Zaire Table of Contents
Ethnic identity may best be understood as a construct useful to both groups and individuals. It may be built around group members' perceptions of shared descent, religion, language, origins, or other cultural features. What motivates members to create and maintain a common identity, however, is not shared culture but shared interests. Once created, ethnic groups have persisted not because of cultural conservatism but because their members share some common economic and political interests, thus creating an interest group capable of competing with other groups in the continuing struggle for power.
The construction and destruction of ethnic identities has been an ongoing process. The name Ngala, for example, was used by early colonial authorities to describe an ethnic group that they imagined existed and lived upriver from the capital and spoke Lingala. The name Ngala figured prominently on early maps. The fact that Lingala was a lingua franca and that no group speaking Lingala as a mother tongue existed did not prevent colonial authorities from ascribing group characteristics to the fictional entity; they gave Ngala further substance by contrasting its characteristics with those of downriver peoples such as the Kongo. In the preindependence era, some of the upriver Africans briefly adopted the identity of Bangala; they found it useful as a rallying point in creating a political party. Unfortunately, the party failed to win significant electoral support. Without the prospect of winning political and economic spoils, the Bangala identity was perceived as useless and was quickly discarded.
Other ethnic group identities have proven more enduring. Zaire's two largest ethnic groups, the Kongo and the Luba, have been widely mistrusted by many other Zairians as excessively arrogant, ambitious, and inclined to nepotism. Here again, however, traits considered to be innate to the group are in fact ascribed, products of specific historical conditions. Both groups were early adapters to the influences of the West. Their numerical preponderance in Zaire's postcolonial business, church, educational, and governmental hierarchies is a product of their history of early schooling and early acquisition of the skills of literacy rather than of any timeless expression of innate characteristics of ambition and arrogance. Groups on the borders of Kongo and Luba influence have sometimes affirmed their common identity with their larger neighbor or denied it, depending on the historical advantages or disadvantages to be gained.
The significance and divisiveness of ethnic identities were highlighted during the struggle for political power at the time of independence and in the period preceding it. The politically ambitious seized on ethnic identity as the most practical basis for organizing political parties, and a nation fragmented along ethnic lines was the result. In Kasai Province (now Kasai-Occidental Region and Kasai-Oriental Region), ethnic conflict broke out between the Lulua and the Luba-Kasai. In Katanga Province (now Shaba Region), tension had long existed between the Lunda and others (such as the Tabwa from eastern Katanga), who consider themselves "authentic Katangans," and Luba-Kasai immigrants, whose material success the Lunda resented. When Katanga seceded in 1960, its Lunda president, Möise Tshombe, briefly attempted to expatriate the Luba-Kasai from Katanga back to Kasai Province; the net result was to exacerbate hostility between the two groups.
When Mobutu came to power in 1965, his first concern was the reestablishment of public order; ethnicity was widely perceived as having contributed to intra-Zairian conflicts, so Mobutu began a concerted campaign against its expression both in political parties and in government. The several hundred existing political parties, most of them organized along ethnic or regional lines, were banned. They were replaced with one national party, Mobutu's Popular Revolutionary Movement (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution--MPR). Ethnic associations and appeals to ethnic unity were proscribed. Within government, administrative centralization led to a reduction in the number of provinces and other administrative units and the abrogation of the autonomy of such units. The staffing of government ministries and of high-level posts was consciously balanced to ensure ethnic diversity. Also, the constant rotation of both civilian and military heads of regional and subregional units prevented anyone from building an ethnic following in his or her home region.
Despite these measures, Mobutu's government has been widely perceived as having if not an ethnic, then a regional Équateurian bias. Équateur Region is sometimes knowingly referred to as "Bethlehem" or "The Promised Land" by non-Équateurians. One major factor in this perception is the fact that Équateurians have profited from Zaire's equivalent of an educational affirmativeaction program. Education is perceived as the key to social mobility, and the government's establishment of a regional quota system for university admissions (allotting set numbers of entry places by region) has effectively disadvantaged secondary students graduating from regions with numerous schools, such as Bandundu or Bas-Zaïre, relative to those with fewer schools, notably Équateur and Haut-Zaïre. Students from regions rich in schools have long been angered by the fact that lesser-qualified graduates are occupying university seats solely because they come from the north. In addition, many key posts in the security network generally have been staffed by Équateurians.
Ethnic identity has remained a potent force, and ethnic tensions have festered, exacerbated by the country's economic and social deterioration. Events in Shaba and Nord-Kivu in the early 1990s amply demonstrate this renewed tendency toward ethnic violence. Some groups have come to feel threatened by others they perceive as more successful. And, in a climate of economic collapse and increasingly fierce competition for scarce resources, they have taken action to rid themselves of the offending groups, witness the "authentic Katangans forcing Luba-Kasai out of Shaba and the resentment of indigenous peoples in Nord-Kiva of the numerous Banyarwanda. Many observers also believe, however, that the Mobutu regime has deliberately encouraged this ethnic tension in order to foster anarchy and undermine mass political mobilization against the regime (see Subsequent Political Developments, 1990-93 , ch. 4).
Nevertheless, despite the persistence of ethnic tensions demonstrated by interethnic violence in the early 1990s, from the individual Zairian's standpoint, ethnicity is still but one source of identity among many, one that may or may not be expressed depending upon the advantages to be gained or lost. Class identity, for example, may well be more important than ethnic identity to a member of the politico-commercial elite in determining how he or she reacts to a given situation. Religious identity might be more significant than class or ethnic identity to clergy. And patronclient ties throughout the society may undercut or strengthen religious, ethnic, or class identities. Few contemporary analysts would attempt to predict either an individual or a group's probable course of action based on ethnic factors alone.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents