The violent conflict that broke out in Congo’s Kasaï provinces in 2016 caused more than 3,300 deaths and, at its peak, up to 1.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), has largely subsided, but it has left pockets of instability, deep grievances and acute ethnic tension, as well as widespread destruction and destitution that will continue to haunt the Kasaï region, in particular Kasaï and Kasaï Central provinces. With this conflict assessment report, Mercy Corps would like to draw attention to the current situation in the Kasaï and highlight the significant challenges that remain in not only rebuilding physical infrastructure, but in repairing a torn social fabric and rebuilding trust among communities who had lived together peacefully for decades prior to the conflict. This report is based on information from 66 key informant interviews with 95 individuals and 12 focus group discussions conducted mostly in Kasaï and Kasaï Central provinces in February and March 2019 in collaboration with the local NGO Travail et Droits de l’Homme (TDH).
The conflict assessment aims to understand the root causes, proximate causes, and triggers of violent conflict in the Kasaï provinces. It also assesses the impact of two years of violence and remaining insecurity and ethnic distrust on the population and the livelihoods of women, men, girls, boys, and vulnerable groups with a focus on Kasaï and Kasaï Central provinces. The assessment provides detailed recommendations for policy makers, donor agencies, multilateral organizations, and implementing organization on how to tackle the devastating effects of the conflict by preventing future violence, mitigating conflict, rebuilding social trust, and starting to address not only humanitarian needs, but strengthening Kasaïens’ resilience to future crisis and set them on a path of longer-term development.
Origins and evolution of the conflict Origins: The Kasaï conflict started as a local dispute over the nomination of a customary chief of Bashila Kasanga groupement in Dibaya territory, Kasaï Central province, also known as the Kamuina Nsapu. The conflict was between chief Jean-Prince Pandi, designated as chief Kamuina Nsapu by the ruling family, and the provincial and national governments, who imposed a different candidate. Incensed by his treatment by the provincial government and the security forces, JP Pandi started to give anti-government speeches and initiated local youth and mobilized them against the state. After attempts at negotiations failed, JP Pandi’s fighters attacked local government officials and the village of his rival chief. After he ignored an ultimatum to give in, JP Pandi was killed by government security forces on August 12, 2016 and his body taken to Kananga. The heavy-handed military response motivated other Dibaya customary chiefs to organize further militias in the name of Kamuina Nsapu to pursue Pandi’s anti-government agenda and to liberate the deceased’s body. Kamuina Nsapu units then attacked the provincial capital Kananga on September 22, 2016, briefly occupying the airport, after which they were repulsed by the Congolese military (Forces Armées de la RDC – FARDC) and chased into different directions.
Expansion and fragmentation: The heavy-handed government response against Kamuina Nsapu contributed to the escalation of the conflict and the fragmentation of the rebellion after September 2016. The movement then spawned numerous local Kamuina Nsapu groups led by local chiefs or self-appointed warlords who were introduced to the initiation of fighters by Kamuina Nsapu emissaries or traveled themselves to Dibaya territory or other important ritual initiation sites (called “tshiota” by Kamuina Nsapu). Kamuina Nsapu saw itself as a mystico-religious movement that used the mystical power of initiation and traditional medicine as well as fetishes and amulets to mobilize and empower its mostly young fighters to take on state authorities, replace the Kabila regime, and, in their own words, to establish the rule of law. While Kamuina Nsapu troops originally attacked mainly state officials and security forces as well as their suspected collaborators and followed a strict code of conduct, which they also imposed on the populations in areas under their control, they increasingly targeted civilians as the conflict wore on. The armed uprising spread to all territories of Kasaï Central province by late 2016 and to the Eastern and southern parts of Kamonia territory and parts of Luebo territory, Kasaï province by early 2017. Intense fighting occurred in most of these areas between February and June 2017, with inter-ethnic tensions between Lubaspeaking groups and ethnic Chokwe, Pende, and Tetela adding new virulence to the conflict in and around Tshikapa and Kamonia territory (Kasaï). After July 2017 active fighting decreased since FARDC troops had taken back control of major axes, killed numerous Kamuina Nsapu fighters, and Bana Mura militias made up of Chokwe, Pende, and Tetela members had pushed back Kamuina Nsapu and displaced many Lubaspeakers from parts of Kamonia territory. Subsequently, tensions remained high in many areas but IDPs gradually returned to some areas and violence was limited to occasional Kamuina Nsapu attacks against government officials or clashes with security forces.
This low-grade conflict continued until early 2019, when the swearing in of Félix Tshisekedi, a “son of the Kasaï”, as Congo’s new president was seen as a victory by Kamuina Nsapu groups and many of them decided to lay down their arms. While this positive dynamic opens up space for reconciliation, conflict resolution, reconstruction, and longer-term peacebuilding, the situation in parts of Kasaï and Kasaï Central remains fragile since none of the underlying problems that led to the violent conflict have been resolved.