Angolan Rebels Invade Shaba Province Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Katanga separatists invaded Shaba province in Zaire in 1977 and 1978 from their refugee headquarters in northeastern Angola. Initially, the invaders successfully occupied the southwestern portions of the province, but Zairean forces, reinforced by foreign support, repelled them. The second invasion, which involved massacres in the city of Kolwezi, raised alarm internationally.

Summary of Event

Shaba was the southernmost province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo when the country was known as Zaire (1971-1997). During the period when the country was a Belgian colony, Shaba was known as Katanga (also its name in the early twenty-first century). Numerous changes of place-names occurred in Zaire under the authoritarian presidency of Mobutu Sese Seko. The province, on the border of northeastern Angola, has always been among the most mineral-rich and coveted areas of Africa. Shaba (Zaire), invasions by Katanga separatists National Front for the Liberation of the Congo Racial and ethnic conflict;Zaire [kw]Angolan Rebels Invade Shaba Province (Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978) [kw]Rebels Invade Shaba Province, Angolan (Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978) [kw]Invade Shaba Province, Angolan Rebels (Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978) [kw]Shaba Province, Angolan Rebels Invade (Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978) Shaba (Zaire), invasions by Katanga separatists National Front for the Liberation of the Congo Racial and ethnic conflict;Zaire [g]Africa;Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978: Angolan Rebels Invade Shaba Province[02770] [g]Congo, Democratic Republic of the;Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978: Angolan Rebels Invade Shaba Province[02770] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 8, 1977, and May 11, 1978: Angolan Rebels Invade Shaba Province[02770] Mbumba, Nathaniel Neto, Agostinho Mobutu Sese Seko

Katanga independence rebels, exiled in northeast Angola, invaded the province in March, 1977, and again in May, 1978. Opposed to the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, they were attempting to establish Shaba as an independent entity and/or to take control of the Zaire government. Neither invasion was successful. Both occurred because of destabilizing forces in the aftermath of postindependence rivalries heightened by Cold War international tensions. (Zaire became independent in 1960; Angola, in 1974.) The Shaba invaders were the National Front for the Liberation of the Congo (Front National pour la Libération du Congo, or FNLC). Factions within a tripartite Angolan civil war, for various strategic and ideological reasons, encouraged their endeavor. Headed by Nathaniel Mbumba, members of the FNLC were known as Black Arrows; formerly, they had constituted the Katanga police force.

The Angolan factions lay in three regional/ethnic areas. The Mbundu, concentrated in the northwestern part of the country and in control of the coastal capital, Luandu, and the oil fields of Cabinda, formed the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular para a Libertação de Angola, or MPLA). In the north and northeast were the Bakongo, grouped in the National Front for the Liberation of Angola National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional para a Libertação de Angola, or FNLA). In the south and southwest were the Ovimbundu, organized in the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União para a Libertação Total de Angola, or UNITA). International support, originating in Cold War rivalries, magnified the force of the conflicts. The Soviet Union and Cuba supported the MPLA, Zaire, and the FNLA, whereas the United States and South Africa supported UNITA. As the FNLA declined from Cuban assaults, Zaire supported UNITA.

Mobutu Sese Seko aided the FNLA as a means of manipulating events in Angola. To counter this influence, the president of Angola, Agostinho Neto, supported the Katanga independence rebels. Exiled in northeastern Angola, the FNLC received powerful assistance from Cuban troops allied with the MPLA. The Congolese rebels thus formed part of an alliance that effectively neutralized the FNLA.

On March 8, 1977, an FNLC force of about two thousand men entered Shaba at the border city of Dilolo, identifying themselves by wearing “tiger” armbands. The Tigers advanced principally in two directions: One group moved east along the Benguela railroad to Kolwezi, a rich mining town of strategic economic importance, and the other advanced northward between the Kasai and Lubilash rivers to Kapanga. Within days, the invaders had reached their objectives, and over the coming weeks Zaire’s disorganized army met with continuous disasters and defeats. The FNLC fighters enjoyed support as they advanced, as they had common ethnic ties with the local Lunda people.

Desperate for outside assistance, Mobutu tried to persuade various Western powers that he was defending central Africa from communist infiltration. The most substantive responses he received, however, were from Islamic countries concerned about leftist destabilization of their regimes, principally Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Morocco provided paratroopers; the other two countries sent ancillary aid. France, as the principal country within the French-speaking world, provided an airlift of the Moroccan troops.

The Morocco and Zaire forces reversed the advances of the Shaba invaders during April and May. With the latter steadily retreating back into Angola, the “eighty-day war” was over. Carnage and pillaging followed in Shaba as Mobutu retaliated against those who had aided the invaders. Tens of thousands of inhabitants fled into Angola. In addition, Mobutu meted out revenge for the inadequacies of his armed forces, reducing their size and consolidating their organization and functions.

Although driven out of Shaba, the FNLC had been neither defeated nor weakened. On the contrary, it was strengthened. Mobutu’s revenge on the local people had increased supporters of and recruitment for the Tigers. Morale increased among the FNLC troops as they realized they had initially been able to defeat Zairean troops until Zaire received support from abroad. The FNLC grew from the invasion, to the point where it was able to sustain a second one.

This second invasion began on May 11, 1978. It had double the troops of the first invasion and targeted the occupation of the mining center of Kolwezi as its single objective. Because of its economic importance, the city had numerous foreign inhabitants, especially Belgians and French as well as some Americans. The invaders quickly occupied the city, once again catching the Zairean defense forces off guard. However, as the latter responded, the brutality of the conflict rapidly mounted. Over the next several days, civilians were taken hostage and many were massacred. Nearly one thousand Africans and Europeans were killed.

Alarmed by these atrocities, Belgium and France rapidly yet separately planned air rescue missions. The former sent several hundred Paracommandos; the latter, several hundred Legionnaires who were stationed on Corsica. The United States did not land troops, but it did provide ancillary airlift support. The Belgian and French troops parachuted into Kolwezi, and, although they did not arrive soon enough to prevent the initial massacres, they were in action a week after the incursion began and were able to drive the invaders back into Angola within a few days.


The Shaba invasions of 1977 and 1978 were the last in a sequence of attempts by Katanga separatists to wrest independence from the Congo and, with sovereignty, obtain control over the province’s exceptional mineral wealth. The central government of the Congo could never allow this separation, given that the province was crucial to any national regime’s resources. The antagonisms between the Congo and Angola resulted from interventions in each other’s affairs that were strategies for stabilizing internal power positions within each country.

In the charged atmosphere of Cold War tensions, such conflict had global consequences. The conflict was prolonged because of resonating antagonisms between the United States and the Soviet Union as superpower rivals, the regional interests of former European colonial overlords, and the aggressive defense by South Africa of its racist policies. Alternating power thrusts and vacuums allowed a civil war in Angola, genocidal ethnic conflicts in central Africa, and the repressive corruption of the Mobutu regime to endure through the end of the twentieth century.

The Shaba invasions were a microcosm echo of central African turmoil. They resulted from wars for independence that were followed by internal conflicts to consolidate new elite factions, which were strengthened and prolonged by international interests. Most chillingly, the Kolwezi massacres foreshadowed more massive and genocidal slaughter that would later occur in central Africa. Shaba (Zaire), invasions by Katanga separatists National Front for the Liberation of the Congo Racial and ethnic conflict;Zaire

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bobb, F. Scott. Historical Dictionary of Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire). Rev. ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999. Numerous entries offer historical context for events and individuals related to the Shaba invasion. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">George, Edward. The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965-1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale. London: Frank Cass, 2005. Focuses primarily on the military relations between Cuba and the MPLA. Devotes two chapters to the events of the late 1970’s. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, W. Martin. Historical Dictionary of Angola. Rev. ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Entries provide context for movements and individuals related to Angolan independence and their relationship with neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa. Best used in conjunction with previous editions (1980, 1992). Includes maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History. London: Zed Books, 2002. A Congolese political scientist places Shaba/Katanga and the Mobutu regime within the larger context of Congolese history from the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. Includes bibliography and map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Odom, Thomas P. Shaba II: The French and Belgian Intervention in Zaire in 1978. Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Combat Studies Institute, 1993. One of the most complete narratives and military analyses of the Shaba province invasions of 1977-1978 available in English. Written by a U.S. Army officer. Includes glossary, chronology, charts, and bibliography.

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