Congo’s South Kivu Powder Keg
Analysis Conflict and Fragility

Congo’s South Kivu Powder Keg

16 Oct 2019 - 14:47
Photo: MONUSCO Child Protection Section assisted by DDRRR Department, South Kivu. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr
Back to archive

The Eastern South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is witnessing an alarming resumption of violence. Local civilians are increasingly caught between Congolese ethnic militias and foreign armed rebellions from Burundi and Rwanda. The current UN stabilization mission MONUSCO – composed of over 20,000 personnel at a yearly cost of more than 1 billion USD1  – fails to provide a comprehensive, localized response needed to promote lasting stability and social cohesion. Current circumstances call for a rethinking of peace initiatives, based on a more profound understanding of the root causes of tensions.

Tensions and armed hostilities are particularly raging in the highlands around Minembwe, a vast, remote geographic area that administratively falls in the Fizi, Mwenga and Uvira territories of the South Kivu Province. The area faces a number of fundamental challenges to peace and stability.

Identity politics and nativist discourses
The renewed violence and insecurity builds on long-standing local identity politics and nativist discourses in the DRC, with a particular salience in the two Kivu provinces. For several decades, conflicts in South Kivu have opposed members of the Babembe, Bafuliru, Banyindu and Bavira ethnic groups (self-styled autochthones) to the Banyamulenge.

Aerial surveillance mission carried out by the MONUSCO Force. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr
Aerial surveillance mission carried out by the MONUSCO Force. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr

Belgian colonial manipulation of traditional governance institutions known as chieftaincies cemented communal land and territorial rights claims of some communities over others. Narratives of autochthony by the Babembe, Bafuliru, Banyindu and Bavira - and to some extent Balega and Bashi – are framed in opposition to the Banyamulenge, whose disenfranchisement under colonial governance deprived them of the institutional tools that later came to define local legitimacy.

Belgian divide and rule policies, particularly colonial manipulation of the institution of chieftaincies, laid the foundations of their future political marginality by recognizing and then abolishing their traditional authorities which carried an entitlement to communal land rights of ethnic communities.

Because of this institutional disenfranchisement, colonial historiography is often used by their “autochthones” detractors to back claims that the Banyamulenge are alien to the DRC and should return to neighboring countries, particularly Rwanda, their attributed natural home.

State failure generates conflict
Since Congolese independence but most pointedly the 1996 first Congo War, Eastern Congo, has been a fertile ground for armed groups both local and foreign. In 1996, the very first shots that started the Congo war of 1996 were fired in this particular area.2
 Since then, the proliferation of weapons has fueled the emergence of several, often ethnicity-based, local armed militias.

An August 2019 update by the Congo Research Group of New York University identified more than 130 armed groups in the two Kivu provinces, including 82 groups operating in the South Kivu province.3  Comparisons with previous reports reveal a tremendous increase, particularly in the latter province.4

There are numerous causes and dynamics that shape the emergence of these armed groups. Enabling factors are the collapse of the state, its inability to project power, secure the territory and perform its basic functions of catering to the needs of the population.

Joining armed groups has become an attractive option for the youth in an environment where life prospects are limited and the survival of the fittest is the norm

The void created by the absence of the state is filled by armed groups; joining armed groups has become an attractive option for the youth in an environment where life prospects are limited and the survival of the fittest is the norm.

When the hardly remunerated, untrained and thus, generally undisciplined, Congolese regular forces – Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) - intervene in terrains of hostilities, they often become part of the problem rather than the solution. Recent accounts have denounced FARDC racketeering practices against the local population in the Minembwe area where they currently are deployed, ranging from collusion with militias in looting livestock to confiscation of money, telephones, clothing and the like from civilians.5

Foreign armed groups
The presence of foreign armed groups significantly shapes the dynamics of conflict on the ground and in the region. Over the last 25 years since the defeat of the Rwandan government that presided over the genocide against the country’s Tutsi population, vanquished elements of the Rwandan Armed Forces and militias have organized various rebellions using the Kivu provinces of the DRC - bordering Rwanda - as operational bases.

Currently organized under several armed movements, most notably the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and splinter groups such as the Conseil National pour le Renouveau et la Démocratie,6  they have constantly constituted a factor of local instability in North and South Kivu.

The South African contingent of MONUSCO provides food supplies to a school. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr
The South African contingent of MONUSCO provides food supplies to a school. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr

In more recent years, reports have also documented the presence of armed elements supportive of Rwandan former Chief of Staff Kayumba Nyamwasa who, under the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), has been organizing and leading an armed opposition against Rwandan authorities from his South African exile. FDLR and RNC’s armed activities are at the heart of the fraught relations between Rwanda and its Burundi and Uganda neighbors.

For several decades, South Kivu has been used by armed groups fighting successive Burundian governments

South Kivu is also the only Congolese province bordering Burundi. For several decades, the province has been used by armed groups fighting successive Burundian governments. Since renewed violence that broke out in Burundi 2015, the DRC has become a main terrain of armed hostilities between Burundian protagonists involved in the crisis.

Over the years, thousands of civilians from all ethnic communities were left with no other choice than to leave everything behind and seek refuge in countries across the region where they continue to live in precarious conditions.

The number of casualties of cycles of conflicts over the last quarter of a century has constantly been debated but they are often estimated in the millions.7  The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states that 12.8 million people in the DRC, a country with arguably the highest agricultural potential in Africa “are facing severe food insecurity.”8

The steps ahead: Tackling root causes
It is clear that the rising violence in South Kivu is symptomatic of the troubled situation of the country as a whole. Over the last more than two decades international narratives on the DRC, investment through MONUSCO and foreign interventions in the country have focused primarily on building national institutions, curbing gender-based violence and controlling the illegal exploitation of minerals.9

While addressing these issues remains very relevant, lasting peace can only be realized if initiatives address not only the symptoms but the root causes of conflict. A path to lasting stability in the DRC may require the following:

1. Outside armed forces
Tackling regional dimensions of conflicts should remain a top priority for peacebuilding endeavors in the DRC. Comparative history and politics show that countries hardly stay idle when faced by armed threats from actors operating from neighboring territories. The absence of forceful disarmament of armed groups from Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda leave intact the main excuse used by these neighboring countries to openly or, often covertly, intervene with or without DRC governmental consent.

The new Tshisekedi administration seems willing to talk to neighbors on ways to address these threats, as evidenced by his visits to the various regional capitals, multiple meetings with their heads of states and involvement in meditating the conflict between Rwanda and Uganda.

Dealing with what is often referred to as “negative forces” in the region is a pre-requisite for peace and stability

Crucially, an improvement of characteristically toxic relations between Congolese and Rwandan authorities is manifested by the recent killing of the ICC indicted FDLR President Sylvestre Mudacumura, preceded by arrests of the organization’s spokesperson Ignace alias LaForge Fils Bazeye and chief intelligence officer Jean Pierre Nsekanabo alias Abega.

Dealing with what is often referred to as “negative forces” in the region is a pre-requisite for peace and stability in the DRC and improved relations with its neighbors.

2. Decentralization of governance
Building or strengthening institutions for responsible and accountable governance in the DRC requires continued global support. This support should go beyond national elections producing cosmetic changes of top national leadership as was recently the case: genuine reforms should target both national and local institutions and address institutionalized corruption and clientelism that, since Mobutu’s rule, has become a way of life.

The Chinese contingent from MONUSCO operating in the South Kivu province. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr
The Chinese contingent from MONUSCO operating in the South Kivu province. © MONUSCU Photo's/Flickr

Decentralization initiatives undertaken in recent years whereby the number of existing provinces was raised from 11 to 26 and new cities and communes were created are positive steps. However, local governance may still require more radical reforms.

In particular, revising executive powers held by unelected, at times hereditary chieftains, something that was prized during Belgian colonial rule, may need to be revisited in light of 21st century imperatives and democratic ideals of accountability.

Uses of ethnicity as a pillar of governance has been characterized by protracted conflicts and a question for the right balance between competing identities

This issue raises emotional debates over acquired communal rights and entitlements to territories. However, tensions will remain where nation-building is in constant competition with territorialized ethnic nationalisms. Uses of ethnicity as a pillar of governance has been characterized by protracted conflicts and a quest for the right balance between competing ethnic and national identities. De-tribalization of society in Nyerere’s Tanzania offers interesting lessons on peaceful management of plural ethnic identities.

3. Reconnect local communities
Genuine reforms of local governance should be accompanied by sustained investment in local peacebuilding. Just as a tree cannot survive with rotten roots, the Congolese state cannot function when local communities are torn by conflicts.

The multiplication of violent conflicts between ethnic communities and other identity-based violence is more of a recent phenomenon linked to the demise of the Congolese state, than a product of long-standing grievances between involved actors.

The growing social fracture is accentuated by the fact that divisions on the ground nurture – but also are nurtured by – dynamics of Congolese Kivu diasporas in, for instance, Europe, North America and South Africa, where partisan demonstrations have been held denouncing violent actions by the “others.”

Local peacebuilding should focus at mending broken bridges between communities. Based on the contact theory, positing that increased intergroup contacts contribute towards decreases in mutual prejudices, socio-political and economic cooperative initiatives should be designed to address sources of ethnic and other identity-based divisions.

Inclusive peacebuilding requires identifying and linking actors that are willing to cross partisan lines in pursuit of peace

Only then can subjectified “experiences and perceptions of collective victimhood”10  give place to shared memories and a search for common grounds for a shared peaceful future. This inclusive peacebuilding requires identifying and linking actors that are willing to cross partisan lines in pursuit of peace.

4. A comprehensive approach
The international community should ensure that its interventions in the DRC are leading to the achievement of all these goals.  The country is endowed with riches that should guarantee a decent life for every Congolese.

Unleashing the untapped potential of the DRC through rational, fair use and distribution of its resources within a stable and uncorrupt environment would turn the DRC in an engine for growth on the continent. Hence, local peacebuilding, strengthening national institutions, reforming local governance for more accountability and fostering regional cooperation should all feature in any credible global peace agenda for the DRC.

Failure to tackle the different dimensions of the conflicts justifies perceptions that the 1 billion spent on peace endeavors amount to throwing these resources in a bottomless hole

The European Union and individual European countries are among key players that have heavily contributed, at least financially, to peace initiatives in the DRC. European and other actors need to ensure that their resources are serving the right imperatives and are likely to produce lasting peace.

Failure to tackle the different dimensions of the conflicts in South Kivu, Eastern Congo, the whole country and the region, somewhat justifies perceptions that the more than 1 billion spent yearly on peace endeavors in the DRC amount to throwing these resources in a bottomless hole.

  • 1MONUSCO Fact Sheet, accessed on 24 September 2019.
  • 2On this, see: Felix Mukwiza Ndahinda, “The Bemba-Banyamulenge Case before the ICC: From Individual to Collective Criminal Responsibility,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 7 no 3 (2013): 476–496.
  • 3Congo Research Group, Congo, Forgotten: The Numbers Behind Africa’s Longest Humanitarian Crisis, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, August 2019.
  • 4Jason Stearns and Christoph Vogel, ‘The Landscape of Armed Groups in Eastern Congo: Fragmented, politicized networks’, Kivu Security Tracker - December 2017.
  • 5Drawn from recorded testimonies of local populations shared with the author.
  • 6In English FDLR stands for Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda while CNRD is short for National Council for Renewal and Democracy.
  • 7The author elaborated on this in: Felix Mukwiza Ndahinda (2016), ‘Collective Victimization and Subjectivity in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Why Do Lasting Peace and Justice Remain Elusive?”, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 23(2), pp.137-178.
  • 8See UN OCHA, accessed on 25 September 2019.
  • 9On this, see: Séverine Autesserre (2010), The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (Cambridge University Press).
  • 10For more on the incidence of identity politics on violence in the DRC, see: Bosco Muchukiwa (2006), Territoires ethniques et territoires étatiques: pouvoirs locaux et conflits interethniques au Sud-Kivu (R.D. Congo), L’Harmattan ; Thomas Turner (2007), The Congo Wars: Conflict, myth and reality, Zed Books, Koen Vlassenroot (2013),  South Kivu: Identity, territory, and power in the eastern Congo, Rift Valley Institute (Rvi)/Usalama Project ; Tatiana Carayannis, Koen Vlassenroot, Kasper Hoffmann and Aaron Pangburn (2018), Competing networks and political order in the Democratic Republic of Congo: a literature review on the logics of public authority and international intervention, DRC Synthesis Paper, LSE/Conflict Research Program; Alex Ntung (2019), ‘Dynamics of Local Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Challenges Ahead for President Félix Tshisekedi Tshilombo’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 43:2.


Felix Mukwiza Ndahinda
Researcher, consultant and Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences