The history of the Katangese gendarmes, or gendarmes katangais, as they are better known in French, has been truncated in several ways. First, historians have focused only on their military interventions in the 1960s and early 1970s. Second, their role in both Congo and Angola has been compartmentalized and treated separately. Last, but not least, they have been largely relegated to footnotes and considered a minor actor in the political changes that affected central Africa from the Cold War onward. This is due to the protean roles the gendarmes have played, straddling periods, national borders, and ideologies, and acting as “a state-based army, an agent of colonial repression, a national liberation movement, a security guard for valuable mining installations, an insurgent force, and a division of someone else’s national army” (5). Historians Erik Kennes and Miles Larmer set out to rectify this truncated history and fill the gap in our knowledge about the Katangese gendarmes in The Katangese Gendarmes and War in Central Africa: Fighting Their Way Home, a vividly wrought chronicle that combines a superior grasp of major events unfolding in a broad area that extends from Kigali to Luanda with meticulous analyses. Chapter 1 provides an important historical background as it traces Katanga’s separatist identity and the emergence of the Katangese gendarmes along its historical trajectory, from the precolonial past to a botched independence mired in ethnic tensions. Although Katanga’s mineral bonanza figures prominently in their narratives as a vital linchpin that set several key events in motion, the authors are careful not to neglect other economic, political, and social features that fostered a sort of Katangese exceptionalism and provided the impetus for a separate postcolonial trajectory. Because the secession of Katanga from Congo in 1960 led to the emergence of the Katangese gendarmes, Kennes and Larmer devote chapter 2 to this foundational event. While the traditional lens tends to view the secession as an external plot, orchestrated by powerful Belgian financial and political interests bent on preserving the West’s access to Katanga’s mineral wealth and shaped by fear of a Communist influence over Lumumba’s central government, the authors take a different approach by focusing on the local political and social agenda led by Moïse Tshombe, secessionist Katanga’s leader, and his right-hand man, Godefroid Munongo. With the Belgians withdrawing their support, Tshombe strengthened the gendarmes in order to safeguard his incipient and fragile state as it further sustained diplomatic and military threats from the UN, the Congolese National Army (ANC), and regional Balubakat forces. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the end of Katanga’s secession. Tshombe’s failure to create a viable statehood for Katanga created a situation where many gendarmes, unwilling or unable to integrate the ANC, kept the embers of a Katanga state smoldering and susceptible to reignition at any time, especially with resentment building up in Katanga over an unfair post-secession political resolution. By 1963, around the time Joseph Mobutu strengthened his grip on the Congolese state, close to eight thousand well-trained ex-gendarmes remained unaccounted for. They roamed border areas, some went to Portuguese-held Angola, others crossed the southern border into Northern Rhodesia, while still others offered their service as security officers for mining companies. In Angola, the authors persuasively argue, the ex-gendarmes did not serve as the typical “guns for hire” but as an “army-in-exile” (80, 109, 14), with a shifting political organization, and constantly morphing; at times seamlessly integrated into the Portuguese colonial army to fight Angolan nationalist forces, at other times at odds with Portuguese agenda while plotting to destabilize Mobutu’s regime. Their dream of reviving a Katanga state never totally vanished, especially because it received the blessings of the Katanga’s Lunda royal elite and the Tshombe family inside Katanga. With military training, weapons, and financial resources provided by Portugal, the Tigres (as the ex-gendarmes became known in Angola) and their political organization, the FLNC (National Front for the Liberation of Congo), would fight in the Angolan civil war of 1974–1976 and attempt to invade Shaba (former Katanga province) twice, first in March 1977, then in May of the following year. The last two chapters chronicle yet another transformation of the Katangese ex-gendarmes, namely, the fragmentation of the FLNC into a motley collection of factions following the Shaba I and II debacles and the recruitment of new elements. Yet the context that shaped the ex-gendarmes’ transformation in the late 1980s came as a result of a general amnesty decreed by Mobutu that led to the return of thousands of ex-Tigres from Angola. These demobilized troops would in turn rearm and participate in Congo’s topsy-turvy descent into the doldrums of political instability that, ironically, started with Mobutu’s overthrow and the Congo Wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite being compellingly organized around pivotal chapters and providing a tantalizing exposé, The Katangese Gendarmes is not without its shortcomings. One would have, for example, welcomed a deeper exploration of the ways in which the gendarmes have been remembered and memorialized not just in Katanga, but in Kinshasa as well. The authors alluded to this important development, but never really quite ventured to fully incorporate it into their narratives. Notwithstanding, this is a groundbreaking study that will appeal to historians and political scientists alike who are keen on understanding the drama that has wreaked havoc in central Africa in the wake of the Cold War and continues to afflict the entire area. The rise of the gendarmes katangais, skillfully chronicled by Kennes and Larmer as the proverbial phoenix, may be key to understanding central Africa’s predicament and conflicts. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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