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The Katangese Gendarmes and War in Central Africa: Fighting Their Way Home

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Erik Kennes and Miles Larmer provide a history of the Katangese gendarmes and their largely undocumented role in many of the most important political and military conflicts in Central Africa. Katanga, located in today's Democratic Republic of Congo, seceded in 1960 as Congo achieved independence and the gendarmes fought as the unrecognized state's army during the Congo crisis. Kennes and Larmer explain how the ex-gendarmes, then exiled in Angola, struggled to maintain their national identity and return "home." They take readers through the complex history of the Katangese and their engagement in regional conflicts and Africa's Cold War. Kennes and Larmer show how the paths not taken at Africa's independence persist in contemporary political and military movements and bring new understandings to the challenges that personal and collective identities pose to the relationship between African nation-states and their citizens and subjects.

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1 Becoming Katanga

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THIS CHAPTER, IN establishing the history of the area of central Africa that became Katanga, simultaneously and intentionally echoes and challenges the proto-national narratives underlying the creation of nation-states in Africa in the mid-twentieth century.1 Historians and African leaders sought at that time to retrospectively construct the history of their disparate new territories in order to project a coherent self-conscious national narrative, to encourage national integration, and to discourage alternative and/or competing forms of affiliation.2 There is a well-established literature stressing the “imaginary” or “invented” nature of nation-states generally.3 The particular artificiality of African nation-states, constructed largely along the lines drawn by colonists in the wake of the scramble for Africa of the 1880s and 1890s, is equally well known: the process of nationalist imagining in late-colonial Africa was particularly brief; involved a relatively narrow elite, many of whom were Europeans; and allowed little substantive debate over the composition, character, and culture of the new nation-state.

 

2 The Katangese Secession, 1960–1963

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CONGO DECLARED INDEPENDENCE from Belgium on June 30, 1960. On July 11, the southern province of Katanga declared itself independent from Congo.1 The Katangese secession is normally understood, primarily or exclusively, as the result of external machinations by forces hostile to the independence of the Congolese nation-state. Belgian colonial and military officials, as well as multinational mining capital, are portrayed as the main protagonists, seeking to maintain their economic and political interests against the potentially radical nationalism of the Congolese central government led by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The indigenous leaders of the Katangese state, to the extent they are analyzed at all, are commonly viewed as the puppets of these forces, denied political agency or legitimacy. The apparent role of the Katangese political leadership in the murder of Lumumba certainly reinforced the illegitimacy of their state among contemporary observers and the leaders of newly independent African states. Patrice Lumumba himself, meeting US secretary of state Christian Herter weeks after the declaration of the secession, exemplified this position in claiming: “There is no problem in Katanga. There could be a referendum, and you would see that the people did not want secession. Tshombe is simply an instrument of the Belgians.”2

 

3 Into Exile and Back, 1963–1967

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ONE OF THE major problems in ending conflicts in Africa has been the effective demobilization of armed forces and the creation of unified national armies. For example, the recent inability of the Democratic Republic of Congo to disarm and integrate myriad armed groups, or to find alternative economic opportunities for young men who have previously survived by force of arms, has arguably perpetuated predatory conflict by such militia, often in new or hybrid forms, over the past decade.1 The defeat of the Katangese secession presented, on the face of it, precisely this problem to the Congolese state, the United Nations, and the international community that had supported UN intervention. A major concern of these actors was the former Katangese gendarmerie, well trained but now detached from the state that had created it and, as a consequence, unpaid. It is clear, however, that insufficient foresight was given to the issue of demobilization and that this process was at best poorly implemented. More specifically, the Egge Plan of June 1961, which set out how the integration of Congo’s various armed forces would take place, was incompatible with the desire of the Congolese National Army (ANC) to crush its Katangese enemies. As with later conflicts, the various Congolese armed forces, including, most significantly, the undisciplined and predatory Congolese army itself, represented “human minefields” whose potential for violent disruption of the supposed peace remained long after the end of overt warfare.

 

4 With the Portuguese, 1967–1974

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WHEN THE FORMER Katangese gendarmes went into Angola for a second time from mid-1967 onward, they had no notion that this exile would last for decades rather than years and that for many of their number it would be a final destination—they would either die there in combat or live out their lives as exiles.1 Certainly, the retreat into Angola, and the wave of political repression of Katanga and its Lunda population that followed, left the ex-gendarmes and the political movement they problematically represented at a new low. Their inability to define their own future led them to become the most important of the African forces that fought for the Portuguese colonial state against Angolan nationalists, struggling for independence from their own exile in Zaire and Zambia.

The relationship between the Portuguese military and intelligence services, on the one hand, and the ex-gendarmes and their Katangese political allies and leaders, on the other, was a delicate and evolving one. It belies the simplistic characterization of the ex-gendarmes as “guns for hire”: their opportunistic relationship with Portuguese colonialism rather enabled them to maintain a limited and decidedly problematic war against the increasingly Mobutu-dominated Zairian state. While this relationship was never one of equals, the ex-gendarmes retained (unlike the better-known Flechas—see below) meaningful if limited autonomy regarding their position in Angola; indeed, conflict periodically arose among their senior officers over the best way to further their aims. Like all the state and nonstate forces that sought to utilize the well-trained and relatively disciplined Katangese forces for their own ends over their lengthy career, the Portuguese found they could not be treated as a blank slate—they had enduring political aims and motivations that shaped their participation in the Angolan nationalist war and their relationship with the colonial state, even if their externally oriented ideological perspective shifted significantly and opportunistically during this period. As the Portuguese military authorities recognized in 1975: “Nobody who pays attention to the politico-military panorama of this area in Africa, more particularly Angola, can deny the importance of [such] a military force: approximately 2500 disciplined men who benefitted from Portuguese commando training, competently accompanied and with several years of war experience. This is reinforced by the fact that, until today, they are sufficiently motivated for maintaining their internal cohesion, for reasons of survival as well as for political reasons.”2

 

5 The Katangese Gendarmes in the Angolan Civil War, 1974–1976

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THE POSITION IN Angola of the ex-Katangese gendarmes, politically organized as the FLNC and now known as the Tigres, was inevitably transformed by the Portuguese coup of April 1974. Their effectiveness in the cause of Portuguese colonialism counted for nothing—was, indeed, a potential liability—in a political environment that threatened to leave them without sponsorship or support. However, the FLNC, under the last vestiges of departing Portuguese tutelage, now entered into a new and surprising alliance with the MPLA, one of the Angolan nationalist groups against which it had previously fought on behalf of the Portuguese. The FLNC’s demonstrative ability to change sides in a conflict commonly constructed as an ideologically based battle within the wider Cold War not only demonstrates the limited relevance of such a framework for the Tigres themselves but also casts doubt on the ways in which the Angolan “civil war” is commonly imagined, suggesting that such political affiliations were of far less importance than the ability of each side to establish military superiority by whatever means.

 

6 The Shaba Wars

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THE MPLAS POLITICAL and military victory in Angola in November 1975 radically changed the political outlook throughout central Africa.1 The establishment of this overtly Marxist state, supportive (like Frelimo-ruled Mozambique) of revolutionary nationalist movements in southern Africa, placed the region’s racist settler regimes on the defensive and destroyed the assumptions on which Western policy toward the region had been built. It also led to decades of civil war with UNITA, backed by South Africa and (during the 1980s) the United States. No less significantly, it created new tensions with Zaire, which had suffered a military humiliation in Angola and which, facing economic crisis and reduced Western support, appeared particularly vulnerable.

This weakness represented an unprecedented opportunity to Mobutu’s many enemies inside and outside Zaire, not least the FLNC. Rearmed by the MPLA’s Cuban and Soviet allies, and strengthened by the Cossa Accords, they seized this opportunity, first to strengthen their numbers and then to invade the former territory of Katanga (renamed Shaba in 1971), but now with significantly altered aims and political direction. The first Shaba war of 1977 led President Mobutu to make significant political reforms, with effects that last until today. The second Shaba war of 1978, in which the Tigres seized the town of Kolwezi and severely destabilized the country’s strategic mining industry, posed the greatest threat the Mobutu regime faced until the 1990s. This was the first time that the FLNC had, as an independent political and military actor, pursued its aims on an international stage in ways that would attract the attention and response of a wide range of international actors, including both superpowers.

 

7 Disarmament and Division, 1979–1996

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WITH THE ENDING of formal support from Angola to the FLNC, the group rapidly disintegrated into a series of factions, while most of its political and military leadership was deported to Guinea-Bissau. Under the Portuguese, and initially under the MPLA, the Katangese forces in Angola had for more than a decade been deployed in actions against the Zairian state and Angolan forces backed by that state. Now, having lost their political leadership, they were semi-integrated into the Angolan armed forces and, from 1988, deployed militarily by the Angolan state in a form mirroring their use by the Portuguese two decades earlier.

The Katangese nevertheless continued to claim ownership of the identity and history of the FLNC. They faced a profound dilemma in doing so: their political identity and credibility rested on their history of effective resistance against the Mobutu regime, most notably the Shaba operations of 1977 and 1978. Now, the loss of their autonomous military organization and leadership severely limited their capacity to capitalize on this history. Moreover, the removal of their leader, Nathanaël Mbumba, responsible for the Shaba I and II attacks that had destabilized Zaire but that had also led Angola to withdraw the FLNC’s Angolan support base, sparked a series of internal conflicts. These divisions were complex and multisided, but at their heart was the issue of whether and how to return in some version to the homeland to which they laid claim and which remained central to their identity. Herein lay their unique challenge to the Zairian state: while President Mobutu had proved his extraordinary ability to incorporate all the regional identities of Zaire in the projection of his authority, he failed to find a way to reconcile his rule to the dream of Katangese autonomy, forcefully symbolized and kept alive by the now ex-Tigres.

 

8 The Overthrow of Mobutu and After, 1996–2015

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THE LATE 1990s saw the successful achievement of the self-proclaimed military objectives of the Katangese ex-Tigres and the survival, even the revitalization, of their historical and political agenda. The violent overthrow of Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997—an initiative in which the ex-Tigres played a significant role—created the prospect for political change that might address some of their long-standing grievances and aspirations. Just as important for many ordinary ex-Tigres, it finally allowed them to return home after decades in exile. However, because of their lack of a coherent political leadership, they were armed, mobilized, and equipped by the Angolans. They were then placed under the control of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL) president, Laurent Kabila, who ultimately ensured that his direction of the ex-Tigres’ military capacity could not be used to pursue the political goals long associated with these forces—the granting of autonomy and recognition of the special political status of Katanga.

 

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