The Roots of the Rebellion

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

B. Skanthakumar

THE REVOLT THAT shook Zaire and ousted its dictator and his regime was sparked in October 1996 in the eastern province of Kivu. The regional governor ordered that one of the largest ethnic communities, the Banyamulenge, be stripped of their Zairean citizenship and”go back” to Rwanda, “within a week.” He threatened that those who remained would be “treated as rebels and like rebels . . . . will be exterminated.(1)

“There is a history of resentment against the wealthier Banyamulenge by other communities notably the Bahunde who describe themselves as autochtones, indigenous to that region and therefore more deserving of the land, livestock and jobs that the “foreigners” hold. In 1993 alone, 3,000 people died and 120,000 were displaced from their homes into makeshift camps as rival ethnic militias attacked each other.”(2)

“Facing dispossession and with their very survival at stake, the Banyamulenge took a stand and fought back. One insisted, “the government tried to take our land and they told us that we had to leave the country and go back to Rwanda. But we don’t come from Rwanda and they cannot force us to go because we know how to fight and the army does not.”(3)

The Banyamulenge number around 400,000 people who settled in eastern Zaire (originally near the Mulenge hills from which they took their name), at least two centuries ago - that is well before the Belgian colonization. The original migrations were probably in search of grazing lands and water for cattle. Though subsequent migrations at the turn of the century were due to colonial oppression.

There have been waves of new arrivals, usually the consequence of upheaval in Rwanda, that have enlarged and differentiated the community.(4) Today some are described as Bahutu and others Batutsi but these identities are historically fluid and derived from occupational categories.5 Thus in Masisi the migrants were herders (from which some would describe them as Batutsi) and in Runduru they were cultivators (and so presumably Bahutu).

In 1964 during the nationalist uprisings, the Banyamulenge had sided with Mobutu against the movement led by Lumumba’s Education Minister, Pierre Mulele. Over thirty years later, under attack by the FAZ, the exRwandan Armed Forces and the Bahutu chauvinist interahamwe militia, they formed an alliance with one of Mulele’s comrades, Laurent DesireKabila.


  1. Quoted by Chris McGreal, “Trapped in a bloody triangle of terror,” The Guardian, October 21 1996.
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  2. David Orr, “On a dirt track through hell,” The Observer (London), July 11 1993. This is also documented in Amnesty International, Zaire: Lawlessness and insecurity in North and South Kivu, AFR 62/14/96, November 1996.
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  3. McGreal, ibid.
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  4. There is useful historical information in David Newbury’s, “Convergent Catastrophes in Central Africa,” Review Of African Political Economy (Sheffield), No. 70, December 1996.
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  5. In a discussion of Rwanda I have argued that this is racist, unscientific and unhelpful cf. “Genocide in the land of a thousand hills,” Socialist Outlook (London) No. 85, June 10 1995. There is an insightful meditation by Mahmood Mamdani, “From Conquest to Consent as the basis of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda,” New Left Review, No. 216, March/April 1996. I do not share all Professor Mamdani’s arguments.
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  6. ATC 69, July-August 1997