New Offensive Expected against Mai-Mai Militias in Mineral-Rich Katanga

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2014

With combined UN-Congolese Army operations meeting some success in their efforts to clear armed militant groups from the Nord-Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it is almost certain that these forces will turn their attention next to the politically sensitive but mineral-rich southern province of Katanga, where rebel activity has destabilized the region while displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Most affected is a region in north Katanga between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto known as “the Triangle of Death” (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], March 28).

Martin Kobler, the head of the UN’s mission in the DRC, the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en RD du Congo (MONUSCO), described the situation in the south as “a humanitarian catastrophe”: “I feel an element of guilt when I think of Katanga because we have concentrated our military activity on the [north and south] Kivus but it is important not to neglect Katanga” (Guardian, January 30).

Kuyunga Mutanga Gédéon

Much of the insecurity experienced in Katanga can be ascribed to two bush militias with shadowy connections to regional politicians, the Mai Mai Gédéon (led by Kyungu Mutanga Gédéon) and the Kata Katanga (Kiswahili for “cut Katanga off [from the DRC]”), led by Ferdinand Tanda Imena. The two movements are often conflated in media reports. Mai Mai groups are typically named after their commander (Bakata Katanga being an exception). “Mai Mai” is a term applied to a wide variety of militias that often have little in common other than a nominal emphasis on indigenous rights. The Mai Mai gather for large operations like the occupation of Lubumbashi, but usually operate in smaller groups, terrorizing villagers, looting food, engaging in mass rapes, killing village elders and combatting FARDC patrols (IRIN, February 7). Many Mai Mai groups have ties to officers of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and some are known to wear FARDC uniforms that they doff during attacks, which they typically carry out naked. [1]

After terrorizing the Katangan countryside from October 2003 to May 2006, Gédéon surrendered to UN peacekeepers in May, 2006. In 2008, Gédéon claimed innocence when facing charges of war crimes, insurrection and murder before a military tribunal in Kipushi (35 kilometers southwest of Lubumbashi) (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], February 20, 2008). Despite being sentenced to death in 2009, Gédéon was able to flee the Lubumbashi prison during a mass jail-break engineered by his followers that freed roughly 1,000 prisoners. Immediately after his escape, Gédéon formed the Mai Mai Gédéon and resumed his earlier campaign of rape, robbery and murder. Meanwhile, Bakata Katanga commander Ferdinand Tanda Imena was arrested by Zambian authorities in 2004 and transferred to Kinshasa, where he was eventually released.  Bakata Katanga is said to be responsible for two attacks on Katanga Airport in the last year (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], January 14).

Both the Mai Mai Gédéon and the Bakata Katanga call for Katanga to secede from the DRC, but also condemn what they perceive as an unequal distribution of wealth between north Katanga and south Katanga, where the largest resource extraction operations are located. Cobalt, copper, tin and coltan (an important element in electronics) are all found in abundance in Katanga. A good part of the national budget relies on mineral exports from Katanga.

Katanga’s natural wealth led to a much earlier post-independence secession movement in 1960 that relied on Belgian military assistance and foreign mercenaries, quickly becoming part of the larger international Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union before the ultimate defeat of the secessionists in 1963. However, secessionist efforts were unpopular in parts of northern Katanga, where the local Baluba tribe was strongly divided over the issue.