Congolese Crisis and Demographic Problems in the African Great Lakes

Congolese Crisis and Demographic Problems in the African Great Lakes

The frequent violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is part of a series of interlinked, complex conflicts[1] encompassing the African Great Lakes region. The DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda all appear to be connected by geographical and historical factors and the legacies of decades of conflict interspersed by episodes of peace. Conflict in the region grows in part out of population movements across borders, an unresolved citizenship question, and an explosive mixture of internal, regional, and international actors. These factors are also associated with struggles over the distribution of political power and access to land, including the pillage of the immense natural resources in the region.

A historical perspective on some of the conflicts is important to illustrate problems linked to the movement of people across the borders of states in the region. In 1962, Parmehutu, the party of the Hutu emancipation movement, assumed power in Rwanda after a pogrom against the Tutsi community that began in 1959. Some Tutsis fled to neighboring countries, such as the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi, while some were recruited into armed Lumumbist groups,[2] such as the Simba (1963–64), who fought against the Congolese regime after Lumumba’s murder. Later, some of the descendants of these refugees became part of the Congolese Tutsi community known as the Banyamulenge, which later became a factor in the crisis of Congolese citizenship.

In the case of Uganda, some of the Tutsi refugees, including Fred Rwigema and Paul Kagame, joined the National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Yoweri Museveni. After the NRA overthrew Milton Obote’s government in 1986, Major Kagame was appointed assistant director of Ugandan military intelligence. This coincided with the early formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR). With the help of the Ugandan army, the FPR wanted, among other things, to depose the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda.[3]

In Burundi,[4] the Tutsi refugees were protected by a Tutsi military junta led by Micombero, supported by the Tutsi party Union for National Progress (UPRONA). When Bagaza managed to overthrow Micombero in 1976, he also protected the Tutsi refugees. Even when Pierre Buyoya seized power from Bagaza in 1987, the policy was maintained. In 1993, the electoral defeat of Buyoya’s party, UPRONA, by the Hutu-dominated Burundian Democratic Front (FRODEBU) led by Ndadaye put an end to the Tutsi domination. But Ndadaye’s murder in October 1993, only a few months after his election, plunged Burundi into violence as Hutu armed groups protested the killing. The designation of Cyprien Ntaryamira to replace Ndadaye did not reduce the violence, especially after Ntaryamira’s disappearance with the Rwandan president, Habyarimana, in the crash of their plane. Ntaryamira’s successor, Sylvestre Ntibantuganya, was unable to restore peace. The Tutsi minority in the army seized power in another coup led by Major Buyoya in July 1996. Not until the signing of the peace agreements of 2003 was power transferred to the Hutu majority, and the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, replaced former president Domitien Ndayizeye in 2005.

Challenges to Peace in the Great Lakes

These conflicts in the Great Lakes region have posed challenges to a durable peace process. The first stems from demography. The states of the area are confronted with disparities in the densities of their populations: the numbers of inhabitants per square kilometer are 397.1 for Rwanda; 327.1 for Burundi; 151.5 for Uganda; 43.0 for Tanzania; and 28.5 for the DRC.[5] The low population density of the DRC makes it an attractive place for those displaced by conflicts in neighboring countries to seek refuge. The availability of surplus land rich in resources also acts as a magnet for migrant populations. The movement of ethnic groups, such as the Tutsi, across international boundaries presents another challenge with regard to their status vis-à-vis the citizens of the host states. The situation becomes particularly complicated in cases where the host communities have the same identity as migrant populations, like Tutsi in different countries, raising questions regarding the migrants’ status in these communities and their involvement in local politics and conflicts. Other problems faced by these states can also be linked to waves of migration. The incapacity of the political system to integrate migrants makes citizenship an important issue that feeds into the militarization of politics and the emergence of armed groups,[6] such as AFDL,[7] RCD,[8] CNDP,[9] and M23,[10] which often justify their existence based on the need to fight for identity rights, claim resources, and defend themselves from other groups or hostile forces.

Finally, the globalization of the economy and rising global demand for strategic minerals and natural resources have further added to the conflict dynamics[11] in the region. A good example of this is the little-known but emerging “Mbororo pastoralist” phenomenon in the DRC. In recent years, foreign stockbreeders have invaded[12] northeastern Congolese territories. Coming from as far away as Central Africa, Niger, Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, these pastoralists are driven by the quest for pastures for their herds. Armed to defend their cattle and battle hostile communities, they often clash with local populations. Their presence in the DRC is creating new conflict dynamics, and the absence of any ethnic or cultural affinity between them and local communities poses serious challenges to peace and security in a region scarred by decades of conflict.


All the countries of the African Great Lakes region need to make a concerted effort to develop a comprehensive solution to the crisis there. This calls for devising a policy on migration within the region and finding a way to address the citizenship problem as it relates to the various waves of migrant populations. One possible approach is granting a flexible status to the border communities. Policymakers could, on the one hand, consider the option of allowing multiple citizenship identities for the people in the border regions to harmonize with ethnic and transnational identities that give them the possibility of belonging to several states of the region. They might, on the other hand, confer a “buffer” identity, which could act as line of defense against foreign infiltration. The first option supports the principle of flexible nationality, which recognizes the artificial nature of the borders, while the second counts on the principle of responsible nationality, which protects the borders inherited from colonization.

States of the region must also create new policies that address the crisis of citizenship affecting them all. Such policies may be political or socioeconomic, and they may be national or subregional in scope. Developing them will require strengthening the states’ capacities to regulate, extract, and redistribute resources in ways that give the diverse groups equal access to them, while also regulating migration through the effective use of national and regional institutions. Central to the transformation of the current situation in the Great Lakes and the DRC is ensuring the effective participation of the people in democratic governance.


[1] F. Reyntjens, The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996–2006 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 13.

[2] G. Aundu Matsanza, L’État au monopole éclaté, aux origines de la violence en RD Congo (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012), 107–8.

[3] G. Périès and D. Servenay, Une guerre noire: Enquête sur les origines du génocide Rwandais, 1959–1994 (Paris: Découverte, 2007), 138–39, 188.

[4] A. Nsanze, Le Burundi contemporain, L’État-nation en question (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003), 32.

[5] GéoPopulation, Afrique,, accessed February 26, 2013.

[6] A. Mwaka Bwenge, “Les milices Mayi-Mayi à l’est de la RD Congo: Dynamique d’une gouvernementalité en situation de crise,” Revue Africaine de sociologie 7, no. 2 (2003): 73–94.

[7] Democratic Forces Alliance for the Congo Liberation, directed by Laurent Désiré Kabila in 1996.

[8] Congolese Gathering for Democracy, directed by Azarias Ruberwa in 1998.

[9] National Congress for the Defence of the People, directed by Laurent Kunda Batware in 2003.

[10] Movement of 23 March, directed by Colonel Makenga and General Bosco Ntaganda in 2012.

[11] H. Ngbanda Nzambo, Crimes organisés en Afrique centrale: Révélations sur les réseaux Rwandais et occidentaux (Paris: Duboiris, 2004).

[12] Union Nations Radio in DRC,

About the Author

Guy Aundu Matsanza is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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