Inside Congo’s escalating Kasai conflict
A new anti-government movement is fighting the Congolese armed forces
PILES of disturbed earth covered with nettles and weeds hide the mass graves of Nganza, a neighbourhood in Kananga, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasai Central region.
Children stroll across them barefoot as if they aren’t even there. A ball rolls over from a nearby football match.
Nobody knows how many bodies are buried here, only that the Congolese soldiers said to be responsible for the killings showed no mercy when they entered the neighbourhood in March, searching for members of a militia known as Kamuina Nsapu.
Among the sandy side-streets and soaring palm trees, they left behind a trail of destruction still visible months later: charred huts, bones poking through the dust, blood-stained walls, and stories of civilians gunned down in their homes.
Machine gun crackle Kapinga Catheline, 42, fled to a nearby forest when she heard the crackle of machine gun fire early in the morning. When she returned, cold and hungry, three weeks later, her elder brother, Kasong, and her niece, Ntumba, were missing.
“I never found the bodies,” she said, clutching a baby in her left arm. “Just the blood.” The mass graves of Nganza are among 87 recently documented by the UN in Congo’s once-stable, now conflict-torn Kasai region.
The conflict pits Kamuina Nsapu, a new anti-government movement, against Congolese security forces, who are accused of indiscriminately killing civilians during raids against the group.
Kamuina Nsapu are also accused of gross human rights violations, including the murder and decapitation of 40 police officers in March.
It comes as the country faces an unprecedented political crisis following President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to hold elections last year when his constitutional mandate expired.
More than 3 000 have died in 12 months of violence, according to the Catholic Church, including two UN experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan.
About 1.4 million people have also been displaced, including 33 000 to northern Angola, doubling the total number of internally displaced people in Congo to 3.8 million.
“The Kasai crisis has reached an unprecedented scale from both a humanitarian and a human rights point of view,” says Maman Sidikou, head of Monusco, the UN’s peacekeeping mission here, and special representative of the UN secretary-general.
The Kamuina Nsapu phenomenon emerged last year when Jean-Prince Mpandi, a Johannesburg-based traditional doctor, returned to Kasai to claim the title of Kamuina Nsapu, the customary chief of the Bajila Kasanga clan.
Friction The secession of such chiefs – who hold various local administrative powers – has long caused friction at the local level. But with the Congolese government preparing for elections, an informal policy was introduced to replace customary chiefs with choices favourable to Kabila.
Despite being selected by customary elders, Mpandi – considered critical of the government – was rejected in favour of his elder brother, Tshiambi Ntenda, a local member of Kabila’s ruling PPRD party.
In Kasai, a long-standing opposition stronghold and one of the poorest areas of Congo, it proved a dangerous move.
When Mpandi’s house in Tshimbulu was raided, symbols of customary power destroyed, and his wife sexually assaulted following a weapons search by government soldiers, feelings of exclusion and frustration were ignited.
Uprising Mpandi called for a popular uprising under the name Kamuina Nsapu and his followers began a series of attacks on police officers, soldiers, and symbols of state authority.
In response, the government sent soldiers to Mpandi’s village, and on August 12 last year he was killed in a raid.
Symbols of customary power were again destroyed and Mpandi’s body was rumoured to have been mutilated.
What began as a local conflict in one small part of Kasai Central then spread like wildfire, with villages from across the five provinces of Greater Kasai mobilising fighters, all under the name of Kamuina Nsapu.
In Kananga, the leader of Kamuina Nsapu and a close relative of Mpandi is André Kabumbu, also known as Khadafi.
He is frail, has a sunken face, and wears an over-sized grey jacket.
He gives his age as 78 when Irin meets him in Nganza.
Asked what motivates him and the group, Kabumbu listed a number of local grievances: a lack of jobs in Kananga, a lack of infrastructure in his hometown of Dibaya, and seeing the body of Mpandi for himself.
When national elections are raised, Kabumbu’s aspirations become more ambitious, however.
“If Kabila was not here none of this would have happened,” he said.
“Kabila must leave power because he does not know how to rule this country.”
Discourse Sources working on the Kamuina Nsapu movement said this kind of discourse became increasingly noticeable in October last year, during a political dialogue in Kinshasa between the government and elements of the opposition.
From highly localised demands, the group suddenly shifted its focus onto national dynamics.
It first called for the nowdeceased Kananga-born opposition UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi to be appointed prime minister and later for Kabila to be removed from power. Continues on page 31
Children play on the mass graves in the Nganza neighbourhood of Kananga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
André Kabumbu, also known as Khadafi, is the leader of Kamuina Nsapu in Kananga.