Kidnapping in the Eastern Congo: ‘Grievance-oriented’ struggles and criminality? by Delphin Ntanyoma

From August to November last year, 83 cases of kidnapping were reported in Ruzizi Plain alone, part of Uvira territory in the Eastern Congo. While kidnapping can be viewed as a major problem in the DRC, Delphin Ntanyoma argues that it’s important to consider that violence in the Congo is deeply embedded in the demands for better living conditions coupled with other socio-political loopholes that have been created since the colonial era. 

Late last year, in November, I visited Uvira, one of the largest cities in the South Kivu region, Eastern Congo. The city constitutes an administrative center of Uvira Territory, having both the same name. For practical and security reasons, some passengers travelling from Bukavu, the capital city of the South Kivu Province, to Uvira pass through Rwanda and/or Burundi—two countries that border on the DRC. The choice of taking the Rwanda-Burundi route is not only linked to safety concerns, it is also connected to hazardous transport and road conditions. From Bukavu to Kamanyola, one must pass Ngomo escarpments[1]. What makes one think twice before undertaking the journey is the way in which you can, at any time, fall into the hands of kidnappers. Kidnappers are currently active in the Ruzizi Plain—from Kamanyola up to Uvira.

Though thoroughly criminal, kidnapping has become another form of violence in the Eastern Congo region. It has recently been practiced in the neighboring province of North Kivu, mainly in Rutshuru Territory to the extent one can guess that this practice has been imported in Uvira territory from the neighboring province.

Violence in the Congo is deeply embedded in the demands for better living conditions coupled with other socio-political loopholes that have been created since the colonial era. Following the country’s independence from Belgium, the public had had high expectations regarding the improvement of their standards of living. Rebel groups started to be formed, demanding an increase in living standards that many thought is unlikely to be achieved. Recently, the proliferation of and reliance on armed maneuvers has entered an era of unprecedented crises currently involving kidnapping.

From August up to late November 2018, more than 83 kidnapping cases had occurred only in the Ruzizi Plain region[2]. The kidnapping nightmare culminates in the paying of ransoms that average around $150-200. These incidents of kidnapping are widely spread in the vast region that borders on Burundi and Rwanda. However, localities of Ruzizi Plain such as Lemera, Kigoma, Luberizi, and Kabunambo are considered epicenters of these incidents. In most cases, these localities are targeted due to the way in which power confrontation occurs here at the local level. In addition, kidnappers exploit an absence of the national army in order to operate freely.

Kidnapping targets single persons to groups of people, and in Ruzizi Plain more men than women have been targeted: Out of the 83 reported cases, 71% of those kidnapped were men. In addition, kidnappers target individuals who may be able to pay. These are generally schools’ headmasters and teachers, villages’ chiefs, traders, motorcycle drivers, but also others targeted by their opponents settling accounts through arranged kidnappings. That is, armed groups can benefit from a clash between two parties, as they could then turn to them for revenge through arranged kidnapping. Kidnapping also targets village chiefs suspected of siding with the national army in their efforts to contain armed men. Some are targeted for having played the dubious role of pleasing both sides. The complexity and dynamics around armed mobilisation in the region explains decisions behind targeted kidnapping. However, one needs to recognise that even commuters are sometimes rounded up by these armed men desperately seeking to diversify their funding sources.

Kidnapping in Rutshuru and around the Volcanoes-Virunga Park is widely multifaceted. But behind the scenes, the same armed groups belonging to Maimai[3] are specifically cited among those engaged in the kidnapping of civilians. Engaging in such criminal activity is yet another expression of the failure to sustain their struggles. In Ruzizi Plain specifically, kidnappers are young militants and armed groups’ leaders who have at some point been reluctant to engage in reintegration or demobilisation processes. Whenever defeated or fallen into internal dissidence, these groups find 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 in such criminal activities, observers tend to overlook the relevance of struggles that generally aimed to express anger over wide social and economic inequalities.

Though not yet deeply researched, it seems that kidnapping needs to immediately be contained and all means deployed for the sake of protecting the local population. However, the socio-political and economic conditions of the region and specifically that of the youth must constitute a primary concern. Hundreds of desperate young men mull around on the sidewalks, with no hope for their future, justifying the choice of relying on risky means to air their grievances. Moreover, a better understanding of kidnapping in the Congo could help to understand the meaning of urban violence that is mushrooming across some of the country’s cities.

[1] The Ngomo escarpment is the hazardous route that links Bukavu City to Uvira via Kamanyola. Kamanyola is a growing agglomeration on the side of Congo bordering on Ruzizi Plain and Rwanda-Burundi countries. The escarpment is constituted by steep hills coupled with muddy conditions of the road that cause many accidents. For years, these conditions have ensured that passengers rather choose to go through Rwanda to reach Kamanyola.

[2] 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, and also about motives behind the kidnappings.

[3] Maimai are local armed groups falling under the ‘Autochthonous’ and nationalist fighters. The group is differently spelled into the literature to the extent that they are either called Mai Mai, Mayimayi or simply Mai. Maimai is a Swahili word meaning ‘water’ and expresses historical beliefs in the power of witchcraft to turn bullets into water.

About the author:


Delphin Ntanyoma is a PhD candidateat the ISS. His research falls within Conflict Economics and is part of the Economics of Development & Emerging Markets (EDEM) Program. With a background of Economics and Masters’ of Art in Economics of Development from ISS, the researcher runs an online blog that shares personal views on socio-economic and political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo but also that of the African Great Lakes Region. The Eastern Congo Tribune Blog can be found on the following link:






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1 Comment
  • theahilhorst
    6 March 2019

    Good post! What a sad illustration of the poverty of DRC that it is apparently worthwhile to kidnap people for a ransom between 150 and 200 USD.