“Kidnapping” in Eastern Congo: “Grievance-oriented” Struggles & Criminality?

Early November 2018, I visited one of the Eastern Congo city of Uvira located Southward of Bukavu, the main city of South Kivu Province. Uvira is the second largest city of the South-Kivu region. For practical and security reasons, some passengers travelling from Bukavu towards the second largest city of this Province do cross by Rwanda and/or sometimes Burundi. The two countries are among neighbors of the East part of Congo. The choice of undertaking the Rwanda-Burundi itinerary is not only linked to safety concerns; but, it is also connected to fearing transport and road conditions. The reason is that whoever decides to not cross any border must encounter two main challenges. On one hand, from Bukavu to Kamanyola, one needs to go through Ngomo escarpments. Whether you drive a car or a motorcycle, Ngomo escarpment brings a bitch to the extent you feel flying on air while on motorcycle or driving in a vehicle. The striking question that makes one thinking twice before undertaking the itinerary is the way you can, at any time, fall into the hands of kidnappers. Kidnappers are currently active in the Ruzizi Plain; that is from Kamanyola up to Uvira city. Though thoroughly criminal, kidnapping has become another form of violence in the region and it seems having an origin from the neighboring Province of North-Kivu. 

The Ruzizi region has a lot to say regarding what makes people and mainly the youth engaging and enroll into armed groups. Resorting to guns has become a regular mean of expressing someone’s anger or collective frustration. During 60s rebellion known as Simba-Mulele, the region is known for having espoused rebel and ‘revolutionary’ movements. With a slight truce one can describe as falling within the positive peace, local armed groups have since then been proliferating and had widened their scopes of influence by late 90s. Violence in Congo is deeply embedded into demands of better living conditions coupled with other socio-political loopholes that have been created from colonial era. Following the country’s independence from Belgians, the public had had high expectations to have their standard of living and social rights will improve. Rebel groups start to be formed as to widely impose this view which many have thought is being unlikely being achieved. Nevertheless, rebel groups have encountered several challenges to the extent some had fallen into arbitraries. The failure of 60s rebellions and the post-independence violence had led to the establishment of Mobutu’s regime. The regime has had a great role in what is largely discussed around Congo’s state fragility. Though the fragility is inherited from colonial period, Mobutu’s regime had rather contributed to worsen socio-economic conditions especially in rural and remotes regions of the Eastern Congo. The proliferation and reliance on armed maneuvers has entered an era of unprecedented crises involving currently the kidnapping.

Ngomo Escarpements: Bukavu to Uvira

From August up to late November 2018, more than 83 kidnapping cases had taken place in the sole region of Ruzizi plain[1]. The kidnapping nightmare does end up by indulge relatives to pay ransoms. Per group kidnapped, the ransoms range from $200 up to $500; that is, on average a person kidnapped may pay around $150-200. These incidents of kidnapping are widely spread in the vast region which borders with Burundi and Rwanda to a lesser extent. However, localities of Lemera, Kigoma, Luberizi and Kabunambo are considered as epicenters of these incidents. In most cases, these localities are targeted due to how they display power confrontation al local levels. In addition, kidnappers do exploit an absence of the national army to operate freely. In some case, the national army behaves as a “blind leading another blind”. Having said that armed men and national army behave alike; the quest of money through kidnapping stands an alternative for armed groups to collect monies for running their businesses.

Kidnapping targets single person to group of people. Since August 2018, group of people kidnapped ranges on average from single person to group of 4 people. On the above stated period, kidnapping in Ruzizi plain has mainly targeted men more than women. Out of 83 reported cases, 71% are men. Next to different motives making these criminals to aim ransoms, kidnappers do target individuals who may be able to pay. These are generally schools’ headmasters and teachers, villages’ chiefs, traders, motorcycle drivers but also people whom their opponents may pay armed groups as matter of settling accounts indirectly. That is, armed groups would benefit from both sides clashing over any issue who would be resorting to them in order revenge. The role of village chiefs suspected of siding with the national army to wipe out rebels is to large extent loud. Some are targeted for having played dubious role of pleasing both sides. The complexity and dynamics around armed mobilization in the region explains decisions behind targeted kidnapping. However, one needs to recognize that even passengers, whom road gangs feel they can pay, are sometimes rounded up by these armed men seeking desperately to diversify sources of funds.  

Luvungi City, one of the the populated city in Ruzizi Plain. One can guess its Socio-economic conditions

Besides roads gangs and robbers in the Ruzizi Plain, a firstly organized kidnapping in the region might have taken place around 2013. By organized kidnapping, one reads taking forcibly a person and initiate negotiations to get ransoms. These types of incidents occurred in Ruzizi after the recalcitrant Bede Rusagara had seemingly imported the criminal tactics from North-Kivu. Kidnapping in Rutshuru and around the Volcanoes-Virunga park is widely multifaceted. But behind the scene, the same armed groups belonging generically to Maimai are specifically cited among those engaging into kidnapping civilians. Engaging in such criminal is again another expression of failure to sustain their struggles. Kidnappers are young militants and armed groups’ leaders who have at some point been reluctant to engage into reintegration or demobilization processes. Whenever defeated or fallen into internal dissidence, these groups found shelter in remote regions where their strongholds are hardly attacked by the national army. By being unable to sustain conventional military wars; disconnected to sources of funds, armed groups resort to all means to survive. By getting involved into such criminal activities, observers tend to overlook the relevance of struggles that aimed generally to express anger over wide social and economic inequalities.

Though it would sound as “playing devil’s advocate”, grappling contours of “rebel groups” in the Eastern Congo cannot be shadowed by some of these dynamics. Reading the sense of “small wars and brutalization of violence” in “The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars”, Kalyvas (2006:55) suggests digging deeply into the origin of violence while avoiding to interpret violence instead of causes of civil war. While visiting some of the Ruzizi Plain localities (Luvungi and Sange) around 12-13th November 2018, I unlikely agree that kidnapping falls only within the “criminal gangs”. Using criminal lenses to judge kidnapping seems as simplifying a complex context. Though not yet researched, it seems that kidnapping needs to immediately be contained and all means deployed for the sake of protecting local population. However, the socio-political and economic conditions of the region and specifically that of the youth must constitute a primary concern as does kidnapping. Desperate hundreds of young guys, sitting across streets with no hope for their future backs and would justify the choice of relying on risky means to get aired. And by the way, one can also understand particularly the meaning of urban violence in some cities of the Congo.


PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com

[1] I am indebted to Oscar Dunia, a local researcher who keeps an eye on this tragic issue in the region. Oscar has helped to gather the data and provided some insights on the ways kidnapping is organized but motives behind the kidnapping proliferation. 

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PhD fellow @ErasmusUnivRotterdam/ISS: Microeconomic Analysis of Conflict. Congolese, blogger advocating 4r Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC In the top of that, proud of being "villageois"

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