The DRC's southern province of Katanga is rich in raw materials but the population hardly benefits and calls for independence are growing. Plans for political decentralization could help defuse the situation.
It was only a short shock for the inhabitants of Katanga's regional capital Lubumbashi when a group of 300 rebels marched in on March 23, 2013. After a brief skirmish most of the rebels fled to the compound of the UN's Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO). Two days later they were flown out to the capital, Kinshasa.
According to a report compiled by civil society organizations, the fighting left 26 people dead, almost all of them rebels.
"Many of the attackers were children - underfed and in poor physical condition," said Ulrike von Baggehufwudt who works for the Congolese regional development NGO SADRI ("Service d'Appui au Developpement Regional Integre") in Lubumbashi. "Many observers say they didn't represent a real threat," she added.
In Katanga there are various groups of so-called Mai-Mai rebels who mostly regard themselves as citizens' militia groups. According to the UN, there are some 2,000 such rebels in Katanga. Some, including the group which attacked Lubumbashi in March, are calling for independence for the province.
They call themselves "Kata Katanga" which means 'cut off Katanga.' Some politicians dismiss them as minor criminals, says von Baggehufwudt, but she points out that the rebels marched unhindered through the town and were greeted enthusiastically by at least some of the population. This, she says, is a sign that they share the dissatisfaction actively displayed by the rebels.
Rich in natural resources
Henri Muhiya, Secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Natural Resources in the DRC, also takes a more serious view of the incident. He points to the decentralization measures that were added to the country's constitution in 2006.
They specify that 40 percent of the province's revenue should remain there, including revenue from the sale of natural resources.
However, this has not yet been implemented and this "is fueling frustration," Muhiya says. As an example, he points to the road from Lubumbashi to Kolwezi, in the center of Katanga's Copperbelt. It has still not been properly asphalted. "The people living there, where the raw materials come from, feel this is unjust," Muhiya told DW.
The wealth of raw materials in Katanga is legendary. During the time when DRC was known as Zaire under the presidency of Mobutu Sese Seko, Katanga was called Shaba province, the name meaning copper.
In the south there are large reserves of copper and cobalt and it was there that the uranium was mined that the US used in World War II for the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1960, just a few days after the country became independent, Governor Moise Tshombe declared that the province was also an independent entity - thereby plunging Katanga into several years of civil war. The green, red and white flag of the independent Katanga is a symbol still used today by the "Kata Katanga" rebels.
The north also suffers
While some foreign companies are concerned about the security situation, the economy in the south is not suffering under the rebels, says Musewa M'Byao, Dean of the Economics Faculty at the University of Lubumbashi.
He sees more of a problem in northern Katanga where the strategically important metallic ore coltan, used in electronic products, is to be found.
The poor infrastructure in the region deters foreign investors, while the resources there attract the rebels. "In northern Katanga coltan was mined illegally and helped finance the war in eastern DRC," M"Bayo said in an interview with DW. The situation only returned to normal when world market prices fell.
The north is still regarded as dangerous. Attacks by another Mai-Mai rebel group led by Gedeon Kyungu Mutanga are keeping the population in a state of fear. Mutanga escaped from prison in September 2011.
The area is known locally as the "triangle of death." People feel they've been left to fend for themselves, says Bishop Fulgence Muteba. "In this large area, a high level of organization is required for the state to reach the people."
No reform overnight
Bishop Muteba thinks the decentralization plans are a good idea. So does DRC Interior Minister Richard Muyej Mangez. But he knows that it will be hard work to convince everyone. Part of the plan approved in a referendum in 2008 sees the division of Katanga into four smaller provinces.
This is not the goal of the secessionists who dream of their own state. "These young people must understand that Katanga no longer has the weight it had 30 years ago," Minister Muyej Mangez told DW. It is still strong economically, but other provinces are catching up, he said.
The minister is working to get the last necessary laws through parliament so that the reform can finally be implemented. He says people still need to be patient.
"The Democratic Republic of Congo has had a difficult history - three decades of dictatorship. That means a small revolution is necessary to achieve changes at different levels."