The Kamuina Nsapu rebellion in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has rapidly emerged as one of the world’s major humanitarian crises. By late July 2017, the conflict had displaced 1.4 million people — including almost 850,000 children — and led to over 3,000 deaths. Apart from the internally-displaced population, over 32,000 Congolese have fled across the border from the Kasai conflict zone into Angola, and the UN expects this number to rise to 50,000 by the end of the year. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Congolese refugees have been “arriving in desperate conditions, without access to clean water, food or shelter,” and “some of the refugees have had to hide in the forest for days in their bid to reach safety in Angola.”
The rebellion erupted following the assassination on August 12, 2016 of Jean-Pierre Mpandi, the Kamuina Nsapu (traditional ruler) of Bajila Kasanga, a collection of villages in Kasai-Central province in the DRC. Mpandi’s murder followed a period of strained political relations between the government and the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, an opposition party which dominates Kasai-Central and neighboring provinces. The government saw Mpandi as an antigovernment leader, and chose not to recognize his hereditary appointment as Kamuina Nsapu. In April 2016, just a few months before his assassination, the government staged a security sweep of Bajila Kasanga during Mpandi’s visit to South Africa. As Hans Hoebeke recounts:
“Mpandi later accused the authorities of entering sacred places, stealing traditional regalia and attempting to molest one of his wives. He accused the security forces of harassing the population and evicted them from the area. The chief increasingly considered the state and all its representatives, including the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), to be his enemies and incited his followers to rise up against them.”
Mpandi’s assassination triggered a rebellion which has spread from Kasai-Central to the neighboring provinces of Kasai, Kasai-Oriental, and Lomami. In terms of socio-economic development, the Kasai region is “one of the DRC’s poorest … Kasai-Central, the origin of the insurgency, ranks very poorly in its human development indicators, including high levels of child mortality and malnourishment, as well widespread illiteracy among women and girls.” While Kasai-Central “has diamonds and gold … there is no industrial mining. Infrastructure and electricity supplies are inadequate.” This socio-economic underdevelopment has contributed to “widespread dissatisfaction” of the government among the local people, and has also led the local population to defend their “traditional customs and practices” as a way to highlight their separate identity from the government and the rest of the DRC. This sense of pride in their traditional identity has shaped the Kamuina Nsapu militia which is driving the rebellion:
“Local observers said many young men and boys, some as young as five, had been conscripted or joined the militia. Its members wear red headbands or armbands, and like the Mai Mai groups operating in eastern DRC they undergo rituals and carry amulets that are believed to bring invulnerability. Some have guns, likely looted from the security forces.”
In turn, government security forces — including the government-sponsored Bana Mura militia— have attempted to suppress the rebellion through violent means, including mass killings of civilians, as has been evidenced by the identification by the UN Joint Human Rights Office in Congo (UNJHRO) of 42 mass graves in the conflict zone. The number of mass graves could rise to 80 following the subsequent discovery of a further 38 probable mass graves. The UNJHRO has accused DRC security forces of being responsible for most of these mass graves. The DRC government has rejected this and other accusations of human rights violations committed by its security forces.
With the breakdown of law and order in the current conflict in Kasai, and with the geographical expansion of the conflict zone, observers fear that the DRC will return to the chaotic violence of the devastating Congo Wars.
The Kamuina Nsapu militia is not innocent of human rights violations either, as was seen in its alleged involvement in the mass decapitation of 40 police officers in March 2017. That month also saw the murders of two UN experts, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán, and Betu Tshintela, their local interpreter. The UN team had been in Kasai-Central to investigate human rights abuses, and they were reportedly murdered by Kamuina Nsapu rebels. Their murders were recorded on cellphone video footage:
“A cluster of men with rifles and red bandannas lead Ms. Catalán, a 36-year-old Swedish-Chilean, into a grove with her American colleague, Michael J. Sharp, 34. The two investigators are barefoot. Mr. Sharp starts arguing. He and Ms. Catalán are forced onto the ground. Suddenly, shots are fired, hitting Mr. Sharp first. Ms. Catalán screams and tries to run for cover. She is shot twice. Their bodies were discovered weeks later in a shallow grave, laid out carefully, side by side, in opposite directions. Ms. Catalán had been decapitated. Her head had been taken.”
UN investigators like the late Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán have not only identified mass graves, but they have also documented “harrowing evidence of people being shot, burned or hacked to death.” In addition, they have documented the mass killings of “hundreds of villagers from the Luba and Lulua ethnic groups.” Separately, the Catholic Church, which is present in the conflict zone, has documented the destruction of “20 villages … half of them by government troops.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described the Kasai conflict zone as a “landscape of horror,” and in his presentation to the UN Human Rights Council, he recounted how investigators from his office had “witnessed children as young as two, whose limbs had been chopped off, and babies with machete wounds and severe wounds … One two-month-old baby … had been hit by two bullets four hours after birth; the mother was also wounded. At least two pregnant women were sliced open and their foetuses mutilated.”
The UN Human Rights Council has since ordered an independent and international investigation into the human rights violations in the Kasai conflict zone, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has named an international team of experts— Bacre Ndiaye (Senegal), Luc Côté (Canada) and Fatimata M’Baye (Mauritania) — to lead this investigation. The team is mandated to report its findings to the Human Rights Council in March and June 2018. The DRC government has “agreed to cooperate, including by facilitating access.” In the meantime, Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), has stated that her office is “carefully” monitoring the situation in the Kasai region, and has affirmed that the ICC “shall not hesitate to take action if acts constituting crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC are committed.”
Insofar as the Kamuina Nsapu militia and their antigovernment supporters in Kasai are challenging the rule of President Joseph Kabila, the present crisis represents the latest iteration of the DRC’s spiral repetition of violence. As Gilles Deleuze (1994) famously noted, in contrast to bare repetition (p. 292), events in spiral repetition repeat with differences (p. 20). In the case of the DRC, until his assassination in 2001, Joseph Kabila’s father and former DRC President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was a key political figure during the First and Second Congo Wars. The Congo Wars are also collectively known as Africa’s First World War— the devastating conflict that was “the deadliest in modern African history,” having involved “the armies of at least six countries,” and which eventually “killed 5 million people between 1996 and 2003.” With the breakdown of law and order in the current conflict in Kasai, and with the geographical expansion of the conflict zone, observers fear that the DRC will return to the chaotic violence of the devastating Congo Wars.
With Joseph Kabila’s continuing refusal to relinquish the presidency, even though he was constitutionally mandated to step down on December 20, 2016, the frustrations of the Kamuina Nsapu militia and their antigovernment supporters in Kasai can only be expected to mount. The recent revelations of the vast business holdings of Kabila and his family members — which researchers from New York University report consist of “80 companies in the DRC and abroad, either wholly or partially” — will likely intensify these antigovernment sentiments, and further inflame the Kasai conflict.
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