The phenomenon of “armed groups” (illegal militias, rebel groups and mafias) in eastern Congo contains two strands, dating to roughly 1996: the first, a string of foreign militias, who for various reasons have set up bases of operation in eastern Congo; the second, various youth movements who took up arms to protect themselves from these foreign forces.
Historically, the weakness of the DRC’s government has been the fundamental reason for the persistence and multiplicity of these groups. Although the presence of these armed groups has been a constant, the militias themselves have evolved with time, with new generations of leaders emerging. As a consequence, the actors of 1996 are no longer the actors of today. And these groups have proliferated: in 2008, the territory of Fizi in South Kivu province alone was home to seventeen different militias.
In addition to the visible effects of war, these militias have created a deeply-established war economy in eastern Congo in which civilian populations and local resources are diverted towards the funding of armed groups. However, this complex economy is little-understood outside of Congo. Aside from the funds that armed groups derive from the DRC’s vast mineral resources (“conflict minerals,” as they are often called internationally), minimal discussion of the economic forces behind the war occurs. Failure to address these economic forces means that outside nations often make policy decisions based on an unclear understanding of the conflict dynamics in Congo. We must understand the origins of the various weapons and resources that strengthen the armed groups in the eastern DRC in order to create smart responses both within the country and internationally.
Free and easy access to a military arsenal
Several studies conducted between 2012 and 2014 have shown that the supply chains of weapons and goods to armed groups are simultaneously extremely complex and loosely structured. Armed groups’ resources flow from many sources, among them pillage, contraband sales and informal taxes. Patrols by the Congolese national army often run across ambushes set by militia members seeking to pillage the army’s weapons or encounter militia-run roadblocks and barriers at which militias pillage or tax travelers. In the resulting skirmishes, militia members pillage weapons abandoned by fleeing or dead soldiers. Often, however, militia members simply buy arms from members of the army engaged in illicit arms sales.
Collaboration between local and foreign armed groups represents another source of arms. In the province of South Kivu, two foreign groups— the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL)—often exchange goods, supplies and munitions with local groups. The FNL, for example, often traverses the Burundi-Congo border with arms, munitions, cows and other goods. The border area between the two countries has become one of the key sites in eastern Congo for illegal arms trafficking. The trade in contraband arms constitutes a huge source of resources for armed groups in the area (Life and Peace 119).
A diversity of funding sources
For their survival, many armed groups pillage goods from civilian populations. So, for example, rarely do two weeks pass in South Kivu province without at least one case of a civilian community being pillaged by an armed group. In the course of these pillages, armed groups take nearly everything: money, livestock, clothing, cell phones and so on. Sometimes, armed groups go so far as to burn down entire villages as a means of intimidating their victims and to cover their own tracks.
Illegal taxation constitutes another funding source for militias, who habitually set up illegal barriers on roads between agricultural areas and markets or on commercial waterways. On one such road in the Fizi territory of South Kivu, militias erected four barriers on a 27-km stretch of road between two villages. Those passing through these barriers were obliged to pay according to the wishes of the groups controlling the territory. Militias often block waterways, with boats taxed at 1000 Congolese francs (roughly one US$) per person.
Another revenue-generating strategy deployed by militia groups is to collect goods and money household-by-household from different villages, calling this illicit tax a “war effort.” In these cases, militias levy taxes between 500 and 1000 francs (between US$0.50 and US$1) per week, although sometimes they take an equivalent amount of food or goods instead. Ordinarily, this “tax” is compulsory: refusing to pay the levy results in imprisonment or worse. In some cases, however, community leaders fund those armed groups with whom they perceive themselves to be strategically aligned or from whose existence they benefit. Many Congolese leaders are currently in power because of support from armed groups: these leaders range from those at the local level to members of the provincial and national parliaments.
Another extremely lucrative aspect of this war economy is the control of mining sites (a familiar part of the “conflict minerals” narrative popular outside of the DRC). A great number of armed groups can be found near mining sites. Up to fifteen such groups are active in the South Kivu territory of Shabunda. These groups typically do not exploit minerals themselves, but rather impose taxes on artisanal miners. Those miners who attempt to oppose this taxation system are often the subject of harsh retaliation in the form of torture, imprisonment or death.
This concentration of armed groups around mining sites contributes to the wealth of illegal warlords. Their presence is a cause of daily conflict, as these warlords do not hesitate to confront other groups seeking to impose taxes of their own. In all circumstances, the civilian population pays the greatest price, be it through the taxes armed groups extort from them or from the violent conflict that surrounds them.
Smarter responses needed
This informal economy, instituted by armed groups in eastern Congo, paralyses the economic life of the region. The reduced state of agricultural production (attributable in large measure to the local population’s fear of going to their relatively insecure fields) is one of the visible consequences. This armed group economy destabilizes the life of civilian populations by fostering a perpetual sense of insecurity.
What is needed, then, is a dose of determination from the political leaders of the country and the region to restore peace and the authority of the state in the DRC. Honest and open regional cooperation is needed as the foundation of that peace. The respect of the cardinal principles of democracy, coupled with strong community outreach and good governance, could establish peace and end the problem of armed groups.
Internationally, those nations and blocs who hope to establish incentives for “conflict-free” minerals must understand that armed groups are not the only beneficiaries of artisanal minerals. In fact, armed groups’ involvement in “conflict minerals” mining usually comes down to taxing the work of others. Thus, interventions that hinder the sale of hand-mined minerals harm civilian population, not only armed groups. For smarter action on the international level, a fuller understanding of the complexities of the eastern Congo war economy is necessary.
Laurent Mikalano Mulotwa is the director of the Council for Peace and Reconciliation, a network of civil society and church organizations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region.