Insurrection and political instability have long been features of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s southern Katanga province. The region was established as a breakaway state from the former Belgium colony in 1960 and, since its reintroduction into modern-day DRC in 1977, has witnessed recurring separatist movements. However, it is the apparent staying power of rebel group Bakata Katanga, which is of growing concern in the short-to-medium term security outlook for the province. To date, rebel activity within Katanga has resulted in the internal displacement of approximately 400,000 people, creating an ensuing humanitarian crisis which could potentially spiral out of control.
The secessionist threat: Assessing Bakata Katanga
Bakata Katanga advocates for the establishment of an autonomous Katanga state. At the core of the group’s rebellion is their assertion of unequal wealth distribution from the province’s highly profitable mineral exports. Despite the surrender of some 300 members of the group in Lubumbashi in March 2013, the separatist movement has maintained a significant operational capacity in the province. In recent months, remnants of Bakata Katanga have significantly increased their activity within the group’s primary area of operation between the Mitwaba, Manono and Pweto territories. Yet, in the absence of consolidated leadership, the group’s modus operandi remains focused on pillaging local villages and the targeting of artisanal mine locations. These attacks prove more convenient and conducive to their current operations, given the group’s highly mobile nature and absent political mouthpiece.
However, given the province’s economic importance and that the distribution of remunerations from the mining industry remains a key grievance for the group, the growing secessionist threat has raised concerns within the commercial mining sector. While Bakata Katanga has not demonstrated the desire, or the operational capacity, to target commercial mining facilities in the region, growing political divisions within the province may serve to foster the group’s activities. Although not assessed to possess the necessary capabilities to infiltrate mining compounds, the group has the potential to disrupt export operations along transit routes, should the overall security environment in Katanga deteriorate.
Political tensions: A contributing factor
Despite President Joseph Kabila’s personal ties to Katanga, his political support in the province is waning. With impending elections in 2016 and a historically engrained secessionist sentiment within the province, political dealings in Katanga will be paramount to the security environment in the country. At the forefront is the planned decentralisation of power, largely facilitated by the proposed division of Katanga into four separate provinces. While dividing the province will facilitate local government on a practical level, such ‘governance by substitution’ relies heavily on local leaders’ commitment to the central authority. However, the Kabila administration’s capacity to extend beyond Kinshasa, located some 1,500km away, is already questioned. With internal weaknesses, including limited resources and corruption, maintaining the required ties is likely to become increasingly difficult.
In addition, the move to sub-divide Katanga has the potential to cement already present rifts between the resource-rich south and poorer northern areas. With Bakata Katanga already receiving much of its support from the northern territories, such developments may facilitate the capacity for the group to consolidate itself as a goal-orientated organisation through political backing.
It is already evident that both the Kabila administration and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) have recognised their negligence of Katanga. On 24 January, MONUSCO released a statement confirming its concern over the impending crisis in the province. Both the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and MONUSCO’s integration brigade are likely to emphasize Katanga on their strategic agendas. However, with conflict still ongoing in North Kivu and sporadic hostilities reported in Orientale province, FARDC and MONUSCO are becoming increasingly strained. In Katanga province, it may indeed be a case of too little too late. The foundations for sustained insecurity in the province have been laid, and with the Kabila administration and counterparts in Katanga becoming increasingly restless ahead of the elections, Katanga province remains delicately placed on a knife’s edge.