Last Tuesday, President Paul Kagame was visibly irritated by journalists who repeatedly demanded his comment on the current crisis in eastern DRC, during a news conference. His elaborate explanation would have deterred the media hounds from further questions in that direction - for his answer was clear and simple: The question of the conflict is squarely Congolese and should be left to the people of DRC to sort out and if anyone wants to assist in its resolution, they should go right ahead and contact DRC leadership.
The President wondered why every time a new problem crops up in the DRC, the international community loads it over Rwanda.
Rwanda, being a neighbour to DRC with historical social-economic ties, cannot sit by and refuse to have nothing at all to do with DRC and the President was candid about it when he said that Rwanda's main interest is eastern DRC is the presence of 1994 Genocide perpetrators - the FDLR.
The atrocities and intentions of this murderous group are known to the world, and Rwandans would welcome joint efforts to disarm the killers, like they did during the Umoja Wetu, a 2009 Congo-Rwanda military operation which lasted one month. When the Rwandan troops returned home, the killers retook the positions lost during the offensive.
So, why didn't the Congolese troops, jointly with the UN peacekeepers in the DRC, who are said to be the most expensive operation ever, and mandated to defend the population, consolidate the exploits of Umoja Wetu? Why ask Rwanda when the situation continues to deteriorate?
The answer to why some people link Rwanda to Congolese problems lies in the misinformation, disinformation and or ignorance about the reality of the DRC, particularly its ethnic composition, and the presence of Genocide perpetrators in the area.
Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, during the conference, attempted to advance a hypothesis based on the geopolitics of the region to explain the propensity to connect Rwanda to the problems in Kivu of the Congo. He put it thus: Kivu is inhabited by Tutsis ( Kinyarwanda speakers) who in recent times, are often victims of violence unleashed by armed groups including FDLR, so the Rwandan leadership cannot be indifferent when their kith and kin are under threat but have to defend their interests in all ways possible.
Mwenda's hypothesis is provocative and, in response, I would like to respond via the complexity of nationalism and identity in post-colonial Africa. Unfortunately, like other political commentators of our times, the journalist is still encumbered by the stereotypes of the past.
A man from the former Kingdom of Toro, who would be proud to be called a Mutoro, Mwenda would feel uncomfortable to be referred to as a Muhuma or a Mwiru, the social groups that existed in Toro, that are now only mentioned in a qualified sense.
So, Mr Mwenda should have said Rwandans, not Tutsis. The debate on the differences between the two is a waste of time. Even those who argue that if there were no ethnic differences who killed who during the Genocide will find the answer in history of inter clan wars, not only in Somalia but in many other places including pre-colonial Rwanda.
Mwenda's point, the error notwithstanding, helps to highlight the fallacies on which ethnicity is used as a cog in whirlwind of ideological manipulation. For instance to say that since Gen. Bosco Ntaganda is a Munyarwanda, and that whatever he does has the blessings of the Rwanda government, is absurd.
Mwenda's hypothesis elucidates that point. Nations today are not the tidy geographical spaces, inhabited by people who share one language, one culture and one religion. Look at the DRC, there are hundreds of ethnic groups and languages although only four are official languages namely: Chiluba, Lingala, Kiswahili and Kikongo. Would you say a Chiluba speaker in Kasai province of the Congo is not a Congolese but a Zambian!
Ntaganda is a Congolese, not of Rwandan origin but a Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese because the name was given to the land when his ancestors were in Kivu. Kinyarwanda language, according to linguists, is spoken by 42 million people spread across the region with only 11 million inhabiting Rwanda. The latter are Rwandans and what about the 31 million?
The French language is spoken not only in France but in several European countries such as parts of Belgium and Switzerland. So why does it bother some people that Kinyarwanda speakers are nationals of Uganda, Tanzania or DRC? Maybe it is a problem of nomenclature or names? It is simplistic to say "you speak Kinyarwanda so you are a Munyarwanda by tribe, therefore, you are a Rwandan" like one Massai doctor, I met in Johannesburg told me five years ago.
However, after drawing his attention to the fact that Massai people are native to Kenya also, we agreed that tribe does not necessarily determine national identity. Like some scholar said, national identity is not inborn trait but a sense of belonging to one state, and national identity is a right at the heart of every civilized national constitution.
The African continent has many cases of ethnicities spread over national boundaries. Where colonialism separated such identities problems of identity have risen, and in some cases those periphery have been marginalized. Bufumbira, current Kisoro district in Uganda was part of Rwanda until 1920s when colonialists decided to transfer it to Uganda. Over time, in their wisdom, the residents of Bufumbira started calling themselves Bafumbira, to avoid being branded Banyarwanda or foreigners.
It is vital for African countries to emphasise and strengthen the elements of nationhood rather than ethnicity, and in the case of Kinyarwanda speakers, a conference to clarify names denoting nationality and identity is needed urgently.