The now well known rebel group M23 is seen as being primarily responsible for the violence that has embroiled the Kivu region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since April. Hundreds of civilians are thought to have recently been massacred in attacks that the United Nations last week called “incomprehensibly vicious."
The widespread nature of violence is often described as being the result of a security vacuum: The attention of the Congolese army, or FARDC, and the U.N. peacekeepers is focused on M23, leaving other parts of the volatile region vulnerable to local armed groups. This is surely part of the story. But there is also reason to believe that these local militias are receiving backing from outside actors. At the very least, that is the impression in many of the local communities that are being attacked, and community leaders the Enough Project spoke to say they fear increasing, ethnically motivated violence.
The Raia Mutomboki faction (Swahili for “outraged citizens”) very active in North Kivu’s territories of Walikale and Masisi is a prime example. The group originally emerged as a local resistance force with the self-proclaimed goal of protecting civilians from mass killings—often gruesome and committed with machetes—by the Hutu militia FDLR that had become common in South Kivu’s southern Shabunda territory in 2005.
According to a variety of Enough sources, including civil society leaders from Shabunda, Masisi, and Walikale; survivors of Raia Mutomboki attacks; and Congolese military officials, the Raia Mutomboki faction active in Masisi and Walikale was created by Col. Makenga Sultani before he defected from the Congolese army a few days before he linked up with General Bosco Ntaganda in May 2012 to form the M23.
In terms of tracing the origin of Raia Mutomboki, the U.N. Group of Experts’ findings on Rwanda’s support to the M23 includes a notable reference to Xavier Chiribanya Chirimwami. Chiribanya served as the governor of South Kivu province from 2003 to 2004 representing the Rally for Congolese Democracy and is therefore known in Bukavu as a longtime proxy for Rwandan security interests. (He has lived over the border in Rwanda since February 2004 following the discovery of arms caches in his Bukavu residence.) The Group of Experts found that Chiribanya “established ties with units of Raia Mutomboki in South Kivu’s Nindja forest and communicated frequently with FARDC deserter Colonel Albert Kahasha of the ‘Union des patriots congolais pour la paix’ (UPCP) in Southern Lubero.” Kahasha has since then been linked to the M23, along with his ally Mayi-Mayi Gen. Kakule Sikuli Vasaka aka Lafontaine, both of whom joined M23 in early August. Both have facilitated the movement of ex-CNDP deserters seeking to join M23 in Rutshuru.
According to survivors, church leaders, and Congolese military officials, Raia Mutomboki has linked up with M23 Col. Eric Badege, who previously commanded an FARDC battalion in Masisi before defecting on July 28 with about 30 elements. Badege is now said to be leading attacks against FARDC positions in Masisi. On August 15, the group targeted the FARDC in southern Masisi, an attack that claimed the lives of two FARDC soldiers and one civilian.
In South Kivu, three Raia Mutomboki rebels affiliated with M23 Lt. Col. Makoma Semivumbi were killed following a two-day attack in Kalehe territory that began on August 23. In Shabunda and its surroundings areas, where the Raia Mutomboki originated, fighting between that group and the FDLR has often devolved into tit-for-tat massacres of civilians.
Since factions of Raia Mutomboki spread to North Kivu in May, hundreds of people have been killed. However, in North Kivu the Raia Mutomboki have targeted Congolese Hutu populations, in addition to FDLR dependents, making local leaders worry about a return to the ethnic violence that consumed Masisi and Walikale 1993.
Other groups have followed a similar recruitment pattern. Seeing their privileged status in the FARDC come under threat—and in the case of Bosco Ntaganda, the specter of prosecution raised—Ntaganda and M23 leader Makenga Sultani set out rallying local armed groups to build allegiance. In some cases they mobilized existing notorious groups, like Mayi-Mayi Sheka, and in other cases created new ones such as the “Forces pour la défense du Congo,” or FDC/Guides.
The FDC is active in the border area of Walikale and Masisi and is mostly made of young people who used to be guides and porters for the FARDC during the different operations against the FDLR. The group has become increasingly successful in its fight against the FDLR since late 2011 when they started receiving weaponry and ammunition from Bosco Ntaganda.
“Armed groups having been succumbing to staggering amounts of dollars by the Rwandan president Paul Kagame to help turn things upside down,” a surrendered fighter from Mayi-Mayi Sheka told Enough.
A church leader from Walikale said that Sheka once confided in him saying he was given $50,000 on his last trip to Kigali and instructed to help ambush Colonel Chuma Balumisa, then Walikale’s sector commander. Chuma was killed on April 22, 2012 in an ambush targeting high-ranking FARDC officials that was orchestrated by Bosco Ntaganda, “who felt stung by Chuma’s refusal to rally his Tembo ethnic youth to join the Raia Mutomboki.”
While the ongoing killings on one hand seem to be a result of a larger security void in eastern Congo, on the other, they are the subsequent effect of the provision of arms, money, and in some cases training from elements of the Rwandan government and their proxy forces in the region. The Congolese army is being out-maneuvered, as it becomes increasingly clear that M23’s strength extends beyond its own fighters through the influence it has on smaller armed groups that its leaders have cultivated. The impact on civilians is dire: Not only are they getting caught in the crossfire; in many cases they are being singled out.
Photo: Congolese soldier marching (Enough / Laura Heaton)