The peoples of Central Africa face yet another human catastrophe. Since 1993, with the election and assassination of President Ndadaye in Burundi, the genocide in Rwanda, and the accumulation of massive refugee communities in Zaire and Tanzania, Central Africa has appeared frequently, if sporadically, in the headlines. But the political transformation of the region has now moved into a new stage.

    Understanding the current situation requires reaching out to include an understanding of the internal politics of Zaire and the policies of the external powers in the region. In fact, the peoples of the region are faced with a new series of "convergent catastrophes" which are both independent in origin and interdependent in their evolution.

    This analysis, written within the first week of the latest crisis in Zaire, tries to sketch out the complex parameters of these various dramas. Though much has happened in the weeks since this short assessment was written, the basic contours presented here are still valid; it may, therefore, still be useful to retain a view of the broader regional and historical perspective presented here, for the events of November 1996 may well have powerful repercussions on the political and social transformations yet to come.

    The press response to the crisis this fall has taken two forms. One has been to detail the plethora of events and peoples involved: Hutu, Tutsi, Hunde, Havu, Tembo, Bashi, Banyamulenge, Banyabwisha, Mayi Mayi — the list is long. A second approach has been to rely on broad characterizations all too reminiscent of the "tribal" mentality which western observers often adopt when dealing with African histories: "the people of this region are killing each other." Both approaches neglect to place these events in regional history, and therefore they seem to privilege knowledge of facts over understanding of processes. Consequently, it might be useful to identify, as an alternative interpretive framework, four distinct but inter-related issues in this rapidly changing situation.

    Ethnic Politics

    The first relates to the politics of Mobutu's Zaire. For twenty years, but especially over the last decade, it has been the policy of the Zairean government to respond to increasingly intense popular protest by setting off regions or ethnic groups against one another. The effect has been to heighten the role of ethnic awareness, to turn ethnicity into a major political tool in Zaire. One result of this has been a long-standing discrimination against Rwanda- speaking people in Zaire — whether Tutsi or Hutu.

    In fact, by the early 1980s Rwanda-speakers were denied citizenship rights in Zaire in most cases, a policy which effectively disenfranchised up to 85 percent of the population in some locales. This policy lies at the root of the current crisis; when the Zairean government officials threatened to expel certain Rwanda speaking peoples living west of Lake Tanganyika (referred to as "Banyamulenge"), the victims responded with force. It is important, therefore, to note two features of the current crisis. First, though the presence of one million Rwandan refugees greatly intensifies political tensions, the current crisis originated in Zairean politics. It is not a simple extension of the Rwandan conflict.

    The second feature to note is that the Zaire policy applied to all Rwandans living in Zaire before 1994; it was not specific to either Tutsi or Hutu. The common characteristics by which westerners see "ethnicity" in this region — "Hutu" and "Tutsi" — were not the operative categories. There were actually four different groups of Rwanda-speakers in eastern Zaire. One group had arrived before colonial rule, including the "Banyamulenge" who settled west of Lake Tanganyika. Another was established in the area north of Lake Kivu during colonial rule — formed mostly of Hutu, they had been resettled from Rwanda to serve as a labor pool to attract European plantation owners. A third group (mostly Tutsi) sought asylum following the Rwandan revolution of 1959-62. A fourth (mostly formed of Hutu) included those who arrived in the wake of the genocide of 1994.

    It is important to note that although historically the Banyamulenge were largely composed of people of Tutsi origin (who had fled to this area to escape expanding Rwandan state structures in the 18th century), the same Zairean policy had earlier affected hundreds of thousands of Rwanda-speaking Zaireans of Hutu descent. But in the recently "ethnicized" context of Central Africa, the term "Banyamulenge" has taken on new connotations to apply to all Rwanda-speakers of Tutsi identity in Zaire, a new, more expansive meaning. We are watching, therefore, the redefinition of an ethnic label. Such a process is not uncommon — but it is often denied by outside observers, who tend to see ethnicity in essentialist terms. The irony here is that these observers, who often speak of ethnicity as a rigid category, are the same people who are, in this instance, directly involved in furthering the process of expanding ethnic classifications.

    Armed Incursion

    The second issue to account for in the current crisis is the incursion of armed personnel, including regular army units, from Rwanda and Burundi into Zaire. These units claim to be supporting their "cultural brethren," though there may well be other objectives behind this policy as well. Whatever the intentions, the effects have been momentous, for these actions have transformed the situation from an essentially Zairean political struggle into an international crisis, and have allowed Zaire to portray this not as an internal issue but as an invasion of the country by outsiders.

    Such actions also carry several long-term implications. To justify its occupation of parts of eastern Zaire, the government of Rwanda has advanced claims that large parts of eastern Zaire were formerly part of the Rwandan kingdom. Such irredentist claims are not supported in the historical record; nonetheless they highlight the complexity of current state boundaries and the tensions in the concept of the nation-state in Africa (as well as in Europe and North America). Furthermore, the invasion also places at greater risk all Rwanda-speaking people in Zaire; several thousand Rwanda-speaking people have had to flee Kinshasa, the Zairean capital, 1,200 miles to the west of Kivu. And finally, and not least, it enormously complicates the task of repatriating to Rwanda the refugees of 1994, who now feel under attack by the very state to which they are told to return. If the argument is that security is assured in Rwanda, this policy is a strange manner in which to make the case.

    State Struggles

    The third major issue embedded in the current crisis relates to a new stage in the long-term disintegration of Zaire, the largest state in Sub-Saharan Africa. For twenty years there has been sporadic popular resistance to the oppressive and exploitative rule of President Mobutu, who has often turned to western support to maintain his position in the face of popular opposition. But this new stage in the process presents the distinct possibility of a militarization of opposition to Mobutu — with arms readily available in both eastern Zaire and in southwestern Zaire (from Angola). On the other hand, however, this crisis may also have the countervailing effect of rallying Zaireans to oppose an "invasion" and "occupation" from outside — for despite strong regional, class, and ethnic differences, Zaireans see themselves as a political culture that is distinct from their neighbors in many ways.

    Since September, President Mobutu has been out of the country, in Switzerland and France, undergoing treatment for cancer. In his absence, and with the collapse of formal internal discussions on the mechanisms of political transition, we may well be seeing the beginning of a new stage in the long and tortuous succession struggle in Zaire. The effects would be far-reaching — possibly the ultimate break-up of the state, or some other redefinition of the Zairean political community (though it remains to be seen how outside powers would receive this development).

    Humanitarian Crisis

    The fourth issue involved in the current events of eastern Zaire is a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. Several hundred thousand people in refugee camps in eastern Zaire have been under attack and have fled for their lives: 80 percent are women and children; 50 percent are under the age of 15. What is curious is that the cause of their flight was often attacks from Rwanda, yet Rwanda claimed the need to force them out of the camps in order to return them to Rwanda.

    But the humanitarian crisis is not just a matter of Rwandan refugees. First there are many Zaireans who are also fleeing attacks, thus multiplying the numbers of people on the move. Second there will surely be serious confrontations over food, as desperate refugees seek crops - - as yet unripe — from Zairean fields, and as Zairean farmers seek to protect their maturing yields. (While bananas, cassava, and sweet potatoes can be harvested at any season, the staples — beans, maize, sorghum — will not be ready to harvest until mid-December at the earliest.) And third, now all Rwanda-speaking peoples in Zaire are at risk as a result of the Rwandan troops' invasion/occupation; already several thousand have fled Kinshasa for Brazzaville across the Zaire River. They, too, are caught in the humanitarian crisis.

    Faced with a million lives threatened by hunger and disease, powerful countries outside of this region are not prepared to act. This situation — if not the exact trajectory of events — was predictable, but western powers have contributed to the emergent crisis in several ways. They have reinstated Mobutu from political oblivion, and allowed him both to protect the former Rwandan army leaders in the camps and to continue to use systematic violence, often for the purpose of extraction, against his own population — thus leading to the confrontation of the state with the Banyamulenge that triggered the larger war. Second, the international community has closed its eyes to the problems in Central Africa and thus allowed arms to continue to flow to the former members of the armed forces of Rwanda now found in the refugee camps.

    And finally, the international community has refused to bring effective pressure to bear on Rwanda to create conditions of security — both personal and material security — within Rwanda that would encourage refugees to return to Rwanda in numbers. Instead they have acquiesced to Rwandan demands for the departure of external human rights observers; they have failed to follow up on credible reports on atrocities within Rwanda; and they have failed to lend meaningful support to a credible and transparent process of judicial proceedings within the country to assure returnees that they can live under the protection of the government, not under threat of government personnel.

    It is a very serious situation. But to take it seriously, we much first see it for what it is, and not for what it is not: it is not simple "tribal warfare," though ethnicity has an important role in complicating the political battles. It is not simple "indiscriminate killing," though many people are killed. And it is not simple "political incompetence" (though there is that in abundance), but competing agendas formed without reference to the effect on local populations.

    And of course none of these processes address the long- term well-being of the people of this region. They have seldom had a meaningful say in their futures, neither in regard to local state structures, nor in regard to global economic structures. It does not look like that will change in the near future.

    David Newbury is a faculty member in History, University of North Carolina. The following article is adapted from an internet posting to "NUAFRICA: Program in African Studies Mailing List," on November 3, 1996.