It is almost three weeks since a large-scale war started in the Tigray region of Ethiopia involving a multitude of internal actors and external military players. That this is happening in a country where the African Union (AU) is rooted, with its overarching slogan ‘silencing the guns in Africa’, is puzzling, to say the least.
DRC: Opportunistic use of ‘balkanisation’ theory in Minembwe
On 28 September, a high-level political, military and diplomatic delegation attended the installation ceremony of the burgomaster (mayor) of the commune rurale – a non-customary local governance entity – in Minembwe, in the South Kivu highlands in eastern DRC.
While the burgomaster had already been in function since his nomination in February 2019, the ceremony created a backlash, sparking heated debate about the commune’s creation in all corners of Congolese society and the diaspora.
Members of parliament interpolated the Minister of Decentralisation, deemed responsible for the commune’s creation in spite of procedural irregularities. Activists from South Kivu organised a sit-in in front of the prime-minister’s office in Kinshasa.
Even the catholic church, in particular the Bishop of Uvira, and the country’s biggest protestant church felt compelled to take a position. This intense mobilisation forced President Félix Tshisekedi to intervene. On 8 October, he announced a temporary suspension of the commune and called for the creation of a scientific commission to look into the matter.
‘Balkanisation’ of Minembwe
How did an installation ceremony surrounding a small local governance entity create nation-wide commotion? While analysing the language used to denounce the commune, the answer becomes immediately clear: Minembwe conjures up the spectre of ‘balkanisation’: a deeply engrained theory that surfaces regularly in Congolese political debate.
The creation of the commune is seen to be a move by the Banyamulenge – a Kinyarwanda speaking people generally considered to be ‘Tutsi’- to dominate local governance in the area. It would therefore be the first stage in a plan to dismember the Congo by annexing parts of the east to neighbouring countries, specifically Rwanda, and in this way create a putative ‘Hima/Tutsi’ empire.
In this light, the Banyamulenge appear as ‘foreigners’ or ‘invaders’ who are trying to usurp the land and local authority of groups that consider themselves ‘autochthonous’ (native) to the region. The discourse of balkanisation therefore goes hand-in-hand with casting doubt on the status of the Banyamulenge as Congolese citizens.
‘Long lineage in the Congo’
The balkanisation trope has a long lineage in the Congo. It is said to have first emerged in the 1960s, when the provinces of Katanga and Kasai seceded from the newly independent country. Given the heavy hand of Belgium, the country’s former colonial power, in Katanga’s secession, balkanisation became associated with imperialism.
In the 1990s, the discourse resurfaced in the framework of intensified political competition and unrest following the announced but-never-realised-transition to multiparty democracy in Zaire. In particular the Haut Conseil de la République-Parlement de Transition (the High Council of the Republic’s Transitional Parliaiment), an elected body that had to pave the way for a new political dispensation, became a crucial platform for its spread.
The current discussion around Minembwe strongly echoes the arguments and language of political debates in the mid-1990s. Hence for nearly three decades now, the same discourses continue to be recycled, and, as the debate around the Minembwe affair shows, with the same political effectiveness.
The persistent narrative
The balkanisation discourse has a number of inherent features that render it an attractive rallying slogan. To start with, it is simple; it provides a clear-cut and solo explanation for Congo’s political and economic malaise, obscuring how it is the product of a complex set of factors.
Furthermore, it places blame for the country’s problems primarily on ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders’, thereby deflecting attention from the responsibility of Congo’s own politicians and decision-makers. In addition, it directs the focus towards identity-related issues, in this way blocking debates about much needed socio-economic reforms in one of the poorest countries on the continent.
This is no different from the ways in which blaming immigrants has become a convenient way to avoid discussing and repairing the disastrous socio-economic impacts of neoliberal reforms in Europe.
The balkanisation discourse also continues to be used because it has a strong emotional appeal and is therefore almost guaranteed to stir spirits: it speaks to the deeply rooted feelings of ethnic belonging and invokes a simple moral scheme, whereby ‘foreigners’ are associated with ‘evil’ and ‘autochthonous’ populations with ‘good’.
Moreover, it evokes traumas of violence related to the Congo Wars and subsequent episodes of armed conflict, where military interference in neighbouring countries played a crucial role.
In the specific case of Minembwe, the balkanisation theory also speaks to fears about the erosion of customary authority that intervenes at the level of identity, as chiefs rule over specific ethnic groups and territories.
Surfacing of ‘balkanisation’ discourse
Due to both its strong mobilising potential and the reassurance of offering a simple –albeit flawed–explanation, the balkanisation discourse surfaces at times of political uncertainty combined with political competition.
The current political impasse related to the uneasy cohabitation and ongoing power struggle between President Tshisekedi’s faction CACH (Cap pour le Changement) and former President Kabila’s platform FCC (Front Commun pour le Congo) is clearly such a moment.
Similar to the announced transition in the 1990s, there are promises of political reform and a more pluralistic political system that remains to be fulfilled. In these uncertain times, the balkanisation discourse serves as a weapon to discredit and put pressure on political opponents, as well as to demonstrate one’s power by sparking popular mobilisation.
This is not to say that it is always deployed in a deliberate and calculating manner, but that the political circumstances create incentives for its use.
These incentives will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
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The current political standoff seems to flow seamlessly into (pre)-electoral positioning, ensuring both political competition and political uncertainty. Genuine socio-economic reforms are not discernible, making it easy for political elites to retain the focus on identity issues.
Finally, as military interference by neighbouring countries continues to be a reality, the balkanisation discourse is inevitably revisited and the same political narrative is recycled.