Since 2015, tensions and discontent have risen in the former province of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), amidst political manoeuvres and a deteriorating economic situation. Meanwhile, the region is a major stake for President Joseph Kabila, who is determined to stay in power.
The following is an update on the situation by the International Crisis Group, written exclusively for the Zimbabwe Independent.
The former Katanga province, split into four new provinces in 2015 (Haut-Katanga, Tanganyika, Haut-Lomami and Lualaba), is plagued by disputes between President Kabila and his former allies, such as Moïse Katumbi, a businessman and former governor of Katanga who is in exile, and Gabriel Kyungu Wa Kumwanza, president of a major federalist movement, the Union Nationale des Fédéralistes du Congo (Unafec).
Since Crisis Group’s most recent publication on the Katanga region in 2016, this battle for influence has become more acute. Politicians’ past record in manipulating violent crowds or armed groups for their personal interests, and an army that uses force against civilians, both increase the risk.
National and provincial issues intertwine; public discontent with seemingly endless political manoeuvring and economic decline is pushing the province into the hands of the opposition. But for Kabila, who hails from the region, it remains a major stake in his bid to stay in power.
After successfully imposing his choice of prime minister in April, Kabila feels he has the upper hand against a weak opposition. However, he needs support and finance, and needs to prove that he is in full control of the strategic areas of the national territory. This is the main concern of his neighbours, other African heads of state and investors in the mining sector. It is therefore vital for him not to lose control of the former Katanga, especially to Katumbi, his former ally and now sworn opponent.
Katanga at the centre of national history
The former Katanga province is at the centre of the DRC’s tumultuous history. After a secessionist movement in 1960 at the dawn of independence, it became a battleground during the 1997-2003 civil war and then the political stronghold of the Kabila dynasty. Since his accession to power in 2001, Joseph Kabila, with help from Katumbi, worked hard to keep the region under his influence and protect the extensive economic interests of his family and friends in the banking, agricultural and mining sectors.
Under Kabila, Katangese have held key positions in government and within the public administration. However, after the 2011 elections, Kabila’s allies reacted against his plans to stay in power beyond 2016, in violation of the constitution.
The growing tension surfaced at the start of 2015 when, in line with the constitution, he surprisingly decided to create new provinces, splitting Katanga into four. Although this created new political opportunities for some, it was generally viewed, especially in its capital Lubumbashi, as an attempt to divide and weaken the province. The move was indeed very likely aimed at weakening the elites of Lubumbashi in general and Katumbi in particular.
The reaction did not take long. In September 2015, seven political parties, including a significant number of Katangese, broke from the ruling majority and created the new opposition Group of Seven (G7). Katumbi then left the majority and resigned as governor. The following 14 May he declared his candidacy for presidential elections and received unconditional support from the G7. In June 2016, Katumbi and the G7 joined the broader opposition platform “Le Rassemblement”.
A dangerously divided political landscape
Threatened by a popular bloc of opposition parties with a degree of financial independence thanks to Katumbi, the ruling Majority attacked through the courts. In May 2016, lawsuits were launched against Katumbi, leading to a three-year jail sentence on charges of spoliation, and pushing him into exile. The credibility of this judgement was undermined by the exile of the presiding judge of the court who claimed to have been threatened. Many of his allies were sentenced to prison following other trials.
The last target of the Majority is Gabriel Kyungu, an influential politician in the G7. Since January 2015, it has tried to push the youth movement of Kyungu’s Unafec into a violent confrontation with the police. Although this strategy to incriminate him has not led to any outright violence, there is still tension. But while the Majority’s manoeuvres disrupt and destabilise, they also give defectors a certain degree of political credibility.
The splitting of Katanga paved way for the selection of new governors by provincial assemblies from March 2016. The majority fought hard to keep a grip over selections. But in-fighting has been fierce and has spilled over into community relations. Tensions between indigenous communities and immigrants from the Kasai date from the 1990s. The new governor of Haut Katanga (the new province that includes the old provincial capital of Lubumbashi), Jean-Claude Kazembe, strongly supported by the majority, opted for divide and rule. He pushed aside the Luba, Rund and Kasaï communities who had worked with Katumbi.
This dangerous strategy backfired as Kazembe was removed from office in April 2017 by a unanimous vote in the provincial assembly, amid allegations of poor management. Even though this decision was later overturned by the Constitutional Court, his future in the province looks uncertain. On April 22, the assembly chose the former provincial minister of the economy, Célestin Pande Kapopo, as interim governor. Contrary to his predecessor, Pande reduced tensions with the Kasaï community. This implies that the Majority, which controls the provincial assembly, is aware that community violence can erode its support in favour of Katumbi.
Despite prolonged exile, Katumbi still has many advantages. Having governed the whole of Katanga, many view him as an embodiment of the unity of the region. Moreover he can henceforth be regarded as a victim of the government, following his legal battles. Finally, his considerable personal resources give him a foothold in provincial and national politics.
The economy in trouble
The copper and cobalt produced in the provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba account for about 71% of Congolese exports, and greatly contribute to the state’s budget. Between 2007 and 2015, Chinese demand and investment led to a great increase in industrial and artisanal production.
But in 2015, the sudden drop in the commodity prices saw many sites shut down and copper exports drop from 1.03 million tonnes in 2014 to just under a million in 2015. The slight resumption in 2016 (close to 1.02 million tonnes) was largely due to the launching of production by SICOMINES, a joint Sino-Congolese venture created in 2009, which trades Chinese investment in infrastructure for copper produced by the company. This production is therefore not new revenue for the Congolese state. The annual production of cobalt witnessed a 7.7% drop between 2015 and 2016.
In the two western provinces of former Katanga—Haut-Katanga and Lualaba—urbanised and dependent on imports and exports, the crisis in the mining sector has led to a higher increase in the cost of living than elsewhere. Between October and December 2016, the staple corn flour increased from 10 dollars to 30 and even 40 dollars for a 25-kilogramme bag. Its production in Southern Africa, source of around 75% of Katanga’s total consumption, has greatly dropped due to drought and attacks by armyworm.
When in power, Katumbi encouraged mining and brewing companies to invest in local agriculture; his “green copper” initiative. He also tried to stabilise prices by importing when necessary. His departure coincided with two crises: that of the mining sector with a spillover effect on employment, and the maize crisis. This has increased frustration among the population.
Subsequent provincial governments have neither had the necessary regional connections nor the adequate strategy to deal with the problem. In March this year, governors Kazembe and Muyej of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba respectively, succeeded in importing maize from South Africa to sell at between US$14 and US$18 for a 25kg bag, still more than before the crisis. Katumbi quickly announced that he would import 100 000 tonness of maize to sell below the governors’ prices. Part of the population refused to buy the governors’ maize, preferring to wait for Katumbi’s, and some even burnt huge cargos imported by the two governors. With memories of better times under Katumbi, the economy remains a key political issue.
A major security problem
The insecurity that prevails in the Kasaï region could well spread to the already fragile Katanga. In Haut-Katanga, insecurity is rising in towns such as Likasi and Lubumbashi. In October 2016, locals were dismayed at the rehabilitation by local authorities, with the blessing of Kinshasa, of the convicted warlord Gédéon Kyungu. Inhabitants of Haut-Katanga whom Crisis Group met in February 2017, feared that Gédéon could be used by the authorities to remobilise his militia if security deteriorated. Reports have revealed that members of Gédéon’s militia group are in the Kasaï region supporting the government, leading the EU to sanction him in May 2017.
In the province of Tanganyika, the conflict between the Batwa (pygmy) and Baluba (Bantu) communities intensified in 2016. Government organised talks led to the signing of a non-aggression pact in February of this year, but implementation will be tricky and the risk of escalation remains.
According to humanitarian organisations, there are close to 600 000 internally displaced persons resulting from attacks and community-related conflicts in the former Katanga, mainly in the provinces of Tanganyika and Haut-Katanga. In addition to this, there is a recent wave of more than 20 000 displaced persons from Kasaï to Lualaba. This situation shows how fragile stability is in the former Katanga province. To a degree this serves the interests of Kabila’s regime, determined to throw obstacles in the path to elections and hence stay in power. However, at the same time, the regime is struggling to limit the fallout of its own in-fighting in such a strategic zone.
Since late 2016, negotiations between the opposition and the Majority have come to a standstill, leaving Kabila seemingly in control in the centre. Meanwhile, despite his determination, his political skills and his control of the State resources, he is unable to gain popularity and legitimacy around the country. In Katanga, popular dissatisfaction is led by well-known figures in a powerful and coherent opposition. The confrontation, already being fought out in the courts, is likely to be very tough.