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Guest blog: Why are there so many armed groups in the Congo (Parts II & III)

Part II: the ‘transition’ (2003-2006) and power shifts

In part I of the quest for the causes of ongoing armed group activity in the DRC, I have highlighted the process of the militarization of the political, economic and social spheres that took place in the course of the two Congo Wars. As we will see today, the period of the ‘transition’ did little to change the violent bases of the Congo’s political-economic order.  This is in part the result of the political and military power-sharing deal the transition was based on. This agreement essentially meant that the militarized power networks that had formed during the wars were incorporated into the state and governance system. These networks continued to instrumentalize violence for political purposes and to guard economic control over their former fiefdoms, leading to significant ‘top-down’ violence. Additionally, justice and truth-telling were sacrificed in order to keep the shaky transitional project on track. Those responsible for atrocities received important positions in the transitional institutions or the new national army, sending the message to society that violence pays.

At the same time, local conflict dynamics-like competition over access to power and land -remained unresolved and continued to generate violence from the bottom-up. Local conflicts sometimes even exacerbated during the transition as the return of those who had fled during the war, including local authorities, created tensions over land, assets and power. The wars had created significant local power shifts, and those who had profited were reluctant to give up their war-time power gains. This prompted some local power networks to keep their military structures intact instead of integrating them into the new national army.

The final peace agreement signed in 2002 in Sun City stipulated the formation of a new national army composed of all the signatories’ fighting forces. However, many ex-belligerents were extremely reluctant to give up their military powerbase, which underpinned their political and economic weight. Sometimes, (parts of) these groups were encouraged to sabotage the army integration process by elements from neighboring countries keen on maintaining their influence. This was for example the case with Rwandan support to hardliners in the RCD-Goma faction. Furthermore, in the climate of ongoing ethnic tensions, many feared for the safety of their constituencies, having little trust in the neutrality and capacity of the national army-under-construction to protect their communities.

Some of the smaller-scale power networks also judged they had little to gain from the transition and the integration of their troops into the military. Only the factions with considerable national level political influence managed to obtain positions of importance in the transitional institutions and the army. Many Mai Mai and other local armed groups, who lacked strong, unified political representation at the national level, felt they were losers in the transitional reshuffling of the cards. It was only in their local fiefdoms, where they had firm economic and political control, that they had significant influence. The minute they left  their home base, they would inevitably lose power and be returned to relative insignificance.

As a consequence, several commanders withheld their troops from the army integration process. Others did participate, but failed to obtain a high rank or position and eventually returned to the bush. Many of the armed groups active today are led by commanders who rejected post-war army integration or dropped out of the process. Why they chose to do so is partly the result of the fact that the option of integrating into the army remained indefinitely open to all armed groups, instead of being closed down after the initial merging of the ex-belligerents’ forces. This allowed army integration to become instrumentalized by local strongmen seeking to reinforce their power position, as they could use threats of refusal or withdrawal from army integration as a trump card. In this way, violence or the threat of it, continued to be convertible into power benefits.

Another factor was that keeping one’s troops out of the national army often bore little consequences. The UN mission in the DRC never received the mandate to actively hunt down armed groups, as it worked towards demobilization on a voluntary basis. It therefore never became a real force of deterrence. The Congolese army, the FARDC, had no such deterrence effect either. In fact, it became an important direct and indirect cause for continued armed group activity.

Part III: the post-transitional era (2006-present) and military deficiencies

In the previous part, it was explained why armed groups continued to thrive during the ‘transition’, highlighting the continued militarization of politics, the economy and governance. It was also mentioned how ongoing armed group integration in the Congolese military skewed incentive structures towards violence.  As we shall see today, this is but one of the many ways in which military policy and performance contribute to armed group proliferation.

It is generally recognized that the Congolese national army, the FARDC, do not pose a major threat to armed groups; its structural weaknesses and low operational capacities render military efforts against such groups relatively ineffective. In the past, these weaknesses occasionally even prompted the military to form operational coalitions with armed groups, for example when fighting against the CNDP. It is in this respect important to realize that Kinshasa’s support to armed groups, which became institutionalized during the Second War, when it used these groups as proxies, did not immediately stop at the start of the ‘transition’. In some cases, the FARDC’s lack of strength, as well as their abusive behavior, prompt armed groups to mobilize in order to protect their communities-either against other rebel groups, like the FDLR, or against the FARDC itself. This self-defense reflex, which is also visible in the vast isolated zones where there is no military or other state presence, became of increasing importance with the Kimia II/Amani Leo military operations, which led in many areas to a sharp increase in insecurity.

Aside from by its weaknesses, the FARDC contribute to armed group mobilization through forms of collusion. As is well-documented by the various UN Group of Experts’ reports, some elements in the FARDC maintain elaborate economic ties with armed groups, trading arms, ammunitions, natural resources and other products, and dividing economic spheres of influence by mutual consent. Occasionally, these groups form part of the same power (patronage) networks as FARDC commanders, and economic ties might be complemented by ethnic, familial or other social links or a shared background in the same rebel group. This familiarity increases the risks of information leaks and treason. The continued links between army commanders and (parts of) their former armed groups are facilitated by the way in which military integration proceeds. The principle of geographical and physical spreading of combatants is often only weakly applied, which contributes to the proliferation of parallel command chains.

In a sense, FARDC and armed group presence are mutually conditional. Whereas armed groups depend on the FARDC’s weaknesses for space of operating, the FARDC needs armed groups as these form a justification for the heavy militarization of the East and for carrying out military operations. Both these issues are important determinants of the military’s opportunities for revenue-generation. This mutual conditionality does not imply that the FARDC do not regularly clash with armed groups; they co-exist in complex patterns of collusion and conflict. This does not only apply to Congolese, but also to foreign-led armed groups. Adding to the chaos, the latter also maintain elaborate ties with domestic armed groups, being often an important source of arms and ammunitions, and sometimes reinforcing their operational capacities.

Surely, it are not only FARDC commanders who instrumentalize armed groups in order to further their power projects: a wide range of economic and political entrepreneurs at the local, national and regional level benefit from and hence support such groups. Locally, armed groups are vehicles for power struggles between and within communities, their elites and individual powerbrokers. This mechanism is also visible at the lowest levels, where local customary or politico-administrative authorities, even in the cities, maintain small-scale private militia. Nationally, armed groups help politicians and their constituencies to reinforce their bargaining position in Kinshasa. Regionally, they allow foreign powerbrokers and Congolese diaspora groups to retain political and economic influence in the DRC.

The power struggles at these various levels often have an economic dimension: armed groups remain an effective way of establishing economic control and enabling access to land and the extraction of resources. Obviously, armed groups need to finance themselves and most of them resort to forms of extortion and illegal taxation to do so, much like the regular state services.  However, the weight of this economic dimension differs per group. Whereas for some groups self-enrichment and economic control are highly important goals, others might be more pre-occupied with general political influence, not only for realizing their personal ambitions, but also for implementing their political vision.

What should be emphasized here is the multiplicity of motives and functions that armed groups have: for example, the fact that they engage in illegal taxation or extortion does not exclude such groups from also playing a certain political or ideological role. Armed groups are often an essential part of the fabric of local societies, and as such, they exercise forms of political, economic and in/security governance. They do not act alone, but in coalition with other actors, like local authorities, businessmen, and non-state actors, with whom they are engaged in a constant process of negotiation.

In a few cases, given the weak performance and legitimacy of the central state apparatus in the DRC, populations  even prefer to be under the control of armed groups, although there is always the down-side of violence and extortion. However, the alternative sometimes appears worse. Almost all armed groups capitalize upon the deficiencies of the state apparatus and draw upon aversion towards the government in Kinshasa to mobilize support. Most of them have political wings, which usually heavily denounce the central government’s bad governance and failure to bring security and development. Some observers have described this political rhetoric as a sham and present-day armed groups as being devoid of political ideology: however for the members of such groups as well as the communities they emerge from, this sense of political opposition can be very real.

Additionally, armed groups fulfill certain symbolic needs and may be perceived to represent or embody a certain community’s identity or values. Logically, the importance of this identification increases where power struggles are played out along identity-based lines. As we have seen, these identities have become hardened as a result of the traumas generated by past atrocities. These collective traumas continue to animate armed groups, as the latter draw upon feelings of injustice and memories of pain as a mobilization strategy. In this way, the undigested violent past remain an open wound that continues to fester and to feed the violence of today.

The next time, the importance of (ethnic) identity, worldview and political vision in armed group formation will be illustrated with a case study of one of the most important Mai Mai groups in South Kivu: the Mai Mai Yakotumba.

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