Sylvain Malanda, Bralima's Congolese communications manager, was in his quiet office in the building next door when we visited in June. Under a hand-painted mural depicting some of Bralima's charitable activities (grain handouts, people lined up at a free clinic) and the legend "Bralima: Sower of Growth," Malanda seemed surprised when asked about corruption in the DRC: "We can do some favors and give gifts [to] politicians if they get in trouble or ask us. But no corruption." Malanda says the help is mutual: "The government is helping us a lot. Congo is open for business!"
In the east, however, with its virtually nonexistent government presence and horrifically bad transportation infrastructure, it is the rebels who determine what stays open. Anyone driving through eastern Congo quickly becomes familiar with the experience of getting stopped at checkpoints and being asked to pay fees. The checkpoints are low-tech affairs, often little more than a wooden log or slack rope thrown across a muddy red jeep trail, perhaps with a shack nearby sheltering a couple of guys holding Kalashnikovs. Still, even a single checkpoint can bring in more than $700,000 per year and probably much more, according to a 2008 report by the U.N. Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The checkpoints are the primary revenue source for armed groups in the area and bring in more than enough to fund an insurgency in a country where the average wage is about a dollar a day and used AK-47s can run for as little as $50. And with automatic weapons as prevalent as they are, almost anyone can be a checkpoint "rebel" in the eastern DRC, including less-than-scrupulous police and armed forces trying to supplement their anemic wages.
M23 is one of the major players in the blockade racket. Formed by those unsatisfied with a 2009 peace deal that had only nominally integrated the Rwandan-backed rebels into the Congolese army, the group, which is estimated to have up to 6,000 members, wants greater autonomy in parts of North Kivu province. The United Nations sanctioned M23 late last year, accusing it of murdering, raping, and looting across swaths of eastern Congo in an attempt to intimidate its way to power. Longtime Rwandan-Congolese rebel general Bosco Ntaganda, currently at the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, rape, and use of child soldiers, is one of the founders.
Eastern Congo's levy bosses aren't exactly hiding from international retribution. In a surprisingly easy-to-arrange conversation, we spoke by cell phone in July with a taciturn Rwandan calling himself Mr. Damien, "tax collector" for M23. Damien said that he splits his time between M23's three primary checkpoints, overseeing operations at the Bunagana, Kibati, and Kiwanja stations. As matter-of-factly as if discussing tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike, Damien explained that he charges $38 for a van to pass, $300 for a medium-sized goods truck, and $700 for a fuel tanker, handing out official-looking receipts for payment. The three main checkpoints bring in most of the group's funding, enough money to purchase weapons, pay salaries and bribes, and even occasionally dole out social aid to eastern Congo's poor.
Everyone gets stopped, even the Bralima trucks painted like big yellow-and-blue DRC flags. Damien explained that M23 takes $500 from the trucks hauling crates of Primus into rebel-controlled areas: "NGOs pay. People carrying charcoal pay. Women going to the market pay. Everyone pays! We don't do preferential treatments. So, of course, those who transport beer also pay." Drivers leaving for rebel areas are given extra cash to cover the payments, a security officer at one of Bralima's main distribution depots in eastern Congo told us. By the time the brown glass bottles reach their remote village destinations, prices can rise to four times the $1 they cost in Kinshasa.