Rwandaphones and the Question of Citizenship in the Great Lakes Region: Arms vis avis Dialogue


In last two decades or even longer in some territories of the Great Lakes Region of Africa the peoples answering to the description of Rwandaphone have often found themselves in predicament in relation to citizenship in the territories of what is modern day Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Almost invariably when the question of citizenship comes up for discussion in those territories it’s the Rwandaphones (Kinyarwanda speaking people who are collectively known as Banyarwanda a noun also associated with Banyarwanda of Rwanda who are Rwandan or Rwandese) who take most of the flak arising largely from ignorance and prejudice (the two are co-related, prejudice is largely conditioned by lack of information) against them. I say so because as one who belongs to the Bafumbira ethnic grouping of Kisoro (one of the Rwandaphones in Uganda) I have witnessed firsthand this predicament rather than hearing it from other sufferers. Many Rwandaphones feel terribly discriminated and this has given fertile ground for extremists and militarists to thrive and set the agenda for responses to injustices faced by these persons and in the case of the DRC has given rise to rebellions and counter-rebellions whose victims are the very persons whose human dignity they purport to restore! To this I will return later.

Two foremost writers on Rwandaphones in the Great Lakes Region- an American based social anthropologist Jan Vasina in his treatise “Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom” and Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s “When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda” give the extent of the Rwanda Kingdom at the height of its power under Umwami Rwabugiri (1867-1897), as reaching Bumpaka in present day Busongora in Kasese, Karagwe in present day Tanzania, Bushi and Butembo covering the present day Nord (North), Sud (South) Kivu and a few in the present day Maniema province of the Eastern DRC. These areas have “indigenous” (this term is used loosely as issues to do with indigenousness in Africa are not as clear cut a Aboriginal groups of the Americas and Australia in that sense) Rwandaphones populations. Later day immigrants from what is present day Rwanda started in the early 1900s following introduction of cash-crops in Buganda and Tooro (they came to work as wage earners) for Buganda and in the case of the DRC, there was an influx of immigrant Rwandaphones between 1900-1960 to Shaba (present day Katanga) Province following opening up of mineral production in the area and opening up of the rail links by the Belgian authorities. Other immigrants found their way to the European Plantations in what is now known as the Kivus. These later day immigrants, though lawfully acquired the status of citizens in the two territories of Uganda and DRC are not to be confused with the indigenous Rwandaphones.

In the Republic of Uganda- the indigenous Rwandaphones mainly occupy the districts of Kisoro (Bufumbira County), Kabale District (largely in Kamwezi Subcounty) and Ntungamo District. Though these groups continue to identify themselves as Banyarwanda- there are many Banyarwanda from Bufumbira who resent the nomenclature and have opted to identify themselves as Bafumbira largely arising from the confusion from the noun Banyarwanda being descriptive as persons from Rwanda! This comes as an irony, persons from Kisoro were enumerated as Banyarwanda in the 1959 1969 as well as 1980 Uganda Population and Housing Census were enumerated as Banyarwanda and when it came to the 1991 Population and Housing Census the same people were enumerated as Bafumbira as their chosen identity following a storm over introduction of the Kinyarwanda language on the then Radio Uganda resulting into a callus led by the Council Member (CM) for Bufumbira County for recognition of Urufumbira as a distinct “language” from Kinyarwanda and the same CM did represent one of the three constituencies of Bufumbira in the Constituent Assembly thereby ensuring the same identity gained recognition in the 1995 Constitution as an indigenous group of Uganda.

The other Banyarwanda also did gain recognition as being indigenous. More ironically or perhaps not so ironical, the said Council Member is quoted in the parliamentary hansard of 1990 when the National Resistance Council was debating the Mugerwa Report on the Commission of Inquiry into the Nkore (Ankole) – Masaka Ranching Scheme as responding to queries of other members as to the nationality of some Banyarwanda who had been re-allocated some ranches by asking the house not to confuse Rwandan Banyarwanda and Ugandan Banyarwanda like himself! The Banyarwanda who are native to the territories of Uganda as those of Bufumbira became part of the then Uganda Protectorate under British dominion after the Brussels Convention of 1910 and the immigrants became indigenous owing to the “magical” date of 1st February, 1926 being the date of the last border adjustment to what became known as the territory constituting the Republic of Uganda. This recognition was attained without firing a shot!

Enter the DRC, some Banyarwanda there continue to suffer rejection and in many instances have been denied voting rights by the rest of the Congolese populace. The DRC like Uganda has both native and immigrant Banyarwanda and the former are often confused with the later. This is further compounded by attempts by the successive Kinshasa administrations to craft definitive laws on Rwandaphones and citizenship largely based in subjective rather than objective realities on the ground. In one instance a later day Rwandan immigrant into DRC of 1960 had gained prominence at the court of Gbadolite as Chef de Cabinet- Principal Secretary of President Mobutu and influenced the same to pass a decree in 1973 to recognize those immigrants as of 1960, though it was never take effect. Just like the Banyarwanda of Bufumbira chose to identify themselves as Bafumbira in connection to the geographical location of their dwelling place the DRC Rwandaphones too adopted a similar approach- thus you will hear them identify themselves as Banyamulenge (from Milenge Hills), Banyejomba (from Jomba), Bashi (from Bushi), Banyerutsuru (from Rutshuru) and Banyemasisi (from Masisi) etc.

The trouble here is that there are other ethnic groupings from those areas and exclusively identifying oneself as being of that area often times causes tensions with other communities resulting in ethnic clashes that draws in other militias and the Kinshasa forces. This is coupled with constant suspicion against those Rwandaphones serving the national army who suffer discrimination a result of which they fear serving outside their localities. In one instance, the Kinshasa administration introduced the policy of “mixage” in the army (serving outside ones are of birth) but a few but critical mass of officers rebelled and took to the bushes to protest this alleged discrimination. Here lies the challenge- do one always have to take up arms to enhance one human dignity when where it is obvious the victims of the armed rebellion will be the very persons you intend to protect? The recent M23 rebellion and previous clashes in the Kivus in the past bear testimony to this suffering. This writer, thinks open dialogue based on objectivity (there is heavy presence of Civil Society in the area) ought to be the starting points to address problem at hand and it is incumbent upon all of us Rwandaphone elites to “hijack” the processes from the militarists and set this agenda.

The writer is a native of Kisoro District and practices law with Karuhanga Tabaro & Associates.

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