The International Observatory on Statelessness

Democratic Republic of Congo

Despite a 2004 citizenship law granting citizenship to the Banyamulenge community, it is unclear whether the 300,000 to 400,000 of them living in Congo can obtain nationality documents or their rights as citizens in the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo. The Banyamulenge are ethnic Tutsis who came to the territory of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo from Rwanda centuries ago and settled in the hills called Mulenge, found between the towns of Uvira and Bukavu in what is now South Kivu. Relations between the groups grew strained during post-Independence in 1964, when the Banyamulenge helped the Congolese National Army crush a rebellion in the Kivus which aimed to install a type of communism in which property, land, and cattle were to be shared among the local people.

In January 1972, President Mobutu signed a decree collectively granting Zairian citizenship to all Rwandan and Burundian natives who had settled in Zaire (as the country was then called) prior to 1950. In 1981, the highly unpopular 1972 decree was retroactively invalidated by the parliament, effectively rendering the people of Rwandese origin stateless. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, thousands of Banyamulenge crossed back to neighboring Rwanda and joined the Tutsi-led rebels (the Rwanda Patriotic Front) to topple the Hutu-dominated government there.

In 1996, a local official warned that all Banyamulenge must leave Zaire within a week and threatened to confiscate their property. The Banyamulenge armed themselves and repelled the Zairian offensive. The group later joined the rebels led by Laurent Kabila, who overthrew President Mobutu. Kabila’s support among the Banyamulenge eroded in August 1998 when he decided to expel Rwandese and Ugandan contingents from his army. In the name of defending Tutsis against oppression in North Kivu, a rebel army consisting primarily of Banyamulenge and commanded by General Laurent Nkunda has been fighting the government. Violence from this conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

In early 2009, General Nkunda was arrested, a development with uncertain implications for conflict in the region.