The Invention of the Indigène

Mahmood Mamdani

For the institutions that claim to represent ‘the international community’ – the Western press, international NGOs and UN agencies – the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a paradigm of senseless violence. The number of casualties is indeed staggering. In 2001, the New-York-based International Rescue Committee started providing estimates of war-related deaths since the conflict began in 1998: they rose from 1.7 million in 2001 to 5.4 million in January 2008. If correct, these figures account for about 8 per cent of the current population of the country. They were called into question in 2008, however, when two Belgian demographers concluded that the excess death toll between 1998 and 2004 was in the order of 200,000 – one-twentieth of the IRC’s estimate for the same period, but still a shocking number of victims.

The violence in Congo may seem unintelligible but its roots lie in institutional practices introduced under colonialism, which 50 years of independence have only exacerbated. At their heart is an institution known as the native authority. Since the colonial period, native authorities have had jurisdiction over ‘tribal homelands’. As a system of power, the native authority claims to represent age-old ethnic identity. But ethnicity refers to cultural difference, and there is no necessary link between culture and territory. A system of tribal authority, however, asserts a necessary connection between power, culture and territory. Ethnic identity preceded colonial rule, unlike tribal homelands or the native authority. This is why in Congo, as in other areas of ‘indirect rule’ – colonies ruled through a devolved system of tribal powers – ethnic cleansing was the rosy dawn of colonial occupation. The native authority is based on a single politicised identity, the ‘tribe’, and distinguishes two kinds of ethnic groups: those who are indigenous and those who are not.

At the outset, only groups officially acknowledged as indigenous were entitled to a native authority, and with it the right to a tribal ‘homeland’ administered by chiefs appointed from within their own ranks. Not only were non-indigenous groups denied this right; they were required to pay tribute to ‘indigenous’ chiefs in the native authority where they lived. The colonial system thus rested on a dual system of institutionalised discrimination dressed up as cultural difference: by race in the cities and tribe in the countryside. The native authority system continues today to create suspicion and animosity between two politically defined groups – one indigenous, the other not – and to set the scene for violence. What used to be called tribalism – and is now called ethnic conflict – is the expression of a structural contradiction between the economics of a market system and the politics of a residual colonial system. Markets move people, and not simply products of labour, across boundaries, but a colonial mechanism such as the native authority disenfranchises anyone who crosses tribal boundaries, as millions of Congolese were obliged to do, in the service of a fluid migrant labour system. This contradiction was at its most acute in the southern province of Katanga and the eastern provinces of Ituri and Kivu. With independence from Belgium in 1960, there was a prophetic round of ethnic cleansing in Katanga and Kasai, repeated on a more dramatic scale in 1992-93, and shortly afterwards in Ituri and Kivu.

Ethnic cleansing is rarely spontaneous; it requires elite conspiracies and methodical popular organisation. The shaping of the popular dimension in Congo began with administrative coercion and the creation of ‘tribal homelands’. In Katanga, where the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga – a partnership formed in 1906 between King Leopold II, the Société Générale de Belgique and British interests – demanded a flow of cheap labour to exploit the region’s mineral resources, the government obliged with a series of decrees, in 1906, 1910 and 1933, requiring that each ‘tribe’ be identified, separated and resettled in its own ‘homeland’, supervised by its own native authority. One district commissioner complained of his duties that some ethnic groups were ‘totally jumbled’: ‘It will be very difficult to organise them.’ The separation was accomplished between 1925 and 1930, by means of ethnic cleansing.

Whether for the mines, the civil service or the army, recruitment was based on tribal identity. In Katanga, labour migration meant that the two main ethnic groups, the Lunda and Luba, became three ‘tribes’. The Lunda were classified as indigenous to Katanga. But the Luba, who had migrated from neighbouring Kasai, were divided into two groups: those who had moved to Katanga before colonialism became ‘Luba-Katanga’, classified as ‘indigenous’, while those who had arrived during the colonial period became ‘Luba-Kasai’, classified as non-indigenous. All three organised and founded separate political parties. There was also a fourth party, representing Belgian settlers in Katanga. When they confronted the militant Luba trade unions in the mines of Katanga, the Belgians forged an alliance with the indigenous Lunda, and proclaimed a coalition of ‘civilisers’ and ‘authentic Katangans’. At independence, with active support from the colonial establishment – the church, the state and business – ‘nativist’ tribal movements mounted separate drives for secession, first in Katanga under Moise Tshombe (11 July 1960) and then in South Kasai (8 August 1960). The Luba, defined as ‘aliens’, became the first target of ethnic cleansing, in not only Katanga but South Kasai.

The government of the newly independent Congo responded to the secession in Katanga by sending in troops. Ordered to also put down the South Kasai secession on their way to Katanga, the Congolese National Army went on a rampage, slaughtering civilians. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, the Congolese political historian, has argued that the prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, committed his ‘first major political blunder’ when instead of seeking to heal the rift in a ‘bitter inter-ethnic conflict’ between ‘indigènes’ and ‘non-indigènes’, he chose to side with one group against another. His political enemies held Lumumba responsible for the ensuing political violence; on 5 September 1960 Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary general, described it as ‘genocide’. On the same day, the president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, dismissed Lumumba.

Since independence, the crisis has moved eastwards, to Ituri and Kivu, where the cross-border movement of soldiers and refugees has exacerbated domestic tensions. Ituri lies in the north-east of Congo, bordering Uganda. It was the site of lucrative gold deposits, to which the Belgians were drawn as early as 1903. In time, other natural resources, from diamonds to coltan and tropical timber, brought a flood of fortune-seekers to Ituri, making it one of three main European areas in Congo. Colonial pacification in Ituri began in 1916, with a policy of regroupement, whereby the authorities separated the predominantly pastoral Hema from the predominantly agricultural Lendu populations, forcing each into its own homeland (territoire) supervised by its own tribal authority (chefferie). A census tagged every villager as a ‘native’ of a particular tribal homeland. ‘Forced relocations,’ Johan Pottier writes, ‘were the norm.’ Before long, market inequalities began to be expressed in ‘tribal’ terms, and early access to formal education gave rise to a dominant Hema administrative and business elite, with the Lendu working largely in the mines and plantations.

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