Notes on the panoply of armed movements in the Congo

Given the multitude of armed groups operating in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) eastern provinces, it is not always very easy to identify their objectives, leaders, and backers. Among numerous publications, the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project provides some of the best analyses for the major groups, individuals, their history, motivations, and political reasonings. Other noteworthy research and analysis work beyond the wealth of academic publications (not always easy accessible for non-university affiliates) is done by the International Crisis Group, the International Peace Information Service, Human Rights Watch, Pole Institute, the Life and Peace Institute, International Alert, and others. This article provides an unstructured, quick overview on some of the major actors.

For some groups, it is relatively obvious who they are led by, such as NDC in Walikale, a Nyanga-based militia led by former mineral businessman Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi. APCLS, a descent of of former PARECO rebel group in northern Masisi and currently a main opponent of NDC is headed by self-styled ‘General’ Janvier Buingo Karairi, who is also a former army officer. The ADF’s supreme commander is Jamil Mukulu. While the group allegedly maintains ties to other islamist movements in the region, it has been news due to recent military activities that have sparked massive refugee movements into Uganda. A clear case, LRA is led by ICC indictee Joseph Kony. Currently operating as rogue small bands for away from the Kivus, they are certainly the group least connected to the eastern DRC events and have become much more a criminal network than the armed group they used to be.

In northern Katanga, large parts of so-called Mayi Mayi Bakata Katanga seem to be under the command of Gédéon, a notoriously secessionist rebel leader. They have become infamous for massive human rights violations in the triangle between Pweto, Manono, and Mitwaba where they burnt own villages and insigniae of the Congolese state. In a failed offensive toward the province’s capital Lubumbashi, hundreds of Bakata Katanga (with means ‘they cut Katanga’ in Kiswahili) were rounded up, killed, or detained. However, Bakata Katanga is far from being a unitary movement and its ramifications are hard to explore.

In South Kivu, William Amuri, a former FARDC commander is the head of Mayi Mayi Yakutumba, a militia whose army integration currently is on the brink of failure. After a series of negotiations and Yakutumba fighters regrouped in a transit centre, disharmony between Amuri and the Congolese authorities led to the retreat of many fighters back to the areas the previously controlled. Together with several other allied militia, e.g. the Mayi Mayi Aoci, they engaged in clashes with the Congolese army FARDC, including in urban settings such as Baraka. Before, Yakutumba’s militiamen have also been known for attacking a NGO convoy consisting of Banyamulenge – a group considered to be foreigners by some Congolese communities because they speak a language close to Kinyarwanda (while they have been settling on Congolese soil for numerous generations).

The currently largest armed phenomenon in this province is Raia Mutomboki. Organised in a franchise-style manner, as the Usalama Project coined it, Raia Mutomboki regroups a variety of chapters and groups headed by local leaders and deserted FARDC commanders such as Sisawa Kindo, Daniel Meshe, Donat Kengwa, or Albert Kahasha. Raia Mutomboki is first and foremost a reaction to failed disarmament and army integration, as well as the presence of the FDLR who continuously have been wreaking havoc across wide parts of eastern Congo. The angered citizens (the translation of the Kiswahili ‘Raia Mutomboki’) function on the basis of localised self-defence militias that try to counter the FDLR threat as violently as possible, including serious human rights violations such as arbitrary killings, attacks against unarmed dependents, or executions. Their anger also includes aversions against rwandophone officers of the FARDC deployed in South Kivu.

Being almost the oldest groups now, the FDLR – successors of the Rwandan génocidaires – are officially led by General Mudacumura, himself also wanted by the ICC in The Hague. FDLR has engaged in attacks, rape, looting, human slavery and many more war crimes throughout the last 15-20 years (before 2000 they were widely known as ALIR). Whit recent military operations by the FARDC and the Rwandan army, as well as the Raia Mutomboki activities, the group was heavily weakened, combatant numbers decreasing from about 10,000 to 2,500 within a few years. Still, ever more hidden in deep forest panoplies, the FDLR represent a string threat to human security in the areas they operate in (Mwenga/Shabunda/Walungu and Masisi/Lubero/Rutshuru). A few splinter groups such as RUD and Soki in addition contribute to insecurity in Lubero and Rutshuru.

In Masisi territory, a variety of armed groups are highly active in the shadow of the FARDC-M23 confrontation eastwards. Especially recent clashes between Janvier’s APCLS and Sheka’s NDC have caused massive displacement and left various small villages burnt down. While these two groups currently engage in intensive fighting, Masisi is also a hotspot for other actors. A few months ago, APCLS clashed with a rwandophone FARDC battalion in Kitchanga. Similarly, Nyatura, a Congolese Hutu militia is engaged in confrontations, both as a standalone group but also with some subgroups having been employed as proxy forces by the Congolese army while more and more subdivisions, mostly led by defected FARDC commanders or previous PARECO leaders, are mushrooming in the past few years. The plethora of Masisi groups (FDC and Guides-MAC are additional self-defence militias active in the zone) has made this area one of the most contested as the numbers of incidents and displacement figures indicate.

Further on, at the margins of Ituri and North Kivu the FRPI of Cobra Matata has persisted as the only important Ituri-based group still active. In engaging against the FARDC, they hold a shared responsibility at least, of displacing tens of thousand of people in the area of Gety. In similar fashion, attacks by the Ugandan ADF have triggered the earlier mentioned refugee waves into Uganda . At the same time, ADF is the main rebel group when it comes to kidnappings in the DRC. Between Rutshuru, Lubero, and Beni territories, a further emergent actor is the UDRC under command of Hilaire Kombi, a notorious militia leader and former army commander. Based on local networks and a few other strongmen he created the UDRC, which is currently reported to engage in an alliance with UPCP, the Lafontaine-led part of former PARECO.

Finally, M23 – the region’s most publicised group throughout 2012 and 2013 remains settled in its strongholds between Rumangabo, Rutshuru, and Bunagana. Despite unfavourable outcomes during the recent clashes with the Congolese army and MONUSCO’s intervention brigade, M23’s resilience should not be underestimated as they are likely to remain a major actor if rumours about an imminent agreement at the Kampala Talks prove wrong.

All in all, the Kivu’s and its borderlands to Ituri, Maniema and Katanga are home to moe than 50 different armed groups. While some have a few thousands of combatants (FDLR, M23) and highly sophisticated structures of command, including supply and training, others (not named in this article) are 10-20 people rag-tag gangs whose composition can change on a weekly basis. Nonetheless, many of them periodically emerge as major spoilers on local levels too and exacerbate existing tensions and insecurity spheres. Many groups are influenced by army defectors or politicians while the mobilisation strategies often emphasise local concerns, state contest, popular grievances, and community-based values and ideas.

Determining the military leadership is often easier than understanding, who is politically behind a militia. Oftentimes, provincial or national deputies maintain strong ties to armed actors. For Mayi Mayi Yakutumba or the Raia Mutomboki in Kalehe this appears to be an important factor. In some groups, it is defeated electoral candidates that see a way of defying the polls by supporting or even creating militias. Armed groups in the eastern Congo often combine a vast array of different human rights abuses. Sexual violence has been reported for FDLR in particular, but also Raia Mutomboki have been alleged of rape during their retaliation against previous FDLR attacks. Others are often performing hardly better. It is hard to say which group has not engaged in any form of sexual violence, although the type (coordinated use of sexual violence or chaotic, individual atrocities) is difficult to define with proper investigation on a case-by-case basis. Many armed groups engage in mineral exploitation and agricultural production, mount taxation rackets, and use forced and child labour. Given the multiple sources of income, however, it is spurious to hold the abundance of mineral resources accountable for the spread of conflict in the DRC.

Thorough and coordinated disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) would be a cornerstone to fight the vicious cycle of mobilisation and militarisation in eastern Congo. Decent pay, logistic supplies, and medical care for soldiers and their dependents are evenly vital for an army to fight abuses and concomitant impunity. As much as coherent security sector reform (SSR) as a whole is missing, the last DDR efforts have failed. Previous programmes by the Congolese government and the international community have been incomplete: while successfully disarming and demobilising tens of thousands of combatants in the past decade, reintegration was often nullified through a lack of sensitivity, inefficient programming, and the embezzlement of funds. Subsequent waves of integrating thuggish rebel gangs and army-like militias into the national army often worked for a limited time only until they defected again. In addition to credible and consequent DDR and SSR, the Congolese government needs to more engage in fields of popular reconciliation, political dialogue, (peace) education, and economic development.

Without serious commitment in these fields, not only from the government, but also from other political and military actors and supported by less symbolic and more efficient assistance of the regional and international community, it will be difficult to put an end to the DRC’s calamities. But if some of these key necessities are addressed, the country and its people may at some point look into a brighter future.

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