This is a guest blog by Rachel Sweet, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the politics of armed groups in eastern Congo, in particular on how preexisting business and bureaucratic practices influence armed group organization.
The escalation of violence in North Kivu’s Beni territory has grown increasingly worrisome since initial massacres in October. Not only has the kind of violence become more brutal––including scenes of decapitation and disembowelment that were previously uncommon in Beni and a shift toward attacks in daylight––but the number of victims has grown dramatically. Sources in civil society suggest that over 200 civilians have been killed in the past three months.
And yet, the identity of the perpetrators is unclear and layered in controversy. Most reports have pointed to the Allied Democratic Front (ADF), a rebel group that originated in Uganda in the 1990s. Initially, this appears to have been accurate––the first attacks on Ngadi, Eringeti, and Oicha can be attributed to the ADF’s need to reinvent itself in the aftermath of Operation Sokola. This joint offensive of FARDC and MONUSCO devastated the group’s camps and reduced it to an estimated 100-200 members divided across different bands, according to senior MONUSCO analysts. The operation disrupted access to arms and ammunition, which can explain the shift to machetes as tools of violence. It also fractured relations between the ADF and the local population, which could have motivated increased brutality toward civilians. Residents of Beni cite ADF attacks against civilians as reprisals for having provided FARDC and MONUSCO information on ADF camps, or as punishment for local combatants who defected or businesspersons who defaulted on payments to the group (as other armed groups, the ADF had become important local moneylenders). As such, attacks form the culmination of a pattern of reprisal attacks by the ADF in response to military operations, such as Operation Rwenzori in 2010, and to severed social ties, as seen in the summer 2013 Watalinga attacks.
Yet, increasingly the keys to understanding violence will not be simply body counts or the actors behind it. Instead, analysis should focus not on what triggered the onset of violence but on how it is repurposed and who benefits from the environment of uncertainty that it creates. Specifically, the attacks have set in place three dynamics that create new incentives for insecurity distinct from the initial rounds of violence: political maneuvering, parallel mobilization, and linkages between otherwise distinct social tensions. These dynamics are compounded by the uncertainty surrounding the motives and authors behind attacks.
To understand attacks, we should start by asking: Who benefits from the uncertainty surrounding the killings? Uncertainty provides a political resource for interests not immediately linked with violence to expand and redirect the threat. Ambiguity around the ADF stems from its comparative isolation from civilians vis-à-vis other Mayi Mayi and the unclear nature of its links with radical Islam. It is heightened as new conflict actors commit attacks. Uncertainty expands the breadth of misinformation that can circulate, heightens the perceived threat posed to civilians, and allows violence to be more readily repurposed for other ends.
Specifically, violence in Beni creates an opportunity to settle ongoing political scores that are not directly linked to attacks. Since 1999, the RCD/K-ML, led by Mbusa Nyamwisi has politically dominated the Beni and Lubero territories of the Grand Nord, first as an insurgency (1999-2003), and since then as a political party. When Mbusa joined the political opposition in 2011, North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku broke from the RCD/K-ML to form his own political party, BUREC, that remained allied with President Kabila’s PPRD. Though Mbusa left Congo in 2012 and was dismissed as national parliamentarian in 2013, he remains embroiled with Paluku in a dispute for leadership in the Beni and Lubero territories that comprise the Grand Nord. Julien Paluku and allied politicians, including Beni’s PPRD mayor Nyonyi Bwana Kawa, struggle for popular influence in the Grand Nord against what PPRD officials estimate is an 80% support rate for Mbusa’s RCD/K-ML.
The violence has provided PPRD and BUREC an opportunity for political gain. Targets of armed violence have tended to remain the most vulnerable groups of civilians, with attacks generally focusing on villages rather than town centers. Yet the state’s response has focused on higher-profile authorities and economic interests who have withheld support for PPRD. In a press conference in November, Julien Paluku denounced Mbusa for using his M23 connections to support the ADF. The same month, pro-RCD/K-ML chefs des cellules and chefs des quartiers in Beni town were replaced with PPRD rivals, and plans were laid to replace the more powerful chefs de commune. This political reshuffling has far-reaching consequences. For example, chefs des communes control areas extending to Virunga national park and the Semuliki valley that are home to a number of militias. One chef targeted for replacement reportedly collects informal taxes from markets in Beni where the ADF is influential and sends revenue to “our brothers living in the forest.” If these support networks are disrupted, militias may retaliate with increased coercion.
The attacks have also created new economic incentives for instability. Political power in the Grand Nord is largely exercised through the ability to control and confer private benefits in lucrative import-export trade. The area’s powerful business interests hold considerable political sway, with RCD/K-ML leaders recalling how Butembo-based businesses organized Mbusa’s 2011 parliamentary campaign. To shift support from political competitors and consolidate control over parallel economies, the PPRD has linked pro-RCD/K-ML businesses to recent violence and cracked down on their operations. The intelligence service has kept a close watch on prominent business owners, and in November arrested Muhindo Kasebere and Maman Getou, the largest business operators in Kasindi and Beni, as they attempted to cross the border to Uganda.
These and other high-level arrests that warn against relations with the RCD/K-ML can intensify instability by incentivizing businesses to retool connections with local militias. Large businesses in the Grand Nord rely on militias to evade taxes and informal fees. The prevalence of these ties led a community leader in Butembo to joke that “if you have $20,000, you can create your own Mayi Mayi.” The UN Group of Experts has documented some of these linkages, including Kasebere’s supply of arms to combatants such as Hilaire Kombi, who likely remain loyal to Mbusa. While these militias serve more as instruments of fiscal evasion than forces of insecurity against civilians, recent crackdowns can create a need to repurpose these militias toward more coercive ends. Even if businesses follow PPRD instructions to withdraw support from the RCD/K-ML, they may shore up armed groups as outlets to maintain autonomy from Kinshasa to compensate for reduced political independence.
In the meantime, the RCD/K-ML benefits from instability by demonstrating that other politicians are unable to secure the Grand Nord in Mbusa’s absence. Doing so creates a pathway for his return to Congo politics. The RCD/K-ML has responded to attacks by denouncing Governor Julien Paluku as a “génocidaire against the Yira [Nande] community.” Though this is not a credible claim, the rhetoric raises the stakes of choosing political sides and increases the perceived threat among civilians. Members at all levels of the party’s hierarchy denounce Paluku for collaborating with the ADF via General Mundos, the commander of the Sokola operations.
Initial waves of violence have also spurred a range of parallel mobilizations. These include “night patrols” in Beni and Oicha towns that are armed with machetes, contribute to a more militarized environment, and have been reported for crimes including rape. Youth from Oicha are reportedly leaving the town to join preexisting militias such as Mayi Mayi Vurondo.
Copycat groups mimicking ADF techniques have emerged. Local analysts in direct communication with armed groups report that the ADF was not behind several recent attacks, including killings in Beni town and Vema. Residents of villages including Mayi Moya identify assailants not as ADF but as youth from their community who left for the forest following the initial attacks in Beni territory. Few residents in Beni view the ADF as the exclusive authors of attacks. Locals discuss the potential links between Hillarie Kombi’s former soldiers who remain in the Semuliki valley or ex-M23 networks with the violence. MONUSCO analysts have identified a group of at least 100 combatants in Beni emulating ADF tactics.
Copycat violence is not unusual for Beni, where other Mayi Mayi, such as Hilaire Kombi’s combatants who were linked to the M23 insurgency, have mimicked ADF’s signature kidnapping tactics. More recently, copycat groups exploit and expand the uncertainty around ADF origins and motives by leaving notes at sites of attacks invoke grandiose connections to international terror and that implicate MONUSCO in the violence.
While is clear that more than one group has been involved in the recent massacres, the ADF label provides a convenient pretext to settle preexisting, often unrelated, scores. Civilians in Beni have been able to brandish the ADF name to denounce, arrest, or harass their rivals. And as the national intelligence agency has increased its activity, information provision has become source of revenue and leverage. Civil society and the PPRD have begun efforts to start a hotline for receive texts with information on suspicious activity. Security measures also provide opportunities for extortion on the part of low-level bureaucrats. Roadblocks and taxation points have multiplied, with officials becoming more forceful in the appropriations of rents.
This parallel vigilante mobilization and the trade in information create new sources of power linked to the violence that further destabilize the region.
Links between Social Tensions
Finally, uncertainty surrounding attacks provides an opportunity to project other tensions onto the violence. This is particularly true for tensions between the demographically dominant Nande and Kinyarwanda speakers in the area. Reports of Kinyarwanda speakers among assailants circulate in Beni and have resulted in violent reprisals, including the killing and burning of a Hutu in October. Ongoing migrations of thousands of Hutu from Masisi to Eringeti and Irumu via Beni––which have been taking place for years––have been increasingly publicized over recent months. These migrations are not directly related to the violence–most migrants reach Boga from Eringeti via Bunia rather than the more direct Kainama route through ADF territory, indicating a lack of direct connection with attacks. And ethnic targeting is an ill fit for interpreting the violence—attacks do not map onto ethnic motives, and many combatants within the ADF and copycat groups are themselves Nande. Yet increased reporting on migrations by local radio stations alongside news of attacks has introduced an ethnic lens to popular perceptions of insecurity. Shifting interpretations of violence to group-level threats expands incentives for counter-mobilization and leaves civilians more prone to manipulation.
Politicians have accentuated these dynamics. The governor of North Kivu and mayor of Beni are accused of facilitating Hutu migrations by providing travel authorizations. The RCD/K-ML’s description of Governor Paluku as a génocidaire against the Nande, and discussions of Paluku’s involvement with migrations, reifies group-based interpretations of conflict. Similarly, Paluku’s reminders of Mbusa’s M23 connections aim to discredit his rival by associating him with external interests that threaten the Nande. Identifying attacks with longstanding social cleavages raises the stakes of violence.
Together, political maneuvering, parallel mobilization, and links between social cleavages create new incentives to escalate violence, with few interests for de-escalation. Lulls in violence should not be confused with lulls in the underlying dynamics that motivate and transform violence.
Posted by Jason Stearns