UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Shaba I

Mobutu's ill-considered involvement in Angola returned to haunt him in March 1977 when the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (Front pour la Liberation Nationale du Congo FLNC) invaded Zaire's Shaba Region. Included in the invading force was a small remnant of the Katangan gendarmes. When Kasavubu recalled Tshombe from exile in 1964, elements of this force had been incorporated into the ANC to help fight the insurrections simmering throughout the country.

After Tshombe disappeared from the political scene, the Katangan contingent mutinied in 1966 and again in 1967. When these uprisings failed, most of the contingent left for Angola under Nathaniel Mbumba's leadership. During the late 1960s, the former gendarmes began to congregate in Angola along Zaire's southern border, and during the late 1960s and early 1970s, they fought for the Portuguese against Angolan nationalist movements. After the Portuguese departed in 1975, the MPLA enlisted the rebel Zairians in their cause and, with Cuban assistance, continued to arm and train them. It was the remnants of this force, augmented by other Zairian dissidents from Shaba and elsewhere, and still led by Mbumba, which invaded Shaba in 1977.

The invaders launched a three-pronged attack on March 8, 1977. Within weeks the FLNC had captured several towns and controlled the railroad to a point thirty kilometers from the copper-mining town of Kolwezi. Shortly after the invasion began, the dissidents made it clear that they were not merely a reincarnation of the earlier Katangan secessionist movement but instead aimed to take over the entire country and depose Mobutu. After their initial success, the rebels stalled on their way to Kolwezi; nevertheless, Mobutu's position seemed dire. This rapid advance and the threat to Kolwezi forced Mobutu to appeal for international assistance.

Belgium, France, and the United States responded to Mobutu's request by immediately airlifting military supplies to Zaire. Other African states also supported Zaire during this crisis, and Egypt and Morocco joined Belgium, France, and the United States by providing assistance. Egypt provided fifty pilots and technicians. The pilots flew the French-built Mirage jets of the Zairian air force throughout the conflict. Morocco provided 1,500 combat troops. French aircraft airlifted these soldiers to Kolwezi on April 9, and on April 14, a combined Zairian and Moroccan force counterattacked. This reinforcement immediately improved the FAZ's morale, and by the end of May the joint force had regained control of Shaba. In addition to the recapture of Shaba, the Moroccan presence had the added benefit of permitting Mobutu to keep his elite airborne units in Kinshasa, ready to respond to a crisis elsewhere in the country.

The invading force had expected a general uprising in support of its operation; however, because of the fragmentation of Zairian opposition groups, as well as the FLNC's distinctive ethnic base (Lunda and Ndembu), this uprising did not materialize. The FLNC was prevented from consolidating its gains and became susceptible to the Zairian-Moroccan counterattack. Nevertheless, during what came to be known as the Eighty-Day War, the FLNC suffered no serious defeats, its troop strength had not diminished significantly, and its capability to conduct insurgent operations remained intact.

The FLNC withdrew to Angola, and possibly to Zambia, and began to regroup for another attack. Thus, although to a limited extent the crushing of Shaba I might be regarded as a model of international cooperation, the victorious forces failed to complete the job. Probably more significant, however, was Zaire's failure to follow up its military success with political and economic reforms to ensure long-term stability. Government reprisals after Shaba I drove 50,000 to 70,000 refugees to Angola. Also, Zaire's continued support for Angolan dissident groups ensured continued Angolan government support for the FLNC.

The poor performance of Zaire's military during Shaba I gave evidence of chronic weaknesses. One problem was that some of the Zairian soldiers in the area had not received pay for extended periods. Senior officers often kept the money intended for the soldiers, typifying a generally disreputable and inept senior leadership in the FAZ. As a result, many soldiers simply deserted rather than fight. Others stayed with their units but were ineffective.

During the months following the Shaba invasion, Mobutu sought solutions to the military problems that had contributed to the army's dismal performance. He implemented sweeping reforms of the command structure, including wholesale firings of high-ranking officers. He merged the military general staff with his own presidential staff and appointed himself chief of staff again, in addition to the positions of minister of defense and supreme commander that he already held. He redeployed his forces throughout the country instead of keeping them close to Kinshasa, as had previously been the case. The Kamanyola Division, at the time considered the army's best unit and referred to as the president's own, was assigned permanently to Shaba. In addition to these changes, the army's strength was reduced by 25 percent, presumably to eliminate disloyal and ineffective elements. Also, Zaire's allies provided a large influx of military equipment, and Belgian, French, and American advisers assisted in rebuilding and retraining the force.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:36 ZULU