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How DRC’s colonial legacy forged a nexus between ethnicity, territory and conflict

Refugees mass on a grassy field behind a stretch of razor wire at a peace meeting called by government under gathering rain clouds.
Internally displaced persons gather for government briefing in South Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the scene of violent clashes between rival communities since 2019. Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout history, ethnic stereotypes have been used to justify mass violence, exclusion, oppression, and inequality in many corners of the world. In times of violent upheaval and conflict, ethnic narratives often come to the fore. This is true even when the origin and the stakes have little to do with ethnicity. This colours people’s understanding of the conflict’s stakes and fault-lines.

In such moments, people may start to think of conflicts in ethnic terms. They may begin to attribute certain cultural, or genetic, characteristics of their adversaries as the cause for conflict. A perceived ethnic adversary may be regarded as “violent”, “aggressive”, “greedy, "savage”, “rebellious”, “restless”, “backwards”, “undemocratic” or “cunning”. This makes it easier to cast them as a threat to one’s own ethnic community.

Such stereotypes are not simply created on the spot by opportunistic leaders. Rather, they should be understood as identity categories embedded in society’s power structures,discourses, and, more broadly, in people’s ways of thinking and feeling. In brief, across the world people are socialised into thinking, feeling and acting as members of an ethnic community, or group.

Because ideas of ethnic territories are a major source of political friction and persecution in the world, it’s important to investigate how they are created and used in conflicts.

In a recent article, I dissected how ethnic territories have been imagined and constructed historically, and how they have been used in political struggles for power and resources in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Formerly known as Zaire, DRC is the second largest country in Africa and home to 90 million people. A sizeable part of its rural population is administered under no less than 250 traditional chiefdoms. These are ruled by customary chiefs, who are recognised by the government and who apply both modern and customary laws. In addition to chiefdoms, there are myriad smaller customary units such as groupings and villages.

The focus of my study is the area directly west of Lake Kivu, known as Kalehe Territory, which has been the scene of violent conflict for more than two decades. The main conclusion I draw is that the ideas of ethnic territories used by actors in struggles over power and resources in DRC have their roots in the way in which the territory was run under Belgian colonial rule.

This matters today because ethnicity still plays an important role in politics and violent conflicts in eastern DRC. Evoking ethnic narratives remains an effective strategy of mobilisation because of entrenched mutual distrust and prevailing fear. This is especially so in areas marked by persistent violent conflict such as Kalehe and Uvira further south.


Read more: Why history matters in understanding conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo


Ethnicity, territory and conflict

A key component of how DRC – and other territories across Sub-Saharan Africa – were run was the creation of chefferies or chiefdoms.

Chiefdoms were envisioned as mutually exclusive ethnically discrete territories ruled by a single customary chief governing through customary law. The colonial authorities used them to rule indigenous people indirectly as “tribes” or “races”, in their natural environment, and through their own customs and political institutions.

Across the world colonial regimes created “ethnic territories”. By creating “ethnic territories” they sought to balance demands for profit and self-financing with objectives of maintaining order, managing dispossession, and upholding racial boundaries and hierarchies.

Hundreds of chiefdoms were created in DRC. The object was to ensure that order could be maintained at the same time as the indigenous populations were turned into productive and taxable subjects. Customary chiefs with extensive powers became particularly important intermediaries. They were framed as the embodiment of traditional indigenous political institutions despite the enormous diversity of these.

However, the indigenous political units were not the pliable natural units imagined by the colonisers. Rather, they were complex polities populated by people with diverging interests and complex external relations. In eastern DRC, local leaders – such as the Bashi chief Kabare and the Banyungu prince Njiko – mounted rebellions against the colonial authorities. As a result, violent repression became a common theme.

Over time, the territorial model fragmented. As a result, the creation of ethnic territories became a dynamic process where boundaries were determined by political struggles. Violence, and the threat of violence, played a big role.

At the same time, theories of racial superiority – of mixed biblical and scientific vintage – were harnessed to authorise colonial decisions to create ethnic territories and impose paramount chiefs on previously independent polities.

Buhavu chiefdom

I focused on the creation of Buhavu chiefdom in the 1920s. It was made up of several hitherto independent indigenous polities. This brought together culturally diverse populations into a single chiefdom under the rule of the Bahavu chief.

But several indigenous leaders and groups refused to recognise colonial overrule. These included rival Bahavu chiefs and leaders of the people collectively known as the Batembo. The Batembo lived in small independent communities on the eastern edge of the Congo River Basin. Among the Batembo, authority was dispersed among several clans and groups. This meant that the idea of a mono-ethnic territory ruled by a single chief was significantly at odds with the existing political culture.

These communities and their leaders were forced into submission through severe repression, making the creation of the Buhavu chiefdom a violent act of exclusion and inclusion.

Its creation violated the area’s existing cultural diversity and political institutions. It also silenced subaltern and rebellious voices, and concentrated authority in the hands of indigenous royal élites willing to collaborate with the colonial authorities.

Independence from Belgium in 1960 created opportunities for a new set of Congolese actors to shape politics. In Buhavu chiefdom, a group of leaders, claiming to represent the Batembo ethnic group, demanded the right to territorial self-rule. They justified this demand on grounds that it was an economically sustainable and culturally homogeneous area. As such, they argued, it deserved to be recognised as a self-governing entity.

During the Congo Wars, the first in the mid-1990s and the second between 1998-2003 – the struggle to create a Batembo territory became engulfed in the larger dynamics of regional war. Batembo leaders mobilised a powerful militia, which fought alongside Congolese government troops against Rwandan army units and their Congolese allies. This they justified on the grounds that DRC was threatened by a plan to forge a “Tutsi-Hima” empire in Central Africa sanctioned by the major western powers. Their new-found military strength also inspired Batembo leaders to push for the creation of their own ethnic territory called “Bunyakiri”.

But the politics that emerged after the second Congo War did not play out in their favour. Their soldiers either demobilised or became integrated in the Congolese army. And the group’s leaders were sidelined or outmanoeuvred once they entered the arena of national politics. Today, Batembo leaders still clamour for the creation of an independent chiefdom.

Conclusion

The numerous conflicts in eastern DRC cannot be ascribed to ancient hatreds between ethnic communities. There are many different causes of the complex conflicts in eastern DRC. Nevertheless, the idea of discrete and mutually exclusive ethnic territories do play an important role in these conflicts.

This idea was introduced and institutionalised by the colonial administration, and, in fact, violated the existing political institutions and cultural diversity of eastern DRC. Hence, colonial ways of administering indigenous populations has played an important role in sowing the seeds of ethnic tensions in the present.

It seems logical, therefore, that a reconciliation process in eastern Congo should entail a reckoning with colonial ways of thinking about ethnic territories. This will not be an easy task given the vested interests in the status quo. On the one hand, customary chiefs and political and military leaders derive much of their power from the idea of ethnic territories. For many ordinary Congolese, on the other hand, chiefdoms provide both customary land rights and political inclusion since belonging to a chiefdom is a prerequisite for citizenship.

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