This is the next in a series of guest blogs by Judith Verweijen on armed groups in the Kivus. The Mai-Mai Yakutumba, according to the Congolese army, are the most important of six remaining armed groups in South Kivu, the others being: Raia Mutomboki (in Shabunda), Mai-Mai Nyakiliba (Mwenga), Mai-Mai Fujo (Uvira), Mai-Mai Kirikicho (Kalehe), Resistance Nationale Congolaise (Kabare).
After having explored some of the general factors that drive ongoing armed group activity in the DRC, we will now take a closer look at one of these groups, the Mai Mai Yakutumba. This is a politico-military movement founded in 2007 that is active in Fizi territory, in the southern part of South Kivu, close to where Che Guevara once unsuccessfully tried to unchain the revolution in the 1960s. As is often the case with Mai Mai groups, it is named after their military leader, “Major-General” William Amuri Yakutumba. The political wing of the movement is called PARC (Parti pour l’Action et la Reconstruction du Congo), and is headed by Raphael Looba Undji. Contrary to popular images of the Mai Mai as uncivilized “bush warriors”, both these leaders are university-educated intellectuals.
Like many other present-day armed groups, the Mai Mai Yakutumba were created by dissidents from war-era armed factions who were opposed to participating in the process of army integration during the transition between 2003 and 2006. Yakutumba, at the time a battalion commander with the rank of captain, declared that he refused to redeploy his troops from Fizi territory, as long as troops from the Banyamulenge community did not disarm or send their troops away for army integration. The Banyamulenge are an ethnic Tutsi group of pastoralists living largely in the mountainous area of the Hauts Plateaux, which covers a part of Fizi territory. They are involved in a long-standing power struggle with the Babembe, the majority ethnic group in Fizi, which revolves in part around access to local positions of authority and historical antagonisms. The Babembe are also the main constituency of the Mai Mai Yakutumba, although their combatants are drawn from various ethnic backgrounds.
This inter-community power conflict is shaped by and shapes antagonistic identities, which are firmly rooted in specific worldviews. In the case of the Mai Mai Yakutumba, this worldview is constructed around the idea of “autochthony”, or the concept of being a “Son of the Soil”, the “original” inhabitant of a certain zone. In this perspective, which is shared by almost all Mai-Mai groups in the DRC, the self-styled autochthonous groups are threatened by the Rwandophone communities (Hutu and Tutsi), who are seen as “foreigners” trying to take over their land and power. Betweeen 1996 and 2003, “autochthonous” and Tutsi (often Banyamulenge)-led groups clashed on numerous occasions in southern South Kivu, and there were several ethnically targeted massacres on both sides. The resulting mutual distrust and dislike continue to feed Mai Mai movements like the Yakutumba group, which serves to many Babembe as a psychological safeguard to avoid that the Banyamulenge will extend their power in Fizi and will come to dominate the Babembe.
It is in part this function as a safeguard that makes Yakutumba fairly popular among the Babembe, although many do not approve of armed struggle and are tired of the war. What also contributes to Yakutumba’s popularity is that he is perceived to symbolize and embody what are seen as typical Bembe characteristics and values, such as resistance against domination and repression, not only from other ethnic groups, but also from the central government. This self-imagery is in part the product of a tradition of Bembe resistance dating back to the colonial era, the Mulele rebellion in the 1960s and the Fizi-based rebellion of Laurent-Désiré Kabila under the Mobutu regime. The Mai Mai Yakutumba place themselves explicitly in this tradition, which implies a strong animosity towards Kinshasa. They consider the regime of Kabila jr. to be complicit with the Rwandophones and their plan to ‘balkanize’ the DRC, backed by resource-hungry imperialist powers.
Wide-spread discontent with the Kabila government is not only based on its perceived discrimination of “autochthones”, but also triggered by the immense collateral damage of the Kimia II/Amani Leo operations in Fizi territory. Furthermore, the meager “peace dividend” in Fizi also plays a role, as there has been little progress with the improvement of infrastructure and development since the start of Kabila’s reign. Not surprisingly, popular support for Yakutumba is biggest in the least developed and most isolated zones of Fizi, such as the Ubwari peninsula and the adjacent coastal strip along Lake Tanganyika.
Another factor feeding the Mai Mai Yakutumba’s discontent with the current government is the performance and functioning of the national army. In their view, the Mai Mai combatants who integrated in this structure have been marginalized, and denied positions and ranks of importance. This is seen as an ingratitude, as the Mai Mai should have been rewarded for the heroic role they played during the Second War, when they fought on the government side against the RCD insurgency. In combination with the general low standards of life of the average FARDC soldier, this perceived bad and unequal treatment discourages remaining Mai Mai to come out the bush. For the commandment, the refusal to give up armed struggle is also strongly related to personal ambitions and interests. It is a long-standing demand of Yakutumba that he be recognized a General upon his integration into the FARDC, while the political leadership seeks access to high administrative functions.
So the Mai Mai Yakutumba seem to be driven mostly by personal ambitions, a certain (autochthonous) world view, inter- and intra-community power struggles, discontent with the current Government and national army, and dissatisfaction with the status of the Mai Mai and “autochthones” in the post-transitional order. It appears that initially, they were not involved in large-scale economic and criminal activities, but financed mostly through community contributions and smaller-scale extortion of fishermen and traders on the Tanganyika lake and of artisanal goldmining in Fizi. However, since the movement started to collaborate with Agathon Rwasa’s FNL (Forces pour la Liberation Nationale), a Burundian armed group, in 2010, they have importantly expanded the scale of their activities on the lake, where they are involved in more extensive smuggling and systematic extortion of maritime traffic. The Yakutumba-FNL collaboration indicates the extent to which violence in the DRC continues to be influenced by regional dynamics and is fed by trans-border militarized networks.