In eastern Congo, armed mobilisation more fractionalised but no less

Eastern Congo’s security dynamics have often been described as cyclical and, besides the evergreen remnants of genocidal FDLR militia, the post-M23 era is seen as a détente in regards to armed mobilisation. But a closer look reveals that since late 2013, the number of armed movements has even increased, even if no single actor is currently posing a threat to state authority that would go beyond local or territorial levels.

In North and South Kivu alone, no less than 70-80 armed groups operate, increasing insecurity across large swaths of the region. Not all of them fit into the usual categories of militias and rebellions eastern Congo has been infamous for throughout the past 20-25 years. While many groups refer to known schemes of contestation and the ‘stationary bandit’ image of partly state-like organisms, the landscape of armed movements also includes numerous roving groups, often not larger than 20 or 30 combatants, but no less harmful to stability and security. A small tour d’horizon with three vignettes from different areas can illustrate this evolution:

Starting with the triangle between eastern Shabunda, Walungu, and Kabare, the ‘restoration of state authority’ through FARDC regaining control over the road from Nzibira to Kigulube (part of the Burhale-Shabunda axis) has paradoxically heightened insecurity. In the past twelve months, a mix of robust military action and sensitisation measures by army and government successfully triggered the surrender of various Raia Mutomboki groups that used to operate in the area. The factions of self-styled generals Kikuni (in Nduma), Nyanderema, Malewa, and others handed themselves in, following the earlier surrender of Albert Kahasha and Daniel Meshe. Further east, Sisawa Wangozi and Mwami Alexandre got killed during operations. However, the disappearance of these groups also featured the emergence of other Raia Mutomboki factions, i.e. those of Lukoba or Ndarumanga while the groups of Ngandu, Mabala, or Makombo continued to exist. In contrary to prevailing ideas of stabilisation, FARDC’s presence on the road did not trigger sustainable calm. Especially the more renegade and bandit-style configurations around Mabala and Ndarumange responded to their loss of extra-legal taxation points along the road with increasingly violent strategies of accumulation, namely killings, ambushes, and kidnappinggs – often directed at their own populations. Other groups such as those of Ngandu and the movement’s president Donat Kengwa have responded with retaliation against what they perceive to be a betrayal of Raia Mutomboki philosophy. FARDC units, although trying hard, are often mere bystanders in these conflicts, given their limited presence along the streets and in the villages.

A second example is the Ruzizi Plain. This area has suffered from notoriously scattered militia presence – most of the around 10-15 groups being locally entrenched auto-defense forces with strong ties to customary authorities, politicians, and (parts of) communities. The local security conundrum of the Ruzizi Plain is often neglected by both national security actors and the international community. While it is often influenced by regional and national dynamics and power struggles, many of the competing claims over authority play out in the local arena. Last year’s Mutarule massacre is a telling example for such patterns: Falsely judged as an inter-ethnic outbreak of violence – it was armed actors linked to the Congolese Barundi and Banyamulenge communities that attacked a Bafuliiro village – the background of this massacre begins with intra-community quarrels among opposed Bafuliiro local defense and bandit groups. The Bafuliiro chefferie is embroiled in a cold war over succession and politico-economic competition for many years. Offsprings of and competing forces to the current de facto power, supported by Molière’s group, developed into roving militias such as those of Karakara and Simusizi. These groups then had ties to militias of the lower Plain, for instance the group of the late Bede, killed a few weeks ago by FARDC. In 2014 Karakara’s group, like some others, had begun to engage in cattle raids and other sorts of violent economic activities. These raids both targeted Banyamulenge, Bafuliiro, and Barundi communities – a clear sign why these conflicts are both inter- and intra-community. In what was increasingly a tit-for-tat logic, Karakara’s raids at some point provoked a violent reaction of his victims, in the case of Mutarule this was allegedly within the Banyamulenge military elites, stating an example by attacking the Bafuliiro part of Mutarule town along to road from Kamanyola to Uvira.

Last but not least, a snapshot from North Kivu. In Masisi, since over twenty years a hotspot of cyclical turmoil in the Kivus, a complex political and ethnic configuration triggers animosities, often much more over land and political supremacy than over minerals or other ‘dominant narratives’. Descending from a history of violent competition, both between rwandophone and ‘authochtonous’ communities, and in between the rwandophone populations, a path-dependency of armed mobilisation and political conflict evolved through the 1990s, 2000s, and beyond that. The current situation features a plethora of non-state and state actors involved in intermittent violence across Masisi. Fuelled in addition by a continuous presence of Rwandan FDLR rebels, these tensions continue to create insecurity in the area. In 2015, the following major stakeholders can be identified: Janvier’s APCLS militia, a Hunde-based movement, the Nyatura franchise of Congolese Hutu militias, which is currently dormant after addressing their security dilemmas created by M23’s existence, parts of the FDLR-FOCA who are still active in Northern Masisi, but also a range of smaller militias including Guides, FDC, certain Raia Mutomboki outlets and certain FARDC battalion running under (at least partly) parallel command structures. The case of Masisi is particularly interesting to understand violence in eastern Congo because it both represents a dynamics of ‘not peace not war’ and it features a series of ingredients to conflict – land issues, power struggles, electoral dynamics, economic (not restrained to minerals) competition, and outside instrumentalisation – both on the provincial, the national, and the transnational level.

Hence, without going into sufficient details on the three listed areas, it is clear that despite the current anti-cyclical period prevailing since late 2013, underlying issues are far from being resolved. While prospects for de-escalation are present in all scenarios, the danger of political instrumentalisation prevails in all cases, in particular with an unclear situation regarding the upcoming electoral cycle. While in the past, all these areas have shown to be susceptible to such influence, it is the complexity of the coming poll series, including yet contested local elections, that bear a range of risks as to stabilisation and peace-building. That is why it is important to make efforts in understanding both the very localised dilemmas and friction points, but also linking them to larger politics in Congo, including the provincial and national levels.



3 Responses to “In eastern Congo, armed mobilisation more fractionalised but no less”
  1. ethuin says:

    This is based on the research me and colleagues have been carrying out in the past six months on the issue. Fragmentation is massive, but of course the number includes various types and categories of non-state armed actors.

  2. Jan LIMBOURG says:


    Congratulations for this very pertinent post.
    Besides the amalgam of reasons you mentioned (which are accurate) you will find one of the main sources of the destabilisation of those regions in the doctrine of the GRAND DOMAIN (George KENNAN). See also


  3. John Quattrochi says:

    Christoph, very interesting post. What’s your source for the number of armed groups in the Kivus? 70-80 is higher than I’ve read elsewhere but of course it depends on the definition used. Thanks.

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