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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). 

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