Security crisis and complex Banyarwanda equation in DRC

Friday August 05 2022

Congolese demonstrators gesture during a protest against the UN peacekeeping mission (Monusco) in Goma on July 26, 2022. PHOTO | AFP


The M23 movement in North Kivu comprises northerners and is opposed by many Banyamulenge southerners, who have their own military faction, explains Gatete Nyiringabo Ruhumuliza.

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The resurgence of the M23 rebellion in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the retaliatory attacks on “Rwandans” in the country, and Kinshasha’s accusations that the insurgents are backed by Kigali, has brought new focus on the Banyarwanda question.

People of Rwandan decent, speaking Kinyarwanda – the national language of Rwanda – and practising the Rwandan culture, are Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. It is estimated that there are 40 million Banyarwanda in the Great Lakes region, with 13 million of them being Rwandan citizens.


Others are in Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, DRC — usually in areas bordering Rwanda — in Kenya, and in Europe and North America. Of these Banyarwanda, a few are nationals of those countries as a result of 19th-20th century migrations, most having been settled there for at least four centuries.

Contrary to popular belief, the Banyarwanda are not always supportive of Rwandan governments, nor are they of one community versus another — among “Nyarus” as they are called in Uganda. While Banyarwanda are fairly accepted in other countries, in the DRC they have been at the heart of conflict for almost three decades now.

Read: Banyarwanda and the Battle of the Corridors (?)

There are several communities of Banyarwanda in eastern DRC, most scattered in North Kivu: the Banya-Masisi, Banya-Jombo, Banya-Bwisha, Banya-Ruchuru, Banya-Muhigi and those of Kivu South, commonly known as “Banya-Mulenge”. “Banya” meaning “people of,” they simply took up names of their localities. While the majority of the Banya in these countries identify as Hutu, those who identify as Tutsi — the minority — have struggled to be accepted. As a result, “Banyarwanda” is often used to exclude the Tutsi.

Family tensions

The M23 movement in North Kivu is made up of northerners, and opposed by “many” Banyamulenge southerners, who have their own military faction named “Twurwaneho” (let us save ourselves) and an almost defunct “Gumino” (Let us stay here).

The Banyamulenge, however, are not a monolith: they have no single thought, no hierarchy nor spokesperson. Dissensions between Banyamulenge have always existed, but they often set their differences aside and act jointly in reaction to frequent attacks by the militias of non-Rwandan communities living with them, named Mai-Mai, in connivance with corrupt commanders of the national army FARDC, and a Burundian faction named Red Tabara.

Due to delays and irregularity of salary payment, or just greed, FARDC commanders conspire with militias to conduct illegal exploitation of minerals and extort civilians. Generals based in Minembwe collaborate with Mai-Mai, an extremely violent militia composed of Babembe, Bafuliro and Banyindu. Working with Bavira, three of the four South Kivu tribes historically antagonistic to Banyamulenge, attack them, kill their members and rustle their cattle.

Red Tabara, on the other hand, was founded after the failed coup d’état against then-president Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi in 2015. They are commanded by one Alexis Sinduhije, a Burundian national based in Belgium and coordinated on the ground by one Bazabampema in Uvira, South Kivu. They teamed up with Gumino, a fledgling Banyamulenge militia led on the ground by Col Shyaka Nyamusaraba, with its political leader, Maj Tawimbi, based in Kinshasa, who had close links with the Burundi government and Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

Read: Burundi secretly sent troops to DRC - rights group

P-5 Coalition

At some point all factions opposed to the Rwandan government met in South Kivu to form an alliance known as P-5, comprising RNC, Faustin Twagiramungu’s Rwanda Dream Initiative, Paul Rusesabagina’s National Liberation Front, Victoire Ingabire’s United Democratic Forces, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the remnant genocidal force.

Depending on the relationship that Rwanda had with its respective neighbours, the P-5 would receive support from Burundi, Uganda or DRC. The Banyamulenge mostly rejected them, saying they had no problem with Rwanda. At the time, Banyamulenge leaders visited Rwanda to discuss the formation of a P-5 in their high plateau.

Read: Arrests in Rwanda expose little known Platform Five

When Burundi wanted to get rid of Red Tabara, its leader Nyamusaraba travelled to Bujumbura to offer his services. He was supported, armed and his small force beefed up with Imbonerakure, a Burundi faction close to the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy.His family was relocated to Bujumbura under Burundi’s government care. He established his base in the territory of Bibokoboko in Uvira.

With the renewed strength, Gumino attacked Red Tabara, killing a number of its commanders. That’s how Red Tabara teamed up with Banyamulenge’s adversaries, the Mai-Mai, attacked Banyamulenge, killed many, stole their cattle and burned their villages. The survivors fled South Kivu to Nakivale in Uganda and Musasa in Burundi. Some, especially youth, went as far as Kenya.

At the height of tensions between Rwanda and Burundi, there were campaigns of misinformation, created first by the Burundi government, then by its off-shoot Gumino, that the Red-Tabara was being supported by the Rwandan government. That is why the Banyamulenge never went to Rwanda. The FARDC helped them flee into Burundi. They spent weeks in the border town of Gatumba after being refused entry into Burundi.

Also read: Beware the danger of Rwandan rebels in DRC — envoy

The Banyamulenge diaspora went everywhere, pleading, denouncing the killing of their community in the Congolese highlands, in vain. The DRC government, the international community, the media, and Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate based in South Kivu, all stayed silent. So, in 2018, the Banyamulenge diaspora put together money to help Twirwaneho buy weapons from FARDC. They then asked Banyamulenge commanders, Colonel Michel Rukunda aka Makanika, based in Beni, and Colonel Charles Sematama, at the time commander of DRC’s 3411 regiment based in Masisi, North Kivu, to desert the national army and take command of Twirwaneho.

In an interview immediately after his desertion, Col Sematama declared: “I cannot serve a government to defend populations in other provinces, while the same government is collaborating with people who are killing my community. I must make a choice!”

The FARDC would give Mai-Mai intelligence on the amount of cows, of young people in Banyamulenge villages, open passage, send them to steal the cows and share the loot. Cows are a precious commodity in DRC, with one costing $1,000. About 300 cows were stolen on each raid. When the Banyamulenge would pursue the assailants, the FARDC would block them. As late as last week, Minembwe was attacked. The stolen cows are sold openly in markets of Kamituga, Salamabila, Lulenge, Mwenga, even in the Maniema Province. People who have never owned cattle are seen selling herds in open markets.

Nearly 99 percent of the Banyamulenge cattle, estimated at 600,000, have been stolen. Espoir, a Munyamulenge colleague, based in Kigali, posted on Facebook the day his favourite young bull was taken.

“I had kept my favourite little bull because it was giving beautiful calves”. Gaju (Brown) as he calls it, was so courageous, he says. “He had managed to escape the Mai-Mai cattle rustlers and found his way home at dusk. We were so happy. The next day, they came back and took him again, this time for good,” he explained to me with tears in his eyes. All his 300 cows have now been stolen.

The locality of Kipupu was a known bastion of Mai-Mai, where operations to attack Banyamulenge and rustle their cattle were being planned. After complaining to the FARDC in vain, Banyamulenge youth of Twirwaneho raided the location, recovered their cattle, and killed the Mai-Mai.

Dr Mukwege, a Nobel Prize-winning gynaecologist, internationally recognised for his work of repairing female victims of sexual abuse, entered the scene. He called the local media, took to social media and declared: “They are the same people who are killing us since 1996.” “They” being Tutsi.

Read: Rising hate speech in Congo conflict alarms UN

He would even inflate the number of dead Mai-Mai, claiming 220 civilians were killed. Given his fame, an international outcry ensued, triggering an investigation by the UN and the central and provincial governments. The inquiry would find that 10 people were killed — all Mai-Mai.

How it could end

Corruption is a tool of governance and it works very well. When I was studying political science, scholars were unanimous: the country project of the Big Congo failed. “Big Congo” meant a basket case. And it is not only Kivu, even the capital Kinshasa is unable to govern itself. Big Congo will struggle to stay as one country without a significant change in how it is led from Kinshasa, and a radical investment in the welfare of its people.

The state of Congo could eventually disappear or shrink to a manageable size, while peripheral regions branch out to form independent states or join its nine neighbours, like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did.