Guest blog: The Mai-Mai Lumumba: Okapi killers or self-defense forces?

This is a guest blog by Dan Fahey, an ACM Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Political Science department at Colorado College.  This blog is based on interviews he conducted during August 2012 in Bunia and Kinshasa, reviews of documents and photographs, web-based sources (as noted), and emails with key informants.

Among the plethora of armed groups currently operating in eastern DRC, a small group known as Mai-Mai Lumumba has distinguished itself through brutal attacks against both civilians and endangered wildlife.  Mai-Mai Lumumba is active in and around the Okapi Fauna Reserve (known by the French acronym, RFO) in Mambasa Territory (Ituri District).  Although it has no known connections with rebel movements such as M23 or COGAI, this group under the command of a man called Morgan has strong ties with FARDC officers, as well as gold and ivory traders, and has emerged as a local threat in western Ituri.

Mai-Mai Lumumba’s most vicious attack to date came on 24-25 June 2012 at the Epulu headquarters of the RFO.  At 5am on the 24th, a group of approximately 35 heavily armed and naked Mai-Mai – “protected” by the dawa of a witch doctor called JP and led by Morgan – attacked and overpowered a small group of park rangers. Joined later by a second group of Mai-Mai, they reportedly looted and burned RFO facilities, raped dozens of women, and abducted scores of people.  They murdered six people – two of whom were burned to death – and killed fourteen out of the fifteen okapi that were captive at the RFO center (the fifteenth has subsequently died).  In addition, Morgan’s men reportedly ate part of the left leg of one of their charred victims.

The viciousness of the attack at Epulu received international attention, probably because endangered okapi were killed – but there has been no media coverage of numerous other attacks by Mai-Mai Lumumba in western Ituri, which have destabilized the region and displaced more than 10,000 people.

Morgan, whose real name is Paul Sadala, is a native of the Bombo community of forest cultivators in Ituri.  Since at least 2005, he has been poaching elephants and engaging in gold mining within the RFO, which was created in 1992 by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) primarily to protect the okapi and other endangered species.

According to various sources, local communities in and around the RFO have expressed grievances about entrenched poverty in the area and prohibitions imposed by the Reserve, such as bans on hunting with firearms, commercial exploitation of wood, artisanal mining, and other similar activities.  The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) has been undertaking a variety of programs to ensure protection of this World Heritage Site, to assist local communities, and to promote alternative agricultural practices to exploitation of the Reserve’s resources.  Nonetheless, some people believe RFO is generating large amounts of revenue that fail to reach local communities, while simultaneously preventing local populations (especially chiefs) from pursuing economic opportunities.

Local communities may indeed have legitimate criticisms of the RFO, but Morgan’s activities have been so violent and on such a large scale that they appear to be simply criminal, sadistic, and driven by self-interest.   Prior to becoming the leader of Mai-Mai Lumumba, Morgan was accused of slaughtering at least two thousand elephants in the RFO to sell their ivory.  Morgan profited from the growing Asian demand for ivory, which has pushed prices higher in recent years (ivory currently trades for $200/kg in Mambasa center; tusk weight varies by age but can average 10kg).  ICCN rangers arrested Morgan in 2005 and 2010 for poaching, but in the latter case, FARDC soldiers collaborating with him reportedly secured his release.  In addition, Morgan’s group has controlled several gold mining sites in and around RFO, including one at Pangoy (outside the RPF, near the Orientale-North Kivu border) where at least 60 miners died in an August 2012 collapse.

Morgan increased his stature this year when he merged his gang with Mai-Mai Simba (from Maiko National Park) and some FARDC deserters.  Representatives of Mai-Mai Simba’s leader – a man called Kasambaza – reportedly approached Morgan sometime in late February or early March 2012, after all FARDC units in Ituri were pulled from the field following the 12 February mutiny at Marabo.  FARDC Chief of Staff Gen. Amisi sent the troops to four camps in Ituri to prevent a spread of the mutiny, but this (predictably) left a power vacuum that allowed armed groups to seize control of territory (e.g., see Henning Tamm’s description of FRPI’s expansion in Irumu Territory).

By early March, the new mélange of Mai-Mai Simba, Morgan’s poachers, and army deserters under the command of Colonel Kahasha (a former Mai-Mai) had christened itself Mai-Mai Lumumba, in a nod to Simba’s Lumumbist roots.  Around the time of the merger, the non-Mai-Mai (including Morgan) underwent ceremonial rites of passage to become Mai-Mai.   The group includes men from the Ndaka, Bakumu, Nande, and Bapiri communities (together comprising 80% of the members, with Nande the largest group), and Pygmies (20%).  The new group’s first attack was on 12 March at the village of Pangoy, where Mai-Mai elements raped more than 25 women and girls, and looted goods.

Elements within Mai-Mai Lumumba – specifically Morgan and the FARDC deserters – reportedly have strong ties to senior FARDC officers in Beni, Bafwasende and Kisangani, which may help explain how the group acquired its arsenal of heavy machine guns, RPGs, mortars, AK-47s, and ammunition.  In addition, senior Mai-Mai commanders are known to wear FARDC uniforms before or after attacks, which they carry out naked.

There may have even indeed been complicity in the Epulu attack with the FARDC unit at Bafwasende (908th Battalion), which inexplicably arrived at Epulu just 30 minutes after the last Mai-Mai elements withdrew with their abductees and loot.   The 908th and its successor, the 903rd, both extensively pillaged businesses and dwellings in Epulu town, but did not engage the Mai-Mai.

During July, Morgan’s relationship with the Simba elements in Mai-Mai Lumumba soured.  According to an ICCN source, some members of the Simba group disliked Morgan’s tactics, which include stripping people naked, dousing them in gasoline, setting them on fire, and watching them burn to death in the company of people from the victim’s community, who are forced to witness the horror.  Around 31 July, members of the Simba group arrested Morgan at Mabuo, in the Lubero Territory of North Kivu.  Simba “Colonel” Jean-Luc demanded $10,000 from FARDC and ICCN to transfer Morgan to their custody, which suggests a financial motivation apart from any more high-minded reasons, but Morgan either escaped or paid off his captors on 6 August., and returned to the bush.

In late July, FARDC deployed the 905th Regiment to Epulu to replace the abusive 903rd.  Since 12 August, the 905th has been working with ICCN park rangers in a joint operation to secure RFO and attack Mai-Mai Lumumba.  On 23 August, the ICCN/FARDC force reportedly wounded Morgan in combat, and on 28 August the force killed 18 Mai-Mai in a battle at Lulumo (Mambasa Territory) and recovered numerous weapons.

The increased pressure has scattered and further divided Mai-Mai Lumumba.  There are now several splinter groups in the bush, and it is not clear to what extent Morgan controls their actions.  One group composed entirely of Pygmies and under the command of “Manu” (reportedly Morgan’s second in command) is still wreaking havoc.  During the week of 27-31 August, there were at least two more attacks attributed to Mai-Mai Lumumba elements.

The birth and growth of Mai-Mai Lumumba highlights a fundamental and recurrent problem in eastern Congo: the failure of the Congolese state to provide security and to prevent the illegal exploitation of natural resources.  Indeed, FARDC officers appear to be complicit in arming Morgan, enabling his activities, and benefiting from his exploitation of ivory and gold from the RFO.  Mai-Mai Lumumba’s deliberate and exceptional cruelty against people and okapi are shocking, but so too is the Congolese government’s dereliction of its most basic responsibilities.

Posted by Jason Stearns