The Kasai Conflict

The Kasai Conflict

-Aditi Goel

No walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in another. What begins with a failure to uphold the dignity of one life all too often ends with a calamity for entire nations. -Kofi Annan

These words definitely hold true for Congo’s evolution, from a political crisis to a humanitarian emergency. What began in August 2016 with the killing of a local chief by the Congolese armed forces, led to a generalized unrest flaring through an area, the size of Germany. The peak of violence in one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s poorest provinces has died down but the humanitarian needs of displaced people and local communities are extremely high.

It started in 2012 when Jean-Pierre Pandi returned home from South Africa to succeed his deceased uncle as the sixth ‘Kamwina Nsapu’, one of the main customary chiefs in Kasai-Central. Such chiefs play an important role, exercising control over land and administration in their domains. Apolitical and selected according to traditions, the chiefs need to be recognized by the central state, a requirement that encourages them to support the regime and the government to endorse biddable claimants. Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, refused to officially recognize Pandi who adopted an increasingly belligerent tone against the government, which he characterized as illegitimate and foreign. Tensions escalated in April 2016 when the provincial authorities visited Pandi’s chiefdom while he was in South Africa, due to being convicted in the diamond trafficking trade, to search for weapons and Pandi later accused the soldiers of defiling sacred objects and attempting to rape one of his wives.

Pandi urged his followers to destroy the symbols of the state, like public buildings, and drive out its agents. On 12 August 2016, he was killed at his home during clashes between his fighters and the security forces. The government says that it wanted to arrest Pandi and he has shot accidentally but others say that troops had mutilated even his corpse. Following Pandi’s death, the violence took on as Kamwina Nsapu, which is the name adopted by a militia made up of Pandi’s followers, took on arms and intensified its attacks against the state and government and professed similar grievances against the national authorities who were in other parts of Grand Kasai and surrounding areas. At least 42 mass graves had been found. A constitutional crisis began since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down after his term ended. These assaults targeted not only large towns but also small villages, as the fighting spread from Kasai-Central to the other provinces, like those of Kasai, Kasai-Oriental, Sankuru, and Lomami. The ferocious response of the Congolese armed forces earned widespread condemnation worldwide. Since August 2016, 1.4 million inhabitants of Grand Kasai have been forced out from their homes, escaping violence perpetrated by a variety of militias as well as the Congolese government. While the death toll is yet unclear, there are no doubts that Grand Kasai faces an acute humanitarian crisis.

Though Kamwina Nsapu or the Luba people initially, principally targeted the state–the military, police and government officials—newer militias appeared more motivated by killing and expelling members of other ethnic groups. They were said to recruit children, burn down houses with women and children, cut people’s throats and drink their blood and also, chased people out of their houses thus displacing them. An influential opposition parliamentarian published an investigation stating that the violence had caused the deaths of 3,307 people in two provinces (Kasai-Central and Kasai) since August 2016. The impact left on this sedate land turned war zone is immense. Refugees have fled to Angola, the agricultural land lies idle and humanitarian agencies are in a state of emergency at the prospect of food shortages and continuing violence. DRC is now the country with the most internally displaced people (IDPs) in Africa. The Grand Kasai has transformed from a peaceful area in a troubled country to the epicentre of one the most serious, but relatively neglected humanitarian crises in the world today. A massive food crisis now threatens to shatter this fragile situation as the first two shorter planting seasons this year in the Kasaï region have largely been missed, and people are rapidly running out of food for sustenance.

The most pressing question now is, why has this formerly sedate region exploded and who is responsible?

In a region where life was already a struggle, it became even harder for people affected by the conflict. Though they are slowly coming back to their homes, or what remains of them; many lost their belongings in attacks, many others still don’t have access to their land, which is accentuating the food crisis. Others are afraid of fully resuming their daily livelihood activities, as they fear losing everything again in fresh attacks which they foresee.

Many houses have been burnt down during fighting and attacks and displaced people are hosted by local communities as there are no formal camps or sites. These people are living in a state of deprivation, lack of food, healthcare, psychological support, and protection services.

The displacement, destruction, and looting of homes, health centres and schools have worsened its adversity. Due to the violence in the past months, most of the local health centres visited by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams or the Doctors without Borders have been deserted or lack medicines and staff. Insecurity, tensions, and violence in this impoverished area have gone worse and drastically limited basic medical services, which in some areas are totally inaccessible. The lack of structures, schools and health centres endangers access to basic health, social and educational services in abundance. About 3.2 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) conflict-ravaged south-central Greater Kasai region are severely food insecure, struggling for survival and in urgent major need of assistance.

The World Food Programme chief acknowledged donor concerns about limited returns on investing in a better future for the Congolese, noting that some Governments have threatened to redirect funding to countries where they say it will have more impact. Even if they redeploy their staff, fly in new expertise, distribute food and medicine in all corners, without money, they won’t be able to respond to the level they need to. It is not just insufficient, but also unacceptable for the global community to leave this very real suffering of the Congolese people unaddressed. The funding and aid that should be ideally diverted towards them from all said superpowers have been giving preference to countries that they think will return their favours. In times where humanity should be the quality afloat, we cannot give importance to visible impact. Providing basic infrastructure and amenities can turn their lives from miserable to survivable. As many as two lakhs fifty thousand children could starve in Kasai in the next few months unless enough nutritious food reaches them quickly.

Though violence in Kasai has diminished in recent weeks, banditry and extortion are commonplace. Moreover, in a region that is the size of Germany with multiple active militias and a road network that is largely impassable during the September-December rainy season, humanitarian access is still set to remain a challenge. If carefully worked towards keeping the urgency and severity of the situation in mind, the condition in DRC will soon go from a humanitarian catastrophe to how it used to be before this ethnic conflict. Rich in diamonds and resources but ravaged by violence and gripped by poverty, the vast region of the Grand Kasai embodies the potential and the problems of Democratic Republic of Congo, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest nation.

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