Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, July 4, 2011

Guest blog: Why are there so many armed groups in the DRC?

Today will be the first in a sequence of guest blogs on armed groups in the eastern DRC. The author is Judith Verweijen, a PhD candidate at the Center for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on the Congolese army, non-state armed groups and their relations with civilians. She has spent considerable time in the Congo, studying and living with various armed groups.

The first three short blogs postings by Judith will focus on the history and social context in which these armed groups have emerged. The last two will be case studies of two armed groups: The Mai-Mai Yakutumba and the FRF. The views and opinions expressed here are her own.

Day in day out, we read about ongoing violence and instability in eastern DRC. The main protagonists of this never-ending drama are the Congolese military (the FARDC) and a bewildering array of both foreign and domestic armed groups, like FDLR, LRA, PARECO, APCLS, FRPI, FPJC, FPLC, and a range of Mai Mai groups (Yakutumba, Kifuafua, Sheka), to name but the most well-known.  Sometimes armed groups integrate into the FARDC and disappear, others integrate but drop out later, while new groups, often led by army deserters, keep on popping up like mushrooms. It almost appears like a cancer with cells growing and dividing in an unregulated manner. However, armed group proliferation is not a natural phenomenon or an incurable disease: it is a man-made product, the result of deliberate choices of rational actors. This raises the question of what the underlying causes of this phenomenon are: why are there still so many armed groups in the DRC today? Obviously, this question is of great importance for understanding the ongoing violence and for opening perspectives of bringing this to an end.

In this series, I will first briefly explore the main reasons for ongoing armed group activity, and then present two case-studies of such groups, in order to explain why there is much more to armed violence than competition for natural resources alone. To be clear, I will focus only on Congolese armed groups, and I will only offer a no more than cursory analysis.

Part I: the legacy of Zaire and the Congo Wars (1996-1997 & 1998-2003)

Under Mobutu, domestic armed group activity was fairly limited, but foreign armed groups littered the territory of Zaire. Due to geostrategic calculations, the Leopard had turned the country into a sanctuary for such groups. The threat they posed was one of the reasons for several neighboring countries to support the AFDL insurgency in 1996. This insurgency led to an upsurge in the increased Mai Mai mobilization that had already begun around 1993, when ethnic militia clashed in North Kivu over the issues of access to land and positions of local authority. Then, as now, armed group mobilization was strongly related to political and socio-economic power struggles between and within different social groups, often, but not always, mobilized along identity-based (ethnic) lines.

What also played a role in this increasing militia mobilization were the longer term processes of the social marginalization of youth and rural areas. The decay of state institutions and infrastructure in Zaire, the collapse of the formal economy, the deplorable state of the educational system, increasing pressure on land in the Kivus due to demographic developments and changes in land-distribution systems : all these factors made that youth, especially in rural areas, had only very few opportunities for making a living and for social mobility. Together with a diminishing respect for state and traditional authority, this made them susceptible to recruitment into armed groups. Being a fighter offered  access to new forms of self-affirmation, social identification, and social mobility. Armed groups are also structures of belonging that give their members a sense of self, a purpose in life and a ready-made world view, and this continues to form part of their attraction.

Whereas more and more youth mobilized during the AFDL campaign, it was during the Second Congo War that armed group mobilization reached its apex. Aside from the larger rebel formations liked the RCD and MLC, a host of smaller-scale foreign and domestic groups were active on Congolese soil, in ever-changing coalitions. These armed entities were parts of militarized networks exercising both political and economic power, as they acted in coalition with economic and political entrepreneurs, local authorities and other powerbrokers. These “networks of profit, power and protection” drove and were driven by the militarization of the economy and governance. Violence became the principal strategy to acquire political influence and to control production, fiscal functions, trade networks, land, natural resources, borders and markets.

It should be noticed that neither the coercion-based character of the economy nor the close relation between political and economic power were particularly new: Mobutu’s patronage system was based on the distribution of opportunities for wealth accumulation in exchange for political loyalty, leading to a predatory system in which administrative positions were tickets to resources.  Furthermore, exploitative asymmetric relations and exclusive social capital in the form of patronage and ethnic connections had also been important characteristics of Zaire’s informal economy.

What was new during the period of the wars was the extent to which violence became a determinant of political and economic power, leading to the rise of a new class of violent actors. The reigning climate of insecurity pushed businessmen, administrators and other authorities to seek protection services from these actors, which offered economic benefits and enhanced influence and security in exchange for loyalty and cash.  Large parts of the population also turned to such actors to guarantee their own safety and survival, and to solve conflicts and settle personal scores. This led to the further militarization of local governance, especially in the spheres of conflict resolution and justice.

The result of these developments was the institutionalization and legitimization of violence, which became a more or less accepted way of social advancement and regulation. What was also new in the war era was the hardening of existing ethnic boundaries. This was the result of both the increasing importance of ethnic networks for access to power and resources and the horrific ethnically targeted violence during this period. These atrocities also enlarged recruitment pools for armed groups, which offered their members forms of protection in an insecure world, and an outlet for vengeance and grief.

However, when mass violence somewhat subsided after the Second War was declared over, armed groups continued to prosper. Why this was the case will be explored in the next part of this series, in which we will have a glance at the period of the transition (2003-2006). 


Rich said...

Judith -

This is interesting,
My comments is in relation to Part I: the legacy of Zaïre and the Congo Wars (1996-1997 & 1998-2003).

The section reads well but, in my opinion, it would have been interesting to have some specific examples to substantiate some of the themes developed in there.

My main point is to do with the legacy of Zaïre. I was expecting, at this stage, to read a bit more about the transition from Forces Armées Zaïroises (FAZ) to Forces Armées Congolaises (FAC) then Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).

I would argue that, one of the most prominent factors in explaining the proliferation of armed group’s existence and activities in the DRC is to a great extent, the fact that L. D. Kabila was fooled in allowing the FAZ to be disbanded so that Rwandan officers and other AFDL allies help him build a brand new army. In my opinion, telling FAZ to disband or quarter them in ideological camps with no clear plan about their futures as well as that of their units was L D Kabila’s biggest mistakes. This can be explained by the fact that, it not only put an end to the Congolese/Zaire military tradition but also left the country open to any form of cancer. Sun Tzu did say, “Generally, in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this. To capture the enemy’s entire army is better than to destroy it…”

That being said, it has to be noted that L D Kabila did not have enough room for manoeuvre until near August 1998 when he finally decided to get rid of his old allies. In fact, up until mid-1998, L D Kabila’s inner security and close protection was assured by Rwandan officers making it extremely difficult for him to operationalize a Congolese led army. Yes there was a problem of trust and this was not helped by the death of General Marc Mahele Lieko Bokungu. Gen Mahele is the person who prevented a blood bath in Kinshasa as AFDL troops were zooming into the populated capital. Many around L D Kabila saw in Gen Mahele the trusted and highly experienced Zaïre’s superior officer who could help L D Kabila quickly restore the broken FAZ.


Rich said...

With the death of Gen Mahele, L D Kabila tried a few fixes, first to ensure his own security independently to Rwandan officers then constitute Congolese army units able to maintain security in case the alliance broke. This was never easy since it had to be done from scratch. An example of that is when L D Kabila tasked some of his close advisers and ex gendarmes Katangais to recruit and form a Congolese special unit from ex FAZ soldiers sent to Kitona military base by James Kabarebe. To cut a long story short, the remnant of what could be picked up from FAZ was competed between James and L D Kabila, for instance from early 1998, the 24th promotion at EFO Kananga which was the last promotion under Mobutu and meant to finish as the AFDL took control of the country saw most of its officers being offered many advantages by either L D Kabila or James Kabarebe in exchange of their loyalty. When the war started in August 1998, it seemed that everyone was free to try and start up his/her own army because what was known as the Congolese army that kept armed groups activities to a very limited level was no longer there.

There are many small specific examples that can illustrate the consequences of FAZ’s dissolution but the time and space of this blog may not allow me to expand a bit more on that. There are FAZ officers who can talk and help you picture the military vacuum created in Congo after FAZ units were disbanded.

I also have another explanation related to the whole notion of policing and security of people and their goods in Congo. I am hoping to give you an example of Kinshasa to give you an idea of how to make sense of the relationship between the number of police headquarters, army position, the cost of private security, the weaponry used by the police and the distribution of police staff by sector since this will allow picturing the perception of policing/security in Kinshasa and the extent to which people may feel or not obliged to protect or even police themselves or others.

Sorry this may read unstructured, it is because I enjoyed the topic but at the same time I am quite busy now (doing something extremely boring) and do not have enough time to edit and write my text properly. However, I will be more than happy to clarify any of the things presented above. The other problem may be the lack of academic sources on this topic but corroborating examples and cases may help generate objective and informed narratives on armed groups in Congo.


Judith said...


You are certainly right in pointing to the importance of the military for the proliferation of armed groups in the history of the DRC. This is something the third part of the series (which is mind you, just a brush stroke blog exercise rather than a detailed analysis) is entirely dedicated to, at least only in relation to the present-day military (FARDC)

Now about your arguments regarding the FAZ& the FAC, I think it is important to realize the FAZ were not entirely destroyed by L.D. Kabila, but 1) had already largely been destroyed in the autumn of the Mobutu regime 2) withered further away during the AFDL insurgency campaign, with a part going into exile 3) did not all end up at the Kitona base for “re-education”. In fact, I have been told by many ex-FAZ that especially the middle cadres in the more specialized units (air forces, navy, logistics), whose expertise was highly needed in the FAC, were allowed to directly continue to function. Even in today’s FARDC, it are often the ex-FAZ that are providing core competence, for example in intel, administration, logistics and as instructors. In short, there is quite some continuity.

Furthermore, we should not be too optimistic about FAZ military capabilities (just think of the Shaba wars), nor about its “professionalism” regarding defeating non-state armed groups (L.D. Kabila and his PRP macquis in Fizi survived for so long in part because they traded gold for arms with FAZ officers, hence collusion with armed groups seems to be as old as the armed forces in Congo). Finally, you should also see Kabila’s ideological reeducation efforts in light of a true motivation to change the military’s by then utterly rotten mentality and abusive behavior, which had caused relations with civilians in Zaire to become severely strained.

to be continued

Judith said...

When considering the weaknesses of the FAC, I think we cannot blame these only on Kabila’s reliance on the Rwandans. The FAC, as a hodgepodge of very diverse forces (Katangan tigers, the kadogo-contingent, ex-FAZ, the Banyamulenge who were increasingly dissatisfied with the role of the Rwandans), were rocked by factional rivalries. Kabila also employed classic techniques of military management in neopatrimonial orders that are known to undermine capabilities and competence, such as ethnic recruitment, the creation of parallel agencies and commands (DSSP, the presidential guard being a case in point), and the distribution of prebends for loyalty leading to corruption.

In my opinion, the most catastrophic impact of the Kabila-père era on armed group dynamics is the fact that he used these groups extensively as proxies, supplying them with arms and sometimes half-incorporating them in the FAC (like parts of ALiR). This quasi-official endorsement continued secretly into the transitional era, in part because of the clientage links that had been created between Kinshasa and various armed group commanders and, which were not so easy to break. This proxy policy increased the strategic importance of armed groups and gave them incentives to continue to proliferate.

Finally, I can only encourage people to do more research on armed groups and the military in the DRC. I personally focus on the interaction between the FARDC and civilians (at the core of which is a process that I call ‘the dialectics of (privatized) protection and predation’, but there are so many elements left that merit academic attention.

Rich said...

Judith –

I completely agree with you when you say there has been some continuity from the FAZ and I think I did mention the EFO Kananga 24th promotion as an example of how some FAZ expertise and loyalty were competed for by L D Kabila and J Kabarebe.

As for the destruction of the FAZ by Mobutu, this is true but there were still some units that were in fairly good shape and could be operationalized within hours both during AFDL insurgency and after AFDL got to Kinshasa. Here I can refer to the 31st Bgd Para of CETA the Commando division Kasangani Rive/gauche, troops found in Kimbembe barack near Lubumbashi airport and many other similar units across the country. Instead these good units were simply disbanded although some of its commanders were directly assigned to fulfil other functions.

The slight problem I have in accepting this idea of FAZ continuity completely is due to the fact that although some middle cadres were allowed to function they were very timid at the start since they were often overshadowed and sometimes bullied by either AFDL's officers (rwandan) or other officers (some of them with no military background of any shape) who came with AFDL and were already enjoying some form of esteem from the boss (L D Kabila).

True not all FAZ ended up to Kitona but officers that were reused could not function at full potential when this was crucial; especially the period when L D Kabila was falling out with ex allies. This was in part due to what I said earlier, being overshadowed by AFDL allies but most importantly by what you described as L D Kabila’s neopatrimonial orders.

You are right in pointing to the fact that L D Kabila used armed groups as proxies but I would argue that this is because he was left with no options if he wanted to prevent his enemies military might to overthrow him! At that time L D Kabila did not have an adequate and reliable army that could be operationalized effectively against, for instance, a very disciplined and professional Rwandan army. Yes there could be a problem of trust but most importantly, a considerable number of ex FAZ who ended up in re-education centres were demoralised, they developed hatred against L D Kabila. At the same time, it became increasingly difficult to even reform units that existed under FAZ since individual members were scattered across the country, some in re-education centres, some in the new army, some close to the Rwandan allies some close to L D Kabila’s regime, some in exile etc… on top of calling upon the SADEC's help, the other option was to use anything or anyone who is willing to fight Kagame and museveni. In other words, disbanding the FAZ the way he did left him with no option when he fell out with his allies.

It is true more academic insights are needed to shed light on the Congolese military and the management of security in a country where everything is very urgent.

In the mean time I will try to comment on policing in Kinshasa when I get some more time to spare.


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