DRC’s problems start with a forced unitary state

The Kasai and Katanga regions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Hundreds of thousands of children could die due to violence in the Kasai region. Katanga has seen conflict since it was forced under Kinshasa’s rule (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Recently, terrible reports of civil war and starvation have been coming out of the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). What is especially heartbreaking is that some 250,000 children in Kasai could die of starvation and lack of medical treatment.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, “Kasai’s traditionally high malnutrition rates were exacerbated further after last year’s inter-ethnic violence – characterized by large-scale killing, wholesale destruction of villages and crops, and targeting hospitals, clinics and schools. The region now accounts for more than 40 percent of the DRC’s 7.7 million severely food insecure.”

Violent history

Kasai is in the southern central portion of the DRC, a huge country in central Africa. It has some 80 million inhabitants, is multiethnic and has been in turmoil since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. The Rome Reports, a Vatican publication, wrote:

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a battleground. Political instability has engulfed the country in chaos despite being one of the richest areas in minerals. Conflicts between the military, jihadist groups and sects – fueled by corruption – have led to mass burials and refugees. Millions of them. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has the highest number of internally displaced people, nearly four million, in the whole continent. In addition, its borders receive 500,000 displaced from other countries.

The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century notes:

By mid-century [i.e. the 1950s] the Belgian Congo had acquired the reputation of a model colony. ... By the standards of the time, Belgian rule was benevolent and efficient. No other colony had better labour conditions, health facilities or primary education. No other perhaps was as paternalistic.

International pressure forced a very abrupt and therefore insufficiently prepared independence in 1960. Since then, the whole region has seen near-constant conflict between powers, tribes and ideologies. At the very beginning, the southern province of Katanga wanted independence under the efficient leadership of Moise Tshombe. Not only did the central government in Kinshasa find this unacceptable, so did the UN.

Though it was not recognized, Katanga enjoyed de facto independence and fared well. However, in 1964 the UN engineered an invasion of Katanga, where UN troops committed horrible atrocities. Katanga was forced to reunite with the country under Kinshasa’s rule.

The real problem is that after decolonization, the DRC was forced to remain a unitary state

It is true that Katanga’s copper mines were a very important resource for the whole country, but this does not justify the UN and Kinshasa ignoring the region’s right to self-determination. The problem is a typical one for postcolonial Africa. The DRC is an artificial state, created by a compromise between London, Paris and Berlin. As the big powers jockeyed to divvy up Africa, it seemed like a good solution to give this area to a smaller country (and in the beginning to King Leopold personally). The real problem is that after decolonization, it was forced to remain a unitary state.

Origins of the conflict

This is unsustainable, and facilitates kleptocracy. A kleptocracy, however, will always try to keep all its territory by force, and Kinshasa uses a strategy of divide and rule to maintain control. The recent problems in Kasai started when the rightful leader of one of the local tribes, Jean-Pierre Mpandi, was designated to succeed his uncle as head of a local clan, and therefore gain significant power over a large territory.

President of Katanga Moise Tshombe visits some guerrilla fighters in February 1961
President of Katanga Moise Tshombe visits some guerrilla fighters serving in his army in 1961. The UN-engineered invasion of Katanga led to horrible atrocities (source: dpa)

He was killed, and there was suspicion that the government of President Joseph Kabila might have been complicit in the murder – the central government did not like Mpandi. Kinshasa then put another person in charge of the region, fanning the flames of the rebellion.

It is difficult to discern whether the Baluba – a major ethnicity in Kasai – started the fight after government troops invaded and started plundering and murdering, or whether they revolted in support of their murdered leader.

In the 1990s, eastern Congo saw bloodshed of incredible proportions for similar reasons. Conflict in that area is ongoing, and there is significant justification for the local population to fight the still-looting government troops.

Independence and self-governance

Unfortunately, there is a belief around the world that governments are good and rebels are bad. This does not really apply to the DRC. Atrocities are committed by both the government troops and the rebels. Simply changing the regime in Kinshasa will not solve the problem.

The international community should abandon the dogma of preserving artificial states

More independence and self-governance in various areas might help. The challenge that changing systems presents is to provide strong local leadership to avoid more bloodshed. This can only be driven locally. The international community could make a start by abandoning the dogma of preserving artificial states. Similar problems exist in many other African countries. A clear example is Biafra, an area inhabited by the Igbos and now forcefully included in Nigeria.

Depending on political developments in South Africa, independence of the Western Cape province could also be a favorable option. Other countries could become more decentralized and federal.

It is a big mistake for the international community to push to maintain a unitary state when significant portions do not want to be part of it. This is Africa’s real tragedy.

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