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Joseph Kabila: Losing his grip on power?

A series of deadly attacks have been linked to discontent in DR Congo's resource-rich Katanga province.

Last updated: 02 Jan 2014 10:16
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More than 100 died after a series of coordinated attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo [Reuters]

A Congolese televangelist has gone into hiding after his followers staged a coordinated series of attacks on key security locations in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Joseph Mukungubila Mutombo, a former soldier and self-proclaimed prophet known for his stance against President Joseph Kabila, claims the attacks were a spontaneous "expression of anger" against a military assault on his house in the southern province of Katanga.

The Kinshasa attacks, which began on Monday when a group of youths armed with sticks and machetes interrupted a live broadcast on national television during a popular breakfast chat show, also targeted the miltary headquarters of the elite Republican Guard and the international airport at N'Djili.

Colonel Shema, speaking from the miltary headquarters, Camp Tshatsi, said attackers entered the army camp and burnt a car before being countered by commandos.

Further attacks on an airport in Maniema province and in the mining city of Lubumbashi - the capital of Katanga - led to a goverment crackdown that resulted in more than 100 dead, including eight soldiers, and prompted President Kabila to interrupt his Katanga vacation and return to Kinshasa, where he called on the nation to "exercise vigilance" during a televised speech.

The Congolese rumour mill - known locally as radio trottoire, or street radio - accelerated into a turbo-charged mass of conspiracy theories and speculation, with some suggesting a power struggle was underway after a change of leadership in the security services.

Others saw the attack as futile. Michael Sakombi, a Congolese diplomat who is currently in Katanga, said the young men who attacked the TV station were unprepared. "They even lacked phone credit to call the guy who was coordinating them. So for me, it was like a desperate act, not a very professional act," Sakombi said.

Politicised revivalist pastors are a common phenomenon in a nation where power is fragmented and people feel increasingly disenfranchised. Militias are a force to reckon with in Congolese politics, and the religious dimension appears to have given the attackers an almost kamikaze-like sense of daring.

The Katangan dimension

Mukungubila comes from the same village in Katanga as President Kabila, and while the pastor's support-base is small, some analysts believe he has links to wider unrest in the province, which has traditionally been a key stronghold for the president.

If we are going to see any real attempt to launch a political attack against Kabila, it is going to come from there.

- Comfort Ero, Africa Programme Director at International Crisis Group

Katanga is the economic powerhouse of Congo, producing about 70 percent of the central government's tax revenue. But since independence from Belgium in 1960, the region has been prone to unrest and secession attempts. Politics in Katanga are often based on ethnic identity, pitting its poorer northern part against the province's resource-rich southern section. 

Laurent Kabila, the father of the current president, promoted "mayi-mayi" militias, local armed groups, in northern Katanga as a buffer against Rwanda. In recent years some of these militias have been revived, and a secessionist group called Kata Katanga ("Cut Katanga") briefly achieved notoriety in March 2013 when 400 fighters armed with little more than magical amulets and machetes marched into the provincial capital, Lubumbashi, waving Katangan independence flags.

Kata Katanga is led by Gedeon Kyungu Mutanga, who escaped from prison in 2011 and is allegedly receiving weapons and funding from high-ranking military contacts as well as from Congolese living abroad. Civil society groups in Katanga have alleged that support for the secessionists even comes from some within Kabila's government.

These armed groups have been responsible for the dispacement of hundreds of thousands of people. According to a report by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "Mayi-Mayi fighters are accused of killings, abductions, sexual violence, and forced recruitments, notably of children, and pillaging and destruction of property". Yet the UN only has around 500 troops in Katanga, a region almost the size of France.

Katanga's governor has also defied the central government: In a show of strength, Moise Katumbi recently defied a demand from the central government to ban the export of copper and cobalt concentrates. Katumbi claimed that he had not been consulted about the ban and told Reuters news agency that any attempts to enforce it "would have serious consequences".

A tenuous hold on power

All of this demonstrates Joseph Kabila's increasingly tenuous hold on power. The International Crisis Group has suggested that Kabila relies on "governance by substitution" - security supplied by outside forces, social services supplied by civil groups and infrastructure provided by China and private enterprise.

The central government's power will be further weakened if Kabila moves ahead with plans for decentralisation, in which a degree of economic and political power would be devolved to the provinces. Katanga is set to be the guinea-pig for the decentralisation experiment, which has already caused fractures in the province and within Kabila's political party.

Decentralisation has strong support from Congo's international backers, but not everyone sees it as a panacea for the nation's problems, with some warning that it could strengthen the hold of regional strongmen.

While expressing surprise at the group's ability to organise the attacks, Alex Ntung, a Congolese political analyst, said Mukungubila's group has links to another militant religious congregation headed by the South Africa-based "Bishop Elysee", and to political networks in the European diaspora and Lubumbashi, all of which share the same anti-Rwandan, anti-Kabila ideology.

As sporadic gunfire continues in Lubumbashi, Comfort Ero - the Africa Programme Director at the International Crisis Group - suggests that Joseph Kabila's support has become even weaker in Katanga. "If we are going to see any real attempt to launch a political attack against Kabila, it is going to come from there," she said.

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Al Jazeera
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