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More than 510 people have been killed in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo since the start of the year, according to police.
Congolese National Police spokesperson, Pierrot Mwanamputu, told the DPA News Agency that those killed included 390 rebels, 85 police officers and 39 soldiers. Conflicts between the Kamwina Nsapu militia and government security forces has spiked in the region following the death of the group’s leader and namesake, traditional chief Kamwina Nsapu (aka Jeane-Pierre Pandi), in fighting in August last year.
The Kamwina Nsapu militia claims that the central government has been pursuing a policy of “unjust political domination” in the region. Nsapu wanted his chiefdom officially recognized by the government. The authorities’ refusal led to communal violence, and a call for an uprising to remove all security forces and state institutions from the region. Nsapu was killed two months later when police raided his home. At a news conference in Kinshasa in late April, Mamadou Diallo, UN coordinator for humanitarian affairs in the DRC said, “There is no solution in Kasai other than a negotiated solution.”
The fighting has affected around 2.4 million people in seven of the regions 16 territories, including the displacement of an estimated 1.1 million people, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). UN Migration Agency Director, General William Swing Lacy, approved the release of USD $100,000 in April, aimed at beginning relief operations for those affected. According to the IOM, the organisation is coordinating with CARITAS and Congolese humanitarian actors to distribute aid and shelter.
Both sides of the conflict have committed atrocities. The Kamwina Nsapu have been criticized for their recruitment of child soldiers, and for the beheading of police and other authorities in the region. The rebels also stand accused of killing two UN investigators, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan, while they were investigating allegations of atrocities. A UN investigation in April uncovered 40 mass grave sites in the region. UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, cited reports outlining that Congolese soldiers had dug the grave sites following fighting in February and March. In a separate incident, Zeid said that government forces were suspected of shooting dead 40 people and raping women and girls in the provincial capital of Kananga in March. Soldiers conducting door-to-door searches for militia members allegedly killed most of the victims. The UN has said that it will refer the cases to the ICC if the government does not undertake an effective investigation of the incidents.
What started as essentially a local dispute has the potential to take on wider political consequences in the violence-stricken DRC. The escalation of violence in Kasai is flamed by long-held grievances in the region over political marginalization and the poor provision of infrastructure. Kasai is a stronghold for political opposition to the rule of President Joseph Kabila. Authorities have been accused of using emergency measures approved to combat the violence in Kasai as tools for the persecution of their political opponents. This comes on the back of a Catholic church-mediated agreement for elections to be held in July this year, after Kabila refused to cede power, sparking violent protests and an equally violent crackdown by security forces in 2016. So far little progress on the elections or a potential transition has been made. The violence in Kasai demonstrates the inflexibility of Kabila’s regime. Negotiations, both in Kasai and for a countrywide political agreement, must be pursued. The past 20 years of Congolese history demonstrate that the violent alternative does not work.