Friday, January 10, 2014

Katanga Conflict Reignites in Southern Congo

Amidst new civil wars brewing in South Sudan and the Central African Republic over the past month, one of central Africa’s oldest civil conflicts has also reignited.  Rebels who want to split Katanga province away from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.attacked Lubumbashi, their provincial capital in southern D.R.C., on January 7th.  The ensuing eight-hour battle with the military left 26 people dead and caused an exodus which left the million-plus-population city nearly deserted.  This follows a similar attack on the city in 2013 and separatist rebel attacks on the Lubumbashi airport in 2011 and 2012 (as reported at the time in this blog).

The origins of the Katanga conflict date to 1960, when Congolese people rose up and threw off more than a century of brutal, bloody rule by the Kingdom of Belgium.  Amid the violence, Patrice Lumumba rose to power as the Congo’s new Marxist dictator, and this threw European and Western economic stakeholders in the former Belgian Congo into a panic.  Many still suspect a Western hand—Belgian or British or American, perhaps even that of the C.I.A.—in what happened next: the prompt secession of two resource-rich southern regions, the Mining State of Kasai and the State of Katanga, as separate states refusing to bend to Lumumba’s redistributionist vision.  Katanga, after all, even today provides 30% of the world’s cobalt and 10% of its copper.

Katanga in 1961
The Katangese and Kasaian separatist movements were quelled by Lumumba’s military.  But it was a tumultuous time for the rest of the young Congolese nation too.  Lumumba was overthrown in a coup d’état by right-wing, pro-Western elements and then spirited away to Katanga’s capital, Élisabethville, as Lubumbashi was then known, and executed under murky circumstances.  For a while, Congo was divided down the middle between Joseph Mobutu (a.k.a. Mobutu Sese Seko) ruling from the capital, Léopoldville (as Kinshasa was then known), while Lumumba’s former vice-prime-minister, Antoine Gazenga, ruled the eastern half of Congo (including half of Katanga) from a makeshift capital in Stanleyville (now Kisangani).

A Belgian mercenary in 1961
While the Katanga conflict was raging in the early 1960s, the United Nations intervened on Lumumba’s behalf and tried to bring the corporate-friendly Katangese rebels to heel.  The U.N.’s secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, was in particular skeptical of whose hand was really behind the Katangese declaration of independence.  After all, the rebel army contained quite a few Belgian military officers and white South African and Rhodesian mercenaries.  In 1961, Hammarskjöld died when the plane he was flying in, en route to peace talks, was shot down over Katanga.  The British Guardian newspaper has recently (as discussed at the time in this blog) uncovered indications that the plane may have been downed by U.K.-financed mercenaries just over the border in what is now Zambia but was then the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a semi-autonomous British colony teeming with white-supremacist militias.  The U.N. recently reopened the case.

A bank note issued by the brief-lived State of Katanga
Katanga separatism never really went away in the intervening decades, but had been quiet for a while.  The latest violence, in Lubumbashi, is reputedly the work of the Mai Mai Kata Katanga, also called the Bataka Katanga Mai-Mais.  Kata Katanga means “Katanga Cut Off,” mai means “water,” and mai mai refers to a magical water which the rebels believe makes them bulletproof—a persistent theme in the superstition-drenched folklore of central African bush armies, including, most notoriously, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.) in Uganda.  Also like the L.R.A., the Mai-Mais employ child soldiers—over 500 of whom were “demobilized” (i.e. freed from service) by the U.N. in 2013 (see photo at top of article).  The Mai-Mais’ leader, Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga, was freed in a prison break in 2011.  Before his capture in 2006, Mutanga fought against Rwandan-backed militias on behalf of President Joseph Kabila, who is still the current president.  (Kabila’s father and predecessor, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, came to power by deposing the Mobutu in a 1997 coup d’état.)

Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga, Katanga’s new rebel leader
The Mai-Mais, thus, are a new wrinkle in the story of Katangese separatism.  The initial Katanga rebellion in 1960 had been led by Moïse Kapenda Tshombe, a member of the Lunda ethnic group also found in Angola.  It is not known, so far as I know, what Mutanga’s ethnic origin is, but it is reported that some of the rebels who retreate from Lubumbashi this week left behind the flag of yet another rebel group, called the Katanga Tigers.  This group is associated with the Luba ethnic group, to which the Kabila family belongs and who are fierce rivals of the Lundas.  In the early 1960s, after the failed Katanga rebellion the predominantly-Luba Tigers fled to the south, to the Portuguese colony of Angola. There, they shifted ideology and allied themselves with the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (M.P.L.A.), the Marxist rebel group fighting for independence from Portugal, with support from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and South Africa’s rebel African National Congress (A.N.C.).  Later, in the 1970s, Tigers ended up facing off against forces loyal to the D.R.C.’s new anti-Marxist dictator, Mobutu, who supported the South African– and U.S.-backed Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in the Angolan civil war that followed its independence.  (UNITA was composed of many members of the Bakongo ethnic group that straddles the Angolan-Congolese border.)  The Tigers attacked the Mobutu régime from a base in Angola in the late 1970s and then, in the late 1990s, were part of the M.P.L.A.-run Angolan government’s attack on Mobutu during the bloody Congolese civil war of that era which drew in armies from nearly all neighboring countries.

Moïse Tshombe, Katanga rebel leader, in 1961
The emergence of the Mai-Mais over the past few years, and a possible alliance between them and a more long-standing rebel group, the Tigers, who draw upon President Kabila’s own ethnic group and who had previously sided with Kabila and against Mobutu in previous civil wars, points to a growing unity in Katanga.  It suggests a growing desire for independence that not only rises above the ideological rivalries that turned Congolese civil strife into a Cold War proxy battle between right and left, but also transcends the ethnic divisions that had bogged down previous attempts at secession.  We may be witnessing the start of yet another central African country spinning out of control.

Captured Katangese rebels in 2013
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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