The Center Does Not Hold in Kasai

 
Kananga

This blog post is part two of a two-part series written by guest blogger, T.K. Hoffman. Click here to read part one.

In 2017, the violence, repression, and instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Kasai region has only increased. While there were several peaceful weeks after the government signed a peaceful transition agreement with the opposition promising elections at the end of 2017, Kananga, capital of the Kasai-Central province, soon fell back into an interminable civil conflict by the end of January 2017. This time, the militia did not have to invade. They were already in Kananga – the militia having graduated from an angry group of villagers in the periphery of Kasai-Central to a widespread civilian movement in the provincial capital. Unlike in late 2016, by early 2017, locals chaffing under the repressive presence of the military were now themselves angry enough to mobilize against the military and join in the militia’s battle against national interference on the local level. Civilians seemed eager to “go to war” in the poorer neighborhoods that the conflict had engulfed. Militia members would go door to door on certain days, warning households that the next day would be a “hot” one and urging families to not send their children to school. Reports of injuries and deaths trickled in: trucks filled with twitching bodies, a student searching for shelter and a woman praying in church felled by stray bullets, a young girl shot in her back as she marched on the town hall, her body so soaked with blood that her clothes looked made of red cotton. And continually: the sound of gunfire, often from the military emptying a machine gun into the air to frighten off congregating militia members, but sometimes, more alarmingly, the sound of individual shots.

The conflict consistently becomes worse with the projection of national politics on the local scene. For example, the first few weeks of January 2017 were relatively peaceful, until then-Prime Minister Samy Badibanga attempted to come to Kananga in late January to claim responsibility for resolving the then-dormant militia problem. This local intervention by a national leader prompted the militia to rise again with a vengeance. Over several days of a sustained campaign for turmoil, they succeeded in creating enough chaos around the airport to deter the Prime Minister’s attempts to enter the town.

Furthermore, for weeks after the February 1 death of Congo’s main opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, a day without armed conflict was rare. It was as though the militia, in their agitation, were determined to prove that there was no hope left to be found in national politics, now that Kasai’s native son and Congo’s most fervent opposition leader had died. Throughout this time, families with enough means or relatives elsewhere moved away from the poorer neighborhoods, where the conflict raged the hardest in Kananga. Mothers who couldn’t leave these neighborhoods instructed their adolescent sons to stay indoors, out of sight of the military, so that the military would not spot them and drag them away to military camps or hold them for ransom as an assumed militia fighter.

Experts have noted that throughout the turmoil caused by confrontations between militia and military forces in Kananga, criminal elements in the city have taken advantage of the disorder to loot and steal from the poorer neighborhoods. While residents often blame the militia and military for driving the turmoil in the region, other citizens have strategically used the chaos of this conflict as a shield under which to carry out criminal activities. There are reports of residents who, empowered by the general disarray, have systematically stolen and killed for monetary gains under the cover of the conflict.

Authorities have even found that some residents of Kasai are taking advantage of this disarray to commit violent acts of retribution along old tribal lines, effectively using the conflict between militia and military as the scapegoat when people disappear or wind up dead. Inhabitants of Kananga have also reported that the military has plundered houses and violated women in the poorer neighborhoods. By consequence, locals tend to view the military not as protectors of their region, but rather as pillagers -  outsiders who often do not speak the regional language of Tshiluba and who are often viewed as spending more time harassing the local citizens than sheltering them. It is thus of note that, swept up into this violent narrative of militia against military, the violence in Kasai is fueling old ethnic tensions, leading residents to view their peers and protectors not as fellow citizens, but as foreigners.

In addition to anger against the Prime Minister and anxiety after the death of Tshisekedi, the continuity of this uprising can be hard to discern. Some say that the militia received money from national opposition leaders to keep stoking the violent conflict in Kasai and, by consequence, keep the national government on edge, continually aware of how unpopular they are throughout the country. Others say that the militia agitates to such a degree because of the increased military presence in town since the Prime Minister’s aborted visit in late January. In any case, since the end of January, there has been little homeostasis or stability in Kasai. For a day or a week, peace will reign, only to be abruptly shattered by yet another volley of gunfire from yet another faction.

On Sunday, March 19, an impromptu festival broke out in Kananga. Men, women, and children spilled onto the streets, their jubilant shouts and songs echoing in the air as they marched towards the town’s central stadium. Rumor has it that the state government had signed a peace agreement with the Kamuinu Nsapu militia. Some observers have commented that the government probably paid the militia to stop protesting. In any case, the once muted city erupted in unrehearsed celebration. Militiamen took photos with soldiers, and people caroused and sang with joy. It seemed that peace had finally come to Kananga. Civilians and soldiers alike gathered in the streets and in the stadium of the region’s capital, militia red and official navy merging together in peace. The following Monday, the shots started again.

This blog post is part two of a two-part series. Click here to read part one.

Photo credit: Mona M. Lunds