By Jonny Hogg and Clara Ferreira-Marques
LIKASI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Feb 19 (Reuters) -
T rucks of workers and building materials hurtle through the
mining town of Likasi at the heart of Congo's copper producing
south, evidence of the billions being poured into the region
after years of war and underinvestment.
But rebel fighters feeding off local grievances and
secessionist sentiment are threatening to resurrect the spectre
of a southern breakaway, in a fresh challenge to the stability
and integrity of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rebels, estimated to number anything from a few hundred
to a few thousand, armed with bows, arrows and assault rifles,
could re-open decades-old political fissures in Katanga, Congo's
economic engine but also its most independent-minded province.
Their forays south, away from their stronghold in the
province's north and towards Katanga's mining heart, raise the
stakes in a region that is also a power base for a government
already stretched by a separate insurgency in the east.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is one of a handful of aid
organisations in Katanga operating in the vast and virtually
roadless northern area known to locals as the "Triangle of
Death" in reference to atrocities including massacres, rape and
cannibalism carried out by the rebels, known as the Mai Mai.
"The Mai Mai are coming out of their normal zone within the
triangle. Since December we've seen an intensification of
clashes with the army," said Pascal Duchemin, head of
MSF-Holland in Katanga's capital Lubumbashi.
While international attention has focused on a rebellion
along Congo's restive eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda, the
violence in Katanga has simmered largely unnoticed.
MSF has been forced to reduce its presence because of
security concerns in the north, where it reports empty, burnt
villages for kilometres at a stretch. Footage shot by a local
journalist shows Congolese troops marching through hamlets
gutted by fire and families housed in makeshift bush shelters.
Since 2011, starting in Katanga's remote and desperately
poor northeast, Mai Mai fighters - a coalition of hardline
Katangan secessionists and remnants of militias left over from
Congo's last war - have forced more than a quarter of a million
people from their homes, according to the United Nations.
Now they are pushing south, with attacks reported in January
just 70 km from Likasi, and have also moved into artisanal
mining areas, where a traumatised population is fleeing to
escape them. Government soldiers are also accused of pillaging.
Earlier this month at least 14 bodies, including women and
children, washed up in a river near President Joseph Kabila's
hometown of Manono, an area where both Mai Mai and the army are
active, and where the UN has reported civilian killings by the
rebels and summary executions by the security forces.
The rebels have also been blamed for repeated assaults on
the airport in the regional capital Lubumbashi over the last two
years, in which presidential guardsmen have been killed.
"The population is afraid of the army as well as the Mai
Mai, and we're worried for those who are living in the bush,
because anyone found there can be considered as a rebel,"
Katanga, a province roughly the size of Spain, was the heart
of central Africa's colonial mining industry, its growth fuelled
by Belgium's Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, which produced tonne
upon tonne of copper and also the uranium for the atomic bombs
dropped on Japan in 1945.
Decades of corruption and a brutal civil war brought Katanga
to its knees. Relative stability since the 2003 peace deal and
ensuing elections, plus high metal prices, brought private
miners. Officials say Congo's copper exports jumped to 600,000
tonnes in 2012, from under 20,000 a decade ago.
Copper giant Freeport McMoRan, trader and miner
Glencore and others have invested billions to tap
Congo's high-grade deposits. All plan further growth.
So far, the rebels have mostly hit civilian and government
targets, though one international mine executive said company
buses carrying miners to work had been hijacked. The region's
major miners declined to comment, but several operators active
in the region expressed quiet concern at what could shift from
being a sideline annoyance to a major disruption.
"It's expanded geographically from being in a fairly remote
and isolated part of Katanga," Neil Wigan, Britain's ambassador
to the country, said in Lubumbashi.
"As it pops up in more places, then security becomes a
problem. As we've seen in Algeria, natural resources companies
need to be particularly alert to security constraints at the
moment," he added, in reference to the recent hostage crisis at
an Algerian gas plant in which at least 80 people died.
The government is keen to downplay the threat in a region
that draws the vast majority of its big international investors.
"We want to re-assure investors there's no big security risk
in Katanga. In any post-conflict state there will be some
residual elements, that we will permanently neutralise," Prime
Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon told Reuters.
Rebel numbers remain low, but the UN says recruitment means
their ranks may have swollen to more than 2,000.
In mid-January, Katanga's governor Moise Katumbi wrote to
the UN's peacekeeping mission asking for help, and UN sources
say blue helmets will deploy around the northern town of Pweto,
on the border with Zambia, to help bolster Congo's notoriously
ill disciplined and ineffective army.
The violence, as the country already begins debating 2016
elections that could spell the end for Kabila's rule, also risks
re-opening old wounds in Katanga, which has always had a
fractious relationship with central government.
It was long a separate part of the Belgian colonial empire
and took just 11 days after Congolese independence in 1960 for
Katanga to break away, under the leadership of secessionist
leader Moise Tshombe and with the backing of Belgian companies
keen to maintain the lucrative mining operations.
The independence bid failed but tensions remain. Katanga's
many fault-lines separate the province's poor north and its
richer south, native Katangans from workers brought to the mines
from neighbouring Kasai, and even strains between the many
tribes, including Kabila's own, the Balubakat.
There is also widespread perception that Kinshasa pockets
Katanga's wealth but neglects its development, leaving Congo's
most minerally rich region with some of the highest malnutrition
and infant mortality rates in a country already ranked the least
developed on earth by the UNDP.
Observers say rebel recruitment is aided by sympathy for the
old secessionist cause and the poor conditions. Northern Mai
Mai-dominated areas are cholera and malaria hotspots.
In Likasi, dilapidated low-rise buildings from the colonial
mining boom line the streets, but there is little evidence of
new growth, and the collapse of state miner Gecamines has left
So desperate has the situation become, some might even
welcome the rebels, say some on the streets of Likasi.
"We've been promised jobs by the government but seen
nothing. It's just possible that the people behind the Mai Mai
could do a better job than those currently in power," said one,
student Pascal Assani.
MONEY DOESN'T LIKE NOISE
In Lubumbashi there is no sense of support for the rebels or
out-and-out secessionism, but there is growing frustration with
the government of Kabila; leading separatist politician Gabriel
Kyungu wa Kumwanza says he has 300,000 signatures in favour of
federalism in dozens of dog-eared, ringbound petitions piled
haphazardly in the office at his lakeside home.
Kyungu, president of the provincial assembly, has long led
the fight for greater autonomy from Kinshasa, but like other
high-profile Katangan leaders, is opposed to the existing
constitutionally approved decentralisation plan, which would see
the break-up of the Katangan province into smaller entities.
"Our priorities are very different from those of central
government ... Our country is a sub-continent; it must be
federal. Katanga cannot be managed from 2,000 km away," he says.
Katanga is meant to receive 40 percent of its contributions
to central government, but receives much less, according to
Kyungu, a fact acknowledged even by pro-Kinshasa politicians.
This lack of resources at a provincial level is behind the
under-development, which is in turn fuelling the violence.
Although the situation is not yet catastrophic, it could
threaten investor confidence, Kyungu warns.
"Yes, there's a risk ... Money doesn't like noise. While
there's the sound of tanks and boots, money will not come in."
The coalition of two secessionist Katangan rebel groups -
known as CORAK and CPK - with Mai Mai Gedeon, a brutal remnant
of the defence groups set up by the current president's father
during the civil war, has led many to question whether local
politicians are stirring up trouble at a time when Kinshasa is
already at full stretch trying to control the country's east.
"Given that the rebels have arms, food and communications,
we're sure there are big characters behind them," Jean Pierre
Muteba, the head of a group of nongovernmental organisations
that monitor the mining sector in Katanga province.
"It's something the (politicians) can use against the
government, to say they can do in Katanga what's being done in
North Kivu, to show they can take territory, too."
With Kabila badly weakened after a 2011 re-election marred
by fraud and his army's collapse in the face of the M23
rebellion, many are already looking to the next polls in 2016,
when he is due to step down.
With the possibility Kabila might be replaced by a
non-Katangan president, Muteba says hardliners backing the Mai
Mai may already be making plans.
"Are they going to keep them armed and trained so that in
2016 they'd be a well organised force to claim independence? I
think it's a question we have to consider."