Who are the Raia Mutomboki?

While international media, including myself, have been poring over reports about the M23 rebellion, a far deadlier insurgency has been stewing in the lowland jungles a hundred kilometers to the west. There, along the border between North and South Kivu, a series of massacres has killed hundred of civilians since the end of last year in revenge attacks between FDLR and Raia Mutomboki militia. Between May 9 and 25 alone, the United Nations suggests that 98 civilians may have been killed.

Then, on Tuesday this week, the Raia took control of Walikale town, 150 km to the west of Goma, only to be kicked out several days later by the Congolese army. (See map below with very rough areas of influence of Raia Mutomboki)

Which begs the question: Why? And: Who is the new nebulous group, dubbed the “Outraged Citizens” in Swahili?

The Raia Mutomboki first appeared on the scene in 2005 in southern Shabunda territory, a good hundred and fifty kilometers south of the scene of the current fighting. The trigger was a massacre of 12 civilians by the FDLR in March 2005 in the jungle village of Kyoka, in Wakabango I (Shabunda). While FDLR abuses in this region were commonplace, this one, carried out with machetes, seemed to be one too many.

In response, an ad hoc local defence group formed, reportedly with the blessing of civil society and customary leaders in the area. While the group remained extremely localized, the name of Jean Musumbu was often cited. Musumbu comes from the BaTali clan of Rega community and is from southern Shabunda. He is reportedly a former officer for the Mai-Mai of General Padiri who integrated the Congolese army in 2003, but became disillusioned and defected back to his home turf. Some also suggest that he is a Kimbanguist minister and a witch doctor, who has experience concocting the magical dawa that makes soldiers invincible to bullets. In any case, his home town of Kabulongo in the Wakabango I chefferie became the epicenter of the Raia Mutomboki movement, which succeeded in driving FDLR out of the area. Youths from villages across Wakabango I came to see Musumbu to ask him for the dawa and to receive training. According to NGO and UN sources, these youths returned home to launch their own self-defense groups with the help of village chiefs, but no centralized structure emerged.

The fact that the movement initially remained extremely localized is crucial to understanding the group – it formed as a self-defense group focused on local grievances, and initially had few links to provincial politicians. Also, Rega society is segmentary, meaning that traditional political authority rarely stretches beyond several villages, and that within each grouping, initiation groups and secret societies play vital roles in regulating social behavior or protecting against outsiders. This further accentuated the decentralized nature of the movement.

Between 2005 and 2008, the Raia remained largely confined to southern Shabunda. They participated in the Goma peace conference in 2008, with two of their leaders, Devos Kagalaba – allegedly the military leader of the movements – and Salumu Kaseke, signing the Acte d’Engagement.

By this time, however, they were largely dormant. They had been relatively successful in driving out the FDLR of Wakabango I.

The second wave of mobilization came during the regimentation process in 2011, when the Congolese army began consolidating its units into regiments to undermine the influence of the ex-CNDP and eliminate ghost soldiers. In January 2011, Congolese army units left Bakisi, the northern chefferie of Shabunda, to merge with other units. Local leaders visited Bukavu to complain about the security vacuum that was quickly being filled by FDLR troops, but the governor told them to wait (although there are reports of the vice-governor, who was Rega himself, visiting Shabunda in February 2011 and telling the population to defend itself).

This is when the customary chiefs of Bakisi, along with demobilized Mai-Mai from the area, began mobilizing young men. It is not clear whether there were any links with the original Raia Mutomboki movement, some 100km to the south, but the chiefs began taking on that name and initiating the youths with dawa. Raia Mutomboki was more like a franchise, a contagious idea, than a centralized organization.

When the Congolese army redeployed to the area in late 2011, its units often collaborated with the Raia against the FDLR, taking advantage of the local militia’s knowledge of the forests there. However, tensions quickly rose between the two sides, especially due to the ex-CNDP troops within the Congolese army that were considered by many Raia as foreigners. The Congolese army clashed with the Raia on several occasions, leading to deaths on both sides.

As the Raia advanced and spread, its tactics became more brutal. They often attacked FDLR dependants, including women and children, mutilating them. FDLR soldiers and officers who deserted have told UN officials that the Raia Mutomboki were their biggest threat in the forests. Given these brutal tactics, it is not surprising that the fighting between Raia and the FDLR often devolves into tit-for-tat massacres of civilians. In late 2011, dozens of people were killed and several villages burned down in the northeast corner of Shabunda. In the first several days of 2012, over 50 people were reportedly killed by the FDLR around Luyuyu, in the same area.

In early 2012, the Raia jumped the dense Kahuzi-Biega national park and began appearing in the Bunyakiri area. Again, it is not clear how this movement occurred or who its instigators were, although there were reports of Rega militiamen appearing in the  largely Tembo-populated areas of Bunyakiri. Several new massacres took place; between March 1-4, Raia killed 32 civilians (mostly FDLR dependents) in Bunyakiri. Between May 7-15, the FDLR retaliated, killing 51 in Kamananga and Lumenje.

In May 2012, the Raia apparently entered a new phase, spreading into North Kivu. This movement may have been linked with the redeployment of Congolese army troops toward the Rutshuru frontline with M23, leaving another vacuum for the FDLR and Raia to fill. Groups linked to the Raia Mutomboki appeared in southern Masisi (largely Tembo) and southern Walikale (largely Kano/Rega). According to local NGOs and humanitarian groups, over a hundred people could have been killed in North Kivu since then in similar massacres. This time, in addition to FDLR dependents, the Raia have also been targeting Congolese Hutu populations, making local leaders worry about a return to the 1993 ethnic violence that consumed Masisi and Walikale.

The southern Masisi militia is also different than the other Raia groups. It appears to be made up of former Mai-Mai under the command of Col. Delphin Mbaenda – former Mai-Mai Kifuafua – who just renamed themselves. Meanwhile, very little is known about the group that took Walikale, other than that they are led by people from the Rega/Kano community, are armed with crude weapons, and say that they will go all the way to Bunagana to liberate the Congo from the M23.

That last bit contradicts some of the allegations making the rounds in Goma recently. Leaders of the Hutu community, in particular, have been saying that the Raia have linked up with M23 and may even be receiving arms and ammunition from them or from Rwanda. The connection had allegedly been made by members of another militia, the Front de défense du Congo (FDC), which has close connections with the M23 and Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, but is also has ties to the Nyanga and Tembo communities of southern Masisi.

These suspicions have not been confirmed, but it indicates what a nest of swirling rumors the region has become of late.

So who are the Raia Mutomboki? There are more questions than answers at the moment. In particular, whether the Raia’s sudden rise in power is due to outside support, and whether they are, as some say, beginning to create more centralized, hierarchical structures. While the M23 link has been suggested by some, and fiercely denied by others, many members of local political elites are sympathetic toward their cause. At a recent workshop we organized in Bukavu, several local politicians were loudly enthusiastic about the Raia, saying that they had achieved what the Congolese army had not (unfortunately with a lot of collateral damage).