ceasefire, fighting resumed, indicating that the Luanda summit had failed to resolve the crisis. In fact, the summit’s entire set-up underlined the limits of the international community’s approach to DRC’s challenges – notably the way it overlooks the persecution of ethnic minorities and Indigenous people dating back to the colonial era.

M23 is one of more than 100 armed groups operating and profiting from the lack of effective governance in eastern DRC (North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces) but it has managed to make international headlines more than others.

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The narrow focus of discussion about DRC was reinforced at the Financial Times’ Africa Summit in London in October, at which Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi discussed opportunities and challenges for investors in his country.

The interview could not escape the issues of ongoing conflict in the eastern provinces, the exploitation of resources, and questions about corruption in the 2018 general elections. Tshisekedi cited M23 as a source of instability, complicating investment.

The resurgence of M23 has triggered a diplomatic row between DRC and its eastern neighbour, Rwanda. The Congolese government accuses Rwanda of supporting M23, which the Rwandan government denies. But either way, when Tshisekedi refers to Rwanda or M23, he is able to tap into the populist anti-Rwanda sentiment that remains a strong force in Congolese politics.

Congolese politicians have successfully framed Rwanda – which invaded what is now DRC during the Congo Wars (1996 to 2003) – as the country’s main enemy. Following the wars, Rwanda’s support for insurgents in eastern DRC reinforced prejudices against the Tutsi minority, who belong to the wider “Banyarwanda” community (groups considered to come historically from Rwanda).

Another minority that has not supported Rwandan-backed insurgencies since the wars, but still remains associated with them, is the Tutsi-related Banyamulenge community of South Kivu province.

The tendency for any discussion about DRC to focus on elections, investment and climate change but to overlook the fate of minorities is largely due to underreporting. Both the international media and independent human rights organisations have severely neglected these pressing issues.

The role politics plays in fuelling ethnic-based polarisation shows that the issues of democracy and minority experiences are, in fact, very much interrelated. Other key topics, including economic investment and climate change, relate to minority rights.

The links between conflict and the exploitation of resources are familiar in DRC. Certain approaches to sustainable development have also harmed some minorities, including the Batwa, who originally dwelt in forests.

Limits of ‘liberal peacebuilding’ model

One key idea tying together the seemingly separate major talking points in DRC is the ‘liberal peacebuilding’ model. In essence, this follows a simplistic logic that elections, good governance and free-market economics complement each other, bring peace and represent signs of ‘progress’ for ‘post-conflict’ countries.

Climate change has also become increasingly inseparable from debates on these issues in DRC.

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, visited DRC in October to discuss environmental challenges with Congolese partners. As in the Amazon, the rainforests in DRC need urgent protection to tackle climate change yet remain threatened with environmental destruction.

Meanwhile, the country has been preparing for its next general election, due in December 2023. The US recently pledged $13m, on top of the $10.65m it has already dedicated to the country’s electoral process – though it’s not clear how US support will ensure the electoral process is fair and transparent, given the reports of corruption in the last elections in 2018.

Nevertheless, during US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s tour of sub-Saharan Africa in the summer – in which he visited DRC, Rwanda and South Africa – he emphasised the US administration's continued reliance on the liberal peace model. He stressed the importance of upholding the values of democracy, openness and economic partnership.

In addition to multiple criticisms of the ‘liberal peace’ model, this narrow focus reflects another problem with the way the country is viewed by the international community and media. Ever since the Congo Wars officially ended in 2003, DRC has been deemed a ‘post-conflict’ state.

Notwithstanding the general pessimism towards what is happening in the eastern provinces, overall the country is seen to have the potential to make ‘progress’ – by advancing its democratic process and by becoming more open to international investment.

This attitude allows threats to minorities to be ignored, revealing the extent to which violence has become the norm in eastern DRC. This normalisation of violence is a product of colonialism – the Belgian colonial authorities constructed the idea that Congo is an inherently violent place. The persecution of minorities is obscured by this legacy while also representing yet another legacy of colonial repression.

Persecution of Congolese minorities

For civilians from multiple communities suffering from the daily realities of violence in eastern DRC, ‘peace’ may seem like a lost cause. For the region’s most vulnerable minorities, the failure even to factor the destructive violence they face into the debate regarding DRC signals that the world has abandoned them.

In South Kivu province, the view that the Banyamulenge are ‘foreign’ has culminated in a campaign that threatens them with extermination. The hostilities they face today are the result of the same historical processes that caused the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Like other ethnic groups in South Kivu, the Banyamulenge migrated to what later became DRC between the 16th and 18th centuries from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. During the colonial era, the Belgian authorities propagated a racialised myth portraying Banyamulenge and Tutsi pastoralists as ‘outsiders’. This divide-and-rule tactic was also employed in Rwanda, where Hutu became pitted against Tutsi.

In the 1980s, the Banyamulenge lost their Congolese citizenship along with other “Banyarwanda” as the DRC state (then Zaire) resolved to kick out those believed to be of Rwandan and/or Burundian descent. In the 1990s, they were ordered by Parliament to leave the country and were singled out in massacres perpetrated by Congolese soldiers and militias, leading them to join Rwanda’s invasion of the DRC in the Congo Wars.

Although citizenship was theoretically restored in 2004, the legacy of colonial-era mythology still influences the public’s perception of the community. Recently, the Banyamulenge’s security has deteriorated again.

Since 2017, a coalition of ethnic-based militias, known as Mai-Mai, have targeted Banyamulenge in genocidal attacks accompanied by incitements to “exterminate” these so-called “invaders”.

The militias have destroyed most of the Banyamulenge’s villages and looted their cattle, their main source of livelihood. Displaced Banyamulenge have been forced into small localities, where they can’t access their fields for farming and continue to face attacks.

The Congolese national army has stood by while militias have attacked civilians. Both local sources and UN reports have confirmed a high degree of collaboration between Mai-Mai militias and Congolese soldiers. The UN peacekeeping force (MONUSCO) has also failed to prevent attacks on civilians.

Similarly, in the north-eastern province of Ituri, militias have targeted the Hema community on the grounds that they are not ‘real’ Congolese, killing thousands. These attacks have yet to result in any form of international conference or debate on the experience of Congolese minorities.

Another minority group, hunter-gatherer Batwa, has long faced contempt and persecution. They rely on the rainforests for their survival, and their way of life and deep connection with their environment promotes conservation. They are the Indigenous people of Central Africa. Yet, they have fallen victim to the dark side of current approaches to sustainable development in DRC.

A Minority Rights Group (MRG) investigation, published earlier this year, documents systematic operations against the Batwa in a DRC national park from 2019 to 2021. Forest guards and Congolese army soldiers, supported by the German and US governments and international partners, aimed to purge Batwa from their ancestral homelands. These operations were examples of what MRG described as a more widespread “rigidly colonial conservation model” used across Africa.

More dark days ahead

The violence that minorities face is often fuelled by hate speech. This may be spread online, both within the DRC and in the Congolese diaspora. Hate campaigns have proliferated as access to social media has reached rural settings.

Notably, anti-Tutsi and anti-Banyamulenge hate speech, which has intensified online following the resurgence of the M23 militia, is reminiscent of the rhetoric that fuelled the Rwandan and Rohingya (Myanmar) genocides.

Martin Fayulu – who is widely accepted as the true winner of the 2018 elections, and Tshisekedi’s main political rival – has been explicit with his anti-minority rhetoric. Despite this, the international community and media legitimise him as a respectable public figure.

Fayulu has repeatedly denied that the Banyamulenge exist as a Congolese community, and said they must return to their “home country”. He has repeated this claim in public conferences in Brussels, Paris, Quebec and Montreal.

Such hate speech will likely increase ahead of next year’s general election as politicians continue to victimise minorities as a tactic to gain votes.

All Congolese communities have the right to benefit from the peace, democracy, economic opportunities and environmental protection that Western powers and the international community promote. To make this possible for minorities too, colonial ideas about who belongs on Congolese soil need to be dealt with – at local, national and international level.

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