The latest clashes in this long-suffering region have led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Uganda and swelling the ranks of the displaced already in the country. Report by Epajjar Ojulu.
The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is once again in the spotlight. This time though, it is for the gravity of the violence and its effects on its neighbour, Uganda, which is shouldering the burden of having to take care of the thousands of refugees fleeing from the violence in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
They form an area unlike any other in DRC, Africa, or perhaps the world. While on the one hand it is blessed with enormous mineral wealth and other natural resources, on the other, it suffers from the curse of being a breeding ground for vicious conflicts. The causes range from ethnic animosity to insurgency, and from Islamic militants to sheer gangsterism. It is the only part of the country where the government in Kinshasa is unable to exert its authority.
The Interahamwe, blamed for the massacre of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans in 1994 fled there, as did the Ugandan Islamist militants, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). These groups joined other local warlords to fight for control of the vast wealth there.
For example, among the crimes warlord Bosco Ntaganda was found guilty of by the International Criminal Court in early July, were rape, sex slavery, killing innocent people and conscripting the young into his forces.
Prosecutors adduced evidence pinning Ntaganda, a Congolese of Rwandan origin and leader of a militia, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, to unleashing a reign of terror against a local population in his attempt to control the vast territory’s mineral and natural resources.
As if man-made carnage was not enough, the outbreak of Ebola, currently the world’s most dreaded and highly contagious disease, has caused more misery there. Estimates by the World Health Organisation show that the most recent Ebola epidemic, which began on 1 August 2018, had killed over 1,000 people by 3 May this year, with efforts to contain its spread being stymied by the insecurity. Some medical personnel have been killed.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kampala, the current conflict, which broke out in June this year, has killed at least 400 and displaced over 300,000 people. Another 10,000 have fled across the border into neighbouring Uganda.
The present conflict comes hardly 12 months after a similar outbreak of violence drove over 60,000 refugees into Uganda. The UNHCR office says Uganda is currently hosting about 360,000 Congolese refugees, bringing the total refugee population in the country to over 1.3m. Uganda’s Prime Minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, says Uganda currently needs $923m to take care of the refugees but only $150m, 17% of the funding needed, has been received from donors.
Although North Kivu and Ituri are the base of the ADF and the Interahamwe, the rivalry for land between the two major ethnic groups in the region, the Lendu and Hema, is the cause of the current conflict.
The conflict is rooted in pre-colonial times. According to 60-year-old Erasmo Nduliya, a Lendu teacherrefugee at Sabagoro refugee centre on the Ugandan side of Lake Albert, the conflict between the two communities has its roots in the ancient Bunyoro Kitara kingdom in Uganda, whose jurisdiction at the time covered much of eastern and central Africa, including the eastern province of the present DRC.
Nduliya says the Omukama (king) of Bunyoro Kitara, called Kabalega, loved hunting and every year he went on a hunting expedition to the Ituri forests with an entourage of hundreds or perhaps thousands of his men, together with herds of livestock, since they were pastoralists.
Historical accounts indicate that the Ituri region was then inhabited by the Lendu, an ethnic group of cultivators, who had earlier migrated from the Sudan.
Towards the end of the 1800s and the beginning of 1900s, the king decided that instead of moving with his men every year for the hunting expedition, it was better that part of his entourage be permanently stationed in the Ituri region to receive him whenever he came for the annual hunt.
Because of the sparse population at the time, land was abundant enough to accommodate the pastoralist Banyoro immigrants, known as the Hema, as well as the Lendu. However, over the years, as the population grew, competition for land between the two communities intensified.
During the time of Belgian colonialism, the Hema descendants of Bunyoro aristocrats got education and were employed in government, while the Lendu remained largely illiterate peasants. “The Hema, who occupy key positions in government and business, not only oppress but also dominate and despise us,” says Nduliya.
The current conflict was exacerbated by the 1973 land law, which allowed individuals to buy land regardless of its occupants. Because the Hema are generally wealthier than the Lendu, they bought large tracts, much of them inhabited by the Lendu. Violence has erupted whenever the Hema attempt to forcefully evict the Lendu from the land they (the Hema) claim to have bought but on which the Lendu have lived for generations.
Minerals add to conflict
The conflict would not have been so explosive had it not been for the abundant precious minerals and natural resources in the area including gold, cobalt, copper, diamonds, coltan, uranium, timber and coffee.
Foreign and regional actors have also been drawn into the conflict. The vestiges of King Leopold II’s policy of DRC being a personal colony have lingered on, with influential people seeking personal rather than communal ownership of land.
Despite DRC gaining political independence in 1960, foreign companies have continued to dominate the economy and to foment chaos in the region in order to control minerals and natural resources, says a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch.
Both Uganda and Rwanda claim eastern DRC is a breeding ground for rebels fighting their governments. Uganda says it has a legitimate right to pursue the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamic militant group linked to al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
On the other hand, Rwanda says it also has the right to pursue former Interahamwe militia blamed for the 1994 genocide, who fled to the Ituri region. Uganda and Rwanda in late 1998 and early 1999 sent troops to occupy parts of North Kivu province.
While there, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) forces parcelled out large swathes of mineral-rich land. The rivalry over control of territory led to bloody clashes between the UPDF and RPF. The two armies also took sides in the Lendu-Hema conflict and reaped gains from it. According to a Human Rights Watch report of January 2001, Uganda and Rwanda, which have no significant gold mines, became major gold exporters.
The UPDF and RPF withdrew in 2002 but left behind a simmering conflict between the two communities. As it stands, peace between the two and the region as a whole is a distant dream.