The three-decade conflict in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has led to the proliferation of hundreds of armed groups. With the violence appearing to take an ethnic slant, several groups have emerged claiming to be protecting their communities from attacks. One such group is the Twirwaneho, which has become more active since 2019. Christopher P. Davey, who has extensively studied the drivers of conflict in eastern DRC, explains how the Twirwaneho’s claim of communal self-defence highlights the fractured nature of Congolese politics.
What is the conflict in the DRC all about?
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been a theatre of increasingly violent conflict since the Rwandan genocide of 1994 pushed over a million refugees across the common border. Rwanda’s efforts to capture those responsible for the genocide sparked two wars in two wars. Violence, driven by armed groups, has been persistent since.
Central to Congo’s politics is a broken relationship between the seat of government in Kinshasa, the underrepresented social and economic groups in the eastern region, and external parties. Added to this mix are transnational armed groups, foreign militaries, the UN peacekeeping mission and Congolese state actors like the military.
One of these groups is the Twirwaneho, a Banyamulenge – or South Kivu-based Congolese Tutsi – self-defence/armed group.
This group is important to understand because its rising profile demonstrates the unending nature of Congo’s war.
Who are the Twirwaneho?
The Banyamulenge are a minority group in South Kivu, eastern DRC, who have faced attacks based on their ethnicity. Formed in the early 2010s, Twirwaneho (meaning “let’s defend ourselves” in the Banyamulenge language) is a contemporary response by mutinying national army officers to continued conflict and local self-defence needs within the Banyamulenge community.
The overlap between self-defence and armed groups is not unique to the DRC. My research on the history of Banyamulenge soldiers shows that the gumino (“let’s stay here”) self-defence tradition was part the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s international campaign in the late 1980s. It was used to raise funds and recruit for the Rwandan civil war (1990-1994).
This led to a generation of fighters trained by the Rwandan Patriotic Front who got into the ranks of various armed groups across both Congo wars.
These groups include Twirwaneho. Its leader is Michel “Makanika” Rukunda, who was once in the Congolese national army before he mutinied in 2019. He transformed Twirwaneho militias into a militarily coordinated, and internationally represented and funded, fighting force. But he is also accused of human rights violations that have placed him on the European Union sanctions list.
The Twirwaneho’s direct role in national politics is minimal. However, the group has become a symbol of defiance for both the community it claims to defend and those who see Tutsis as foreign invaders. Also, a report from the UN group of experts on the DRC hints towards collaboration between Twirwaneho and the Rwanda-supported M23.
Is the group keeping the peace or fuelling conflict?
The Twirwaneho claim that neighbouring armed groups and the national army make up a coalition launching counterattacks on Banyamulenge villages. This is in reprisal for Twirwaneho operations against the military and other armed groups and connected populations.
My research shows that the Twirwaneho are related to, but distinct within, an array of armed groups in DRC engaged in a complex political, economic and at times existential struggle.
During Nairobi fieldwork, to understand more about the international side of the movement I met three young former rebels who had fled the Twirwaneho. They joined the group after their schools closed following increased local conflict. Graduating from students to soldiers, they fought this anti-Twirwaneho coalition. Echoing his community’s sentiment, one former Twirwaneho officer told me they are “not an armed group”. He emphasised this point:
… I was seeing myself as a civilian who decided to come and protect my community.
Inherent in the Twirwaneho’s fight are claims of stopping a Tutsi genocide in the DRC, also made by the M23. However, increased fighting across North and South Kivu has exacerbated violence against all civilians.
What’s behind the group’s rising profile?
Makanika as the emerging leader of the group has instilled discipline and “patriotism”. In my fieldwork I heard consistent claims of insufficient promotion and pay for Banyamulenge soldiers in the national army and persecution of their people. These claims became reasons for joining, along with a narrowing of options for traditional livelihoods.
As command centred under Makanika, his diaspora reputation grew. Many Banyamulenge in the US and African Great Lakes region credit him with preserving the community. Young Banyamulenge men have left families and careers to join the Twirwaneho. The group recruits school children, pressures community members to join and draws on existing self-defence groups.
Coordinated by the Mahoro Peace Association, the Banyamulenge diaspora has contributed hundreds of thousands of US dollars to displaced families in South Kivu. This is not an uncommon practice across other groups in the country.
The peace association asserts it does not actively raise money for Twirwaneho, but its leadership advocates for fighting to reclaim the homeland. This implicitly encourages support.
Many Banyamulenge do not consider any funds sent as support for an armed group. Rather, it is seen as mobilisation for the survival of the community.
What’s the end game?
What the Twirwaneho want is a complex question. Their social media posts broadcast goals of Banyamulenge peace and security in Congo. Yet, violence in the DRC is not a simple ethnic conflict. Although many Banyamulenge support the group, they are divided on how its goals are to be accomplished.
It is easy to see how a diaspora is willing to support the survival of their community. However, armed groups typically result in continued violence and military competition: rebels fight for material gains that do not translate into increased security for civilians.
This piece was written in collaboration with researchers at the Conflict and Human Security Research Group (GEC-SH/CERUKI).