Why the recent violence in Goma is not simply an ethnic conflict

Why the recent violence in Goma is not simply an ethnic conflict

Sam Kniknie

Since April 8, young people have been taking to the streets in various eastern Congolese cities to demand the departure of the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO. That is not the first time. The mission faces severe legitimacy challenges in their relation to the local population and in recent years, frustrated youngsters have been targeting MONUSCO several times. But this time, things got seriously out of hand. The protests against the presence of the blue helmets transformed into political violence in the northern parts of the city of Goma. Two communities – Nande and Kumu – are violently confronting each other. Many consider this an ethnic conflict, but is it that simple? 

Protests turned violent

The activist movement LUCHA understood the frustrations against MONUSCO very well and called for manifestations in the cities of Beni, Butembo, and Goma. But soon, LUCHA lost control of the protests it instigated. In the northern parts of Goma, the nature of the protests changed after the murder on two motor-cycle taxi drivers on April 11. The focus shifted from targeting MONUSCO to urban inhabitants targeting each other along community lines. On April 12, several houses were burnt down, and youth allegedly attacked each other and the police with machetes and firearms. As of late April, these violent confrontations have left 10 dead and 34 injured

LUCHA always advocates an explicitly nonviolent approach. Yet, what current events demonstrate is that this nonviolent message does not always appeal to the youths of eastern Congo’s urban outskirts. Violence is a daily and structural reality experience by many of them, as is their easy access to it.

Urban sprawl

Why exactly do we observe such surge of violence at this very moment? Among other things, it is an outcome of rapid and informal urbanization and disputes over land. The recent violent confrontations are concentrated in the northern parts of Goma, more specifically in a neighbourhood known as Buhene. This part of town has undergone a remarkable recent socio-spatial transformation. Eight years ago, the neighbourhood was not urbanized yet at all. Many elders still remember how it was a place with mostly banana trees. This ‘rurban’ setting appeared in sharp contrast with the vibrant urban neighbourhoods next to it. Before 2013, Buhene was mainly inhabited by people from the Kumu community, who consider themselves as the ‘first’ or ‘autochthonous’ inhabitants of the city of Goma.

Kumu is an ethnonym for the precolonial inhabitants of the area that we call Goma today. Yet, before colonization, these people did not possess a common Kumu identity. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Belgian colonizers imported a chief from the west of the Kivus – several hundreds of kilometres away – to rule over the existing population. Ignoring and refuting any better knowledge of the complex system of authority in precolonial Congo, the colonial interest centred on facilitating extractive rule and crush resistance using proxies. This generated fertile conditions for ethnic identities to be anchored in the collective consciousness and linked with territory. It illustrates why today’s tensions are not easily explained through an ethnic lens writ small. 

Things changed from 2013 onwards, when the neighbourhood experienced a significant influx of people fleeing the ongoing violence involving the Allied Democratic Forces, other armed groups and the Congolese army in the Grand Nord region around Beni. Many Nande fled and sought shelter in Goma’s urban outskirts. Buhene stretched along the main road leading into Goma from the North and, pragmatically, people settled in proximity of the road by which they arrived. In addition, Buhene is adjacent to more long-standing ‘Nande neighbourhoods’ that already existed in Goma. The result was a rapid spatial and demographic urban expansion resulting in a shifting demographic composition.

Old and new inhabitants

At first, this urban sprawl did not cause any significant problems. This changed, however, right before the 2018 elections. Feeling increasingly jeopardised by the presence of the newcomers from the so-called Grand Nord, the Kumu feared becoming a minority in what they consider to be ‘their own’ territory. The electoral competition further fuelled tensions and unrest. A fragile balance was reached when a political alliance across ethnic boundaries came into being. A member of the Kumu royal family was elected with the support of the Nande provincial governor in an attempt to calm things down. 

An additional – and again historical – source of tension is land access. Land tenure used to concentrate in the hands of Kumu because the area was considered to be under their customary control. However, recently more and more Nande dwellers bought land to build their homes. Over the past years, land conflicts emerged between old and new owners, often arising from competing legal and normative provision between state property rights and customary systems of land allocation. Such land conflicts, a structural feature of Goma’s urbanization since its fast expansion in the 1990s and a frequent cause of conflict in rural North Kivu, reinforced mutual grievances and ethnically-tinged fault lines. 

Beyond an ethnic conflict

Given these structural and historical dynamics, it is by no means a surprise that today’s urban protests turned violent. On the one hand, urban dwellers point at MONUSCO’s failure to bring peace. People are aware that it is the longest and most expensive UN peacekeeping mission worldwide. Its failure to live up to the expectations of the Congolese is the main reason why they revolt. Yet, as past incidents demonstrate, seemingly ‘exogeneous triggers’ can quickly activate other looming contestations. 

In  July 2019, for instance, shortly after the arrival a first person infected with Ebola in Goma, a similar situation occurred. Grievances and political manipulation around the building of an Ebola treatment centre in Buhene – anticipating a larger outbreak in Goma – triggered protests that only subsided at the verge of the Ebola treatment centre being burned down. Here again, a legitimate questioning of the performance of international interveners was overtaken by political capture and seemingly ethnic antagonism. As with the anti-MONUSCO protests, perceived by the Kumu as being mainly instigated by Nande, things quickly transformed into political violence along communitarian lines.

Instead of indulging self-fulfilling prophecies that such protests may eventually translate along ethnic or community lines, it is paramount to understand the interconnected political frustrations, structural features, and spatial patterns of urban transformation in a context of violent conflict. In such a volatile situation, the ‘reliability’ of ethnic ties is attractive to youths in absence of other mechanisms of social security. Some have described the Buhene clashes as ‘interethnic war’, alluding to the involvement of armed groups such as Mai-Mai or Nyatura. While there is no conclusive evidence neither for nor against this hypothesis, it appears as if the alleged implication of armed groups has been invoked as a political and discursive means to delegitimate ‘the others.’ 

In that sense, the recent violence was by no means a naïve reaction to UN presence, nor – even worse – a ‘tribal conflict’, a label too easily used in Congolese and international popular framings. Rather than falling back into simplistic framings such as that of a mere ‘tribal war’, we need a better understanding of the current dynamics by looking at the historical and spatial patterns of political contestation.

Sam Kniknie is a PhD candidate at Conflict Research Group, Ghent University. His research focuses on urban protest, political violence and conflict dynamics in eastern Congo

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