Youth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—as everywhere else—are the main participants in violent conflict. They constitute the vast majority of the national army and the plethora of armed militias in Eastern DRC. One of the most recent self-styled ‘resistance’ movements attracting hundreds of young fighters to join its ranks is Maï-Maï Yakutumba. But why do so many young Congolese people continue to join such resistance groups, which are often simply opportunities for warlords to profit by exploiting local populations and natural resources in the territories they seize? The leaders of these movements have taken advantage of economic insecurity and the lack of alternative livelihoods for youth in these parts of DRC, as well as the perception that President Joseph Kabila’s regime is illegitimate and corrupt.Since June 2017, Maï-Maï Yakutumba has waged a low-grade guerrilla campaign against government forces in the Kivu region.Since June 2017, Maï-Maï Yakutumba has waged a low-grade guerrilla campaign against government forces in the Kivu region. In September 2017, they made headlines when they attacked the lakeside town of Uvira, near the Burundi border, before being repelled by government forces. The group, formed in 2007 by local militias that refused to be integrated into the Congolese army, has “well-established gold smuggling networks” on Lake Tanganyika, which borders Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia.
In their study of Maï-Maï militias in Eastern Congo, Koen Vlassenroot and Frank Van Acker linked violence perpetrated by youth militias to “frustrations provoked by social exclusion.” They emphasized that violence often offers a path to higher socioeconomic status for these young men. 1 Demobilization in the DRC is especially challenging because it occurs in “a context of generalized poverty” and insecurity, which makes violence seem like the only way to access political power.
The current political crisis in DRC helps to explain the resurgence of Maï-Maï Yakutumba and the decisions of hundreds of young men to join the insurgency. Youth made up the majority of protesters when President Joseph Kabila attempted to modify the electoral law to extend his stay in power in early 2015. The rebels have taken advantage of widespread and increasing frustration with the Kabila regime, which they accuse of corruption, mismanagement of natural resources, and being under the influence of foreign powers.
The group’s founder, William Yakutumba, has tried to establish himself as the new liberator-hero for Kivu youth. In an audio statement released in September 2017, he made “an official declaration of war against the regime of Joseph Kabila,” which he accused of furthering the “balkanization of [the] country.” Yakutumba has skilfully employed patriotic language to frame his rebellion as a just cause against an illegitimate regime harming everyday Congolese people.
Since the 1990s, multiple rebellions and militias have emerged in Eastern DRC, attracting youths who are socially, economically, and politically frustrated by promising them financial reward and political agency. Examples include the bloody episodes of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and the M23 rebellion in North Kivu.
Yakutumba has tried to unify the various anti-Kabila rebel forces in the Kivu region, claiming that the “military option” is the way to “chase the dictator Joseph Kabila from power.” His clarion call has evoked memories of past “liberation” campaigns such as the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (AFDL), which ousted President Mobutu Sese Seko, and the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), which fought against President Laurent Kabila. Both movements, however, were backed by foreign states seeking to “create territorial spheres of interest within which they could plunder the Congo’s riches.” 2 Yakutumba has managed to convince these youths that yet another rebellion is needed to free the country from the dictatorship it has endured since Kabila’s controversial election victory in 2011.
He has also emphasized the security and humanitarian crisis in the Kasai region in south-central DRC (far away from Kivu)—where fighting between the army and local militias has displaced 1.4 million people in a year—in order to demonstrate that he is a nationalist and that he seeks to unite and “liberate” the entire country.
Those who join these causes for patriotic reasons soon become aware that the main motivations behind the various liberation movements over the past three decades have been greed and financial gain. Nevertheless, many will still join liberation movements if they are convinced of their legitimacy and if they believe it is the best way to improve their economic situation. It seems that a large number of Congolese youth still await an ultimate savior who will lead them in a “noble and just struggle”—to use Patrice Lumumba’s words from his 1960 Independence Day speech—to free their country from its social, economic, and political troubles.
Congolese youth remain susceptible to recruitment into armed militias whose leaders use them to enrich themselves through activities that often involve violence against civilians, including rape and murder. In order to discourage them from joining these armed groups, the government and non-governmental organizations should cooperate to empower youth politically and socioeconomically. This can be done by supporting youth initiatives at the community level to alleviate unemployment and idleness, addressing the cost and accessibility of education, and renewing attempts to demobilize and recruit militiamen into the national army using financial incentives. As long as young people remain poor, unemployed, unable to exercise their rights, and distrustful of the government in Kinshasa, they will be subject to manipulation by leaders who promise to liberate them and their country.