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. 
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.
Mai Mai Fighters in the DRC
President Joseph Kabila’s fortunes are very much tied to the stability and prosperity of Katanga, with much of the DRC’s political elite hailing from that province and having substantial business interests there. Kabila’s father, the late president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was a member of an anti-secession Baluba militia in Katanga in his youth, having had a Baluba father. The Baluba, mostly from northern Katanga, had a long history of rebellion against Belgian authorities that saw many Baluba prisoners being sent as forced labor to the mines of southern Katanga. Historically and economically, Katanga has closer ties to nearby Zambia than the more distant regions of the northern DRC. Northern Katanga, the home of the Baluba, remains largely impoverished and undeveloped compared to the more prosperous southern half of Katanga.
The powerful Katangan politicians in Kinshasa used to be handled by presidential advisor Katumba Mwanke (from southern Katanga), but since his death in a 2011 accident, Kabila has encountered difficulties in managing this influential group, which has in turn become dissatisfied with the president’s inability to provide security in Katanga or sufficient electrical power to supply southern Katangan mining operations (Oxford Analytica, February 15, 2012). Unemployment caused by mine shutdowns or slowdowns only exacerbates the security problem as former workers take to the bush. There are persistent rumors that Gédéon’s Mai Mai and the Bakata Katanga are secretly backed by Katangan politicians, with the UN accusing former national police chief John Numbi of supplying arms to Bakata Katanga and allowing the movement to use his farm outside Lubumbashi as a base (IRIN, February 13). Kabila must also contend with Moïse Katumbi, the popular governor of Katanga, who makes a public show of support for the president but tends to run his own show in private.
Much of the anti-government anger in Katanga is related to Kabila’s failure to implement the decentralization elements of the 2006 federal constitution that call for the provinces of the DRC to retain 40% of mining revenues. The decentralization plan would also see Katanga divided into four smaller provinces. The proposed move, recently revived by Kabila, would ensure a flow of wealth to the Katangan south while ignoring the impoverished north. The decentralization plan has met with strong opposition from the Baluba of northern Katanga as well as the provincial governor, who also hails from northern Katanga.
On March 23, 2013, the Katangan capital of Lubumbashi was occupied by fighter from Bakata Katanga who raised the old flag of independent Katanga in the city’s main square. More embarrassing for Kinshasa was the composition of the force that so easily occupied the DRC’s second-largest city – a group of fewer than 300 fighters (some of them children) largely armed with machetes and bows and arrows and covered with charms and amulets to ward off bullets (AP, March 24, 2013; BBC August 11, 2013). After a battle with security forces that killed 35 people, the militants forced their way into a UN compound where 245 of them surrendered. Though the army had been able to defeat the militia in a relatively short time, the occupation nonetheless raised concerns in Katanga over the government’s ability to establish and maintain security in the region. MONUSCO presently maintains a 450-man brigade from Benin in Katanga, which was reinforced in 2013 by an Egyptian Special Forces unit. The Congolese army maintains only one battalion in the area, far from enough manpower to begin restoring order.
Lubumbashi was occupied again on January 26, this time by fighters belonging to Mai Mai Gédéon who were defeated after an eight-hour battle (BBC January 7, Reuters, January 7). Some 26 soldiers and rebels were killed before the militia was driven roughly 25 kilometers from the city
Amnesties and attempts at assimilating Mai Mai fighters into the FARDC often come to naught as the life of a soldier in the Congolese is not necessarily better than the life of a bush fighter. In many cases, the DRC has simply failed to provide demobilized fighters the promised means to return home or start new lives (IRIN, February 7). The customary brutality of the militias precludes the development of popular followings of any significance, leaving the groups with little other option than replacing losses through abductions of young people. Bakata Katanga has kidnapped hundreds of children, some as young as eight-years-old (al-Jazeera, August 17, 2013).
In one sense, the secession issue provides political cover to criminal groups like Kantanga’s Mai Mai militias, which otherwise have little in the way of a political ideology and do little to gather popular support as a legitimate secession movement might be expected to do. Though evidence has not been produced, there is a general feeling in the DRC that the Katangan militias are manipulated by local politicians to pressure the Kabila regime. Given the importance of Katanga both to the DRC’s economy and the personal political fortunes of President Kabila, it is likely that a major offensive will soon begin in the region involving FARDC forces backed by elements of the recently formed UN Intervention Brigade (IBDE), a capable group of 3,000 troops drawn from the militaries of Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa. This combined force may gather intelligence through the use of UN-owned drones currently deployed in Nord-Kivu province.
1. “The Mai-Mai Lumumba: Okapi killers or self-defense forces?” September 6, 2012, http://congosiasa.blogspot.ca/2012/09/guest-blog-mai-mai-lumumba.html
This article first appeared in the April 3, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.