The M23 crisis and the history of violence in eastern Congo

Though triggered by a combination of recent events, the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history of the Kivus sets the stage on which they take shape. Understanding is not justification: beware the instrumentalisation of history by ideologues. Français.

Michel Thill
5 November 2012

The current debate over Rwanda’s support for M23––the latest rebellion in North Kivu––has refocused international attention on this crisis-ridden eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Much of the media coverage has focused on the involvement of neighbouring countries. The final report of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, leaked to Reuters on 16 October, has strengthened its initial findings of Rwandan support to M23. Furthermore, the report has also found evidence that Uganda is backing the Congolese rebels. But it appears the leak has not affected Rwanda’s bid for membership in the UN Security Council.

The focus of this debate risks being reduced to a question of whom to blame for this new rebellion: Kinshasa’s defunct state and army, or the Rwandan proxy’s greed and lust for power? Although it is crucial to analyse the immediate causes responsible for the rise of M23, and while a solution to this crisis is urgently needed, current debates tend to leave out the vastly complex historical background to past and current conflicts. By providing an account of some of the region’s long-term developments over the past 150 years, this article aims to infuse this debate with bits of Rwandan and Kivutian history.

In pre-colonial times, the Kivus were governed by very heterogeneous kingdoms, some of them exerting power only loosely. Bordering the Kivus in the East, though, in what is now Rwanda, a much more centralized kingdom, with a royal court and a standing army established itself over time. In the second half of the 19th century, its powerful King Rwabugiri, in an expansionist drive to further unify his territories, led military campaigns against the Kivu kingdoms. Although Rwabugiri only managed to establish his rule in the Kivus for very brief episodes in the 1890s,[1] this chapter of regional history is often exploited by some ideologues to justify Rwandan presence in eastern Congo today.

Thus, in 1996, the then Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu justified Rwanda’s invasion of what was then Zaire by showing foreign diplomats a map supposedly displaying Rwabugiri’s kingdom, which included most of the Kivus.

It was only during the Berlin Conference in 1885 that European colonial powers started to draw borders on the map of Africa. It took another fifteen years before the first European colonialists arrived at Lake Kivu. Belgian administrators slowly established a presence on the western shores of the lake, while their German counterparts did the same on the eastern side. And it took another ten years to agree on a border between their colonies: what was until then a stretch of volcanoes, hills and plains running north and south of Lake Kivu was now––at least in the minds and on the maps of the colonial powers––a fixed border.

However, this did not mean a lot to the populations of these places. Century-old patterns of trade, pastoralism and seasonal migration between what was now Rwanda-Urundi and Belgian Congo never stopped. These commercial ties were complemented by common cultures and traditions. This remained the case throughout the period of Belgian colonisation. Léopoldville, today’s Kinshasa, was 1,000 miles away from the Kivus, while the hills of Rwanda were within sight. For most of his reign, not even Mobutu, Zaire’s president from 1965 to 1997 managed to forge a Congolese nationhood centralised enough to shift Kivutian eyes towards Kinshasa.[2]

Conflict and violence infiltrated these relations only gradually. The pre-colonial episodes of fighting were followed by colonial administrative policies, a failed democratisation process, Mobutu’s favouring of some parts of the Tutsi elite, and their loss of this status in the 1980s, which all added to the poisoning of the relationship between communities in the Kivus.

During the time of the Belgian Congo, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi were forcibly resettled by Belgian administrators, removed from what was then the colony of Rwanda-Urundi to the less populated and labour-desperate Kivu region. These forced migrations made Banyarwanda (the ones who come from Rwanda) in some areas of the Kivus a majority, causing tensions between them and the indigenous population.[3] Under Mobutu, further waves of mainly Tutsi refugees followed due to Rwanda’s violent independence struggle from 1959-62, and a coup in 1973.

A final blow to these increasingly agitated relations came with the start of the Rwandan civil war. It pitched the extremist Hutu regime against the RPF, a Tutsi-led rebel group. The latter heavily recruited amongst the Tutsi in Zaire, who––after having lost their privileged status in the 1980s––felt threatened and rallied to the RPF’s cause. The civil war ended in July 1994 after 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu fell victim to the Rwandan genocide. This triggered a wave of over a million refugees fleeing across the border into the Kivus. Raids by former génocidaires into Rwandan territory caused major insecurity along the Congolese-Rwandan border. A new level of ethnic mistrust had been imported, which contributed to the division of Zaire’s Banyarwanda community along ethnic lines. One of the principal reasons that Rwanda decided to invade Zaire in 1996, then Congo in 1998, was to protect the precariously situated Congolese Tutsi communities. [4]

Even today, Kigali as well as Congolese Tutsi-led armed groups such as the CNDP, M23’s predecessor, use this argument to rationalise their cause. In the words of a Ugandan pro-Kigali journalist: ‘Doesn’t Rwanda that lost a million people and an entire country deserve to also get involved in DRC––right across its border––where there is no state to protect its people against the threat of another genocide?’

Violence has always played an important role in the relationship between Rwanda and the Kivus. Since the 1990s however, the Kivus have seen unprecedented cycles of extreme and internecine violence. This was either caused by direct Rwandan invasion, or by armed groups supported by them: the AFDL in 1996; the RCD in 1998 and the CNDP in 2006. And today Kigali is accused of backing M23.

The addendum to the UN Group of Experts’ interim report states that, in return for Kigali’s support, M23 was to pursue a secessionist campaign in North and South Kivu, similar to its predecessor, which also claimed to follow a secessionist agenda. The Congolese Security Minister Richard Muyej is quoted as saying: ‘M23 is another name for Rwanda. It’s all part of Rwanda’s Machiavellian destabilisation plan of the east.’ A Ugandan editor justifies M23’s supposed secessionist tendencies on the grounds of links between Congolese Tutsi and their Rwandan counterparts. Such statements emerge from the common history between Rwanda and the Kivus.

To be clear: M23’s rise has not been caused by Belgian colonisation or Mobutu’s divide and rule politics. Rather, it is likely to have been triggered by a combination of recent events: the ICC’s insistence to extradite Bosco Ntaganda; Kabila’s plans to dismantle ex-CNDP networks in eastern Congo; and Kigali’s refusal to give up its economic, military and political interests in the Kivus. And yet, that governments and armed groups play on secessionist sentiments to rally support shows that the region’s history still matters today.

The region’s past does not justify Rwandan interventions in the Kivus. Far from it. However it is clear that – instead of solely focusing on the immediate causes of the region’s crises – long-term developments such as the far-reaching interconnections between the region’s peoples, cultures, and histories need to be taken into account as well. It is likely that shared memories of violence will continue to shape the region’s common future. Hence, in order to prevent ideologues from exploiting these memories, a next step forward should be to mitigate their potentially dangerous nature. Promoting local initiatives, which aim to create a platform on which victims, perpetrators, and observers from whichever side can talk about and share their experiences of their violent past could be but one such step.  

Michel Thill is the Great Lakes Project Officer with the Rift Valley Institute (RVI). As ever on openDemocracy, all opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the ones of his organisation.


[1] See Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem (2008) Nouvelle Histoire du Congo. Des origines à la République démocratique, Brussels: Le Cri, p. 205-206.

[2] See David Newbury (2001) ‘Precolonial Burundi and Rwanda: Local Loyalties, regional royalties’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 34:2, 255-314, here: p. 263

[3] Séverin Mugangu (2007-8) ‘La crise foncière à l’est de la RDC’ L’Afrique des Grands Lacs. Annuaire. Stefan Marysse, Filip Reyntjens, Stef Vandeginste, Paris: L’Harmattan p. 394-5.

[4] See Filip Reyntjens (2009) The Great African War. Congo and regional geopolitics, 1996-2006, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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