My Land, My Life, My Identity

In 2015, with a population of 11.3 million inhabitants, and an unrelenting growth rate of 2.6 percent, Rwanda is the most densely populated country on the African continent.

In many ways, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are so highly connected that peace in one country depends largely on peace in the others. To strengthen peacebuilding efforts in the Great Lakes region, a combination of research, dialogue and advocacy work is required so as to build an infrastructure for cross-border dialogue that can bring together a critical mass of citizens.In line with this vision, Interpeace, an international non-governmental organization, initiated a regional programme in 2011 to consolidate peace with cross-border dialogue as the backbone of the work. Rooted in partnerships with local NGOs based in the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, Interpeace launched a participatory action research process to examine the relationship between land conflicts, power, identity-based manipulations, population movement and the persisting conflict in African Great Lakes region. The results of this research will be presented in Kinshasa in December 2015.

“Don’t touch my land”

In 2015, with a population of 11.3 million inhabitants, and an unrelenting growth rate of 2.6 percent, Rwanda is the most densely populated country on the African continent. Its land mass will not increase, and Rwanda’s people desperately search for land. The country and its people have learned how to account for the land. Agriculture, raising livestock, housing, buildings, roads: more and more, all that is built on this land or dug below it is measured, evaluated, and assigned a price. In just three years, 10.3 million plots were marked, registered and numbered. This helps to resolve land conflicts that congest Rwandan tribunals, but does not make them disappear. Because land has always been in the center of rivalries and conflicts, particularly in the narrow Rwandan borderlands. The solution of thousands of Rwandans was evident: to migrate, generally westwards. But over the course of years and decades, that solution transformed into a problem, and land conflicts became partly the source of regional conflicts in the sub-region.

Land has many connotations tied to it: individual and collective identification, with sacred links to ancestral order. It is a source of social and political legitimacy.

“My land is my life. It is me. He who takes your land takes your life,” asserted an expert in Kigali.

“Bulongaya Baba,” Congolese people said in a Swahili dialect.

In many places, including in Rwanda as in the Eastern DRC, land is a sacred inheritance. This is why the passions and conflicts linked to land can sometimes have deadly consequences. This is the case both inside Rwanda, often within the same families, as well as in Eastern Congo, betweencultural communities and peopleof different origins.

Within the borders of Rwanda, the genocide perpetrated against Tutsis complicates the equation. Highly complicated conflicts sowed discord on one hand between refugees that returned in 1994 and those who occupied their land, and on the other hand between those who came back from exile from 1996 onwards and the new occupants of their ancestral properties and assets.

Arbitration and redistribution of land were measures taken to address these tensions. They came to fruition thanks to the strong political will ofthe public power, helped along by citizens’ willingness to compromise and a commitment to fairness for all. This helped to calm some of the rivalriesand back-and-forth accusations. However, completely satisfactory solutions could not be found for either of the parties concerned.

Arbitrarinessof colonial frontiers

Outside of Rwanda, in the DRC(formerly Zaïre), the alienation of communities – targeting the “rwandaphones”in particular – becameanother source of resentment exacerbated by contradictory legislation and political opportunists. Participatory action research participants on the Rwandan side perceive land as both national territory and as political space characterized by cross-border identities. Citizenship links them to their ancestral lands and their right to political participation. Citizenship/nationality is therefore a crucial issue, one that was abused throughout history and during certain post-colonial political regimes. Several Rwandan participants stated that the arbitrarily drawn border between Rwanda and the DRC has made those who found themselves on the Congolese side foreigners in their new national community. They ran against difficulties to be accepted as equal citizens and were excluded, if not completely rejected. Some of these dynamics exist until today and explain the persisting presence of Congolese refugees in Rwanda, a question which has yet to find an appropriate response.

In the DRC, two successive laws regarding Congolese/Zairean nationality have been passed:  the law of 1972 which automatically conferred nationality to descendants of Banyarwandamigrants who arrived in the Kivusbefore independence, and a law of 1981 which abolished the 1972 law and allowed for naturalization only on a case by case basis or by special request. The result of this policy led to a very large majority of “marginalized or excluded citizens” becoming quasi-stateless. This was part of the dynamics behind the flaring up of inter-ethnic conflicts in the Kivu in the 1990s. After they calmed down for some time, the rivalries were reignited with new intensity upon the arrival of Rwandan refugees fleeing to the DRC to escape genocide. We all know how the story continues: the First Congo War, anda general climate of suspicion and mistrust toward “rwandaphone” populations along with it.

Reacting to this, an interviewee in Rubavusaid, with a disillusioned tone: “The fixation on borders forcibly made us Congolese, even though we were Rwandans. Other Congolese tribes chased us and took our land.”

Another interviewee, a Congolese “rwandophone” refugee at a camp in Rwanda, no less bitterly said: “We have abandoned our land and other property as well as sources of income. Here at the camp, we live in a state of instability, alongside negative stereotypes about us: dirty, disorderly, delinquents, etc.” In 2004, the new law governing nationality in the DRC appeared as a potentially definitive response to this existential anxiety.

The argument of “the glass is full”, an infamous metaphor used in the context of Rwandan refugees, shows how land can easily be instrumentalized for political interests. In 1986, Rwandan authorities used overpopulation as an excuse to deny thousands of Rwandans living in exile to return to their homeland.  This refusal culminated into a genocide, which led to a renewed flux of refugees, as a consequence of policies promoting exclusion and impunity.

The problems of internal land governance, in conjunction with historic migrations between Rwanda and Congo, as well as the escalation of these conflicts to a regional level: these are some of the phenomena that Interpeace and its Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian partner organizations explored in a study that will be publically presented in Kinshasa on the 2nd and 3rd of December 2015. The research interviewedclose to 1,700 people across the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, through 61 focus groups discussions and individual interviews.

The study aims to catalyze a debate among actors in the sub-region to find consensus-based solutions to challenges to peace in the region. It has already made a contribution to this in sharing numerous recommendations expressed by actors in the field, notably: 1) the promotion of entrepreneurship among youth, 2) peace education, and 3) harmonizing the normative framework regarding land management in each of the three countries, using an inclusive, participatory approach. After numerous mutual consultations, the research teams became convinced: a good management of the issue of population movement linked to land conflict is required in order to ensure stability and peace in the Great Lakes region.Regional institutions can play a leading role in this undertaking. 

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