writings/ History of Conflicts in Africa's Great Lakes Region

This is the final written draft of a speech I gave in my Speech 111 class, Spring term of 1999; I probably tweaked it a little after transferring it to notecards. (I got an A on the speech too - woohoo!)

I'm afraid I didn't do a real great job of keeping track of my sources (hey, it's been nearly a year - I didn't think I'd need this document again). And I really wish I could express the proper pronunciation of the names to you: "Tshombe" is something like "CHOAM-bay", "mulele" is pretty much like "mew-LAY-lay", "Banyamulenge" is basically "BON-yaw-moo-LAYN-gay", and "Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga" is just really fun to roll off the tongue. (My class loved that part of my speech. Thank god for those Africans and their funny names. :)

History of conflicts in Africa's Great Lakes region

Jamey Sharp May 1999

Rarely do people communicate; they just take turns talking.

"Facts are stupid things." - President Ronald Reagan (a blooper from his speech at the '88 GOP convention)

I never failed to convince an audience that the best thing they could do was to go away.
Had any of you heard that on April 26th [1999], thousands of refugees fled back to their home country because of fighting in the country where they were staying? Well, a week after the Columbine High School shootings and the same day that NATO knocked Milosevich's daughter's TV station off the air, some 20,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees fled back to Rwanda because of fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The area I'll be talking about today is known as the Great Lakes region of Africa, and in order to understand the conflicts there you'll need history from at least three countries: Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are dozens of web sites containing hundreds of documents about the history of the Great Lakes region, and I have tried to summarize information from the United Nations, Library of Congress, Washington Post, a web site called Information Please, and several other sources. Among all this information I've found that there are two main periods of interest in recent history, and those are what I want to focus on now: the 1960s, when Congo obtained independence from Belgium, and the 1980s up to the present, as conflicts escalated.

The Hutus and Tutsis have been fighting hard since April 1994, but today I want to tell you about the longer-term history of the area, because otherwise it's almost impossible to understand why the region is in conflict. After all, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ``Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.''

Around the 11th century, Hutus began migrating to Burundi (Information Please). According to the Washington Post, sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries, the kingdom of Kongo (with a 'K') was established. Tutsis also began migrating to Burundi and Rwanda around the same time (Information Please). Burundan and Rwandan Tutsis have always been minority groups, but they have generally had most of the political power in those countries (Information Please). Then, in the late 15th century, the Portugese named this river [map], as well as its drainage basin, the Congo, this time with a 'C' (Washington Post). Historians disagree at this point, but sometime between the 1500s and the 1800s, Rwandan Tutsis began migrating to the plains and hills of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, apparently in order to feed their cattle better; they are sometimes called the Banyamulenge, meaning ``People of Mulenge'', because that was the first area of Congo that they settled in, according to an October 1996 UN report. Finally, in 1885, Belgium claimed the area, naming it the Belgian Congo (Information Please; Washington Post). I have found nothing indicating that there was any violence worth noting from the 11th to the 19th centuries, though Belgium treated the Congan people very poorly, and they, of course, disliked Belgian rule.

That brings us to the first period of interest. On June 30th, 1960, Belgium granted Belgian Congo independance, making it the Federal Republic of Congo, and the region's citizens quickly began fighting (Information Please; Washington Post). Less than two weeks later, what was then Katanga province seceded from the republic, but the warring areas were reunited about two and a half years later with the help of UN peacekeeping forces (Information Please). Their mission accomplished, the UN troops departed, and Congo's President Kasavubu appointed Katanga's former Premier Tshombe to be premier of Congo in order to quell a rebellion forming throughout the land (Information Please). The most serious opposition was from a pseudo-communist group, interested specifically in equal access to land, property, and cattle; this was the Mulele rebellion in Kivu. Here we return to the Rwandan Tutsis who had migrated to this area centuries earlier: The Banyamulenge were the only local ethnic group to oppose the Mulelists, and they helped the army to put down the rebellion. This did not endear them to the other locals, and the UN report traces later conflicts to this event.

In 1965, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, formerly Army Chief of Staff, took power from President Kasavubu with US backing (Information Please; UN IRIN report; Washington Post). According to a 1993 report from the Library of Congress, Congo's size, mineral resources, and strategic location allowed Mobutu to play on Cold War tensions for Western support; the report says stability in Central Africa and Mobutu's support for US goals in Angola were reasons why the US rewarded Mobutu with economic and military aid.

In 1966, Mobutu took the name Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga, from his father's uncle's name meaning ``all-conquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph'', as part of his authenticity campaign to return the nation to its cultural roots. During this time, he also renamed the country Zaire, gave many cities Zairian names, and encouraged citizens to adopt new names.

That pretty well sums up the key events from the 1960s, so now I'll move on to the 1980s through the present. In the early 1980s, the Zairian Parliament began oppressing the Tutsis, which, as I said, the UN report traces to the Mulele rebellion of 1964. In 1981, after the only Tutsi member of Parliament died in a car crash, Parliament passed a law undoing a 1972 law under which basically everyone of Rwandese origin was granted citizenship. This meant that the Banyamulenge, the Zairian Tutsis, were not citizens of any country; they could no longer run for office or vote in Zaire. In protest, some Banyamulenge burned ballot boxes in both the 1982 and 1987 Parliamentary elections. (UN IRIN report)

Now we get to the key event. On April 6th, 1994, a plane with the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both Hutu, was shot down (Information Please). Hutus in Rwanda were understandably upset, and they killed an estimated eight hundred thousand Tutsi civilians in Rwanda, not to mention those killed in Burundi (Information Please). That's significantly more people than the 225,000 men unaccounted for in Kosovo (Information Please). According to Information Please, the genocide was carefully orchestrated despite its spontaneous appearance; Tutsi rebels in Rwanda and the Tutsi-controlled army in Burundi responded by killing lots of Hutus. An estimated 1.7 million Hutus fled west across the border to Zaire from Rwanda, and more came from Burundi (Information Please). By comparison, about a million fewer people have departed Kosovo since NATO started bombing (Information Please).

All these Hutu refugees caused major problems in Zaire, still troubled over its Parliament's discrimination against Tutsis (UN IRIN Report). The UN report says that Zaire locals (presumably excluding the Banyamulenge) indentified themselves with Hutus and blamed Tutsis for the refugee problems the country had.

Among the fleeing Hutus were some guerrillas who began fighting Rwanda from Zaire (Information Please). In the hopes of stopping these incursions, not to mention keeping Zaire from exiling their Tutsis, Tutsi-led Rwanda supported rebels who aimed to overthrow Zaire's President Mobutu (Information Please). In May of 1997, they managed to do just that, installing Laurent Kabila as Mobutu fled to Morocco, where he died of cancer on September 7th, 1997 (Information Please; Washington Post). The new government managed to rename the country back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; unfortunately, it would seem Kabila was not as effective at stopping the Hutu military incursions into Rwanda, and in August of 1998, the people of Congo again began rebelling against their government (Information Please). Kabila is, however, still president.

An interesting final side note is that in September of 1998, a UN tribunal sentenced Jean Kambanda to life in prison for his role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (Information Please). He has the unenviable distinction of being the first person in history convicted of genocide, as defined 50 years earlier in the 1948 Genocide Convention following World War II (Information Please).

So you now may understand better the history of Africa's Great Lakes region, especially events that occured in the '60s and the most recent string of events starting in the '80s. Next time you see a story on the news or in the paper about Rwanda, Congo, or Burundi, you'll know what led up to it, and I hope you'll remember King's remark, because injustice anywhere really is a threat to justice everywhere.

Crisis in the Great Lakes Region. Africa News Service. September 1997. 11 May 1999. <>

Map of the Great Lakes Region. ReliefWeb. 19 November 1997. 11 May 1999. <>

UN IRIN. ``THE CONFLICT IN SOUTH KIVU, ZAIRE AND ITS REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS''. United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network. 7 October 1996. 11 May 1999. <>

``Congo Time Line''. Washington Post. 29 November 1998. 11 May 1999. <>

Information Please LLC <>

``20,000 Rwandan Refugees Return Home''. Associated Press. 26 April 1999.