Subject: CONGO-BRAZZAVILLE: Background on militia groups 1999.2.17

Subject: CONGO-BRAZZAVILLE: Background on militia groups 1999.2.17

CONGO-BRAZZAVILLE: Background on militia groups

NAIROBI, 17 February (IRIN) - An estimated 200,000 residents of southern Brazzaville and an undetermined number of people in Pool and southern regions have been displaced since December 1998 as a result of the latest conflict involving militia groups and government forces. The Congolese people, who had not yet recovered from the devastating 1997 civil war, are now facing a new and potentially more serious crisis, humanitarian sources say.

Insecurity linked to armed groups allied to Congo's key political figures has continued sporadically since the end of the 1997 war. Without a resolution to the militia phenomenon, regional analysts say it is difficult to foresee an end to the instability plaguing the country. The potential for a wider and more explosive conflict would persist even if government forces succeeded in gaining control of the security situation in the immediate term, they say.

The militia groups were created to serve as the private armies of the country's three main political leaders. Militia men are drawn mainly from the home areas of the respective leaders, a trend which has resulted in sharp cleavages between regional groups based on ethnic or regional lines.

"The politics of Congo-Brazzaville are triangular, representing three different parts of the country. Two sides of the triangle become aligned against the third, and those alliances are constantly shifting," one analyst told IRIN.

The level of discipline among the militia has varied and some have been accused of serious human rights abuses against unarmed civilian populations, further contributing to growing divisions and feelings of resentment.

The entrenchment of a militia culture in Congo-Brazzaville has been fuelled by several factors, including worsening socio-economic conditions, widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity, a sense of hopelessness, the legacy of the 1993/4 and 1997 civil wars, the pervasiveness of and easy access to weapons and instability in neighbouring countries.

Agreements reached after the 1993/4 civil war to disarm or dismantle the militia groups, including one initiated under UNESCO's Culture of Peace programme, were never implemented. The latest disarmament attempt, started by President Denis Sassou-Nguesso in December 1997, resulted in violent clashes. The militia are reluctant to relinquish their weapons because they serve as a source of power and revenue to them, observers note.

The following is a brief description of the main militia or armed groups now operating in the country:


The Ninja are allied to Bernard Kolelas, who was former president Pascal Lissouba's last prime minister and mayor of Brazzaville until Lissouba was defeated by Sassou's forces in the June-October 1997 civil war. Kolelas remained neutral through most of the war and served as a mediator in the early part of the conflict. However, he later threw in his Ninja militia on the side of Lissouba in an unsuccessful joint attempt to defeat Sassou's forces. The Ninja then retreated into Kolelas' home region of Pool, which surrounds Brazzaville. The security situation in the Pool region has remained uncertain since then, with clashes between government forces and the Ninja intensifying in late September 1998.

In mid-December 1998, Ninja members were reported to have "infiltrated" the southern Brazzaville districts of Bacongo and Makelekele, which are considered to be Kolelas' strongholds (and which were relatively untouched and served as safe havens for displaced persons during the 1997 war). Three days of heavy weapons fire and shelling of the two districts by government forces succeeded in driving out the Ninja from the districts, but a new incursion by Ninja took place in the Kinsoundi area of Brazzaville on 21-22 January, media reports said. Kolelas, the leader of the Mouvement congolais pour la democratie et le developpement integral (MCDDI), is now living in exile in Washington.


Sassou, who had been president since 1979, lost to Lissouba in the country's first multi-party elections in 1992. Sassou's and Kolelas' militia groups were allied against Lissouba during the country's first civil war in 1993/4. That conflict followed controversial 1993 parliamentary elections in which both the MCDDI and Sassou's socialist Parti congolais du travail (PCT) alleged voting irregularities. Although a compromise was reached the following year, the 1993/94 conflict militarized the Congo's political culture, with the Cobra and the Ninja emerging from the PCT and the MCDDI, respectively. Sassou's Cobra militia, supported by Angolan troops, defeated Lissouba' s forces in the 1997 war.

The Cobra members are drawn from Sassou's sparsely-populated northern Congo. Since Sassou's return to power, it has been difficult to make a clear distinction between the Cobra and the regular army. Human rights groups have accused ill-disciplined Cobra militia of rape, arbitrary killings and other abuses against civilians. The number of Cobras is estimated by 'L'Autre Afrique' magazine at 8,000. While Sassou has integrated some into the regular army, many Cobras not selected for integration have retained their weapons and resorted to banditry and looting. Recent reports indicate a factionalism within the ranks of the Cobra.


Lissouba built up his own militia when his political opponents created the Ninja and the Cobra. Since the end of the 1997 war, his Cocoye militia, also called Zulus, have remained active in the southwestern regions of Niari, Bouenza and Lekoumou (known collectively as Nibolek). In April 1998, Cocoye militia took over the Moukoukoulou hydro-electric dam near Mouyondzi, cutting off electricity to much of southern Congo including the economic capital of Pointe-Noire for weeks. The crisis was resolved following an agreement between the Cocoye and a government delegation.

More recently, Cocoye militia were reported to have at least temporarily gained control of several towns in the south, including Nkayi, Sibiti, Mouyondzi and Loudima. Electricity in Pointe-Noire was again cut off in January 1999 when Cocoye militia took control of a power station, media reports said. An attack on Dolisie took place in late January and fighting was reported to be continuing in the area. Lissouba, leader of the Union panafricaine pour la democratie sociale (UPADS), is now living in exile in London. The Cocoye and the Ninja have recently become formally allied in the Mouvement National pour la Liberation du Congo (MNLC).


The regular army has traditionally been led by officers mainly from northern Congo. A portion of the army reportedly remained sympathetic to Sassou after his defeat by Lissouba in the 1992 elections. Since his return to power, Sassou's control over the army has, however, been tenuous. One of the problems has been irregular payment of soldiers' salaries.

The army is supported by Angolan troops, who have remained in the country since helping Sassou win the 1997 war. Analysts estimate their current number at 1,500. 'La Semaine Africaine' newspaper recently quoted an Angolan officer in Brazzaville as saying Angolan troops would stay in the country as part of efforts to combat the alleged cooperation between the rebel movements seeking to topple the governments of Angola, DRC and Congo-Brazzaville.

UNHCR on Friday said it had confirmed that some Rwandans who had been refugees in Congo-Brazzaville had joined the latest fighting in the country. It said 300-400 Rwandans from northern sites and "several hundred men" from the Kintele refugee camp near Brazzaville had been armed and deployed by the Congolese armed forces. Thousands of Rwandan refugees arrived in the country in May 1997 after fleeing their refugee camps in eastern DRC. Rwandan elements were reported to have participated on both sides of the conflict during the 1997 war in Brazzaville.

Opposition groups have said other foreign forces, including Cubans, are supporting Sassou, a claim denied by the government. The government, meanwhile, has alleged that Angolan UNITA rebels are supporting the Ninja, a claim denied by the opposition.

A map of Congo-Brazzaville is available on the Web at:

See also IRIN Background Brief of 22 October 1997 on Congo (available on ReliefWeb)


Date: Wed, 17 Feb 1999 15:29:51 -0300 (GMT+3) From: IRIN - Central and Eastern Africa <> Subject: CONGO-BRAZZAVILLE: Background on militia groups 1999.2.17

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar,