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MATADI, Western DRC, Mar 21 2008 (IPS) - On a broad hillside high above the meandering flow of the Mpozo River, a handful of policemen guard a ruin.
The flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) flutters weakly over scattered bricks and broken crockery, mute witness to a power struggle that has erupted in this western corner of the country, pitting a sect seeking to restore a lost ethnic kingdom against a government that seems determined to crush any challenge to its authority.
“Here are their arms, their fetishes, you can see them here,” says Edmond Bunga, a local commander of the Police Nationale Congolaise (Congolese National Police, PNC), pointing towards what he claims are poisoned arrows used to attack police in the devastated compound of the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) or “Kingdom of Kongo”, as Congo is spelled in the local Kikongo language.
The BDK, led by Ne Muanda Nsemi, a member of Congo’s parliament who hails from the region, have stated that their goal is nothing less than to reunify the Kingdom of Kongo. Made up of the Bakongo people – found in the DRC and neighbouring states – this empire existed in various incarnations for nearly 500 years until the early 20th century, encompassing swaths of what is now Angola, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and the DRC.
However, the government accuses the group of attempting to mount a rebellion in the Bas-Congo province, immediately west of the nation’s capital, Kinshasa.
With state authority largely absent in many parts of the province, the BDK’s feared enforcers – known as “makesa” – have been credibly alleged to act as something of an unofficial police force, handing out punishments that include floggings for infractions such as adultery.
But residents of the neighborhood of Belvedere in Matadi, the capital and largest city of Bas-Congo, look out on where the Bundu dia Kongo compound once stood, and paint a somewhat different picture of the now three-week old crackdown.
“It wasn’t a conflict, it was an attack – an attack by the police – and it went on for about 40 minutes,” says Adolphe Nkuti, referring to fighting that took place on Mar. 8, as he and his family stand in front their home, which has been pock-marked by large calibre bullet holes.
“The police stole our television, our table, even a handbag from the bedroom,” says his neighbor, Pelé Mwanda, pointing to more bullet holes where the projectiles threaded their way through his family’s fragile tin roof.
An internal report on this month’s violence from the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, seen by IPS, noted that at least 68 people have been killed in the clashes – and suggested that elements other than local PNC forces were used in the assaults against BDK compounds throughout Bas-Congo.
The DRC has the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, numbering nearly 17,000.
Traveling in Bas-Congo, IPS frequently met men dressed in PNC uniforms speaking Lingala, the lingua franca of Congo’s army, who said that they had been sent from the capital to contain the unrest. At one country crossroads, two lorries each containing about 30 armed officers paused briefly; many of the troops were equipped with UZIs, some with their bayonets fixed as if preparing for close-quarters combat.
A local emergency co-ordinator with the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Matadi told IPS that many BDK members had “fled to the bush” in the wake of the conflict.
The violence in Bas-Congo has to do with more than nostalgia for a past kingdom, however. It also has distinctly political dimensions as the BDK seeks not only to promote ancestral beliefs, but also to assert political supremacy in the Congo as it currently exists.
While the DRC’s eastern regions voted heavily in favour of President Joseph Kabila in the country’s 2006 elections, Congo’s western regions supported his rival: a warlord-turned-businessman, Jean-Pierre Bemba.
The ballot that returned Kabila to power was a violent one which saw at least 20 people killed in clashes between Bemba loyalists and Congolese government forces, while fighting between the two sides in March of last year claimed some 300 lives, the United Nations said in a recent preliminary report.
A slew of BDK candidates stood for office in Bas-Congo, but lost amidst allegations of vote rigging, sparking clashes between BDK militants and the government that left 10 security personnel and over 100 civilians dead.
An April 2007 report from Human Rights Watch said this episode was characterised by Congolese security forces firing “indiscriminately at demonstrators who carried rocks and sticks but had no firearms and who apparently posed no immediate threat.”
The New York-based group also accused the security forces of summarily executing people.
“The people from Bas-Congo have traditionally maintained a lot of autonomy and independence in managing their affairs,” says Theodore Trefon, who directs the Contemporary History Section at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. “They still try and maintain firm control over their politics.”
This spirit is exemplified by historical figures such as Dona Beatriz (born of noble Kongo parentage in what is today Angola, under the name Kimpa Vita): a young woman given to receiving visions of a spiritual and religious nature in the early 1700s, at a time when the kingdom was in the grip of a seemingly endless civil war between the royal courts of Kinlaza and Kimpanzu.
Claiming to be possessed by the spirit of Saint Anthony, in what was then one of the most heavily-Catholicised regions of Africa (courtesy of the Portuguese), Beatriz preached in favour of the unification of Kongo under one ruler. She developed her own, idiosyncratic brand of the religion, which she sought to take to the territory’s far corners before being captured and burned as a heretic by a rival king in 1706.
In more recent years, Joseph Kasavubu, the first president of Congo upon its independence in 1960, ascended to power as head of the Alliance des Bakongo (the Bakongo Alliance), which became one of the driving forces in ending Belgium’s brutal, seven decade occupation of the country.
Furthermore, during the neighbouring Republic of Congo’s civil war in the late 1990s, one of a triumvirate of militias active in the country – the “Ninjas” – said they were fighting to defend the interests of Bakongo people living in that nation.
Away from the bustling port city of Matadi, a three-hour drive over rutted dirt roads and a rickety ferry ride across the Congo River, the village of Luozi has also seen its share of violence in recent weeks.
A local doctor says that at least eight bodies were deposited at the general hospital there after fighting erupted between BDK members and security forces three weeks ago. In the hospital, two victims – one BDK, one civilian – lie convalescing from gunshot wounds sustained during the upheaval.
In the BDK church, known as a “zikua”, dozens of spent shell casings litter the floor of the building as well as the earth around it, while several nearby homes have been torched and looted.
Above the door of the ruined zikua, words have been scrawled by an unknown hand.
“Pas d’autres,” it reads in French. “C’est inutile.”
Not again, it’s useless.
A warning, a threat or a vow to rebuild? As Bas-Congo waits, only time will tell.
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