By Jake W.
Congo’s conflict has seen the rise and fall of numerous warlords and rebel movements over the years. Many of these names are so uninteresting to international media that they barely make a Reuters headline. Despite this, a number of warlords have made their name known across the region, and sometimes even across the world. One of these men is Kakule Sikuli Lafontaine.
It is unknown when Lafontaine was born, or where he was born for that matter, but it is believed that he began his career as a rebel in 1993, during the final days of the Mobutu regime. Lafontaine, an ethnic Nande, joined militias from his community loyal to the invading Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) of Laurent Kabila, which toppled the Mobutu regime with the aid of Rwanda and Uganda. After Kabila fell out of favor with his former foreign allies, Lafontaine supported Kabila’s new government and fought against the invading Rwandan/Ugandan coalition and their local allies. In 2000, he emerged as the leader of what would become the predecessor to his Union of Congolese Patriots for Peace (UPCP) group, aligning with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the newest generation of militias made up of the remnants of the former government of Rwanda that carried out the 1994 genocide. They both had a common enemy, and thus, worked well together.
Towards the end of the Second Congo War, Lafontaine and his group agreed to integrate into the national army. Two years later, in 2004, Lafontaine abandoned the integration process and returned to the bush to re-establish his Mai-Mai group. In 2005, Lafontaine and his militia joined the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO), the third largest armed group in eastern Congo at the time. He became a prominent leader in the movement, with his section of the group becoming known as “PARECO-Lafontaine”. Under PARECO, Lafontaine fought heavily against Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a Rwandan-backed Tutsi group. PARECO originally allied with the Congolese government against the CNDP, but fell out of favor with them towards the end of the CNDP conflict due to their lack of faith in the army’s ability to fight. On the topic of fleeing government troops, Lafontaine was quoted as saying “These soldiers are cowards. They just flee and then rape and pillage in the cities”.
In 2008, following the end of the CNDP war, Lafontaine broke off from PARECO, establishing the Union of Congolese Patriots for Peace (UPCP) under his command. The group took an anti-government stance, viewing the regime of Joseph Kabila as inefficient, and to some extent, foreign controlled. He also cited the government’s inability to fight against foreign rebel groups as a reason for fighting. The group maintained its ties with the FDLR and continued to recruit from the Nande community. In 2012, the UPCP had grown to nearly 2,000 men, with strong regional allies as well. Lafontaine hoped to establish a coalition that would eventually topple the Congolese government. After the defeat of the M23 rebellion in 2013, Lafontaine continued this rhetoric, but the strength of his group gradually began to fade.
With the rise of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated in 2015 led by Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, the UPCP suffered heavy losses. The NDC-R and allies targeted the UPCP due to their alliance with the FDLR, which was the primary NDC-R target. Around this time, Lafontaine fled the country and was in exile from that point on. He continued to lead his group from the sidelines as the NDC-R progressed. In 2016, the Mai-Mai Mazembe emerged, another anti-FDLR group, this time coming from Lafontaine’s own Nande community. At this point, the Nande were angry at the FDLR for their abuses towards their population, and had established Mai-Mai Mazembe to fight against them. Lafontaine’s UPCP was considered a target as well due to his relationship with the FDLR. The emergence of Mai-Mai Mazembe severely weakened the UPCP, and forced them out of their main base in Bunyatenge. Many UPCP units joined the Mazembe, while one remained, based on the western shores of Lake Edward and led by an officer named Muhambalyaki.
In mid-2017, Lafontaine once again entered the country to help support the creation of Mai-Mai Vivuya, a group believed to be led by John Tshibangu and Richard Kiyondo Bisamaza, who established the movement from Kampala, Uganda. The primary objective of Mai-Mai Vivuya was to attack the town of Beni, close to where it was based. Lafontaine helped the group recruit fighters and unsuccessfully tried to form an alliance with other local militias. The group carried out an attack on a police station in 2017, then was attacked by a joint Congolese army/United Nations force in 2018. These were the only two reported incidents of the group’s activity, and Lafontaine’s involvement in the militia seemed to end around late 2017.
Lafontaine returned to his home territory of Lubero in early 2018. Lafontaine allegedly began to be involved with the FPP-AP group, helping to finance it and support it with troops. The FPP-AP itself originated as Mai-Mai Mazembe splinter, led by Kasereka Kabidon. The group has established itself as a rival of the NDC-R, Mai-Mai Mazembe, and also to some extent the FDLR. Lafontaine has supported the group from behind the scenes, careful not to be visibly involved as many Nande resent his former alliances with the FDLR. In 2019, a former UPCP officer was arrested by the Congolese army. Lafontaine believed that FPP-AP officer Jacques Buligho, also known as “Safari”, had tipped off the army, allowing them to arrest the officer. Lafontaine ordered some of his men to kill Safari. After being wounded in an attack by Lafontaine’s troops, Safari surrendered to the army and is currently in prison. In May 2020, Lafontaine decided to finally leave the bush and surrendered to the army, alongside Kakule Jeteme, who had taken over the Mai-Mai Charles group in 2019. The status of Lafontaine is currently unknown, but it is likely that he is continuing to operate in North Kivu’s network of armed mobilization clandestinely, despite having surrendered.