(Previously reported in The Inkerman Group’s blog)

(Note: This blog features an interactive map which strives to present a basic picture of the DRC’s most notorious armed groups.)

To understand the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is, at first, to be reminded of the African country’s unfortunate role as a land of timeworn stereotypes. These include the usual round of Eurocentric finger wagging, where Western elites engage in heated debates regarding ‘what went wrong’ with the militia-ridden Congo ‘experiment’. Another cliché involves a deeply embarrassed Belgian leader haunted by his or her country’s historical role in president day Congolese affairs. Then, of course, there is the contentious role of the multi-national corporation, and its alleged determination to ensure that stability never comes to the DRC for fear of lost lucrative mining contracts.

In short, somewhere within this land of stereotypes there lies the truth. However, in a country where millions of civilians have suffered for decades at the hands of dictatorial regimes, rogue militias eyeing resource riches, and other internationally-backed rebellious factions, it becomes apparent that cracking the ‘Congo Code’ will not be easy. Nevertheless, a good starting point may be to look at some of the DRC’s most notorious armed rebel groups surrounding the eastern city of Goma.

The M23 Movement Emerges

Goma, a city which has the bad luck of being situated between two of the DRC’s most restive zones, has become synonymous with militia violence. Based in the resource-rich province of North Kivu, Goma’s ‘claim to fame’ has been its reputation as a focal point for clashes between the M23 Movement, and the DRC military, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).

The M23 is arguably the most well known of all of the DRC’s rebel groups. Its history harkens back to the formation of the Congrès National Pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), a Tutsi-led anti-government movement formed by the infamous Laurent Nkunda in 2006. The CNDP quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with by attacking troops backed by the government, which it accused of being corrupt. Moreover, the CNDP styled itself as a protector of the DRC’s ethnic Tutsi, some of whom had escaped from Rwanda following the Hutu-led genocide. Consequently, the CNDP took to fighting the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a group initially comprised of Hutu leaders involved in the Rwandan genocide, which later fled to west to the DRC and engaged in attacks on ethnic Tutsis.  After years of fighting with both the FDLR, a group opposed to the current leadership in Rwanda, and the FARDC, the CNDP finally entered talks in 2009. The CNDP seemed to make ‘nice’ with the DRC’s government troops, and on 23 May 2009, it signed a peace treaty. Soon, it was believed, all former rebels would join the FARDC, and help the country rid itself of the foreign militia menace. This, of course, proved too optimistic, and the CNDP subsequently factioned, with a new movement – appropriately named after the ‘failed’ peace agreement – taking centre stage in restive Goma.

By April 2012, approximately 800 ex-CNDP soldiers “mutinied” over low pay, and under the guidance of alleged war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, formed the M23. In the year since its foundation, the rebel group has grown in number and has committed its fair share of wanton violence, including rape, arson and murder, with thousands of innocents fleeing to neighbouring provinces and countries. Making matters worse, the M23 was also accused by the government in Kinshasa, and even the UN, of having the support of the Rwandan Government, a charge which Kigali denies. Its particular penchant for bloodshed aside, the M23 is just one of a myriad of armed groups – some simply organised for village protection, others for revenge –  which plague the DRC’s east.

The Militia Map – (As of 15 July 2013)

(Note: Users can view more details behind rebel groups by hovering over the icons below.)

Goma’s Menacing Maï-Maï: A Global Problem

As shown above, as a whole the M23’s presence in the east is dwarfed by the assortment of other militias, known locally as “Maï-Maï”, all of which have their own economic, political, security and even religious agendas. Indeed, DRC’s thousands of armed groups make even Libya’s militia problem seem like a coherent security strategy.

All armed groups, by some degree, are linked to the eastern DRC’s rise as a mining powerhouse. To be sure, the area is replete with gold, as well as coltan (the DRC has 80% of the world’s supply), the latter of which is a necessary component of smart phones and other high-end technology devices. But beyond economic connections, many Maï-Maï are also bound by their political affiliations and a mutual mistrust of the “other”. Some, like the M23, the Nduma Défense du Congo (NDC) and Maï-Maï Shetana, are opposed the DRC’s national army, the FARDC, and by default, President Joseph Kabila’s government. Others, like the Maï-Maï Mayelle are believed to be aligned with the FARDC. Then there are the new-comers, or rather, burgeoning alliances, to the scene. The most notorious of these unions appears to be the Allied Democratic Forces / National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, or ADF-NALU, a coalition of largely Ugandan Islamist fighters who would like nothing more than to see their government in Kampala overthrown. Worryingly, their numbers are thought to have risen to 6,000, due to an increased recruitment of displaced Al Shabaab fighters from Somalia. In addition to religious-affiliated armed groups are the range of other militias which inhabit areas in the vicinity of Goma. Exact figures for the number of regional Maï-Maï is inherently unknowable – in effect, any couple with at least one gun could classify themselves as a “militia”.  

Adding to the complexity of the situation, are reports that some militiamen tend to rescind their former allegiances, and often join the ranks of their brigade’s notorious foes for personal motivations, thus blurring the Maï-Maï battle lines. Finally, there comes the alleged support of dozens of armed groups by foreign governments – such as Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi – and even by international firms. All of these ‘players’ have a stake in the future of DRC. Whether the nation fails or succeeds, some players in the Maï-Maï game are poised to strike the political and mining ‘jackpot’. For Rwanda, arming rebels, particularly the M23, may be beneficial, given that the rebel group shares an enemy with Kigali: the FDLR. For extraction firms, the DRC’s east, and its mining-linked Maï-Maï, present a different set of challenges. Despite a UN resolution that calls for the sanctions of firms “supporting illegal Congolese armed groups through illicit trade of natural resources”, the situation is far more complicated. Historically, some Western companies consciously aided and abetted the Maï-Maï (if only out of fear) in order to get a foothold in the resource-rich east. However, today some firms may simply be inadvertently, as Global Witness argues, “buying [minerals] from traders who finance rebel and government troops. Of course, threats of mining sanctions are only one small step to ending the violence, what else can be done to truly crack the ‘Congo Code’?

The Next Step

In perhaps a positive development for DRC security, the UN has taken a more authoritative approach to ending the Maï-Maï problem. In the past, the UN has been accused of being ineffective at best, and at worst, simply refusing to interfere in a crisis. Today, the international body appears to be changing its tune. In addition to deploying a 3,000-strong intervention brigade in the DRC’s east, the UN also made a stunning announcement on 31 July 2013: it would give residents of Goma forty-eight hours to disarm or “face force” – regardless of their Maï-Maï affiliation. What comes next remains to be seen, but if history is any indicator, prospects for peace may prove elusive. That is unless all parties come to the table – Maï-Maï leaders, representatives in Kinshasa, mining firms and Rwandan officials included. As it stands, the scenario seems improbable, as outside ‘players’ have shown no signs of resigning from their roles as security puppeteers. Consequently, the DRC may be forced to continue its unfortunate role as the land of stereotypes.


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