Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Kasaians mostly live in Kasai in south-central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but a few remain in Katanga, which during Mobutu’s rule was called Shaba. Most of those who migrated to Katanga from the late nineteenth century, after the discovery of rich mineral deposits, were forced to return to Kasai in the 1990s.
The Kasai region of south-central DRC attracted Christian missionaries at least twenty years before the southern province of Katanga. When copper was discovered in Katanga in the late nineteenth century mineworkers were recruited from outside the region, particularly from areas such as Kasai where education and acculturation to colonial practices were more advanced. Economic opportunities continued to attract migrants from Kasai to Katanga even after the discovery of diamonds in Kasai; many Kasaians adopted local languages and many have lived in Katanga for several generations. Most are of Luba origin, from Kasai Oriental. Estimates of their numbers before the expulsions range from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people, comprising over a third of the population of mining towns such as Likasi and Kolwezi, as well as of the regional capital Lubumbashi. Kasaians attracted resentment from Katangans as a result of their educational and economic advantages, but coexistence had generally been peaceful.
Violence against Kasaians in Katanga began soon after the election of Étienne Tshisekedi, himself a Kasaian of Luba origin, as prime minister in 1992. Highly inflammatory speeches denigrating Kasaians were made by leading pro-Mobutu politicians, including the governor of Shaba (as Katanga was known at the time). In a prolonged campaign of harassment and violence, around 6,000 people were killed and up to 400,000 were forced to flee to Kasai, overcrowding its cities and often facing unemployment or destitution.
Mobutu’s departure in 1997 brought little relief for Katanga province or the Kasaian population there. Laurent Kabila, who came from the northern part of Katanga, established Mai-Mai militias in an effort to fend off Rwandan forces and their local allies, as well as to target civilian Banyamulenge (Congolese Tutsi) who were suspected of being pro-Rwandan. Many of the militias were tied to Kabila’s inner circle in Kinshasa and were used to controlling southern Katanga and the revenue from the area’s rich deposits of copper and cobalt.
In the scramble for control over natural resources, the Mai-Mai have targeted each other and come into conflict with the army. Kabila had difficulties making regular payments to his forces and his army became dependant on stealing local resources. Civilians in southern Katanga, especially Kasaians of Luba origin, have suffered immensely amid the violence, and many have been killed or displaced. Eruptions of violence continued after Laurent Kabila’s assassination in January 2001 and throughout Joseph Kabila’s transitional government.
After November 2004 around 150,000 Katangans, many of Kasai-Luba origin, have been displaced by fighting among Mai-Mai militias and the army. Subsequently, further bouts of violence have led to displacement on a massive scale. By early 2014, the UN reported that 400,000 people had been displaced in just a few months, noting that most of the attacks on villages came from Mai-Mai forces.
Tragically, the conflict and displacement in Kasai region itself escalated drastically, especially in 2016. In the background was a decision by the government to divide up the region into five provinces, weakening local rule and creating tensions. A Luba traditional chieftain, Jean-Pierre Mpandi was killed by government security forces in September 2016. The authorities had refused to recognise officially his hereditary Bajila Kasanga chieftaincy (‘Kamuina Nsapu’) in Kasai-Central; protests by Mpandi and his followers escalated into violence leading to his killing. His followers rallied under the Kamuina Nsapu name, seeking both revenge and greater local rule. While local groups under that banner had differing aims, their attacks led to an increasingly steep cycle of violence as villages created local self-defence militias. The conflict quickly gained an ethnic dimension, since Mpandi was Luba and many of those belonging to the Kamuina Nsapu were as well. Luba and the closely related Lulua civilians were targeted by security forces on the assumption that they were supporting the insurgency. Deep-seated prejudices added to the violence, as Luba and Lulua were seen as not originally from southern Kasai region – a grim repetition of the inflammatory combination of politics and negative stereotypes that drove the fighting and mass displacement in neighbouring Katanga, where Luba were also resented for not being from the area.
By July 2017, UNICEF was warning that Kasai region was witnessing one of the ‘world’s worst displacement crises’ for children. Of the more than 1.4 million displaced by then, 850,000 were children. Towards the end of the year, there were some hopeful signs after government forces strengthened their control over the region. By the end of October 2017, over 710,000 people had returned, and 762,000 people remained displaced. However, optimism was limited by the fact that returnees often found their homes in ruins and faced little if any infrastructure to support their efforts to resume their livelihoods.
The key issue facing Kasaians is the massive displacement their region has witnessed during recent years. While people have been returning in large numbers, government forces continue to meet resistance from armed militias, and fighting continues to occur. In February 2018, for example, tensions and violence led to the displacement of 11,000 people in Mweka Territory. The conflict in Kasai region also led to 35,000 people crossing the border and becoming refugees in Angola. Some have tried to return, and in February 2018 UNHCR reported that over 500 had been forced back by the Angolan authorities. Returnees have often found their homes in ruins or have not been able to go back to their areas of origin due to continued tensions; returning refugees risk ending up as internally displaced. Meanwhile, UNHCR and other agencies struggle to get the funding needed for a major reconstruction programme.
In neighbouring Katanga, local and migrant communities, as well as communities of distinct ethnic origins, continue to have to compete for resources, jobs and influence. While the mining industry continues to attract migration, particularly from Kasai, declining employment in the sector has fed ethnic tensions.
Updated June 2018
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