Local Voices - Between army and militias: A volatile balance

This is the second story in our Local Voices – Congolese Communities & The Kivu Conflict series. The next story will be published on 19 December 2013.

In the many villages of Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rebels and government soldiers walk side by side in the streets, go to the same bars, and sometimes even drink beers together. In these areas, authority and force are not subject to any monopoly, but rather to a state of permanent negotiation between the different armed actors present. This situation leads to unusual compromises, which may or may not hold over time.

Jean-Claude, a soldier in the national army. Nyabiondo, North Kivu, September 2013.

Since the beginning of 2013 the Mai-Mai rebels of the APCLS, the People's Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (formerly known as the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo), have been able to walk calmly along the dusty streets of Nyabiondo, a small town about 90 kilometers north of Goma in the Masisi territory. Perhaps this is not overly surprising in a province which contains more than 15 armed groups, except that soldiers of the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) walk the same dusty streets in their boots without this posing the slightest problem.

In Nyabiondo, rebels and soldiers speak to one another, interact, smoke a cigarette together, or share a beer in a local nganda (bar). The two hills which overlook Nyabiondo on the opposite sides of the town have gained military significance: one is for the rebels, the other for the FARDC. Sandwiched between these hills are houses made out of mud, straw and corrugated iron, which house the town’s population of a few thousand.

Among this overabundance of frequently scruffy soldiers it is extremely difficult to tell the different factions apart: you can find as many FARDC soldiers in civilian clothing as militiamen wearing FARDC shirts and khaki berets. The same goes for policemen: officers of the Congolese National Police (PNC) wear the same uniforms as members of the APCLS police, if indeed they have one.

Today’s mutual acceptance between the FARDC and the APCLS in Nyabiondo has not always prevailed.

“In the past, FARDC soldiers and APCLS rebels would confront each other as soon as they met!" explains a female resident.

Officers of the armed APCLS group using radio communication in a bar in Nyabiondo. Masisi territory, North Kivu, August 2013.

“Today, we are pleased that the goat and the lion can eat at the same table!” she says. Since the soldiers and rebels ceased to be enemies, Nyabiondo’s population has enjoyed a certain level of calm. In early September 2013 the town’s schools opened their doors to hundreds of students, a clear sign that security had improved again.

As a result of the clashes between the FARDC and the M23 rebels in November 2012, when the M23 seized Goma, relations between the national army and the APCLS warmed. As the M23 is their ‘common enemy’, the APCLS assisted the FARDC, particularly in ​​Sake, to halt the M23’s advance. In exchange for this alliance, provincial military staff allowed APCLS members to gather in the towns of Kitchanga and Nyabiondo with the idea of integrating them into FARDC.

However, things are rarely that simple. In Kinshasa the central government refused to sanction the automatic integration of the militia into the army, instead insisting on a military competency exam to establish which rank integrated militiamen should occupy, which stalled the process. Although the situation remained under control in Nyabiondo, this was not the case in Kitchanga, where APCLS members came face to face with their worst enemies: FARDC commanders from the former National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebellion.

APCLS policemen stand guard while their commander negotiates with the major of the Congolese National Police in a shop. APCLS militiamen, government soldiers and national police officers have peacefully coexisted in Nyabiondo for over 12 months. Masisi territory, North Kivu, August 2013.

Relations between the two groups deteriorated rapidly over the control of Kitchanga, and were exacerbated by the manipulation of ethnic tensions. Over the course of a few days in February and March 2013 clashes claimed ​​at least 90 lives (according to the report of the Expert Group of theUnited Nations). Five hundred houses were destroyed, 100,000 people fled the city, and Kitchanga was virtually wiped off the map of Masisi.

Faced with the violence in Kitchanga, the people of Nyabiondo were delighted by the peaceful cohabitation between the FARDC and the APCLS. The question remains, however, as to how long it will last.

Major Indi, FARDC commander stationed in Nyabiondo, in his military position. In September 2013 the FARDC was vastly outnumbered by APCLS members in Nyabiondo. Masisi territory, North Kivu, September 2013.

This cohabitation between the two forces has not meant that FARDC officers stationed in Nyabiondo have become ‘best friends’ with APCLS members. Indeed, far from it. While waiting for an order from his superiors about a possible change of attitude towards the rebels, a FARDC officer gave us his point of view on the security situation he faces on the ground, as well as on APCLS members: “[The APCLS is] a tribal army that only protects its own community!”

Interview excerpts with a FARDC officer stationed in Nyabiondo. "The ground is slippery and insecurity reigns! There are three forces here: the APCLS, the Guides, and Action Movement for Change (MAC). But I manage them. These armed groups are tribal. FARDC is there to protect all people, irrespective of tribe."

FARDC soldiers on a break in civilian clothing, having a smoke in the remains of an old tea factory dating from the colonial era. Nyabiondo, North Kivu, August 2013.

For the civil authorities of the Osso-Banyungu sector (a local government entity), the headquarters of which are in Nyabiondo, the situation is no clearer. The APCLS has tended to set itself up as an alternative authority, with the aim of reaping the benefits accrued through the exercise of state authority. Rebels have set up roadblocks, where they tax local people on market days, as well as coltan freight trucks from Walikale on their way to Goma. When given the opportunity, APCLS colonels interfere in civil matters, such as debt resolution or land conflicts, acting as mediators or arbitrators. Holding a gun helps you to be heard.

An officer of the PNC (National Congolese Police) in Nyabiondo. A considerable number of Nyabiondo’s policemen are former Mai-Mai militiamen of the Akilami group who occupied Nyabiondo during the RCD rebellion (1998-2003). For this reason, some of the town’s inhabitants describe them as ‘family police’, as the former militiamen were often children from the village. Nyabiondo, Masisi territory, September 2013.

To avoid these processes being abused and to remind APCLS members that their role is not to replace the state or tribal chiefs, local authorities regularly organise ‘mixed security meetings’, in which different actors are involved: the APCLS, the FARDC, local authorities, civil society and even the peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

The presence of APCLS militiamen does not stop this 65-year-old resident of Nyabiondo from laughing when she sees us arriving at her house. Nevertheless, she says that she is very frightened when she sees civilians carrying weapons. The elderly are particularly vulnerable during confrontations: they often lack the strength to run and escape. During the last confrontation, this old lady hid on a riverbank for two days. Nyabiondo, North Kivu, August 2013.

The Secretary of Osso-Banyungu sector explains how this ‘local technique’, as he calls it, despite its unofficial character, allows different actors to safeguard the security of people. However, the presence of armed groups, including the APCLS, affects how it functions.

Excerpts from an interview with the Secretary of Osso-Banyungu sector. “Even up in the hills on the other side, I cannot dare to go. If armed see me there [as an official state authority], they will be angry. […] We meet at least twice a month with the APCLS. It’s a negative force which we cannot gather together, but peace for the population requires us to do so. By using this technique, the harassment of citizens is limited. “

A farmer shells beans in front of her home. Nyabiondo, North Kivu, September 2013.

According to some inhabitants of Nyabiondo, the APCLS’s tendency to present itself as an alternative authority is due in part to the weakness of the current administration. “APCLS’s meddling in civil matters is also a result of the irresponsibility of the sector authorities!” exclaims a civil society representative from Nyabiondo.

“When someone submits a legal or customary case to the sector, it can sometimes take months for the case to be processed. At that moment, the population loses its confidence in the system. People prefer to use alternative systems where cases will be processed in a timely manner, perhaps in the same week”, he explains.

Gérard, the Secretary of Osso-Banyungu administrative sector, in his office. Nyabiondo, Masisi territory.

The Secretary of the sector also recognises that people often approach the APCLS in order to find solutions to their problems, such as land disputes or debt settlements.This is a situation which the Secretary deplores. “When you throw a piece of meat to a dog, it opens its mouth, right?” he tells us, bitterly.

The local commander of the Congolese National Police in Nyabiondo, with some of his men behind him. Masisi territory, September 2013.

Everybody in Nyabiondo agrees on one thing: the government has the ability to take responsibility and integrate APCLS members into the national army. This integration would allow the local authorities, both civilian and military - as well as the town’s inhabitants - to breathe a huge sigh of relief. However, faced with the dilemmas and constraints of a hypothetical integration process, there is a strong possibility that Nyabiondo will remain in limbo, where each faction will jostle for influence and survival at the expense of others. This is likely to continue until the ‘local technique’ of the ‘mixed security meetings’ reaches its limit or until decisions made further up the chain of command disrupt the deal and dash the compromises made between the rebels, the national army and the local authorities. It may then be that the residents of Nyabiondo have to flee again.

Inhabitants of Lukweti village returning home after a distribution of food and non food items organized by a Non Governmental Organization in Nyabiondo. Masisi territory, August 2013.


Adopting the voice of the local actors does not mean that International Alert, Local Voices or Search For Common Ground endorse their views or defend their 'cause'. Instead we seek to communicate the fears, beliefs and wishes of local people in order to contribute to the search for sustainable peace-building solutions.

Text and photographs: Alexis Bouvy.
Facilitation in the field: Crispin Mvano and Rodolpe Mukundi.

© Local Voices 2013 with International Alert & Search For Common Ground