Angry miners talk again of secession



 

In Kolwezi, southern Zaire, Mark Huband finds ‘the Baltic option’ gaining ground

The Guardian, 21 October 1991

Belgium’s decision to retain 800 troops on an almost permanent basis in Zaire, to protect both foreigners and Zaireans, is a sign of how unstable it believes its former colony to be. While most of the troops will be stationed in Kinshasa, others will patrol the rich, but increasingly volatile, mineral-producing region in the south.

The towns of Lubumbashi and Kolwezi, in the southern province of Shaba, grew up in the 1930s when the commercial extraction of copper and cobalt began. Now these metals are Zaire’s main foreign exchange earner, with 50 years of reserves left.

The state-owned mining company, Gecamines, is supposed to hand over 55 per cent of its foreign currency earnings to the Bank of Zaire in return for worthless local currency. But it has not paid anything into the bank since April, because of a slump in profits.

The fortunes of Zaire’s ruling elite stem from mineral earnings, which are channelled to Kinshasa and abroad. Since independence in 1960, no schools have been built in Shaba.

During last month’s riots, Kolwezi’s shops were looted, and the mines closed for two days because nobody turned up for work. Gecamines lost a vast amount of equipment to looters, who drove their booty away in lorries stolen from the mines.

Now the shops are all empty. Some have been burned to the ground. Belgian troops stand in the shadow of the Catholic church, waiting to see what will happen next.

In Shaba, (which means “copper” in Swahili), the discontented soldiers who led the riots have grown rich. And the people whose homes were looted say they know where their property is, but they dare not reclaim it.

“The soldiers shot at my house before they broke in. They didn’t shoot at me, they just took everything I own. Now all our property is in the army barracks, just on the other side of that fence over there,” said Laurent Tshimbye, a mine employee.

In March, workers at all three Gecamines sites in Shaba went on a month-long strike: “People weren’t making a living wage anymore. We awarded a 60 per cent pay increase in September,” said Gecamines finance director, Edward Lyssan. The increase will have been cancelled out by 50 per cent monthly inflation by the end of the year.

In 1978, 4,000 rebels calling themselves the “Katanga gendarmes” occupied Kolwezi after invading from Angola. They were demanding the secession of Shaba, then known as Katanga. The invasion, during which both Zaireans and Europeans were killed, was repelled by French and Belgian troops. They were intent on keeping President Mobutu Sese Seko in power in a unilied Zaire, and the protection of the mines was crucial to his political survival, just as it is today.

Beneath exploding jacaranda blossom, in the shadow of a burnt out shop, a boy sells Shaba’s leading weekly newspaper, L’Espoir (hope). A front page headline reads: “The emergence of the Baltic states of Zaire: Katanga, Kasai, and Kivu.”

An article by the editor argues that Zaire’s three richest provinces should follow the example of the Soviet Baltic republics: “These provinces could be self-sufficient today, and could organise themselves without the direction of one ‘guide’ and a class of looters living in a distant capital.”

Gecamine’s faltering fortunes, labour unrest among its 36,000 employees due to low wages, the draining of wealth to the capital and the continued political tension in Kinshasa have exacerbated separatist “Katangese” sentiments.

Today a full military intervention by France and Belgium to preserve unity would be unlikely, as it would be interpreted as support for a regime 6f which they no longer approve.

 

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