by Mahmood Mamdani*
(*) Mahmood Mamdani is the director of the African Studies
Centre at the University of Cape Town
Johannesburg, South Africa. November 2, 1998
Understanding the DR-Congo: The real
power is not in Kinshasa, but in thousands of local authorities. The Congo is
rather like a giant collection of ‘bantustans’ says Professor MAHMOOD MAMDANI
IT is widely believed the root problem of the African state
is the artificial nature of its boundaries. Were these boundaries not first
arbitrarily drawn up at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85 and then imposed from
This bit of conventional wisdom needs to be questioned for
two reasons. One, all boundaries are more or less artificial. Two, to understand
the crisis of the state, an understanding of how power is organised is likely to
prove a more illuminating starting point than the nature of boundaries.
Citizenship and the Congolese state: There is a thesis now common in American
political science: the state is collapsing in more and more African countries.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is often held as an example of this. Instead of
starting with the state that European colonialism actually created in Africa,
this thesis assumes the state in Africa was the result of an attempt to
reproduce the European state under African conditions.
Hence the conclusion, that the attempt to imitate the
original has failed. The difference between the two is seen as evidence of an
African failure, and understood as a collapse.
But the state in Africa is a product of a different history,
a history of conquest. Colonial powers reformed the nature of the state as they
attempted to generate support for alien rule. The British took the lead with a
reform called « indirect rule ». Others, including the French and the Belgians,
followed suit. It is this reform which begins to explain what is different about
the state in Africa. Indirect rule re-organised colonial power as two distinct
authorities, each ruling through a different legal regime, one civic and the
Civic power ruled through civil law, which was legislated by
the central state. In contrast, customary law was enforced by a native authority
whose seat was the local state. Civil law claimed to speak a universal language,
that of rights, but it excluded natives on the grounds they were creatures of
habit who needed to be ruled through a regime that would enforce custom. Even
then, colonial powers did not create a single customary law and a single
customary regime ruling all natives.
Claiming that each ethnic group had its own custom, colonial
powers created a different set of customary laws for each ethnic group, and a
separate native authority to enforce each set of laws. The result was a
Janus-faced power with a difference: while civic power was racialised, the
native authority was ethnicised.
This form of the state underwent a reform after independence.
While the reform process varied from one country to another, one could discern
the more radical from the more conservative current. The Congolese reform
followed the conservative variant: while civic power was de-racialised, the
native authority remained ethnicised.
When political scientists speak of the collapse of the state,
they are speaking of the collapse of civic power, not that of the native
authority. The point is, what holds Congo together is not as much the civic
power in Kinshasa and Kisangani, and so on, but the hundreds of native
authorities that control the bulk of the population in the name of enforcing «
custom ». For Southern Africans, the Congo is better thought of as a giant
federation of Bantustans, a reformed colonial state.
Citizenship and the Banyamulenge question:
The post-colonial state de-racialised the civic identity;
civic citizenship stopped recognising any difference based on race or place of
origin. But it continued to reproduce the native identity as ethnic. The result
as been a bifurcated citizenship: one civic, the other ethnic. Civic citizenship
is a consequence of membership of the central state; it is specified in the
Constitution, and is the basis of rights - mainly individual rights, in the
political and civil realm.
In contrast, ethnic citizenship is a consequence of
membership in the native authority; it is the source of a different category of
rights, mainly social and economic. Further, these rights are not accessed
individually but by virtue of membership of an ethnic community. The key
socio-economic right is the right to use land as a source of livelihood. Herein
lies the material basis of ethnic belonging, particularly for the ethnic poor.
The political consequence of this double citizenship is that
not everyone who is a civic citizen, a citizen of the state called the Congo,
has an ethnic citizenship. Only those considered indigenous have a native
authority and, as a consequence, an ethnic citizenship.
The immediate practical consequence of this is that
non-indigenous citizens are denied « customary » access to land since they do
not have their own native authority. The native authority in the Congo is
three-tiered. It is the chief of the second tier who controls access to land.
The Banyamulenge in Kivu Province have their own chief at the first tier, but
they are treated as ethnic strangers at the second tier. In 1981 Banyamulenge
were accepted as civic citizens, but not as ethnic citizens with the right to
their own native authority.
It is worth noting the Banyamulenge identity - as that of
other immigrants from Rwanda - is territorial, not ethnic: the Banya-Mulenge
refers to those of the place called Mulenge. This group identity is in turn
layered, each signifying a different history. Starting from those who were there
when the borders of colonial Congo were first demarcated, the identity
Banyamulenge includes every wave of immigrant to Mulenge, including those who
came in the wake of the genocide of 1994. The irony of a common identification
for all Rwandese-speaking persons resident in a single place, regardless of when
they got there, is that the depth of claim of those longest resident is obscured
by the shallowness of the claim of the latest wave of immigrants. The
consequence is, in native eyes, Banyamulenge becomes a collective identification
of those non-indigenous.
This question is not unique to the Congo. It is a dilemma
that arises wherever there are substantial numbers of immigrants and where the
state inherited from colonialism makes a structural distinction between two
kinds of citizens: those indigenous, and those not. One can see this in the case
of Uganda, historically another neighbour of Rwanda with a substantial number of
Kinyaruanda-speaking immigrants. It was the state oppression of all Banyaruanda
- whether born in Uganda or not, civic citizens or not - by the Milton Obote II
government that led to Banyaruanda youth joining the National Resistance Army
(NRA) led by Yoweri Museveni. It is estimated that as many as 4 000 of the 16
000 NRA guerrillas who marched into Kampala in January 1986 were Banyaruanda.
Ironically, the Banyaruanda question became a major social - and political -
question in Uganda as individuals of Rwandese origin occupied prominent state
positions under the NRA. The social question was connected to land and became a
major public issue when Banyaruanda squatters confronted Baganda ranchers in
Mawogola county in Masaka District in the late 1980s.
The squatters laid a claim to land, and utilised their
majority status in the county to press it home as a democratic demand. Ranchers
questioned whether a non-indigenous group can have land rights as do natives. As
the land question was translated into a nationality question (specifically, the
Banyaruanda question), national attention focused on the prominent position of
individuals of Rwandese origin in the hierarchy of the NRA and that of the
state. The social question triggered a political crisis. The important point to
understand, for our purposes, is that the impetus behind the decision of the
Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) to cross the border from Uganda into Rwanda in 1990
was not a political crisis in Rwanda, but one in Uganda.
How is one to come to terms with the conflict between those
the native authority identifies as ethnically indigenous and thus with a claim
to customary rights, and those it brands ethnically non-indigenous?
We can identify two different solutions from recent
developments in the region. The first solution is to create a separate native
authority for those branded non-indigenous, such as the Banyamulenge in Kivu
Province. This was the solution promoted by the Rwandese army in the Congo after
Laurent Kabila came to power. But it was also a solution that was very unpopular
in the Congo, especially among those living in Kivu. From their point of view,
this solution meant the land over which the native authority would be created
would be the land that would be appropriated by the Banyamulenge. Not
surprisingly, the solution advanced by the Rwandese army exacerbated ethnic
tension in Kivu Province.
An alternative to changing the boundaries of existing native
authorities and to creating a new native authority, is to reform the very nature
of power organised as the native authority in the local state. This was the
solution arrived at in practice by the NRA during its guerrilla war in Luwero
Triangle. It was also the solution endorsed as policy by Uganda’s National
Commission of Inquiry into Local Government System, set up in 1986.
This solution was to democratise the local state by
dismantling the system of chiefship, by turning the chief into an administrative
officer supervised by an executive committee elected by a village assembly of
all adults resident in the village, whether indigenous or not. It thus
re-defined the basis of customary rights from ethnicity to locality
While this was a better solution than multiplying the number
of native authorities, and thus multiplying the problem itself, it did not do
away with the problem. As subsequent developments showed, it could not hold
without a political alliance of working people, of both indigenous and
non-indigenous, cementing the fissure the conquest state had introduced into the
local population. As this alliance began to erode toward the late 1980s, the
Ugandan solution also began to unravel.
The lesson of the Ugandan experience is that the reform of
the state, and therefore of citizenship laws, will not be an automatic
consequence of elections and majority rule. It will require a combination of an
enlightened leadership with an organisational capacity and will to undertake a
protracted education of the population, both those indigenous (the majority) and
those not (the minority). This lesson is confirmed by the Congolese experience.
For it is worth bearing in mind that while the Mobutu Seso Seko-sponsored 1981
law granted civic citizenship to the Banyamulenge, the National Conference of
Democratic Forces in Congo opposed this law when it convened a decade later, in
Kivu Province and its link with Rwanda:
Kivu Province is where losers in Rwanda traditionally end up;
and it is here they prepare to return to power in Rwanda. That, at least, is how
conventional wisdom in Goma and Bukavu has it. This, no doubt, introduces a
double tension in Kivu, both internal and external, the former within Kivu
society and the latter between Kivu and the power in Rwanda. It is also a
tension that has tended to grow in intensity as the refugee and exile population
No wonder Kivu found it difficult to contain this pressure in
the aftermath of the genocide of 1994. Then, more than a million Rwandese
refugees streamed into Kivu and set themselves up in camps. Supplied militarily
by the French, the interahamwe controlled the camps - while international NGOs
fed them. This had a devastating effect on civilian life in Kivu. It led to the
dollarisation of the economy, and to militarisation of ordinary life.
The interahamwe roamed the countryside, often collaborating
with the Congolese army. In response, many of the Native Authorities created
their own militia. These are the mai mai. The anatomy of political life in Kivu
began to take on a resemblance to that in Rwanda. As in Rwanda, where every
political party had come to have its own militia by the genocide of 1994, so in
Kivu every native authority began to acquire its own militia in the
The mai mai joined the first rebellion in the Congo, that
against Mobutu, but opposed the rebellion when it came to power. Why? They
joined it when the rebellion targeted the interahamwe and the allied Congolese
state army. And they opposed it when they saw the rebellion turn into the
spearhead of a Rwandese-installed government.
On the one hand, the Rwandese army began to resemble an army
of occupation, its commander even being formally appointed the commander of the
Congolese National Army. On the other, this same army began to actively support
the demand by the Banyamulenge that they be given a separate native authority in
Militarisation spread two tendencies in Kivu and in Congo, as
it had in Rwanda. First, the link forged between militarisation and genocidal
tendencies inside Rwanda spread across its borders. The first rebellion led to
an indiscriminate slaughter of interahamwe and of unarmed Hutu refugees. Those
responsible for that slaughter were part of the forces that opposed a United
Nations inquiry into the matter. They remain a part of the military forces of
the second rebellion.
The second rebellion, in turn, evoked from the Kabila
government an invitation to the general population in Kivu to slaughter
indiscriminately not only invading forces from Rwanda, but also the Banyamulenge
in the rebellion, and even any ordinary Tutsi civilian. We need to keep in mind
that genocidal tendencies are present on both sides of the conflict, that of the
government and that of the rebellion.
Secondly, the militarisation of politics has reduced all
credible politics to armed politics. The result is to marginalise all civil
society-based politics. Once again, this tendency has become consolidated in
Rwanda. Beginning with a marginalisation of the Hutu opposition autonomous of
both Hutu Power and the RPF, the tendency of state politics in Rwanda has been
to demonise all politics autonomous of the RPF - regardless of its political
character - as « genocidaire ».
It is a tendency strong in both the Kabila government in
Congo, and in a section of the political leadership of the Second Rebellion. The
tendency to reduce all credible politics to armed politics is also present on
both sides, that of the government and of the rebels.
The Second Rebellion:
We must begin by rejecting two tendencies, one which paints
the rebellion as entirely a home-grown affair, and the other which would make us
believe that it is wholly a foreign invasion. The Rebellion is haracterised by
both internal and external factors. I shall begin with the internal factor.
It is clear the political organ of the Rebellion - the Rally
for Congolese Democracy or the RCD - is a hastily put together affair. As such,
it lacks cohesion. We can identify at least three distinct and even opposed
tendencies in it. The first is that identified with its chair Wamba-dia-Wamba.
The second is identified with the Banyamulenge group, closely allied to Rwanda.
And the third is identified with the ex-Mobutists. In this coalition, the
balance of forces is clearly in favour of those with military forces, being the
pro-Rwanda Banyamulenge group and the ex-Mobutists. These also represent the
core of the militarist tendency in the Rebellion.
Let me illustrate my point with two examples. In a recent CNN
Report on the war, the military commander in Goma stated - in the presence of
Wamba-dia-Wamba - that he and his military colleagues would act against Wamba’s
political group if they became dissatisfied with their rule. In a recent
interview with De Standard in Belgium, Wamba explained that the political
wing lagged behind the military system because it was formed after the military
operation. He added that he hoped that those in favour of political liberation
of the people would eventually gain advantage in the movement. Such honesty and
transparency is rare to come by in politics. Wamba-dia-Wamba is a fine scholar
and a person of great integrity.
While he is formally the political leader of the Rebellion, I
suggest we will surely make better sense of both the Rebellion and the tendency
identified with Wamba if we understand it as opposed to the dominant political
tendency in the Rebellion.
The fact is that both the Rebellion and the Government are
internally contradictory. The dominant tendency in both is characterised by a
militarised form of politics. The question we need to ask is: How to
de-militarise politics? As a starting point, I suggest it requires making
politics more inclusive, particularly by recognising the legitimacy of unarmed
opposition. To recognise the political limits of both the government and the
rebellion is to recognise the political opposition to Mobutu that gelled as the
Sovereign National Conference in 1990-91.
Comprising over 400 civic and over a hundred political
groups, this opposition thrived in the period from 1990 to 1996. it was neither
a part of the First Rebellion (Kabila) nor of the Second Rebellion
(anti-Kabila). It is this unarmed opposition, particularly the democratic sector
within it, that will be key to de-militarising Congolese politics by making it
We can now turn to the external factor(both italics) in the
Rebellion. There is need to oppose the external invasion without denying the
existence of an internal opposition. It is worth noting that all regimes in the
region - and this includes, in particular, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan and
Angola - have a habit of insisting that their internal problems are generated by
external involvement. Of all, however, Congo falls in a special category. For,
unlike all others, Congo is the object of direct foreign invasion, not just
indirect foreign interference. By this, I am referring to the invasion that
began with the entry of Ugandan and Rwandese forces, which was then countered
with forces from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and others. The foreign invasion
seems to have given Kabila a second lease on life. If you want an analogy, think
of how Hitler’s invasion transformed Stalin into a national hero. Increasingly
isolated at home by late 1997, it is clear that Kabila now enjoys growing
popularity as he wears the mantle of national independence.
The result is that internal reform is more difficult today
than it was before the foreign invasion. This is why the first precondition to
internal reform is that all foreign forces leave the Congo. And yet, we know
that foreign forces are unlikely to leave Congo without the acceptance of a
broad agenda of internal political reform. Such an agenda will need both
international credibility and international support. To marshal both that
credibility and that support, any agenda for internal reform will need to
recognise the legitimacy of all internal political forces, whether in or out of
government, whether armed or not.
Foreign invasion cannot give us democracy as a turnkey
project. This was true of Uganda in 1979 and of Congo in 1997. And it remains
true of Congo in 1998. A lot of problems ascribed to Kabila would have been
faced by any government put in power by foreign forces. It is better to face up
to this fact, no matter how things turn out in the present conflict in Congo,
Even if Wamba-dia-Wamba - or another person of equal integrity and democratic
persuasion - should turn out to be the head of the next government, this single
political fact will not go away.
The irony of the Congo crisis is that the government claims
to stand for the national question, while the rebellion highlights the
democratic question. For friends of Congo, as for Wamba-dia-Wamba, the dilemma
is that any political force which hopes to realise its democratic aspirations
will first have to establish its nationalist credentials.
The lesson of Congo is that Africa needs to re-assert and
strengthen two principles. The first is the defence of territorial integrity and
sovereignty in the face of militarism and the associated tendency to export
revolution. This means making a clear distinction between the right of peoples
to negotiate and to re-define sovereignty, and the obligation of states to
respect existing definitions of sovereignty. The second is to oppose militarism
in politics, as a first step to democratisation. Only this two-fold commitment
can provide us the basis for dealing with deeper issues that the Congo crisis
has brought to surface, being those of citizenship and state reform.-