Why the Violence in Eastern Africa

Report from Kenya #391 – June 10, 2016

African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams


A UN peacekeeping tank in Goma, Congo. I have always wondered what this tank would do against a group of 100 men carrying machetes attacking a village in the countryside. Surely this is awesome, but ineffective firepower.


Note:  On May 16 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, I presented my usual presentation on AGLI’s Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities program. You can see my thirty minute presentation at pasifik.ca/2016/06/07/friends-peace-teams/.





In response to my last week’s Report from Kenya, “African Lives Don’t Matter” (http://aglifpt.org/rfk/?p=935), I received the following comment from Martin Wilkinson, a loyal reader from England:


I find another reaction in myself to this report; bewilderment and helplessness. That comes partly from not finding anything in the report about why this violence is going on. It’s almost as if it is some unpredictable and unpreventable event, like earthquakes (before seismology) or lighting-strikes. So all one is invited to do is pity those who have suffered, and – unlikely – do some tiny thing to help them. I think that feeling of incomprehension and helplessness makes one turn away from the subject.  Surely what is needed, alongside efforts to meet the physical needs of displaced and traumatized people, is their understanding, and ours, of what is causing this violence?


Martin is, of course, correct. But I purposely refrained from giving any of the facts or alleged facts of the conflict because first it would have made my post too long and second it would have interfered with my main point that African lives don’t matter.


In 1994, when the Rwandan genocide occurred, I wanted to have a deeper understanding of genocide so I read what I could on the WWII Holocaust. Fortunately my son, Tommy, had just finished a course on the Holocaust at the University of Rochester so he advised me on what to read. Likewise, in order to understand the conflicts in eastern Africa, I have pursued some studies of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between France and England and then the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) mostly in central Europe.


During the Hundred Years’ War, fought mostly in what is now France, England ferried brigands (“a person who usually lives in a gang and lives by pillage and robbery”) across the Straights of Dover from England to France. Their duty was to prey on French farmers, monasteries, and towns, living off the land and destroying the economy of France. Robin Hood and his “merrie men” may have had their origin as brigands before returning to Sherwood Forest. During this long war France is estimated to have lost half of its population and England a third of its population.


During the Thirty Years’ War mercenaries and soldiers were expected to survive by looting and extortion of tribute. Most of the small principalities that constantly realigned themselves during the war were devastated and became bankrupt. Some areas lost up to half their population. Historians have tried to make some sense of the fighting and constantly shifting alliances, but this is after-the-fact analysis from hindsight.


If one considers Rwanda and Uganda to be the England of the Hundreds Years’ War and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as France, then one can see the analogy. Likewise, the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War mirrors the chaos in eastern Congo now.


A group called Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is often blamed for the killings near Beni. This is thought to be a Muslim group that opposed President Museveni’s rule in Uganda. They were pushed across the border by the Ugandan military many years ago and have been preying on the local population ever since. This theory may be suspect. The ADF has no spokesperson and does not engage the media so there is some suspicion whether ADF actually exists as a coherent group.


In all of North and South Kivu there are also groups labeled “Mai Mai”. Wikipedia comments, “Groups that fall under the umbrella term ‘Mai Mai’ include armed forces led by warlords, traditional tribal elders, village heads, and politically motivated resistance fighters. Because Mai Mai have had only the most tenuous internal cohesion, different Mai Mai groups have allied themselves with a variety of domestic and foreign government and guerrilla groups at different times.”


This is the only picture (from 2003) I could find of a Mai Mai group near Beni, controlled by “General” Vita Katembola. The reason that there is a picture of this group is that at that time it was allied with a larger group which in turn was allied with the national government. Are you beginning to see the complexity? Note the three “soldiers” with baseball hats on – how old do you think they are?

a1This map shows the sites of massacres near Beni just in December 2014. The village at the top, Eringeti, is the one I reported on in my post last week.


To complicate matters further, the Congolese Army (FARDC) also has a presence in the area. Unfortunately they are sometimes accused of being the ones doing the looting and killing. Congolese soldiers, who are imported from other parts of the country, don’t know the local language or even Swahili – the lingua franca of the area – live with their wives and children, and are frequently unpaid. So they resort to looting in order to survive. Often they are seen by the local people as a foreign, occupying force.


In addition there is MONUSCO, the UN 20,000 strong peacekeeping mission in the Congo. They have a number of bases near Beni. The soldiers are well armed, but the area is vast and in some cases massacres have occurred within a few miles of a UN base. MONUSCO is not supposed to engage in offensive military action and can only respond when they hear of violence. By the time they have arrived, those who have perpetrated the looting and massacre have disappeared into the surrounding forest. Usually the villagers have no idea who attacked them.

a1-1This is a picture of a woman from Kamango, another village near Beni, fleeing across the border to Uganda after a rebel attack in July 2013 which killed at least 40 people (AFP photo). She seems healthy and strong enough to carry her “survival” load. But what of the elderly, or the sick, or women with many children? How are they going to cope? Where will this woman sleep this night? People taking medications because they are HIV+ or have other aliments miss their medications and become sicker and perhaps die. The machete is not the only killer. It is my opinion that every time people flee like this an unrecorded and uncountable number of people die from the trials and exposure of fleeing.


What, though, are the underlying, root causes of this?


In 2008 during a lull in the fighting Gladys and I travelled with local Congolese and Rwandans to the rebel controlled area of Masisi, also in North Kivu province. Somewhere along the way we passed an imaginary line that was the boundary between the Congolese army controlled region and that of the rebels. As we drove along we could see that young men had three occupations: (1) a few were cutting down and sawing into lumber large trees which were quickly being depleted, (2) more were standing around as soldiers in uniforms and with guns, and (3) most were just loafing around at road corners or small shops doing nothing. Of course there were some we did not see who were working in the illegal mines that were exporting minerals to the international business world. This region of the world has a very high birth rate as can be expected when the death rate is also high. Since there was little other economic activity, most young people had no work and no prospects of a career or advancement. The daily wage for any work that could be found would be around $1 per DAY.


We were told that the rebels were paying young men a $100 bonus to join their militias. When fighting did occur, with little training and without proper weapons or ammunition, these young recruits – including child soldiers under 18 years of age – were sent out on the front lines to be slaughtered at a high rate. The government troops or even the United Nations peacekeepers would then publicly rejoice on the number of “rebels” killed during an attack, oblivious to the fact that those dead young men would easily be replaced by new recruits.


North Kivu province, where Beni and Masisi are located, is a naturally rich area – fertile soil, good rainfall, and lots of important minerals. It could be a wonderfully prosperous place – as France could have been in the fourteenth century. After centuries of conflict, France and England stopped fighting each other and both are more prosperous now than they were in the era of constant war and the later building of world empires. Yet the eastern Congo is full of insecurity, poverty, poor education, bad roads and health care, underemployment, and neglect.


What can be done to make this a peaceful place? This is what AGLI does: Working first on trauma healing, learning to solve problems nonviolently, mediation of disputes, developing campaigns for nonviolent social change, engaging in preventing election violence (already occurring in the Congo because of its presidential election in November this year), and promoting community peace dialogues. Unfortunately, during AGLI’s first delegation to the region in 1999, AGLI was invited to visit Beni, but we didn’t have the resources – time, personnel, and funds – to visit so AGLI hasn’t done any work there. If we had, would AGLI’s work have prevented some of those massacres?



To be added to this listserve, please send your name and email address to dave@aglifpt.org.


Please donate to AGLI’s programs by sending a check made out to “Friends Peace Teams/AGLI” to Friends Peace Teams, 1001 Park Avenue, St Louis, MO 63104 or go to our webpage at www.friendspeaceteams.org to donate by debit/credit card.


Since 1998, David Zarembka has been the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region (available at www.davidzarembka.com).


David Zarembka, Coordinator

African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams
P. O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya
Phone in Kenya: 254 (0)726 590 783 in US: 301/765-4098
Office in US: 1001 Park Avenue, St Louis, MO 63104 USA 314/647-1287
Webpage: www.aglifpt.org Reports from Kenya: www.aglifpt.org/rfk/

Email: dave@aglifpt.org



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