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Authority was appointed only from the “tribe” said to be indigenous to the land. Non-
indigenous groups were required to pay tribute to “indigenous” chiefs in the Native
Authority. The Native Authority system politicized ethnic identity gave the name
“tribe” to this politicized group. As a political identity, tribe became the basis of
systematic discrimination between groups: only tribes officially acknowledged as
“indigenous” were entitled to “customary” rights, which included the right of access to
land and the right of participation in local governance. This system of discrimination
was sanctified as “customary” and was enforced by law.
The colonial system rested on a dual system of institutionalized discrimination: race in
urban areas, and tribe in the countryside. Whereas racial discrimination was justified
as reflecting a civilizational hierarchy between colonizers and colonized, tribal
discrimination was said to recognize cultural difference between natives.
What is the connection between the system of power I have just outlined, the Native
Authority system, and ethnic cleansing? So long as the tribal system of power
continued to discriminate between ethnic groups, all institutions came to bear a tribal
imprint. Recruitment for the mines or the civil service or the army was driven by tribal
identity. Not only competition but also resistance developed along tribal lines.
Let us return to Katanga. Labor migration gave rise to a triangular relationship within
Katanga, with each group classified as indigenous or not. The interesting thing is
that there were two ethnic groups but three different classifications in the “tribal”
system. The first were the Lunda, said to be indigenous to Katanga. Then came the
Luba immigrants from Kasai, who were divided into two groups. Those who had
moved to Katanga before colonialism were considered ‘indigenous’ and were
identified as Luba-Katanga. In contrast, those who had arrived during the colonial
period as labor migrants were tagged as not indigenous and were known as the Luba-
All three groups organized as separate political parties. Alongside, there was a
fourth party, representing Belgian settlers in Katanga. In the mines of Katanga, the
Belgians confronted the Luba, organized in militant unions. With the development of
militant nationalism, Belgians promoted an alliance of the settler party with the
indigenous Lunda, known as the alliance of “civilizers” and “authentic Katangans”.
The alliance first targeted the Luba-Kasai, and then all the Luba.
It is the logic that the identity of the native was tribal, not only when it came to
exercizing power but also when it came to resisting power. It is the logic that fed the
dynamic to secession and, ultimately, ethnic cleansing. As the alliance between
“civilizers” and “authentic natives” gelled, the colonial establishment – the church, the
state and business – took to backing “nativist” tribal movements, in both Katanga and
Kasai. With Belgian support, each mounted a separate drive for secession, first in
Katanga (11 July 1960) and then in South Kasai (8 August 1960). Branded “aliens” in
both places, the Luba became the first target of ethnic cleansing in both South Kasai
This is the context in which the first major political crisis in Congo’s history unfolded.
The new government responded to the secession in Katanga by sending the army to
suppress it. On their way to Katanga, troops of the Congolese National Army were
ordered to put down the South Kasai secession. They went on a rampage,
Nzongola Ntalaje, the Congolese political historian, has argued that Lumumba
committed his “first major political blunder” when “as the number one national leader,
instead of seeking to heal the rift in a bitter inter-ethnic conflict”, he chose to side with
one group against another. Thus he provided political enemies the opportunity to
corner him politically and eliminate him physically. Immediately, Dag Hammerksjold,
the UN Secretary General, accused Lumumba of being responsible for “genocide”.
That same day, 5 September, Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister.
The Native Authority system continues to drive the crisis of citizenship in Congo
today. Driving a wedge between two politically defined groups – indigenous and not
indigenous – it continues to fuel the dynamic leading to ethnic cleansing. The
prophetic round of ethnic cleansing began at independence, with Katanga as he
paradigm case, but it was repeated on a more dramatic scale in 1992-93, again in
Katanga, then in Ituri in the conflict between Hema and Lendu, and finally in Kivu.
The political crisis in Congo is today at its most extreme in eastern Congo, in Kivu,
where the Native Authority system pits ‘indigenous’ tribes against the Banyaruanda
minority. The Banyaruanda are the speakers of the language Kinyarwanda,
identified with the historical kingdom of Ruanda. Along with speakers of Kirundi, its
sister language, they number roughly 40 million. Mainly resident in Ruanda and
Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Eastern Congo, the Banyaruanda comprise the
largest language group in the region, if we exclude the trans-ethnic speakers of
Kiswahili. Since most Banyaruanda live outside Rwanda, they face the crisis of
citizenship in its most acute form: wherever the mode of governance is defined by the
Native Authority system, the Banyaruanda are defined as ‘non-indigenous’ outsiders.
Even if born where they live, they remain without ‘customary’ rights, whether to land
or to appointment in a local authority.
As with Lunda migrants into Katanga, the Banyaruanda in Kivu were also divided
between those who came before Belgian colonization and those who came after. The
former were considered indigenous, but not the latter.
Denied ‘customary’ access to land, the Banyaruanda took to purchasing land as
private property, and refused to pay tribute to customary chiefs. The result was a
contest between two different notions of rights: on one side the right of the citizen,
and on the other “customary” right. The political dilemma became acute where the
Banyaruada became a majority, as they did in Masisi and Rutshuru by 1958. The
conflict between the Banyaruanda and the indigenous groups broke out in 1963 and
turned into a wider contest: immigrants demanded ‘democracy’ and the indigenous
groups called for ‘custom’ to be upheld. Known as La Guerre du Kinyarwanda, this
conflict lasted two years.
So sensitive was the citizenship status of the Banyaruanda minority at independence
that the Roundtable Conference in Brussels was unable to fix its juridical status. The
Fundamental Law the conference passed left the citizenship status of the minority
unresolved; instead, it called on the Congolese people to settle the issue at a future
date. The 1964 constitution famously declared that only a person with an ancestor
who was “a member of a tribe or part of a tribe established in the Congo before 18
October 1908” would qualify as a citizen of Congo. The consequence was to bar all
colonial era labor migrants from citizenship.
The most important dimension of the citizenship problem in Kivu is the failure of the
indigenous majority to work out a political principle that would accommodate
developments on the ground and extend citizenship to migrants, thereby constantly
redefining the political community. The consequence of this failure was that migrants
into Kvu increasingly sought protection from an outside power, initially Mobutu and
then, after Mobutu, neighboring Rwanda.
Even the internal opposition, a gathering of over 100 political parties and over 400
civic groups, which came together as the Sovereign National Conference in
Kisangani in 1991-92, failed to address this question. In contrast, Mobutu tried, as in
1972, when his reform extended citizenship to those who had immigrated to Congo
during the colonial period. Called upon to think of a principle other than ethnic
descent as the basis of citizenship in Congo, the CNS failed.
It is this failure that ultimately led to the collapse of the CNS. The failure was tragic
because the CNS began as a spectacular success. Its proceedings were televised
throughout urban Congo. The effect was to inspire further initiatives. There was a
mushrooming of civic organisations, thickening the texture of the internal political
opposition. The Sovereign National Conference was closed abruptly on 6 December
1992 when it was ready to deal with two of the most politically sensitive dossiers: one
on ill-acquired goods and the other on political assassinations. The failure of the
CNS to reopen pointed beyond the regime’s strength to internal weakness of the
The opposition was faced with the dilemma of managing internal tensions within its
own ranks, the very challenge that had undermined Lumumba’s position in 1961.
The more it failed to manage these tensions, the more the opposition fragmented.
The worst outcome was in Katanga, where events were sadly reminiscent of 1960.
As in 1960, the Lunda and the Luba had organized under separate political roofs, the
former in the Katanga-based party, called Union des Fédéralists et des Républicains
Indépendants (UFERI), led by a relative of Tshombe, Jean Nguza Karl-i-Bond
(Nguza), and the latter under UPDS, led by Etienne Tshisekedi, himself a Luba from
Kasai. Initially, UFERI joined UPDS to form Union Sacré, the most important
opposition bloc in CNS. But this was an inter-ethnic unity of two separate ethnically-
based organizations. Intent on splitting the opposition, Mobutu first appointed
Tshisekedi as Prime Minister and then replaced him with Nguza. It was Nguza who
closed the CNS in 1992 on Mobutu’s orders. On its heels followed the second
episode of ethnic cleansing in Katanga, on a scale much larger than in 1960. This
time, over a million Kasaians expelled from Katanga.
Let me turn to Darfur and Sudan. Since I have traced this history in detail in my
recent book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, it should
be sufficient to underline key developments in this lecture. The first was the creation
of tribal homelands under British colonialism.
The British faced several crises during their centuries-long imperial venture. The
most serious of these was in mid-19th century when two revolts, the 1857 Uprising in
India and the Morant Rebellion in Jamaica, rocked the empire at its two extremes.
The next great crisis was the Mahdiyya in Sudan. When the British returned to
defeat the Mahdiyya and colonize Sudan, they were determined to fragment the
colony as effectively as possible. Thus began the program of “tribalization”,
beginning with the creation of tribal homelands. From the very outset, this was a
political program. It favored British allies against those who had joined the Mahdiyya,
and then it favored settled over nomadic groups, since the former were easier to
control. So the colonial power created “tribal homelands” – called hakuras – for
peasant groups, and smaller ones for cattle nomads who were semi-sedentary, but
none for the wholly sedentary camel nomads.
This did not seem to matter much until drought and desertification hit the region.
Studies by the United Nations Education Program, released a few years ago, show
that the southern rim of the Sahara expanded nearly a hundred kilometers over four
decades, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, pushing the northern nomadic tribes
south in search of better land. The result was a classic ecological conflict between
nomads and peasants over the best land in an ecological disaster zone.
I was a consultant for a year for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, a unit
created by the African Union after the Abuja negotiations. The DDDC carried out a
research on the dynamics of the conflict. Its findings showed that the conflict had
spread over two axis: a north-south axis that pit nomadic against peasant tribes, and
an east-west axis in the south that pit two kinds of nomadic tribes – those with
homelands and those without – against one another. The media focused exclusively
on the north-south axis of the conflict which it portrayed as one between ‘Arab’ and
There are two problems with this portrayal. The first is that the driving force of the
conflict was not ethnic identity but the search for land in an ecological crisis.
Whoever controlled the land would survive the crisis, whoever lost control over land
would parish. But because land had been defined as “tribal homeland,” the fight for
land turned into a fight between tribes. This is how most observers on the ground
understood the logic that fed the growing brutality in the conflict. As in Kivu in
eastern Congo, the conflict in Darfur pit two notions of rights against one another: the
camel nomads claimed the right of the citizen to settle anywhere in the country,
whereas peasant groups laid claim to tribal “customary” rights to land and local
Second, there is no single history of “Arabs” of Sudan. In particular, the history of
“Arabs” of northern Sudan and that of Arabs of Darfur is radically different. Whereas
the “Arabs” of northern Sudan include immigrants from the Arab world, the “Arabs” of
Darfur include immigrants from West Africa, mainly the Fulani who are known as the
Fallata and identify as an “Arab” tribe in South Darfur. There is also a difference in
the relationship of Arabs to the slave trade in different parts of Sudan: the slave
trade in the Sultanate of Funj in the North was driven by an “Arab” elite, but in the
Sultanate of Fur was driven by a Fur elite. The result was that whereas most former
slaves in the north tended to identify as “Arab”, most former slavers in Darfur tend to
identify as Fur.
The elite in northern Sudan today is mainly “Arab”, but the elite in Darfur is not. The
Arabs of Darfur are in fact its least privileged group, with the lowest levels of income
and education and the least representation in the state. If Darfur is marginalized in
Sudan, the “Arabs” of Darfur are doubly marginalized.
Let me return to my main point: the Native Authority system and how it generates the
dynamics that tends to lead to ethnic cleansing in times of political crisis, and the
need to reform it.
When he faced the internal opposition in Congo, and its spectacular success as
witnessed in the launching of the Sovereign National Conference in Kisangani in
1991, Mobutu launched a counter-offensive, disguised as a reform of the state. This
is when he advanced a new federal principle for Congo. Geopolitique, as he called it,
was an attempt to elevate ‘nativism’, hitherto the basis of organization of the Native
Authority, into a principle for the reorganization of the central government. Having
already passed a resolution that every aspirant to Congolese citizenship demonstrate
an ancestral connection with Congo prior to the Berlin Conference, Mobutu now
declared that new heads of Ministerial Departments represent their ‘native’
provinces. By calling for regional quotas as the basis for recruitment at the center,
Geopolitique further entrenched indigeneity as a principle and institutionalized ethnic
competition. Mobutu then went on to demand that “delegates [to the CNS] represent
only provinces to which they could be considered autochthon”.
The CNS lost the political battle the day it succumbed to this demand. In Ituri this
logic was picked up and used by the Hema against Nande competitors. When a 1995
decree declared all Kinyarwanda-speakers as foreigners, the momentum of ethnic
cleansing shifted from Katanga to Kivu. On 7 October 1996, the governor of South
Kivu ordered all Banyamulenge to leave the country within a week, or else they would
be interned in camps and eliminated.
I have often wondered whether Nigeria’s post-civil war constitution did not emulate
the substance of Mobutu’s “geopolitique”, particularly in its inclusion of the “federal
character” clause, requiring that key federal institutions reflect the federal character
of Nigeria. As I understand this requirement, the key federal institutions are three:
the federal army, the federal civil service, and federal universities. For these
institutions to reflect federal character, enrollment is driven by a state-based quota
system whereby the quota for each state is in proportion to its share of the federal
population. Finally, the right to compete for this quota does not belong to all those
who live in a state, but only to those who can claim to be “indigenous” to the state in
question, meaning that not only they but also their father be born in that state.
It is possible that this provision was adopted as a form of affirmative action for those
parts of the country which had lagged behind in educational and social development
during the colonial period and that its purpose was to ensure them fair representation
in key federal institutions, one proportional to their weight in the population. The
question I have in mind does not concern motive, but consequence. My question is:
have the unintended consequences of this provision – its costs – come to outweigh
its intended benefits for Nigeria?
The federal character principle has extended the colonial principal of Native Authority
to key institutions in the federal state. Its unintended effect has been to turn federal
citizenship into an extension of ethnically-defined membership of Native Authorities,
thereby eroding it. By dividing Nigerian citizens into “indigines” and “non-indigines” –
not of Nigeria but of individual states – for purposes of participation in national
institutions, it has disenfranchised a growing number of Nigerian citizens, those who
do not live in the states where they were born.
That Nigeria is increasingly integrated into a global economy, and has been the
subject of market reforms, has intensified the contradiction between the market and
the state as currently organized in Nigeria. The tendency of the market economy is
to move more and more strata of the population away from the locality where they
were born. This includes both rich and poor Nigerians: on the one hand,
businessmen, industrialists, and professionals, and on the other, unemployed
workers and landless peasants. The state system, in contrast, disenfranchises
precisely those who move. The state system penalizes precisely those the economy
dynamizes. The least dynamic sectors of the population respond to this situation by
calling for a defense of their “customary” rights, and the most dynamic rally around
the principle of a “national” citizenship. One lesson of Congo and Sudan is that it
may be time to rethink the legacy of both the colonial past and the reforms you
undertook to end the civil war.
Odia Ofeimun Lecture, Text of the Odia Ofeimun Lecture delivered by Mahmood
Mamdani of Columbia University for Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization,
at the Nigeria Institute for International Affairs on Tuesday, March 16, 2010, Lagos,