Miles Larmer is involved in a research project with NAI. Together with fellow historian Erik Kennes, he has studied the complex history of the Katangese gendarmes.

The gendarmes who marched into Africa’s Cold War

Almost immediately after Congo’s independence in 1960, the mineral-rich Katanga province declared its intention to secede. The ensuing conflict, which saw the deaths of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarsköld, has been extensively documented by both academics and the entertainment industry. Less well-known is the story of the soldiers who fought for the secessionist state of Katanga. Historian Miles Larmer has written a book about these Katangese gendarmes. 
 
“They have often been described as mercenaries in the service of colonial masters or Belgian and Rhodesian mining interests. But they were more than that. The idea of an independent Katanga held sway among the people. Even today that idea lingers, even though few now have personal memories of the breakaway state in the 1960s,” Larmer points out. 
 
After the uprising was suppressed in 1963, the gendarmes found themselves in limbo. They had fought for the losing side and were not popular ‒ or even seen as desirable ‒ among Congo's leaders. In those days as more recently, demobilisation initiatives were often unsuccesful, thus leaving the soldiers with few options other than to find new conflicts to fight in. 
 
On the wrong side of history
“Many of the gendarmes were recruited by the Portuguese to fight against the independence movements in Angola. After the coup in Lisbon 1974, the gendarmes again found themselves on the wrong side of history. Having served the colonial power was not a good thing to have on your resume after Angolan independence,” Larmer observes. 
 
However, the new MPLA government in Angola needed professional soldiers when civil war broke out before independence. The gendarmes were just too good as fighters to remain confined to barracks, so were mobilised by the MPLA to fight on their side. Angola was soon a pawn in the Cold War. The Eastern bloc supported the MPLA whereas the West took sides with the Unita rebels. 
 
“So in a very short period, perceptions of the gendarmes shifted. They were no longer seen as neo-colonial soldiers, but were now portrayed as Marxist guerrillas in the mould of Che Guevara. They were, in fact, neither. It is fascinating to see how these mainly rural Katangese men transcended national borders as ideological signifiers,” Larmer says. 
 
Sneaking across the Zairean border
Despite their involvement in Angola, the gendarmes remined passionate about their home region Katanga. In 1978, they dressed in civilian clothes and sneaked across the Zairean border from Zambia. Once on the far side, they changed into uniform and took up arms. Facing little resistance, the gendarmes managed to seize control of Kolwezi, a medium-sized mining town of strategic economic importance to Zaire. However, given the prevailing Cold War logic, the incursion was not seen as nationalist Katangese but as communist. President Mobutu wasted little time in calling on the West for help against a Cuban-led invasion of Zaire. 
 
“This situation could have escalated into another Cuba crisis. However, the Cubans and Angolans were not interested in opening up another military front in Katanga, since they were too busy fighting Unita and South African forces. Thus, it was not difficult for  Mobutu’s army to repel the gendarmes, who fled back to Zambia,” Larmer adds. 
 
Finally on the winning side
The history of gendarmes doesn’t end there, for in the 1990s they once again became involved in armed conflict in their home region. Many of the original solders are quite old by then, but new recruits from Katanga were enrolled. They were flown to Rwanda and incorporated into Laurent Kabila’s army, which eventually overthrew the Mobutu regime. When the Democratic Republic of Congo was declared in 1997, the gendarmes were finally on the winning side. 
 
However, the issue of an independent Katanga is still sensitive in the DRC. Earlier this year, a former governor of Katanga, Moïse Katumbi, declared his candidacy for president. This was too much of a threat for President Joseph Kabila, and Katumbi had to flee the country.
 
“He now lives in exile in South Africa. This is proof of how sensitive the question of Katanga still is,” Larmer remarks.
 
TEXT: JOHAN SÄVSTRÖM
johan.savstrom@nai.uu.se
 

The Katangese Gendarmes and War in Central Africa

Fighting Their Way Home
 
Erik Kennes and Miles Larmer
Indiana University Press
ISBN: 978-0-253-02139-7
 
More information about the book can be found on the publisher's website

Multidisciplinary workshop held at NAI

NAI researcher Patience Mususa is working with Miles Larmer on a project funded by the European Research Fund (ERC) that aims to compare the copper belts of Zambia and the Congo. (Read more about project here).
As an early step in the project, a workshop involving 15 specialists in the region was held at the Nordic Africa Institute.
 
“Interestingly, anthropologists and historians are working together in the project. This is not as strange as it seems, because really history is understood in the present and anthropology builds on knowledge of the past,” Larmer points out. 
 
The aim is for the project to involve various actors: universities in both countries, local NGOs and even mining companies.
 
“Although all of us have researched the area for a long time, it is invaluable to include people with direct experience of both copper belts. For instance, one of the researchers at the workshop had previously worked in the region as a miner for a mining company,” Larmer concludes.
 
 
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