The curse of tribe

The fighting in eastern Congo is not just a scramble for China's mineral dollars. Until the underlying tribal tensions are addressed, the region will never have peace
December 20, 2008
To discuss this article visit First Drafts,Prospect's blog

In his article "The curse of Leopold" ( Prospect, December), Tim Butcher argues that those who try to attribute the fighting in eastern Congo to tribal rivalries miss the point. The thirst for Chinese dollars, he said, is the real destabilising force. But Butcher has seriously underestimated the role tribe plays in this conflict.

Late in October, fighters from Laurent Nkunda's rebel army were scattered in the tall, thick elephant grass in a valley about 10 kilometres south of Rutshuru, a strategic town in eastern Congo's North Kivu province. They were staring at the government soldiers positioned on a nearby ridge, watching for any movement or sign of an imminent attack. I had joined them, along with a photographer named Roberto, after meeting with their district commanders at a rally the week before. As far as I know, we were the only journalists on the frontline at that time.

The men we met all gave strikingly similar explanations for why they had joined the rebels. "I am fighting because my parents are abroad and can't rejoin the country. It's been seven years since I last saw them," said Mubere Kiza, a softly spoken 28-year-old officer.

They had all previously fought for Laurent Kabila, the one-time rebel leader who toppled Congo's dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, and whose son, Joseph Kabila, is the current president. All of them came from families separated and displaced during the civil war that raged in Congo from 1997 until 2003; all had relatives that were forced to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and even Tanzania.

But when the war ended, according to these fighters, Kabila only allowed certain refugees to return. Anyone from the "wrong tribe"—and these men all identified themselves as Tutsis—was forced to remain in exile. The Nkunda rebellion, said the young men standing in the grass, was born of Kabila's betrayal.

"The difference between who now fights with government and who is a rebel is about whose parents are still in camps, and whose were allowed to return home," said Major Mbera Castro, a spokesman for Nkunda's executive committee.

A few days later, the rebels attacked and captured Rutshuru. The battle forced thousands to flee; residents packed what they could, fastened their most valuable possessions to bicycles and their heads, and ran in search of safety.

Tribe is certainly an overused explanation for conflicts in Africa, and to reduce the violence in eastern Congo to a replay of Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi nightmare is a mistake. (When serious fighting broke out at the end of October, newscasters from major networks, including the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, took to labelling Nkunda's men as "Tutsi rebels," even though there are many Hutus among his ranks. One of the most prominent politicians to defect to his side in recent weeks, the former mayor of Goma Francois Gacaba, is a Hutu, as are a considerable number of rebel troops serving on the frontline.)

However, those who try to dismiss the importance of tribe also miss the point. There are countless militia groups roaming the province pursuing their own tribal agendas. The Mai Mai, nominally backed by the government, insist that because many of Nkunda's soldiers are Tutsi, they "aren't really Congolese," and are deeply suspicious of their ties to Rwanda. And while Nkunda's men never describe themselves as Tutsi defenders or Tutsi freedom fighters, they single out tribe, or more precisely, an end to the tribalism that still dominates the region, as their signature issue.

In hushed conversation around a late night fire at one of their hilltop bases before their attack on Rutshuru, the rebel fighters insisted that they are the group that will eliminate Congolese tribalism. Two weeks after they captured the town, Kambeso Ngere, one of Nkunda's top cadres, visited the town to "educate" the local population about the rebels' vision of leadership. "In Congo we have many tribes," he said as a light rain dampened the hundreds of villagers crowded around him. "But we do not make a distinction. We are all Congolese."

It's questionable whether Ngere believed his own words, but it's likely his large contingent of bodyguards did.

Nkunda and his top commanders certainly do invoke tribal injustice to justify their fight and recruit supporters. But their endgame remains a mystery. Maybe Nkunda wants to rule an autonomous North Kivu, which he can align with his allies and not-so-secret backers in Rwanda. Maybe he wants real influence in a Congolese unity government so he can protect the disenfranchised and end tribal prejudice. Or maybe he just wants to get rich.

But Nkunda could not simply have invented these tribal tensions in the wake of a shady mineral deal with the Chinese. And without a lasting solution to the ethnic hostilities in the region, another Nkunda will inevitably emerge.

To discuss this article visit First Drafts,Prospect's blog