THE recent arrest of 19 men in South Africa for allegedly planning a coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the latest twist in the fate of the Mai Mai, the militia that helped late former Congolese president Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power.
Adding spice to this story is a long-running family feud about which of his sons should have rightfully succeeded him — and, as is often the case in the Congo, all these matters are linked to the nation’s mineral wealth.
The arrested men are said to be followers of Etienne Kabila Taratibu, the exiled eldest half-brother of President Joseph Kabila.
Etienne Kabila, who handed himself over to police in Cape Town after the arrest of the 19 men, has publicly questioned whether Joseph is Laurent’s actual offspring.
Prosecutors in the case have said the arrested men belonged to the Congolese rebel group the Union of Nationalists for Renewal (UNR). At the time of writing, police were still on the lookout for one of the group’s leaders, "Major General" William Amuri Yakutumba, who is said to have gone underground in South Africa.
Mr Yakutumba’s involvement in the affair suggests links between the UNR and his own rebel group, Mai-Mai Yakutumba, which, according to the Congolese army, was the most important of six remaining armed groups in South Kivu back in 2007.
The Mai Mai is a loosely grouped collection of Congolese militias operating in the eastern Congo, where armed groups are in varying degrees of disarmament, re-integration or fragmentation. The groups follow tribal, ideological or political lines, and some are allegedly supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.
The Mai Mai groups are active in the Congo’s eastern provinces bordering Rwanda. None of the Mai Mai were party to the 1999 Lusaka Accord meant to end the war in Congo and remain among the most powerful forces threatening peace.
The Mai Mai Yakutumba is a politico-military movement founded in 2007, active in the southern part of South Kivu. One of the group’s chief complaints is what it sees as the ingratitude of the national army, first under Laurent Kabila and now under Joseph Kabila. It feels it should have been ‘rewarded’ for having fought on the government side against the Rally for Congolese Democracy insurgency of the late 1990s.
The Mai Mai Yakutumba claim the government of Laurent Kabila is a puppet of the Kigali regime and what it has previously been referred to as "resource-hungry imperialist powers". The group shares this position with Etienne Kabila, who insisted in an interview published after the 2002 Sun City conference on the Congo that Joseph Kabila had Rwandan parentage and was partial to Rwandan interests. Joseph and his government rejected these claims as "rubbish".
Etienne, born in 1965 of the late president’s first marriage, sees himself as Laurent’s rightful heir, claiming that Joseph, born of a second marriage, is too close to Rwanda to be a true Congolese.
But analysts argue that it was Joseph that Laurent trusted and gave responsibility for the army, effectively putting him ahead in the succession line. They see Etienne as no more than a disgruntled sibling upset at coming off second-best in the sibling rivalry.
Etienne says he went into exile in South Africa after receiving death threats from Joseph and his supporters, although observers believe that claim has little merit.
As the arrest drama was taking place in South Africa’s Limpopo province, the annual Mining Indaba was taking place in Cape Town. During last year’s Mining Indaba, Congolese protesters opposed to Joseph Kabila took centre stage when they picketed and called on investors to steer clear of the country’s mineral resources.
Beneath the Laurent Kabila succession battle and the arguments over the Mai Mai lies the Congo’s enormous mineral wealth. Primary minerals mined in the Congo include diamonds, cobalt, gold and copper.
Leading South African businesses have interests in the country’s mining industry, and opponents of the Kabila government have said these business interests are key in South Africa’s policy on the Congo.
At a meeting in Pretoria in October last year, South African President Jacob Zuma and Joseph Kabila both condemned "forces destabilising the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo".
The Limpopo events suggest that there are some, hiding in South Africa, who would like to have a say in how the Congo evolves, even if their methods are illegal and bound to invite the wrath of governments.
However, not until whatever case South Africa has against the arrested men comes to trial will it become clear how this tale will pan out.
• Githahu is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town. He has reported on affairs in East, Central and Southern Africa for more than two decades.