This article proposes an explanation for the emergence of non-state governance in situations of apparent state collapse, based on an ethnographic study of the armed rebellion in Butembo (eastern Democratic Republic of Congo). The model of explanation is inspired by Charles Tilly's description of state making as organized crime, in which armed rebels and private economic agents enter an agreement for private protection. The study seeks to explain how an original meeting between Butembo's armed rebels of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie — Mouvement de Libération (RCD–ML) and an existing network of cross-border traders actually led to a ‘pluralizing’ moment, in which the reinterpretation of existing relations and regulatory practices contributed to a gradual transformation of the institutional framework and local governance. Recently, this local political order has entered into increasing competition with the internationally induced project of political ‘transition’, based on a conflict between dynamics of state building and translocal political (trans)formation.