Amani Itakuya #8: Rebels in suits: tackling civilian support networks of armed groups in the eastern DR Congo

Rebels in suits: tackling civilian support networks of armed groups in the eastern DR Congo

Judith Verweijen

When thinking of armed groups in the eastern DR Congo, the image that likely comes into the minds of many is that of soldiers in army fatigues brandishing AK-47s against the backdrop of the wilderness of the bush or green hilltops. Probably few would think of ministers and businesspersons in Kinshasa, Goma or Bukavu, or the persons that figure on the website of the Independent National Electoral Commission as candidates of the 2011 elections. Yet, such civilian figures might have more influence over the life cycle of armed groups than military leaders in the field. In fact, some of the most important leaders of armed groups wear a suit rather than a uniform.

The different reports of the United Nations Group of Experts (GoE) provide numerous examples of national and provincial politicians, administrators and businesspersons, including so-called “candidats malheureux” (those who failed in the elections), who have provided forms of financial, organizational and political support to armed groups. Such political-military entrepreneurs have, for example, initiated the creation of rebel groups, elaborated their political platforms, and provided the sometimes intoxicating discourses and political visions needed for attracting recruits and drawing community support. They have also been instrumental in collecting financial contributions, fostering links to illicit trade networks, obtaining support among diaspora populations, and diffusing armed groups’ visions and statements via websites and social media.

Unfortunately, neither the Congolese government nor international stakeholders pay much attention to these rebels in suits, allowing them to operate with impunity. This is evidenced by the fact that their close links to armed groups are often an open secret, without this prompting action by the security services. Certainly, complicity as well as corruption among security agents and other parts of the state apparatus play an important role in this.  Yet, this impunity also stems from a profound “laissez faire” approach by the government, who seems to grant anyone not carrying a gun the benefit of the doubt. The only exception to this are civilian collaborators of insurgent outfits that Kinshasa sees as a direct threat, like the M23, or those linked to opposition movements.

This immediately points to one of the main dilemmas in tackling the phenomenon of rebels in suits: how to avoid that collaboration accusations turn into an instrument of political oppression?  There is no easy answer to this in an authoritarian political environment with a malfunctioning judicial apparatus, where violations of the laws surrounding detention and due process are the rule rather than the exception. In such a context, the fear that pressure on the government to get tough on armed group collaborators will be a license for a crackdown on the opposition is not unfounded.

However, perpetuating the current climate of impunity is clearly undesirable: as long as civilian support structures remain in place, merely removing the military components of armed group networks will do little to stem rebel proliferation. The pool of potential commanders and recruits is nearly inexhaustible and one group is easily replaced by another, as evidenced by the ever-changing letter soup of abbreviations of rebel groups active in the eastern DR Congo.

How, then, can the problem of civilian armed group supporters be tackled? While acknowledging that every strategy has its risks, there are a number of options worth trying. Above all, it seems important to reinforce local civil society and community organizations in their efforts to hold leaders to account and to mobilize higher-level authorities to reign in those supporting armed groups. This does not always need to entail judicial action: moral pressure is perhaps even more important. It is therefore crucial to also involve community leaders and spiritual authorities who can send a clear signal that manipulating armed groups is intolerable.

Furthermore, armed group support networks must be better investigated and documented. One of the main challenges to tackling rebels in suits is that evidence of their involvement is often lacking. While, as mentioned, the Group of Experts conducts research into these issues, their human and financial resources are insufficient to cover the eastern DR Congo’s entire rebel kaleidoscope. Moreover, one can wonder whether Congolese organizations working in rebel-affected areas are not better placed to systematically monitor and document armed group networks.

Unfortunately, there is only little donor funding available for Congolese NGOs and institutes that research and analyse armed groups, as the bulk goes to humanitarian and development work. This omission is just another manifestation of aid donors’ general failure to tackle the political roots of armed mobilization, focusing on its humanitarian consequences instead. However, without addressing the key movers and shapers of violence, in particular political elites, ending armed group activity in the eastern DR Congo will remain a distant hope.


Judith Verweijen is a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden and the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University, Belgium. Her research interests include the internal workings of state and non-state armed forces, the micro-dynamics of civilian-military interaction, and the militarization of local governance. She has conducted extensive field research in the eastern DR Congo, and will continue to do so over the next years.

5 Responses to “Amani Itakuya #8: Rebels in suits: tackling civilian support networks of armed groups in the eastern DR Congo”
  1. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    Thanks for the reply, Judith. Very informative. You bring up an interesting point about Banyamulenge resisting M23 overtures. I hope that examples like this can stem some of the tide of anti Tutsi sentiment. But it is also an important model to explore in terms of resisting entrance into armed groups. Banyamulenge/M23 might be a very particular situation that is hard to equate with other armed group/community dynamics, but it could still provide some ideas. I wonder how much fear prevents people from speaking out against armed groups in communal settings. I suspect it will take some brave folks to set that moral trend.

  2. Yeah, I pictured it all totally differently! Thank you for sharing this real life view!

  3. Judith says:

    To answer some of your questions: the level and type of civilian elite involvement highly differs per armed group and also fluctuates over time. Indeed in some cases (e.g. Mai Mai Mushombe, the Forces d’ Autodéfense Locales et Légitimes in Lemera, or the Local Defence Forces Busumba (LDF)) one can say that the group was created by “civilian” elites (demonstrating the blurred boundaries between civilian and military figures, whom I therefore think it is more appropriate to call “ politico-military entrepreneurs”). In other cases, civilian elites give political, financial, economic or rhetorical support (e.g. subscribing to the AG’s vision during speeches held in their local constituencies, lobbying at higher political levels to avoid crackdowns/persecutions, facilitating access to trade networks), but the group operates relatively autonomously.

    The connections between civilian elites and AGs run generally along the same lines as patronage networks in general-that is, via a (combination of a) shared geographical background, ethnic and clan affiliation, (extended)family linkages, common economic interests or a shared past. So, while ethnic background is often important, it is by no means the only factor and generally combines with other characteristics.

    Concerning moral pressure, one can think here of public speeches (e.g. by village elders) appealing to youth not to be recruited, or to communities to disconnect from the AG in question and refuse contributions, counter-speeches denouncing armed mobilization and efforts to intoxicate the community by certain figures, appeals by civil society and church leaders to search for peaceful means of chance and addressing grievances, etc. The way in which the Banyamulenge have resisted overtures by M23-made via a fringe group of their own community- might serve here as an example.

    Finally, yes, I agree, it should not be an either/or question, but I think addressing the political roots of violent conflict merits much more attention than it currently does.

  4. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    Very interesting article, Judith. Can you expand a bit on your take about the formation of armed groups? You seem to be implying that some are controlled by local elites, but would you say they are sometimes created by these same elites? If not, what is the mechanism for local politicians etc, to ally themselves with armed groups? Is there a strong ethnic dimension to this? I am also wondering how you think this “moral pressure” could be meted out. Lots of questions! Sorry.

    I completely agree that donors have (and continue) to ignore political roots of the conflict. I think it’s important to emphasize that there needs to be funding available for research and analysis, though I wouldn’t make it an “either/ or” in competition with funds for humanitarian consequences which are just as, if not more, important. I think we need funding for all of the above.

    Thank you for the thought provoking piece!

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  1. […] which in turn is expected to cast their votes in his favor. (For more on the topic, see a short article by Judith Verweijen […]

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