Mbuji-Mayi (formerly Bakwanga) serves as the capital of Kasai-Oriental Province in the south-central Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the third largest city in the country, following the capital Kinshasa and second largest city Lubumbashi but ahead of Kisangani and Kananga. The city is the DRC's third-largest, though the exact population isn't known. Estimates ranged from a 2010 CIA Factbook estimated population of 1,480,000 to as many as 3,500,000 estimated by the United Nations in 2008.
Mbuji-Mayi lies in Luba country on the Sankuru River. The name Mbuji-Mayi comes from the local language, Tshiluba, and translates as "Goat-Water," a name deriving from the great number of goats in the region and the city's location on the Sankuru, making it a prime watering spot. Despite its large population, the city remains remote, having little connection to surrounding provinces or to Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. Air travel is provided through the Mbuji Mayi Airport.
The region where the city of Mbuji-Mayi now stands was once a cluster of villages on land owned by the Bakwanga clan. Diamonds were first discovered in the area as early as 1907, but the true value of the find wasn't recognized until 1913. Following the discovery, a mining camp designed to house miners and company officials of the Societé minière de Bakwanga (MIBA) was developed in the area.
The young city, known at the time as Bakwanga, grew quickly, but around strict planning by MIBA, which divided the community into labor camps, mining areas and living quarters. The city's growth was not explosive, and planning was done with the needs of the mining company in mind - not the development of the region as a general population center.
In fact, fearing theft of the company's diamond resources, the MIBA actively discouraged build-up in the region and closely monitored who went in and out of the region. Every person in the region needed a permit allowing them to be there, and registration at a command post that monitored the population, which made indefinite residence in the area almost impossible to establish. There was limited economic activity besides the company-run mining, with even limited agriculture, and the city's population remained low, at approximately 39,830 by the late 1950s.
As the city grew, more and more infrastructure needs required investment in roads, public works and hospitals. While several primary schools were developed for workers, until independence there was no higher education available for the native population.
Mbuji-Mayi grew rapidly upon Congolese independence in 1960 with the immigration of members of the Luba ethnic group from different parts of the country.
Shortly after independence, Albert Kalonji, a Luba tribal chief, declared himself ruler of the secessionist Mining State of South Kasai on Aug. 8, 1960, and established the city, still known as Bakwanga, as his capital. In April 1961, Kalonji declared himself as emperor of the region in a traditional tribal ceremony, and then returned to Bakwanga, where he was "carried through crowds of chanting, singing and cheering Balubas" and dancing continued outside his royal palace there for four days.
The celebrating was short-lived, as the central government Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC) troops took control of the town and arrested Kalonji, by December 1961. After an escape from the jail where he was being held, he briefly re-established his government. A second assault on the independent state was launched in the summer of 1962, with ANC government troops fighting poorly armed tribesmen outside of the city. Kalonji was captured, again, on Oct. 4, 1962, when central Congolese troops retook Bakwanga, effectively ending the region's independence.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Zaire and Mobutu paid little attention to Mbuji-Mayi, offering almost no money to build roads, schools or hospitals.
In the political vacuum, MIBA, the mining company stepped in. In the place of the federal government, MIBA invested heavily in the region - repairing roads, paying soldiers and supplying water and electricity to the city from its own power station. The company set up a social fund of $5 to $6 million a year, or roughly 8 percent of its annual budget. This money not only went for infrastructure repair, but also to fund a new university.
These investments and position as largest employer made Jonas Mukamba Kadiata Nzemba the chief executive officer of MIBA one of the most powerful men in the region, and defacto governor of Mbuji-Mayi. Nzemba, who was appointed by Mobutu in 1986, was considered one of the more powerful players in Mobutu's political party, the Mouvement Populaire pour le Revolution (MPR), but also called himself a "brother" of Étienne Tshisekedi, a popular local political figure and Mobutu's most significant political opposition.
Nzemba is credited with creating the Conference pour le Developpement Economique de Kasai Oriental (CDEKO), a regional economic development group in the early 1990s. Nzemba also backed the creation of the University of Kasai, which was jointly sponsored by MIBA and the local Catholic church, and which became the home base of CDEKO. The new organization spearheaded economic growth in Mbuji-Mayi, helping support the development of new agricultural and beer industry expansion around the city, and launched Wetrafa, a locally-owned airline.
But, Mobutu's willingness to let Nzemba control the province through MIBA came at a price - Nzemba may have skimmed as much as $1.5 to $2 million a month to send to Mobutu's personal bank accounts.
Although Nzemba and MIBA's largesse helped Mbuji-Mayi maintain some semblance of infrastructure and social services, at least by the standards of Zaire, the city still struggled. Electricity was spotty, the university was broken down and the road system disintegrated with the rain. Outside of the sector of the city controlled by MIBA, the road network was virtually non-existent, and in 1991, the entire city had only about 19.7 kilometers of paved roads, all in poor condition. The state-run power plant went out of service in 1990, with an 11.8 megawatt hydroelectric plant run by MIBA as the only source of electricity - but frequent power outages led residents to other sources of heat and light, mainly wood and charcoal leading to widespread deforestation in the area.
As the First Congo War broke out, Nzemba initially sided with Mobutu against the rebels led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, but as Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL or ADFLC) approached the city, Nzemba quickly switched sides.
When the city fell to the rebels on April 4, 1997, looting by both sides took a toll on the city and in particular MIBA's mining operations. Nzemba was also summoned to Goma to speak with Kabila, who held him for several days, prompting his family to purchase advertising in newspapers publicizing their concerns for his safety. Nzemba was released shortly after, but MIBA began making "voluntary contributions" to Kabila's war effort - totally an estimated $5.5 million in 1997 and 1998.
In October 1998, Mbuji-Mayi was occupied by both Zimbabwean and Chadian troops as they poured into the country to back up Kabila as the First Congo War began to grow.