Behind the M23: Tutsi pride, fears and ambitions in the Great Lakes

Behind the M23: Tutsi pride, fears and ambitions in the Great Lakes
Congolese people flee a clash between M23 rebels and the Congolese army. Courtesy Photo.

For the last four months, a new guerrilla force operating out of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been increasingly capturing international news headlines.

The March 23rd Movement (or M23) has stirred up the latest round of fighting, refugee stampedes and destruction in what now seems like endless suffering for this war-torn land.

It is the latest rebel group made up of mainly Banyamulenge (Congolese Tutsi) — the other just before it was the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda.

When taken together, it means over the last 22 years a Tutsi-led or Tutsi-dominated rebel group has been fighting in one form or another in each of the four Great Lakes nations of Burundi, Rwanda, Congo and Uganda.

The regular news reports on outbreaks of fighting, refugees fleeing their homes, UN peacekeepers standing by helplessly, mass graves being discovered, territory falling into rebel hands and conferences being called to mediate accords are enough to bore or exhaust most of the general public, which eventually loses interest.

The history of Tutsi dominance, humiliation and resurgence in the Great Lakes region

To understand the intentions, mindset, history and future plans of the M23, it is necessary to understand the history of the Great Lakes region, the ethnic composition, the many tribal clashes that have displaced millions of people and the effect of massacres and genocides on the populations in the region.

As it is with almost all African countries, independence starting in the 1950s did not mark the birth of entirely new nation-states. Rather, it was the forging or attempted forging of various traditional states and tribes into one modern nation-state whose history dated back hundreds of years prior to these new nations.

What happened at independence, then, was a process by which different groups brought all their baggage, hang-ups and fears into the modern nation-state. The last 60 years since the 1950s have been the marriage of these various peoples into one awkward union.

The Tutsi were traditionally the aristocratic class and caste in their localities. From them came the kings and the basic administrative structure for decades. A series of events, mainly to do with the arrival of the European colonial masters, changed the history of these emerging nations.

Where once the Tutsi (or Bahima in Ankole and Babiito in Bunyoro and Toro for example) had once been the rulers, the Europeans, with their advanced technology, administrative, health and educational systems, in a sense became the new aristocrats; the new Tutsi or Babiito or Bahima.

It was a confusing picture. In Rwanda and Burundi the Tutsi who had ruled over the Hutu who formed the vast majority, were themselves now second-class citizens. With modern education through the Christian missionary schools steadily spreading, the Hutu (or in Uganda, the Bairu) now got a chance to enjoy the benefits of social and career advancement, become colonial clerks and even traveling abroad.

The societies started to see a level-playing field, with Tutsi and Hutu at an equal level just under the Europeans.

It was not long before this modern education and especially the military training now acquired started a movement that would lead to the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchies in Burundi and Rwanda starting in 1959.

The tribal clashes between Hutu and Tutsi starting in the 1960s were the long-awaited revenge for the Hutu.

The 1960s were a doubly traumatic time for the Tutsi. Not only had the arrival of the colonial era robbed them of their traditional status of privilege but now under a new republican order, with democratic elections based on majority rule, it meant that at about 12 percent of the population against the Hutu’s 87 percent, all hope was now lost for the Tutsi to ever rule again.

And to make it worse, the ethnic clashes of 1959 in Rwanda exiled many Tutsi to Uganda. This humiliation, from prince to pauper, from royalty to rags, from home to exile, was a deeply traumatic experience for the Tutsi and would leave scars on them that would last a generation.

Many Tutsi ended up in refugee camps like Nakivaale and Kyaka in Uganda. Those who got absorbed into Uganda’s mainstream society were often despised or dismissed as “Akanyarwanda ako”.

The exiled Tutsi in Uganda looked constantly back to life before 1959, to the settled, dignified life they had enjoyed for decades before the overthrow of the monarchy in Rwanda headed by King Kigeli V.

The exiled Tutsi had joined the NRA guerrilla war of Yoweri Museveni in 1981. Many of them, like Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame rose to become senior officers in the NRA.

M23 Rebels in Bunagana, DRC. Courtesy Photo/Isaac Kasamani.

Four years later the NRA seized state power in Kampala and Museveni became president. A sitting government had been overthrown by rebels who started in 1981 with only a fraction of the weapons owned by the government army, the UNLA.

The success of this NRA war not only boosted the Tutsi’s belief in their military skills but many of them started to wonder if they could replicate this success in their country of origin Rwanda. Could a Rwandan force achieve a similar feat and overthrow the Hutu-dominated government of Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana?

The turning point in the psychology of the Tutsi of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Congo was the victory by the Rwandan Patriotic Front in July 1994.

Under a group called the RPF these Tutsi exiles had invaded Rwanda in October 1990. At first they were beaten back and several of their most senior commanders like Rwigyema, Peter Baingana and Chris Bunyenyezi had died soon after the invasion.

But four years later, in July 1994, the same four year-period it had taken for the NRA to rise to power, the RPF captured state power in the Rwandan capital Kigali.

The Tutsi, always a minority in every country in the Great Lakes region in which they lived — and always self-conscious about being a minority — could not believe that the RPF had wrestled power from the Hutu in less than four years of the civil war.

Confidence was at its peak following this RPF rise to power. The Tutsi felt a rise in pride. Thousands who for most of their lives had lived in humiliation in Uganda, even going to the extent of adopting Baganda names, now came out openly as Tutsi.

Thousands of Tutsi had lost relatives during the genocide that took place in Rwanda in mid 1994 and the sense of loss was profound. Nothing could compensate for it.

But the sight of Tutsi military officers rapidly advancing on the war front, not simply winning battles but taking over entire countries, gave the bereaved Tutsi a sense of security once again.

In 1994, this success by the NRA-backed RPF set off speculation and talk in Uganda of a supposed Hima-Tutsi empire taking shape in the Great Lakes region masterminded by Museveni.

Kampala dismissed this as idle talk but clearly relished the newfound prestige that Uganda, the NRM and Museveni enjoyed in the Great Lakes, Eastern Africa and the English-speaking western world.

Even more unbelievable than the RPF victory was what happened two years later. In October 1996, Uganda and Rwanda joined forces again and armed and financed another uprising, this time in Zaire.

M23 Rebels in Congo. Courtesy Photo.

For 32 years, Mobutu Sese Seko had dominated the Congolese political scene, steadily running the country down into near-collapse while at the same time amassing a personal fortune estimated by the  Guinness Book of Records  at $5 billion, making him the world’s richest politician.

A new rebel group called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, headed by the veteran anti-Mobutu politician Laurent-Désiré Kabila, launched a civil war whose objective was to topple Mobutu.

Television images of these rebels from Zaire featured troops in brand-new uniforms and the rumours were widespread in Kampala that they were being dressed and supplied by the United States.

Millions of people in Burundi, Uganda, Zaire, Tanzania and Rwanda listened and read intently as the rebels made swift gains in Zairean territory. Goma, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, these towns fell with little resistance and the rebels advanced toward the capital Kinshasa, eventually taking power in a guerrilla war that had lasted only seven months.

This spectacular victory, coming after only seven months and in one of the largest countries in Africa, stunned many geo-political and military analysts.

A long-standing African problem in the form of Mobutu’s decadent rule had now been solved with relative ease. In Washington and London, policy makers gushed at the efficiency of the Rwandan and Ugandan military and political machinery.

NRA Uganda and RPF Rwanda came to be seen as regional trouble shooters, regimes that knew the local terrain, political history and cultural mentality well, were disciplined and militarily powerful and so could become a valuable sub-contractor in peace-keeping missions and resolving long-standing African problems.

Out of this came the descriptions of Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (along with John Garang of Southern Sudan, Issayas Afewerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia) as part of a “new breed of African leaders.”

It is this background to the Tutsi dominance as a ruling class, the loss of that privileged status in 1959 in Rwanda, the many genocides that followed in Rwanda and Burundi, the exile period and the return to power of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 that explains the motivation behind the M23.

The M23 has given as its reasons to mutiny poor pay conditions and poor uniforms. These reasons do not hold weight, since the pictures out of Goma have shown a well-equipped and well-dressed rebel force.

The underlying motive behind the M23 and before that Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP group is the inspiration taken from the successes of the Tutsi of Rwanda in military campaigns in Uganda, Rwanda and in 1996, in the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko.

It is the belief that it too as M23 can establish an enclave within Congo that it will run as a semi-independent state, demonstrate that this enclave is disciplined, can collect taxes and run an orderly administration and by that, hopefully, convince the international community to support the creation of a new state as it did with South Sudan.

Although western governments pressured the M23’s mentors Rwanda and Uganda to order the rebels to withdraw from Goma, and the rebels have now retreated to about 20km from the outskirts of the town, they have not forgotten the psychological boost they got from walking into the town almost unopposed, with United Nations peacekeeping troops watching by the side of the road like villagers.

The M23 will try everything and look for any loophole, including stirring up trouble, in order to re-take Goma.

Behind it all, though, is this spirit of pride in a revived Tutsi image and military skill.