Ituri is the smallest of the four provinces created from the repartition of the former Province-Orientale, covering an area of 65,658 km². Sizewise, it is a third of Tshopo province (199,567 km²) and less than half of Bas-Uele (148,331 km²). Yet it has both the most prosperous economy and the greatest demography.
But Ituri is a tormented province. To whom does it belong? Its inhabitants have constantly been subjected to external power struggles atop internal circumstances. Land – or rather, its natural resources – are at the heart of the conflict. The province is coveted by groups, communities, organisations with oft-competing or diverging interests. This complicates relations that are already strained by tensions with ethnic roots, which are exploited by the entrepreneurs of war.
For over a century now, the history of Ituri has been marked by tragedies, as the powerful fight over its land and people. Arabo-Swahili traders and mighty potentates were supplanted by the coloniser, only for the latter to impose a new form of domination. The ivory and slave trade were later replaced by the search for gold: the colonial industry, shored up by capitalism, produced a juggernaut that crushed men, the Société minière de Kilo-Moto. Held first by Leopold II before being handed over to the public authorities, it would stand out for its exploitation of workers and the surrounding countryside.
In the desire to establish authority, the colonial administration made distinctions between ethnic groups in its dealings with the locals. It took a more repressive tack against the peoples of the Kilo region and traditionally segmented societies such as the Bale (Lendu), Lese, Niari, Bira, etc. Meanwhile, peoples near the border such as the Kakwa maintained pockets of autonomy by taking advantage of the economic opportunities offered by neighbouring British-ruled Uganda. Finally, the better-regarded (or less ill-favoured) Alur or Hema reaped the benefits of their adhesion to the colonial system. After independence, several of their members formed a small group of elites that nonetheless held no political clout.
In the decades of the post-colonial period, several influential families took advantage of their position and of favourable legislation to take control of land, to the detriment of the peasants who eked out a living through it. This process of dispossession was particularly rife in the territories of Djugu and Irumu, fuelling a mishmash of stereotypes that should not, however, be ascribed to an entire ethnic group or be identified with it. Rather, it allowed new social forms of domination, servitude, and exclusion to take root, where the cow – once a synonym of prestige, with great social value – became a tool of accumulation and a symbol of hoarding as its speculative commercial value increased. If Ituri is so strongly identified with cattle despite the fact that the immense majority of its inhabitants live off the land, it only reflects the extent to which the dominant class commanded representations of the province. The degradation resulting from this transformation gave rise among the marginalized to an identity-based crucible that was stimulated by strong resentment against this wealthy elite. The humiliation of a degrading essentialist label affixed by the former colonisers was compounded by the condition of servitude.
In the great forest of Ituri, its oldest occupants, the hunter-gatherers, watched their area of subsistence shrink when they were not being forced to change their way of life. Ancestral communities saw the arrival and settlement of never-ending waves of newcomers, some driven from their regions of origin by the concentration of land ownership, others attracted by abundant, seemingly fertile lands. This ancient movement sped up over the last forty years, bringing with it the destabilization of local power, more disputes over land property, and a rise in the number of conflicts.Lake Albert’s resources are also gradually becoming the target of heightened competition, mirroring the fate of the land.
Although this paints a sombre portrait, areas of autonomy and resilience exist, held aloft by the dynamism of certain communities and economic players. Although they have not yet proven enough to tilt the balance of power, we can still hope that the inhabitants of Ituri will one day have the ‘resources’ to exorcise the old demons of their province.