Trouble continues to plague the eastern Congo, but at the moment rising tensions in the Congo’s southern regions has the attention of the UN and several foreign governments. Troubles in mineral-rich Katanga province are anything but new. Reviewing the history will help put the present trouble in context.
When the Congo became independent in 1960, Katanga secessionists, led by Moise Tshombe, tried to carve out their own separate country. Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) was the center of the Katangan resistance. The Congolese government (led by Patrice Lumumba) regarded Tshombe as a Belgian proxy and claimed that Belgium wanted an independent Katanga so it could continue to control the province’s mineral deposits. The commercial deposits include cobalt, copper, zinc, cadmium, uranium, germanium, and manganese. America’s World War II atomic bombs used Congolese uranium. Katanga also has coal mines. The Katangan secessionist struggle and general chaos spreading throughout Congo sparked a UN intervention (ONUC, UN Operation in Congo). UN forces eventually clashed with the defense force Tshombe created with the help of Belgian advisers and the Katangan Gendarmerie. Tshombe’s Katanga government conceded defeat in January 1963.
However, the hard-core Katangan separatists did not disappear. In 1977 and again in 1978, a group called the National Front for the Liberation of the Congo (FNLC) invaded Katanga from bases in Angola. Organized by a former Katangan Gendarmerie officer in 1967, the FNLC styled itself as an anti-Mobutu political and military force. Many FNLC fighters were former Katangan gendarmes.
Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko ran the Congolese government from 1965 to 1997. In 1972 Mobutu had Katanga renamed Shaba. The 1977 and 1978 invasions are usually referred to as the Shaba invasions. After Mobutu’s death in 1997, the province became Katanga again. The 1978 invasion (Shaba 2) was particularly violent. FNLC guerrillas plundered the mining complex at Kolwezi and committed atrocities against civilians (Congolese and foreign) who worked in the mines. Defeating both invasions required international military intervention. The 1978 international intervention included a spectacular combat parachute drop by a French Foreign Legion airborne infantry unit.
The Congo War of 1996-1997 led to the collapse of Mobutu’s regime. In late spring 1997, forces loyal to rebel leader Laurent Kabila (a Katangan and father of the current Congolese president, Joseph Kabila) seized Lubumbashi and threatened the Congo’s capital, Kinshasha. Lubumbashi is the Congo’s second largest city (after Kinshasha) and is the hub of the Congo’s lucrative mining business. In some respects (such as clout with the global economy), controlling Lubumbashi is more important than controlling Kinshasha. Thanks to the mines, the city has railroad links to both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
During The Great Congo War (1998-2003), pro-Kabila forces managed to keep Katanga’s key cities and mining areas under their control. Control is a loose term. Zimbabwe, which sent forces to help Kabila defend the area, was allegedly paid off with train-loads of Katangan copper and cobalt ore.
During the war and in its aftermath, Mai-Mai militias savaged parts of northern Katanga. Katanga has a north-south split. The mining areas in southern Katanga are rich and comparatively well-developed. Northern Katanga, however, is very poor and undeveloped. Its forests and jungles have few roads – so the area is ideal territory for a militia to carve out its own private duchy.
In KiSwahili, mai (mayi) means water. Supposedly, Mai Mai fighters could spray themselves with a magic potion to deflect bullets. The Mai Mai militias operating in the eastern Congo have proved to be a decidedly mixed bag. The term was supposed to indicate an autonomous militia organized to oppose imperialist or foreign (ie, non-Congolese) force invading Congolese territory. In fact, Laurent Kabila formed and supplied several Mai Mai militias in northern Katanga for the express purpose of opposing invading Rwandan forces. Well, magic water does not work as well as a bulletproof vest.
The Mai Mai militia concept has not worked out well, either. As time passed, in the eastern Congo “Mai Mai militia” has come to mean an armed group which portrays itself (depending on the situation) as either a rebel guerrilla movement or a local para-military defense force but in reality operates as a paramilitary gang loyal to its own commander. In turn, eastern Congo Mai Mai militia commanders (gang leaders) are expected to provide loyal militiamen with access to money, women and banana beer.
The war and the continuing chaos damaged several Katangan mining operations. Mining output began to pick up in 2006 and 2007. It accelerated in 2010 and 2011. China has invested heavily in Katanga. One source claimed that Chinese companies own 60 of Katanga’s 75 processing plants and that China buys approximately 90 percent of Katanga’s mineral exports.
In May 2010, a militia group calling itself the Kata Katanga raised its flag in one of Lubumbashi’s main squares. In KiSwahili, Kata Katanga means “carve out Katanga” (as in separate it from Congo).
On September 7, 2010 an armed group attacked Lubumbashi’s main prison. Over 900 inmates escaped, including the leader of what was arguably the most dangerous of the north Katangan Mai Mai militias, Kyungu Mutanga. Mutanga, better known by his nom de guerre, Gedeon, was imprisoned for war crimes (committed in Katanga) in 2006 and sentenced to death in 2009. The Gedeon militia was based in what was called Katanga’s Terror Triangle, 10,000 square kilometers of jungle within the triangle formed by three cities, Mitwaba, Pweto and Manono (the hometown of President Joseph Kabila.) Mutanga’s criminal force would attack, pillage and burn unprotected villages anywhere inside or within marching distance of the triangle.
In 2011, reports of rogue militia activity in northern Katanga (especially along Katanga’s Zambian border) became more frequent. The Gedeon militia figured prominently in the reports. The Kata Katanga showed up and were reportedly allies of Mutanga. In fact, there were reports that the Gedeon militia and Kata Katanga were now one in the same. Lubumbashi’s international airport suffered sporadic attacks attributed to separatist rebels.
In January 2013 the governor of Katanga asked MONU.S.CO (UN Stabilization Mission in Congo) to send peacekeeping troops to assist the Congolese Army in protecting the Zambian border region, The concern was that Mutanga would try to replicate what M23 had done in North Kivu province – carve out a piece of border territory and hold it. In February, authorities reported a militia killed 14 civilians near Manono.
On March 23, 2013 300 to 350 Kata Katanga fighters attacked Lubumbashi. They tried to seize the provincial government and parliament buildings but failed. They did manage to enter and take effective control of the UN compound in the city. The Congolese Army, reinforced by members of the elite Republican Guard (special presidential guards who were protecting the airport), counter-attacked. 35 people died and another 60 were wounded in the battles within the city. The militiamen were not well armed. The entire force may have had only three dozen AK-47s and a few rocket launchers. Most of the fighters carried knives, spears or bows and arrows. A total of 245 militiamen in the UN compound surrendered to the UN. MONU.S.CO later transferred the 245 fighters to Congolese government control.
There is little overt public support for secession, at least in southern Katanga. There are, however, two committed secessionist organizations, Co-ordination for a Referendum on Self-Determination for Katanga (CORAK) and the Katangese People’s Congress (CPK). The CPK has been active for decades. In 1992 it sought official recognition from the Organization of African Unity (OAU, the African Union’s predecessor) as a Katangan liberation movement. The OAU denied recognition and said the CPK could not show that the Katangan people were suffering mass human rights violations by the government (then led by Mobutu).
After the March 23 attack the Kabila government and the Katanga provincial government both assured international mining companies that Katanga was safe. However, the attack into the heart of Lubumbashi has, for good reason, produced many doubters. The Kata Katanga are now claiming they are fighting for Katangan autonomy (April 19). The latest rumor is that many Katangans believe Joseph Kabila will not be president after the 2016 elections. That means they have concluded that a Katangan will not be in charge in Kinshasha. Katangan secession might be an old idea whose new time has almost come. (Austin Bay)
April 19, 2013: A spokesman for the Kata Katanga militia announced that the group is guerrilla movement fighting for Katangan autonomy. According to militia leaders, the people of Katanga province do not benefit from their own mineral wealth. The spokesman accused the national government of stealing Katangan mining royalty money.
April 18, 2013: The Congolese government and the provincial government of Katanga remain at loggerheads over a government ban on exporting copper and cobalt concentrates. Katanga is Congo’s only copper and cobalt exporter. The Congolese government contends the ban will force mining companies to process ores in Congo. This will increase the value of Congolese copper and cobalt exports. Several international mining companies have objected to the ban. However, the most important resistance is coming from Katanga where governor Moise Katumbi said he will not enforce the national ban. Katanga does not have sufficient electricity and processing capacity to process all of its ore into concentrate. At the moment companies have three months to sell unprocessed ore.
April 16, 2013: The UN reported that the men who have been accused of raping 126 women in the village of Minova (North Kivu province) in November 2012 were serving in a Congolese Army battalion trained by the U.S.. The battalion was a light infantry battalion of 750 soldiers who received training by U.S. AFRICOM as part of a Congolese Army reform program. According to UN investigators, 33 soldiers participated in the rapes.
April 13, 2013: The UN announced that the intervention brigade which will fight armed groups in the eastern Congo will deploy 3,069 soldiers. The UN Security Council approved the unit on March 28 and gave it the mandate of conducting targeted offensive operations – which is diplo-speak for offensive combat. Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa will each provide battalions with 850 soldiers (2,550 soldiers). The remaining authorized 519 troops will serve in three separate companies: an artillery battery, a special forces company and a recon company. A Tanzanian general will command the unit.
April 5, 2013: The U.S. government has offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Sylvestre Mudacumura, commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged Mudacumura with crimes against humanity and war crimes. He allegedly played a major role in carrying out the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
March 31, 2013: Sultani Makenga, the surviving leader of M23, may be cutting a deal with the Congolese government. Uganda is facilitating peace talks between Makenga’s faction and the Kabila government. According to Ugandan sources, the Congo will allow 1,500 M23 fighters to join its security forces. However, M23 officers must be vetted and will only be allowed to join on an individual basis depending on their human rights. Makenga will not be allowed to join.
March 28, 2013: The UN Security Council approved the creation of an intervention brigade for deployment in Congo’s eastern provinces. The unit will be allowed to conduct independent offensive operations or offensive operations with the Congolese Army. The goal of these offensive operations is to neutralize and disarm militant groups. This is the first UN peacekeeping force to have such a specifically offensive mission and the Security Council said that its creation will not be regarded as a precedent. The unit will serve for one year.
March 27, 2013: More information is appearing regarding Bosco Ntaganda’s surrender. U.S. intelligence officers helped arrange Ntaganda’s surrender at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda. Some 700 fighters in Ntaganda’s M23 faction have also surrendered. However, the Congo’s war with M23 is not over. Sultani Makenga’s faction, however, remains in the field. Makenga’s faction (which is now the only existing M23 group active) is occupying a position just outside the capital of North Kivu province, Goma. However, Uganda has reportedly organized negotiations between Makenga and the Congolese government.
March 25, 2013: The Congolese government reported that the March 22 attack on Lubumbashi had been defeated. The attack did not hinder mining operations in Katanga. Officials did concede that the attack was embarrassing.
March 23, 2013: 300 Kata Katanga militiamen have attacked Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga province. Fighting is reported inside the city and near the UN compound.
March 18, 2013: Bosco Ntaganda, the rebel Congolese general who formed the M23 rebel movement, has surrendered. Ntaganda went to the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda (in Kigali) and said he was turning himself in to the International Criminal Court.
March 11, 2013: The Congolese government has formally agreed to support the UN’s Peace Security and Cooperation Framework. A spokesman for M23 said that the rebel group would not support the agreement because it was not included in the negotiation process.
March 8, 2013: The Congolese Army reported that it has been fighting for over a week with a rebel militia in the Kitchanga area (North Kivu province). The rebel group is named the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo. The UN has provided attack helicopter support to the Congolese Army. The fighting has killed at least 80 people.
March 3, 2013: Relief agencies in Katanga Province report that separatist militia groups usually based in northern Katanga are now regularly seen in southern Katanga.
March 2, 2013: The UN reported that Congolese Army units are now returning to the towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanha. M23 rebels have pulled out of the area following confirmation that the organization has indeed split into two factions. Apparently the faction controlled by M23 military commander Sultani Makenga has won the power struggle. The losing faction, led by Bosco Ntaganda (who organized M23) and political leader Jean-Marie Runiga has scattered. Ntaganda is reportedly hiding in the Congo’s Virunga National Park.
March 1, 2013: The UN estimated that in 2005 over 45,000 women were raped in the Congo’s South Kivu province.
February 25, 2013: Two rival factions of M23 reportedly fired on one another. The clash occurred in the town of Rutshuru (North Kivu province, Ugandan border). Eight people died in the incident. M23 has split into two main groups, one loyal to political leader Jean-Marie Runiga and the other to M23’s senior military commander, Sultani Makenga. M23 denied the incident occurred and said the firefight was with an FDLR militia group.
February 24, 2013: Representatives of 11 Central African countries announced that they have reached an agreement to support the UN’s Peace Security and Cooperation Framework. The framework provides security and economic mechanisms for building peace in the region. The countries include South Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, Central African Republic, Zambia, Congo and the Congo Republic (Brazzaville). The framework agreement is designed to help countries combat rebel organizations like the Congo’s M23 group.
February 20, 2013: The UN is continuing to investigate the source of a false report that claimed that the Rwandan FDLR Hutu extremist militia group had a battalion which was operating with the Congolese Army and MONU.S.CO peacekeepers. The claim was made in January and a fake email, attributed to a MONU.S.CO officer, appeared on the internet. MONU.S.CO denounced the email as a fraud and called it misinformation. Leaders of the FDLR were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
February 19, 2013: The UN once again claimed that the M23 militia is receiving support from external sources. A recent UN investigatory report said that Uganda and Rwanda both provided M23 with material support.