The invention of the indigène

Published on Pambazuka News, by Mahmood Mamdani, January 13, 2011.

‘The violence in Congo may seem unintelligible but its roots lie in institutional practices introduced under colonialism, which 50 years of independence have only exacerbated,’ writes Mahmood Mamdani.

For the institutions that claim to represent ‘the international community’ – the Western press, international NGOs and UN agencies – the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a paradigm of senseless violence. The number of casualties is indeed staggering. In 2001, the New-York-based International Rescue Committee started providing estimates of war-related deaths since the conflict began in 1998: they rose from 1.7 million in 2001 to 5.4 million in January 2008. If correct, these figures account for about 8 per cent of the current population of the country. They were called into question in 2008, however, when two Belgian demographers concluded that the excess death toll between 1998 and 2004 was in the order of 200,000 – one-twentieth of the IRC’s estimate for the same period, but still a shocking number of victims. 

The violence in Congo may seem unintelligible but its roots lie in institutional practices introduced under colonialism, which 50 years of independence have only exacerbated. At their heart is an institution known as the native authority. Since the colonial period, native authorities have had jurisdiction over ‘tribal homelands’. As a system of power, the native authority claims to represent age-old ethnic identity. But ethnicity refers to cultural difference, and there is no necessary link between culture and territory … //

… The supreme difficulty in Congo, as I’ve said, is the persistence of the native authority, which, for all the complexities of ethnicity, is still in place as an organising principle. It is now the terrain on which new forms of political authority, flaunted by young men bearing arms, confront older forms steeped in patriarchal tradition. (This same confrontation has also unfolded in Northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, where youth-led rebellions have eroded older kinds of authority.) The descendants of migrant communities, and newer waves of immigrants, have proved as violent as their opponents, but they have also been the first to rethink the boundaries of community and try to reinvent themselves as Congolese citizens. In 1972, when thousands of Hutus were slaughtered in Burundi, Tutsi Banyarwanda distanced themselves from what was happening across the border and vigorously reaffirmed their Congolese identity. The general description ‘Banyarwanda’ fell away; henceforth they preferred ‘Banyamulenge’. The reformulation suggests a radical will to shift identity away from ethnic origin to territory.

Under the two Kabilas, Laurent and his son and successor Joseph, the Mobutist models of citizenship and ethnic identity came under review. Kabila Sr’s draft constitution affirmed that the Berlin Conference date should remain the criterion of citizenship, but in 2005, after his son’s constitutional referendum, citizenship was awarded to all individuals descended from ethnic groups present in the territory on independence in 1960: a major step forward, even if citizenship remained an attribute of ethnic identity. Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social, showed the intrinsic weakness of the opposition in Congo when he denounced the draft constitution as a ‘sell out’ to foreigners. He was thinking of the Banyarwanda, who had arrived before independence but whose descendants would now be Congolese: he called on his supporters to boycott voter registration in advance of the referendum. Tshisekedi, himself a victim of ‘indigenous’ chauvinism in Katanga, was incapable of seeing beyond his own narrow political advantage when it came to the future of the country. Faced with the extreme violence that has racked Congo and always threatens to break out again, the ‘international community’ has tended to fall back on the notion of the failed state. As with organ failure in medicine, ‘state failure’ provokes calls for radical solutions, including rapid intervention and even emergency transplants. In 2004, after a massacre in a camp on the Congo- Burundi border, Clare Short told the BBC that ‘if we leave it, there will be endless killing.’ She went on to warn that Africa could soon become a ‘failed continent’. In Foreign Policy a couple of years ago, two leading academics proposed that ‘the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists.’ Like external examiners everywhere, all three commentators are intent on outcomes, not processes: they ignore the colonial and post-colonial history of state formation in Congo and can tell us only what it should be, not what it is or how it is evolving.

That violence in Africa is criminal rather than political is now the conventional wisdom. Groping for a memorable soundbite, the development economist Paul Collier claims that greed, not grievance, is the source of the civil wars on the continent, while human rights groups now include ‘naming and shaming’ in their response to atrocities. Calls for prosecution and punishment can also be heard: but who will do the punishing in Congo? Will it be failing native authorities in Kivu? The armed militias not yet integrated into the new army? Or that army itself, already home to most of the perpetrators? Or should the international community – led by the International Criminal Court – take charge of Congo’s destiny yet again? And who should be punished: the rank-and-file or senior commanders? Will they be Congolese only, or soldiers from the neighbouring armies (Rwanda and Uganda) that have intervened? These questions are highly political. Even the worst perpetrators of violence in Congo must be understood as human actors caught up in a conflict that started with the colonial conquest a century ago. That means shifting the focus from individual acts to the cycle of violence, from atrocities to the issues that drive them. Instead of recognising and facing the real challenge – to reform the native authority so that local militias can be held politically accountable – the ‘international community’ has chosen to induct them into a ballooning, dysfunctional colonial-style army, leaving the native authority to grind along unchanged. (full long text).

Comments are closed.