TW: ethnic cleansing/genocide, warfare
In case you haven’t heard, amid all the coverage of the on-going conflict along the Gazan-Israeli border, there’s also a growing conflict along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Yesterday, after days of fighting between government forces and the “M23” rebels in Goma, DRC ended with a decisive anti-government victory. Both the UN and the military forces have stated they won’t immediately contest the city, which has already seen enough fighting and doesn’t deserve another week if not longer of it. The UN and the DRC are sticking to condemnations for the time being.
The comparative silence from the “Western” world over this is intriguing, since we’re not even a year past the infuriating Kony 2012 campaign, which concerned itself with a national situation quite similar to this one. In both cases, a terribly undemocratic government of a former African colony is locked in an incredibly destructive struggle against extremely violent would-be revolutionaries. It’s the ultimate debate between a pair of astoundingly bad “lesser of two evils” – and I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea which one is actually worse. In any case, despite these clear similarities between the two cases, there’s no talk of launching a Ntaganda 2013 campaign, and I suspect that’s more than just motivated by the difficulty anglophones would have with this name.
What’s also interesting, however, is that we’re not seeing the inverse. The M23 is a predominantly Tutsi force, supported by the Tutsi-friendly government of Uganda and largely Tutsi political elite of Rwanda. The military regimes of both of those countries receive a surprising amount of sympathy from their former colonizers, in spite of both of their political use of mass violence.
The awkward fact remains that Kony’s LRA was formed in response to ethnic cleansing in Uganda and that anti-Tutsi sentiment in Rwanda is clearly tied their disproportionately higher society economic status throughout the region during and following colonial rule. It must be added of course that both the efforts at protecting the Acholi and Hutu people of the region have frequently become justifications for killing large numbers of people belonging to those ethnic groups, who are perceived as traitors to the cause. The reactions to these systemic inequalities are sometimes just as indiscriminately violent as the inequalities themselves.
Consequently, it’s hard not to see fertile ground in the DRC for the unilateral understandings of these conflicts which are very prevalent in the US. But there are no reports on the violence that glorify the M23 as a great liberating force for the people of the northeastern DRC, because there’s no reporting at all. This issue is so chronically undervalued in “Western” media, that its presentation isn’t flawed so much as nonexistent.
There are so many reasons to look at this and try to learn something. What’s immediately obvious is that much of sub-Saharan Africa faces the detestable choice between eliminationist revolutionaries and astoundingly violent and insular regimes. Or, to phrase that slightly differently, the choice between military rule and military-to-be rule. What’s less apparent though is how much of this political race for the bottom has been driven by colonial and neo-colonial influence. In Rwanda and Burundi, Belgian rule transformed historical dominance by hazily defined social groups into an immobile racial system that could determine your job, your prospects, and your life. In Uganda, US-based groups have bankrolled gradually more and more fundamentalist Christian politicians, creating a very heterosexist and cissexist political culture.
But what’s more, the example of the DRC shows that the social structures and political boundaries established during the mad dash to colonize Africa still has consequences. Geographically large and diverse, the DRC clearly has multiple population centers beyond the most densely populated band stretching from the capital of Kinshasa in the southwest over to the border with Zambia in the southeast. The rest of the country was largely incorporated together by Belgium to facilitate foreign control over its various useful resources.
(The population density of the DRC, originally from here.)
The political life of the country has not only been concentrated within the political elite but also within that region. Colonization not only favored different ethnic and social groups but also regional ones, leaving the also densely populated areas along the Ugandan, Rwandan, and Burundian borders out in the cold. Dissatisfied with their government on so many fronts, apathy towards the state’s disintegration or even active support of revolutionaries seems understandable. Perhaps it was inevitable for Uganda and Rwanda to spread their spheres of influence into technically DRC territory that borders theirs given that it’s so politically disconnected from the power center of the country.
While Uganda’s and Rwanda’s pasts have been terribly bloody, the driving forces have typically come down to determining which ethnic group will monopolize power and wealth, rather than where within the country that wealth is and will remain. For all their flaws, Uganda and Rwanda are still countries with borders that don’t blatantly contradict the existing population distribution, and that’s an advantage they have over the DRC.
Maybe in addition to colonialism intentionally establishing certain ethnicities’ dominance through favoritism, it also unknowingly set up a hierarchy of states when it drew their borders.