Growing evidence demonstrates that the organizational norms and structures of rebel groups influence how they utilize violence against civilians. However, most studies examining rebel groups’ repertoires of violence have underscored economic factors, such as access to and control of natural resources (see here and here), while giving relatively little attention to social factors, such as shared identities based on ideology or ethnicity. This is a critical gap, as social relations and interactions are essential components of how rebel groups foster and maintain support, which is often tied to their use of violence. These dynamics are particularly relevant in territorial areas that are governed by rebel groups. Studies in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Uganda, and Côte d’Ivoire demonstrate how, when, and why some rebel groups provide public services, such as security, justice, and development, to the communities under their control. In these contexts, civilian support for rebel groups cannot be maintained solely through coercion, there must be a degree of voluntarism, if the rebel group is to survive. How do broader social dynamics underpinning rebel-civilian relations influence daily interactions under rebel governance?
In the Kivus—a region in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—civilian-combatant relations are influenced by the notion of autochthony, the quality of being ‘born from the soil’, or indigenous. Individuals who participated in my research in two rural communities in the Kivus, in Masisi and Fizi Territories, explained that their autochthonous relations not only placed limits on the abuses rebel groups commit, but also created a certain tolerance of these abuses. While autochthony is not the only factor at play, it is an important one to consider when we think about how violence is regulated under rebel governance.
A recent study found that there are 70 rebel groups active in the Kivus; most of these are small, with less than 200 fighters. Although they operate independently of each other, groups that mainly consist of fighters born and raised in the local communities where they operate are commonly referred to as the Mai Mai. Many of these Mai Mai consider and portray themselves as ‘self-defense’ forces for the different ethnic groups in the area. The Mai Mai have developed and utilized discourses around the notion of autochthony that exacerbate tensions between ‘original’ and ‘foreign’ inhabitants in the eastern DRC. These discourses are strategic, as they are framed in a way that also includes grievances related to land, power, and citizenship rights. While there are discrepancies between what these discourses claim and what the Mai Mai actually do, especially in terms of protecting the local population they claim to represent, these discourses are an important part of daily conversations and interactions in rural communities in the Kivus.
Research participants explained how their autochthonous relations put certain limits on the abuses the Mai Mai committed. As people commonly expressed: “The Mai Mai are forbidden to harass and steal from us. They cannot do these things because we share the same blood.” There was a common understanding that certain acts of violence were “off limits” because of strong connections between Mai Mai and civilians. Other informants attributed the Mai Mai’s relatively good behavior, particularly their discipline and accountability, to the rebels’ code of conduct. “It is very hard for the Mai Mai to do anything without their leaders knowing about it. And if they get caught, then we pity them because the soldier will receive a big punishment.” Although the punishments administered to these combatants were quite severe, including multiple beatings, there was a sense among some participants that these were fair and necessary to bring ‘order’ to their communities.
Individuals I spoke with also claimed that their autochthonous relationship gives them some leverage when negotiating with the rebel groups. Informants would often explain how it was easier to negotiate with the Mai Mai than the Congolese armed forces (FARDC). As one individual said: “The [customary] chief is usually more successful with Mai Mai than the FARDC. It is because they speak the same language, and share the same customs. If you look closely, you will also realize that they are related in some way.” This close social proximity is more noticeable between civilians and the Mai Mai than with the FARDC, allowing civilians to plead with the Mai Mai in a way that is not always possible with the FARDC. Customary chiefs could also hold the Mai Mai more accountable. As an elder explained: “The Mai Mai always say that they are here to protect civilians and their land. And when we advocate for them to stop abuses, we use this sentence, to remind them of their purpose.” However, other individuals pointed to how the community’s support for and collaboration with the Mai Mai, which is usually organized by the customary chiefs, gives them this advantage: “The big strategy is to give them food. Because we know that they are hungry and once we do this we can start talk and negotiate with them.” In this instance, compliance is strategic as it later allows individuals to negotiate and influence their social interactions.
On the other hand, Mai Mai’s violence may also be tolerated or even excused as a function of their autochthony. As one individual said: “There were many abuses by the Mai Mai toward civilians, but many people cover for them because they want to protect their family or friends.” Informants were not only more willing to report FARDC abuses than those of the Mai Mai, but they also found ways to excuse these abuses. After living for an extended period of time in the two communities where I conducted research, I was able to better capture these complexities during a conversation I had with a restaurant owner: “Despite how the Mai Mai treat you” people are happy because they are protecting them against the Banyamulenge [a different ethnic group]. They [civilians] let them [Mai Mai] mistreat them because it’s better to be mistreated by a Babembe [the ethnic group of the community I worked in and to which the Mai Mai belong] than the Banyamulenge.” Others framed their tolerance for abuse in terms of a parent-child relationship: One informant said, “We support the Mai Mai because they are our children, and if your child does bad things to you, you still love them.” Similarly, I was told: “We gave birth to these children but not all children turn out the same. Some of them drink beer and insult others, and then a difficult period is created.” Many informants referred to the Mai Mai as the ‘children of the community’. This did not always mean that the individual had a family member within the Mai Mai; instead, people use this expression to illustrate the broader ties between the community and the Mai Mai. When we speak about rebel groups governing civilians, we need to specify clearly who is defining and applying these distinctions between combatants and civilians, and whether they take into consideration the social identities and relations embedded in the local context.
Civilians’ understandings and experiences with the Mai Mai in these two communities demonstrate the complex ways in which rebel groups are socially embedded within local communities. Civilians are not only supporting the Mai Mai by providing them with material and logistical supplies, as is common in other cases, but they are also propagating their discourse. The civilian-Mai Mai relationships demonstrate the perplexing implications of social embeddedness across many communities, which influence the way violence is understood and regulated under rebel governance. It is imperative that these social micro-dynamics be taken into account in peacebuilding efforts.
Carla Suarez is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Dalhousie University.