Date first published: 20/07/2017
Key sectors: all

Key risks: delayed elections; violent clashes; internal conflict; human rights abuses; sanctions

Recent months have seen an escalation of the Kamwina Nsapu (KN) conflict that has devastated the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasai region since 2016 as President Joseph Kabila pursues a dangerous strategy of fanning violence to consolidate his power. A June report by the country’s Episcopal Conference put the number of casualties from the conflict at nearly 3,400 – far exceeding the UN’s estimate of around 400 victims from April. In July, the UN reported it had identified an additional 38 mass graves, bringing the total to 80 such sites discovered since March. Both sides are accused of summary killings and grave human rights abuses. Most alarmingly, there is strong evidence that the government is behind Bana Mura, a militia that has raped, mutilated, and killed civilians in targeted attacks against members of the Luba and Lulua ethnicities from which KN recruits most of its militants.

The Kamwina Nsapu conflict exemplifies a sharp deterioration of the security outlook across the country as President Kabila’s refusal to step down and increasingly hardline response to opposition erodes his legitimacy. In the Kasais, continued abuses by security forces and anger about the political stalemate in Kinshasa, together with a decrease in living standards due to high inflation, have created a fertile breeding ground for a reignition of conflicts in eastern DRC. This is increasingly replicated across the country. The government frequently employs local proxies to fight rebels in North and South Kivu provinces, tolerating or intentionally stoking inter-communal hatred in pursuit of short-term security goals.

The violence provides a pretext for Kabila’s continued attempts to sabotage the organisation of elections, his mandate having expired in December 2016. It also enables him to create divisions among his adversaries amid pervading chaos he hopes will strengthen his own hand.

For now, the strategy appears to be paying off. In a sign that the intimidation tactics have borne fruit, recent calls for protests went largely unheeded. On 9 July, the head of the country’s electoral commission said the situation in Kasai would likely make it impossible to hold elections in 2017, citing ongoing issues with voter registration amid the violence. Meanwhile, the opposition, is fractured following the co-option of several high-profile members into Kabila’s government. Weakened by the death of its de-facto leader Étienne Tshisekedi, the opposition has found itself unable to counter Kabila’s blatant disregard for the New Year’s Eve agreement that was to pave the way for an inclusive government and elections before the end of the year. Meanwhile Moise Katumbi, leader of the opposition G7 coalition, remains in exile.

A slow international response has made it easy for Kabila to create facts on the ground. On 23 June, the UN passed a resolution to launch an enquiry into the violence in Kasai, but the recent decision to downsize its mission to the DRC and any enquiry’s dependence on the Congolese authorities’ cooperation will likely decrease its leverage.

In this climate, violence in Kasai and other parts of the DRC is unlikely to abate. With no solution to the political impasse in sight and the president using a divide-and-conquer strategy to fuel inter-communal strife, the current environment has all the ingredients for a return to the protracted conflict of the early 2000s. In pursuing scorched earth tactics to safeguard his presidency, Kabila may have set in motion a spiral of violence he will find impossible to control.