Banyamulenge fighting to live on their lands

Saturday November 24 2012


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Just as happened with Somalia, the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is “stinking up” the region.

The toll of the on-off-on conflict of the past many years on the people in the region has been horrific — anywhere from three to five million deaths.

A few days ago, the much-vilified M23 rebels captured the major town of Goma. As they have always done, DRC government troops just took to the hills, and the vast UN peacekeeping operation, Monusco, also folded its tents and left town.

The conflict is fuelled by many things: Illegal trade in the country’s near-endless diamond and mineral resources; bootleg logging; poaching; and the discrimination against “Rwandaphones” and “Burundiphones,” mainly Tutsis.

Of all of them, the one that fuels the most organised resistance against the government, is the persecution of the Congolese Tutsis.

The view of Kinshasa is that the past 100 years and more, which included the colonial period that left the Tutsis (called Banyamulenge) on the DRC side of the border, are void and these Congolese should be expelled.


The capture of Goma seems to have briefly knocked sense into the DRC government. In a hastily convened Great Lakes summit in Kampala, President Joseph Kabila agreed to talk to the M23, which is dominated by Congolese Tutsi.

I spent two days in the countryside in eastern Uganda shortly after the fall of Goma. I woke up about 4am on the first morning there.

There were many cocks crowing loudly and insistently, and cows mooing in the village. All sorts of birds were singing, but there was harmony in the cacophony.

These are some of the sources of African rhythm, the sounds from which the African slaves who were taken to North America created jazz music.

If you take Africans, especially peasants, away from these sounds and surroundings, several things happen. They can become disoriented, fall apart, and despair.

We saw a version of this in northern Uganda when 1.4 million people were corralled into camps for IDPs at the height of the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Or they can go into valiant resistance, accepting that they must pay a very high price to win back the right to live peacefully on their lands.

We saw the same thing in southern Uganda in the rebellion led by President Yoweri Museveni; and the return-to-the-motherland war waged by Rwandan refugees for statehood that brought the Rwanda Patriotic Front to power (and led to the genocide in which nearly a million people were killed).

In the past 15 years, the Banyamulenge have fought the same fight in the DRC. Kabila can be smart, offer them a political deal and save DRC, or choose the destructive path preferred by successive Congolese governments of recent years and lose eastern DRC — or even power in Kinshasa.

Criticisms and ultimatums to the eastern DRC rebels like that issued at last week’s Kampala emergency summit, and international condemnation and sanctions, will not change that fact.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @cobbo3