Ethnic Marginalization as Statelessness: Lessons from the Great Lakes Region of Africa

Published: 1/Jan/2001
Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Francis M Deng, “Ethnic Marginalization as Statelessness: Lessons from the Great Lakes Region of Africa”, in Citizenship Today: Global Perspectives and Practices, edited T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Douglas Klusmeyer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2001

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IN MY VISITS to countries with serious problems of internal displacement in my continuing dialogues with governments as the representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, I begin by discussing the problem with leaders at the national level. I then move down the ladder of authority, ending with the affected population. I discuss their conditions and specific needs for protection and assistance. I then go back to the leaders at various levels to share what I have learned and to offer recommendations.

In this context, I asked displaced persons in one Latin American country what they wanted me to take back to their national leaders. “Those are not our leaders,” responded their spokesman. “To them, we are not citizens, but criminals, and our only crime is that we are poor.” It was interesting that he emphasized a class aspect, although the people involved were clearly members of an indigenous ethnic group. It showed the class dimension of the Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements in the country.

In a country of the former Soviet Union, the same question received an almost identical response: “We have no leaders there! Those are not our leaders.” The spokeswoman was clearly speaking in ethnopolitical terms. In yet another country, this time in Africa, the prime minister, talking about the civilian population in a conflict zone, reportedly said to a senior representative of a UN humanitarian agency, “The food you give to those people is killing my soldiers.” Unlike his regard for his soldiers, the prime minister clearly did not regard “those people,” whom he identified ethnically with the rebel movement fighting his government, as citizens, as his people.

These examples represent a mild version of marginalization. Oftentimes, sentiments of inclusion and exclusion can be deadly and in extreme cases genocidal as the cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia tragically dramatize. Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its outflow of refugees, ethnic carnage spread into the Congo. By October 1996, the eastern Congo erupted into rampant violence that rapidly spread throughout the Great Lakes region, with ripple effects reaching far beyond. Although the conflict, which today involves at least six neighboring states, has multiple factors at its root, the dispute over the citizenship rights of the Banyarwanda, a group of people of Rwandan origin living in the eastern Congo, is both a contributing factor and a consequence of the crisis. The issues, which affect the entire region, are nationality, ethnicity, and political and economic power. Formally and informally, individuals are being denied the right to citizenship owing to their ethnicity. The denial is a manifestation of a more pervasive and diffused process of discrimination and marginalization in the political, economic, and social processes of the country.

An example of the complexity of the issues is the case of the Banyamulenge (Tutsi) in the Congo. It illustrates the dilemmas of the role of ethnicity in the process of statecraft and nation building in Africa. Many African countries face similar dilemmas at varying levels: definitional issues of the legal meaning of statelessness versus the broader notion of ethnic marginalization; the interplay between ethnicity as an exclusive notion of group identity and citizenship as an inclusive concept of nationhood; and the interconnectedness of the conflicts emanating from ethnic marginalization, which calls for regional cooperation in developing a comprehensive framework of protection and assistance for all those under state sovereignty.

The ways these factors have developed in the Great Lakes region of Africa all indicate that these themes seem to turn (in one way or another) on the problem of boundary making, be it the membership of a race, ethnicity, nation, class, legal category, or state. The Banyamulenge case demonstrates with exceptional clarity the myriad ways such boundaries are constructed; their importance in the allocation of power, position, and resources; and the role of contingent and contextual factors in the definition of any boundary.

Themes: Acquisition of nationality, Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious
Regions: Democratic Republic of Congo
Year: 2001