The Kivus Were Not Part of Rwanda

I have written before about the territorial ambitions that Paul Kagame has for the Kivu provinces of the DRC. See this post for background details. I have spoken to a Rwandan who confirmed that Rwandan schools teach that the Kivus were once part of Rwanda.
The claim that the Kivus were once part of Rwanda is refuted in the paper “Irredentist Rwanda: Ethnic and Territorial Frontiers In Central Africa” written in 1997 by David Newbury. Newbury writes:

…both the president and the foreign minister of Rwanda advanced claims that challenged not only the actions of the Mobutu administration and the effectiveness of the regime but also the very territorial claims of Zaire to this region-that is, the legitimacy of the state itself. This was not an abstract argument on the legitimacy of the postcolonial state in Africa but an assertion by the Rwandan state of historical claims to the area. Though Rwandan leaders asserted that “Rwanda has no territorial claims,” they also argued that large areas of eastern Zaire once belonged to Rwanda: the implications were that Rwanda-speakers in Zaire represent the historical presence of the Rwandan state and hence implicitly justified such claims to the region.

Such assertions, of course, raise the issue of temporality: if any incursion into a region were to lead to perpetual claims to that region. most places on the globe would have multiple claims on them. But the statement goes further, asserting that “since 1540 the region of the Banyamulenge was part of Rwanda: and that “the ancient nation of Rwanda was dismembered by colonial boundaries.” These claims do not find support in the historical record; in fact, depending on the political connotations of the term “nation” above, such a manipulation of the historical record presents problems of its own for Rwandan political claims, even in the territory now recognized as the state of Rwanda.

The territorial claims are based on two premises. The most straight- forward relates directly to state expansion: these areas are claimed as part of the Rwandan state because (it is asserted) they were conquered and occupied by armies of the Rwandan central court. But does military occupation always indicate permanent annexation? Furthermore, this was not the only ”occupation” to occur in this region: in an area of frequent population movements, which of such “occupations” does one use as a baseline? In an area of significantly changing political landscapes. where does one ยท’stop” the historical processes? Can one really assert that Rwandan dynastic power establishes a territorial claim to a region long inhabited by others but simultaneously deny the European colonial powers’ territorial claims to the same area? In fact, on one level the two arguments intersect: where European officials argue that colonial boundaries protect local populations from the expanding Rwandan state, Rwandan actors claim the territory in order to correct the inequity of colonial rule. Arguing over where and when the boundaries should be drawn misses the point, however: the central historical issue here relates more to the nature of boundaries than to the placement of boundaries, a point to which we shall return.

The second premise concerns the relation of cultural identity and national allegiance. It is based on evidence that before European rule. Rwanda-speaking peoples lived west of the Kivu Rift Valley (the current boundary between Rwanda and Zaire). In this case, however, the presence of Rwanda-speaking peoples west of the Kivu Rift does not in itself establish the presence of Rwandan state authority in the area. Indeed, the historical record suggests just the opposite. From the late eighteenth century a small number of families moved west across the Rift Valley that today separates Rwanda from Zaire; some, referred to today as Banyamulenge, originally settled in Itombwe. a highland area west of Lake Tanganyika. They were Rwanda-speakers, but they were not subjects of the royal court associated with the Nyiginya dynasty of Rwanda. Instead, they were refugees, fleeing the expansion of the Nyiginya dynastic state at a time of intense competition among diverse political units in Rwanda. Thus, rather than being subjects of the royal court, these migrants were its opponents: their presence in Itombwe, in fact, represented the lack of Rwandan state power in that region, not its presence. In this case, cultural identity and political identity were not equivalent. To assert historical claims for the Rwandan state on the basis of Banyamulenge presence, then, is rather like the Queen of England claiming California as part of Great Britain because some people there speak English.

As noted, the claim that these areas of eastern Zaire had formerly been part of the Rwandan state is also based on other premises and therefore raises other historical issues regarding the relation of military campaigns to political annexation. It is true that during the late nineteenth century several areas west and north of Lake Kivu were attacked by armies of the Rwandan king Kigeri Rwabugiri, but it is worth noting three elements associated with these events. First, these attacks were directed against Bushi (west of the lake), against the islands in Lake Kivu, against Bunyungu and Bufumandu (northwest of the lake), and against Bwisha still farther north: Rwandan attacks never included the areas now claimed as the Banyamulenge ‘”homelands” in Itombwe, southwest of Lake Kivu. Second, most were individual campaigns of short duration: ljwi Island alone experienced military occupation (from 1885 to 1895). And third, they all ultimately failed: not one of these campaigns led to the presence of administrative state structures or even to the presence of permanent administrative personnel in these areas west of Rwanda.

The central court vision of the campaigns of Rwabugiri is not the only basis for the assertions that these areas were “part of Rwanda.” The map included with the speech of the president points to large areas of North Kivu included in Rwanda from the time of Kigeri Nyamuheshera (who ruled around 1600 C. E. according to Alexis Kagame ‘s chronology). There are numerous problems, however, with the assertions dealing with Nyamuheshera’s conquests in the west. These include internal contradictions: these areas are claimed to have been “conquered” several times, though never lost, which again suggests that these incursions were at most raids, not annexations. Furthermore, the areas claimed as conquests by Nyamuheshera are almost identical to those later attacked by Rwabugiri, a king with the same dynastic name; as Kagame himself notes, events associated with kings of the same dynastic name are often transposed. Third, and most important, intensive research carried out in the region said to have been “conquered” by Kigeri Nyamuheshera brought forth no mention in the oral sources of conquest by Rwandan kings before the time of Kigeri Rwabugiri; yet these silences are not a simple product of nationalist denial, for Rwabugiri’s actions are remembered vividly and in some detail. And finally, the pattern of more recent Rwandan court claims projected into the distant past is a familiar one, but it is also one that has been shown to be an unreliable guide to historical events. Such claims. therefore, need to be assessed carefully before being accepted outright; as with all sources, central court traditions need verification.

It is true that here, as in many other areas of Africa, colonial boundaries were arbitrarily imposed, as President Pasteur Bizimungu asserted. In this case, however, the effect of European boundary agreements was to expand, not contract, the reach of the Rwandan state; in fact, with the help of European power Nyiginya dynastic structures were extended to many areas that formerly had successfully resisted Rwandan expansion. Other transformations were important as well: colonial power not only extended the territorial range of the kingdom but also greatly enhanced the administrative power of the state structures. Under colonial rule, therefore, the Nyiginya dynasty lost sovereignty but gained power-both in terms of territorial expanse and in terms of administrative capacity.


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