GOMA, 16 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - Before colonialism in Africa, community life centred on ethnic customs and culture. In pre-colonial Congo, people lived under the authority of a traditional chief, in observance of these cultural norms.
According to Jean-Marie Kati Kati Muhongya, a political analyst and civil rights activist in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, communities continued their traditional practises even after Congo became a fiefdom of Belgian King Leopold II in the 1880s and later a Belgian colony. One of those customs was to segregate young boys in the bush for up to one month, to prepare them for manhood. Kati Kati said that during their time of seclusion, youths underwent training in many fields, including how to protect their communities from intruders.
In the 1960s, soon after independence from Belgium, politicians who were discontent with the country's leadership organised such youths into armed militia groups. From January 1964, Kati Kati said, one such leader, Pierre Mulele, who served as education minister in post-colonial Congo, organised the youths into strong militias as part of what he termed "the peasants' revolution". A Maoist who was trained in China in guerrilla warfare, Mulele is credited with encouraging a Marxist-Leninist struggle in an effort to remove Mobutu Sese Seko, a Western-backed autocrat.
Kati Kati said Mulele drew support from the traditional chiefs, who were often medicine men, to encourage youths to join the armed struggle. The youths believed that the medicine men had made them invincible to bullets, inspiring the slogan, "Mulele Maji", meaning if you are for Mulele, all bullets directed at you would turn to water. This slogan later evolved into "Mai Mai" or "Mayi Mayi" (Congolese Swahili for "Water Water"). Hence the naming of Mayi-Mayi militia groups in various parts in today's Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Jason Stearns, a Nairobi-based senior analyst in the International Crisis Group, told IRIN that the Mayi-Mayi have existed in eastern DRC since the so-called "Mulelist rebellion" of the 1960s. The militias reappeared in force in 1993 in North Kivu, from which they spread to the rest of the east. The Mayi-Mayi was a local defence force against the predation of Mobutu's army and the influx of soldiers of the Forces armees Rwandaise (known as the ex-FAR)and "Interahamwe" militiamen from neighbouring Rwanda in 1994.
"In that sense, they are the result of a power void, which made communities arm their youth for protection," he said. "They kept this function of community protection throughout the war, and in some cases the population was proud and satisfied for these local defence forces. Indeed, the dawa, or magic, of the Mayi-Mayi comes from the Congolese soil, and the strong patriotism within the group strikes a cord within many Congolese."
Stearns said "Tunafia nchi yetu" (Swahili language for 'We die for our country') was the rallying cry of the government-supported Mayi-Mayi when it fought against the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la démocratie (RCD) rebels in the 1990s. Although many villagers became disillusioned with the Mayi-Mayi, they preferred it to the RCD and the Rwandan army - the latter being seen as foreign forces. Like any militia, the larger the Mayi-Mayi became, the more problems they had with supplies. As a result, they started preying on villages and imposed harsh taxes in markets and along trade routes.
"In this sense, the local communities preferred to be taxed by the Mayi-Mayi rather than by the RCD," he said.
When Mobutu seized power in 1965, he established a national army with recruits from all over the country. Attempts to topple him in 1976 prompted his "tribalising" the army, with most of the officers being drawn from his home territory in the northwest of the country. Kati Kati said the Mayi-Mayi controlled mining - of minerals including gold, diamonds and coltan - in the east, as well as the rampant regional arms-trafficking trade. As a result, they became quite powerful.
In the early 1990s, discontent with Mobutu's rule led to the formation of several rebel groups, most of them with bases in the east. Some of the Mayi-Mayi militia fought alongside the rebels, but most remained on the government side. These conflicts culminated in the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997 by an alliance of rebel movements led by Laurent Kabila, who seized power and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite Mobutu's ouster, however, fighting in the east continued. Rivalry for control of the region's mineral resources and interethnic conflict from the late 1990s to date has resulted in attacks against civilians, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing millions of others.
The Mayi-Mayi soon became a force in itself and went beyond its initial function of community protection. Militia warlords like Gen Padiri Bulenda and Col Dunia were supported by the government in Kinshasa, and their influence soon spread outside the confines of their original communities.
"As the Mayi-Mayi often recruits along tribal lines, this became a problem," Stearns said. "When the Tembo of Gen Padiri took control of territory inhabited by the Rega community, for example, strong tensions developed. Padiri's Mayi-Mayi were guilty of widespread rape and abuse around the town of Shabunda."
Regarding the Mayi-Mayi's role in continued instability in the Great Lakes region, Stearns said the big problem was that the group's inclusion in the Congolese peace negotiations that led to the formation of a transitional government in 2003 came too late.
"Because they were a very poorly structured force - it's more realistic to speak of 20 separate groups that are loosely linked - and Kinshasa purposely didn't want them to become a cohesive force, they had poor political representation at the talks," Stearns said.
"Today it is fair to say that the Mayi-Mayi in government do not represent most of the Mayi-Mayi groups in the Kivus and Katanga province," he said. "There is no one to lobby for their interests, and they have been marginalised in the army and in Kinshasa. ? Therefore - and because of their poor discipline - many have fallen out with the national army and reverted to banditry."
They have also become implicated in other regional conflicts. "Precisely because of this poor organisation, some Mayi-Mayi have become complicit in gun-running and gold smuggling, linking up with other militia like the FNL [Forces nationales de liberation] in Burundi," Stearns said, adding that there had been collaboration between the FNL and the Mayi-Mayi around Uvira (in South Kivu) and in the Ubware peninsula. Mayi-Mayi are also alleged to have participated in the August 2004 Gatumba massacre in Burundi.
With elections looming in the DRC, Stearns saw the fate of the Mayi-Mayi as relying on two factors. "There need to be two things: better community-driven demobilisation programmes that provide for jobs or schooling for Mayi-Mayi who have left the army. Secondly, the Mayi-Mayi needs to be given a fair place in the national army," he said.
Demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration efforts targeting the Mayi-Mayi in the Kivus had not even started, "and they will be urgently needed," he said. "Up to 40 percent or 50 percent of some Mayi-Mayi groups were children - what will happen to them now? How will they be integrated into society after four to seven years in the army?
"If they feel marginalized in the army," he warned, "they will revert to banditry and will become mercenaries available to the myriad of discontented politicians in the east who will lose power in elections."