Land, power and identity in complex cross-border areas: Eastern DRC

by Chris Huggins

Around the world, there are a number of international border areas where governance is fuzzy and disputed, citizenship claims are complicated and contested, and economies are trans-boundary in nature. Due to the arbitrary nature of colonial boundary making, ethnic communities are divided by borders, so that loyalties as well as livelihoods are trans-national in character. Illegal resource extraction is endemic, and fortunes are made by the ruthless, even as the majority wallow in poverty. Many such complex border areas are either already in a situation of violent conflict, or at risk of conflict. Examples which have seen violence in recent decades include the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Thai-Cambodia border, and the Chad-Darfur border.

Geographical remoteness is one factor: such areas are physically far from capital cities, and there are often cultural differences between local communities and dominant elites in urban areas. The inhabitants are therefore seen as slightly ‘different’ from other regions, and often viewed with suspicion by the state. Due to this geographical remoteness, land is often under held under customary systems rather than the state land registry, and due to the frequency of cross-border movements, land rights can be disputed, as the citizenship of those claiming land and resources are disputed.

The Eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of these complex and challenging borderlands that is emerging, slowly, unsteadily and precariously, from violent conflict. The history of the DRC is a complex and largely tragic story, too complicated to summarize here. In terms of recent events: during and since the ‘two rebellions’ of the 1990s, which were largely engineered by Rwanda, Uganda, and other regional countries, the country (especially the East) has seen massive bloodshed, some of which is described in Shane Quinn’s recent guest posting on TN. The security situation started to stabilize across most of the country in the mid-2000s as a result of a sequence of peace negotiations. Nevertheless, parts of the East, especially North Kivu Province, remained unstable. While most non-state armed groups engaged in the peace process and were integrated into the government, several groups refused to integrate, and maintained de facto politico-military control over significant swathes of territory.

More recently, one of these groups, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (known by its French acronym, CNDP), signed a peace agreement with the government. This has provided the basis for the significant return of Congolese refugees to this area. There are about 50,000 official Congolese refugees in Rwanda, and others who are unregistered and living outside of refugee camps. Despite the existence of a tripartite agreement (between UNHCR, Rwanda and DRC), most of this return is spontaneous, unassisted, and takes place in unofficial border crossings in areas controlled by the CNDP. The citizenship status of the returnees has long been the object of political manipulation, with citizenship requirements being changed several times during the last 50 years, in response to political dynamics. In addition, there has also been ongoing cross-border migration into the DRC during recent decades, for political as well as economic reasons. Such new migrants are unlikely to have any legitimate claim to Congolese citizenship.

Local self-styled “autochtone” (“indigenous Congolese”) communities view the refugee return with suspicion, arguing that many of the returnees aren’t really Congolese. There is therefore significant concern that amongst those returnees attempting to reclaim land they left behind when they fled the county in the late 1990s, there are foreigners attempting to grab land. The CNDP former-rebel group is popularly believed to be facilitating such a ‘land grab’. The numbers involved are unknown: the CNDP is not willing to share its numbers, and may not be keeping accurate figures in any case. However, NGOs estimate that many thousands have already crossed the border.

Several international NGOs have started to discuss these issues with bilateral donors and other key actors behind the scenes, while some have published reports on this theme. Refugees International, for example, called in an April 2010 report for more US government support for “strategies that mitigate potential conflicts over land and ethnicity”, and raised concerns over increased CNDP influence in areas of return. The report argues that the UN’s stabilization plan, which includes land dispute mediation components designed and implemented by UN-Habitat in conjunction with UNHCR and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), might be locally perceived as legitimising ‘land grabbing’ in areas controlled by CNDP.

International Alert first published a report on the refugee return more than a year ago. The report draws attention to land issues but also provides background on the various categories of people – economic migrants, returning refugees, opportunists – who might be involved, and calls for research into their identities and numbers. These issues were placed into the context of land tenure and the political economy of land conflicts in a report that I wrote on ‘Land, Power, and Identity’ published in January 2011 (a French version is also available). The report examines the issues primarily along two axes of analysis: first, the “autochtone/migrant” dichotomy, and secondly, the tensions between customary and statutory land tenure systems.

The interaction between custom and state systems may become more problematic given statements by the Minister of Land Affairs that the only solution to land disputes is the conversion of all customary claims to statutory forms of title, as described in this article in Forced Migration Review (FMR) # 36. This approach would likely result in the dispossession of thousands of farming households, and would be vastly expensive to implement.  As pointed out by Oumar Sylla of the UN-Habitat project in another article in FMR, the existing land law is full of gaps, is poorly enforced, and needs to be updated in order to recognise the important role of customary leaders. This article also recognises the need to implement some of the principles established by the UN Conference and Stability Pact for the Great Lakes.

The International Alert report also provides some preliminary analysis of the attempts to mediate land conflicts in areas subject to refugee return and discusses some of the inherent difficulties involved in resolving land issues in areas where few institutions, whether in the state or customary domains, enjoy credibility and legitimacy. Given the ‘unknowns’ involved, the International Alert report argues that independent, multi-institutional monitoring should be urgently carried out in the areas of refugee return in order to suggest possible interventions.  The report also argues that the situation should not be viewed through only ‘land restitution’ or ‘land dispute resolution’ lenses, but more profoundly, as part of a wider agrarian crisis with cultural, social and economic aspects.

The agrarian crisis stems from a combination of structural constraints on the “extensification” of livelihood systems as well as the intensification of smallholder farming, the massive levels of inequality in the size of landholdings in certain areas and the more generalised crisis in terms of trade for agricultural produce that is being experienced all over Africa as a result of globalisation. Even if the current refugee return is addressed in ways that avoid violence, these structural issues will soon push local land-users towards even more extreme poverty, desperation and conflict. Any sustainable resolution of land-tenure conflicts in Eastern DRC must be comprehensive enough to address a wide variety of economic, environmental, social, political and other issues. The trick is to address these many challenges through conflict-sensitive and incremental approaches, which nevertheless have an effective cumulative impact.

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One response to “Land, power and identity in complex cross-border areas: Eastern DRC

  1. Salut, probablement t’as vu l’article de chris

    Greetings from Jerusalem

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