‘Changes to the Plan’
I’m not entirely sure how the fieldwork for my dissertation suddenly came to life. As a historian, it isn’t something you would typically expect to happen when filling out a university form several terms in advance to apply for fieldwork. However, this is Lubumbashi and as someone once told me, in a very cheeky way, “everything is possible in Lubumbashi.” Minus the regular ebbs and flows of fieldwork, my research in Lubumbashi is exceedingly and enjoyably tame compared to my colleagues working on say, armed groups in the Kivus. However, this is because Lubumbashi on a regular basis is normally a calm city. My research, which involves looking at the creation of a self-constructed identity in Katanga compared to a greater Congolese identity from the colonial period throughout the 1960s secession, had only a few problems along the way. Partly because the subject groups I was researching involved underrepresented groups in Katanga’s history – social movements, women’s groups, religious groups, and educational organizations instead of the political hierarchy that is traditionally used. These groups, particularly religious and educational groups were more than willing to help me. Overall, my research was fortuitous but uneventful. That is, until the Mai-Mai Bakata walked through town on March 23. Their appearance while a shock wasn’t entirely inconceivable.
Rumors had circulated since late January that the Mai-Mai from Northern Katanga had refashioned themselves as the ‘New Katangan Army’ and were now fighting for independence of Katanga. (Something that a few Simbas had an opinion with in conversations after the Mai-Mai were in UN custody.) My colleagues brushed off the idea that the group, with varying numbers, could get all the way to Lubumbashi in the middle of rainy season without ever being stopped; Lubumbashi, after all is one of the economic hubs of the country; the Congo had been through much worse and Lubumbashi had still come out standing. However, their nonchalant attitude was juxtaposed by a sudden increase in military and security forces at strategic spots – the President’s House, the Presidential Road, certain governmental buildings, and the airport, which had seen a small attack, on the airport road between military groups, just before Christmas – in what seemed like a span of two or three days. This highlighted the increased insecurity and underlying tension that something was brewing closer to home than anyone wanted to say.
Very slowly throughout the months of January and February, the Mai-Mai pillaged through towns and villages, murdering and displacing residents, whilst all the while moving closer to Lubumbashi increasing the tension within the city. This all reached a climax in February when a group attacked in Kinsevere and the police and FARDC drove them back. Then everything stopped a month before the Bakata came into Lubumbashi and UN urged people to return home because it was deemed safe. Multiple sources said that small groups slowly entered the city in the weeks before March 23; several said that some had been there since early January. A commission has been set up to uncover how they marched through the town to the city center without being stopped, but only several theories have circulated until the facts are revealed.
However, the Mai-Mai Bakata is just one angle fueling the fire of the March 23 attack. While the Bakata may have declared themselves the ‘New Katangan Army,’ it is increasing relations between local Katangans and the migrants population of the province. Furthermore, adding to tensions are the interests of political parties actively interested in federalizing the provinces of the Congo, which are becoming increasingly vocal within the urban areas and within printed media. In November (2012), I sent an email to a friend that roughly said, “from the perspective of a historian, if you analyze and compare the political rhetoric of the newspapers today and the political rhetoric of the newspapers from the 1950s, the same conversations are happening. I wonder if anything will come from this or if it will just be hot air.’ While dialogues about federating Katanga within the Congo are not new, today or historically, the increasing capacity with which these articles were appearing in the local media is striking. Furthermore, it was more than just politicians espousing these ideas – academics and business officials as well – were putting their ideas into print. While, the articles and the attack on Lubumbashi are not directly linked, the patterns and events from the 1950s are beginning to duplicate themselves in various fashions and what will unfold in the next five years will be critical to the maintenance of the stability of Katanga and the overall Congo.
Catherine Porter, PhD researcher, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org