This report outlines the historical dynamics behind the armed movements in South Kivu, focusing on the period before and leading up to the First Congo War. It concentrates on sources of local conflict but argues that these can only be understood when also concentrating on wider political, social, economic, and demographic processes at both national and regional levels. While armed rebellion in South Kivu has shifted over time, and while each militia has its own history, this report traces the broader context of South Kivu’s militarization.
The report highlights three crucial elements of South Kivu’s history, all of which sharpened ethnic and political divisions. First, when the Belgian colonial administration integrated customary chiefs into the new administration and put ethnicity at the centre of politics, it realized a territorialization of identity. Since then, identity has been a guiding principle of social, political, and administrative organization to the detriment of migrant communities, who have lobbied unsuccessfully to obtain their own customary political representatives. Second, the upheaval of the 1960s hardened ethnic boundaries and became a key point of reference for future political mobilization. In particular, the Simba rebellion of 1964–7, which drew on political opposition towards Kinshasa and customary authorities in Fizi and Uvira, had a disastrous impact on the coexistence of ethnic groups in the province. Third, the democratization process in the DRC, which was announced in April 1990 and provoked intense political competition, hardened ethnic divisions, as local political elites appealed to identity as their main mobilizing tactic.
This climate of ethnic rivalry and unresolved communal tensions proved to be a fertile ground for violent mobilization. In regions such as Kalehe, democratization and the impact of the Masisi War in 1993 had already led to the proliferation of armed groups. In Fizi and Uvira, armed mobilization increasingly targeted the Banyamulenge and became the precursor to outright war.
The many levels of this conflict need to be reflected in a multi-dimensional response. Each armed group has its own characteristics and each needs a specific approach. But such an approach to local realities can only be effective as part of a comprehensive political process that takes into account existing grievances. And, finally, the success of any policy in the Kivus depends on the creation of accountable state institutions at local and national level that are able to carry out this reform process.
Koen Vlassenroot is Professor of Political Science and director of the Conflict Research Group at the University of Ghent. He is associated to the Egmont Institute and a RVI fellow. He co-authored Conflict and Social Transformation in Eastern DR Congo (2004) and co-edited The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth or Reality? (2010). He is the lead researcher on the DRC for the Justice and Security Research Programme.
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