On 21 March 2008 the Democratic Republic of Congo banned the ethnic-based religious and political sect the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK). This followed a three-week police offensive against its western strongholds, which United Nations investigators say killed dozens of people. President Joseph Kabila's government revoked the BDK’s authorisation following a special cabinet meeting held in Matadi, capital of the Bas-Congo province.
According to the government, the decision was motivated by the fact that BDK poses a serious threat to the stability of the province and to national security because of its calls for the self-determination of the Kongo people - even more so given the current fragile and volatile situation in the region.
The crisis dates back to the 2006 elections when violence broke out as a result of alleged electoral fraud. The BDK, supporters of former warlord-turned-senator Jean-Pierre Bemba, led the violent protests that spread to at least five other towns in Bas-Congo, including Matadi, Boma, Kasangulu, Kinzaomvwete and Muanda. The unrest was temporarily suppressed until 28 February 2008 when violence broke out again and at least 68 people were killed in clashes that followed between the police and BDK militants. Hundreds of soldiers and police battled in an operation that initially began at Luozi, 200km west of the capital Kinshasa. From Luozi it spread to Seke-Banza up to Muanda and Matadi, which hosts the main port of the country and therefore is of great importance. The conflict endangered stability in the province and in the country.
In essence, the Bundu Dia Kongo (literally “Kingdom of Kongo” in Kikongo) founded in 1969 by Ne Mwanda Nsemi, is campaigning for the reestablishment of the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom, which encompasses parts of present-day Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Gabon.
It claims to campaign for the independence of the Bas-Congo province from the rest of the DRC calling into question the colonial borders defined by Berlin Conference of 1884 -1885.
The BDK officially has the status of a non-profit organisation, with the stated aim to focus on the defence, the protection and the promotion of the values, rights and interests of the Kongo people. Yet at the same time it also advocates for the establishment of a federal government system in the DRC, a contradiction that casts doubt over the real motive behind its activities.
Geographically, the group is centered and operates mainly in the southwestern Bas-Congo province. Nsemi was elected as the BDK’s political representative to the National Parliament during the legislative elections of the 30 July 2006.
In addition to its political profile, the movement also has cultural, military and spiritual aspirations. That is why it is often defined as a “political-religious grouping” and is sometimes even considered a sect, due to the controversy surrounding it. Nsemi is considered to be the movement’s so-called “religious-spiritual” chief.
The BDK has become increasingly controversial since it is seen to be calling into question the authority of the state on several levels. Indeed, it is really hard to have clarity on whether BDK wants federalism or secession. Moreover, the separatist discourse premised on the ethnic categorization of the population and the distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous people infringes on the unity of the DRC and also has undeniable xenophobic connotations. Furthermore, the movement is blamed for seeking to destabilize the central power by setting up parallel “institutions”. The BDK has its own “police”, which is more of a militia (Makesa). They also have their own flag, and have set up their own tribunals to try citizens they believed have broken the law, sentencing them to various forms of punishment decided and applied to by themselves without consideration of the national legal and judiciary framework.
Following the events of February 2008 Nsemi called for an international investigation, arguing that the BDK were victims of police repression and ethnic cleansing. Indeed, there is a general sense that the National Police and Army used excessive force in this crisis, especially given allegations by local witnesses of indiscriminate killing, abuse and torching of homes. On many occasions, the UN and the European Union have warned the DRC government about the use of excessive force in dealing with the BDK. But though the international community is concerned about the scale of the repression, little concrete steps are taken to provide substantial assistance in finding solutions to the crisis.
As for now, the UN sources put the death toll at about 70, with hundreds missing, whereas the government speaks of only 20 people killed. In reality, the final figure seems to be higher.
The crisis surrounding the BDK has a number of serious implications for peace and stability. While the DRC is engaged in establishing a democratic environment, based on respect for the rule of law, human rights and accountability, the imperatives of peace suggest dialogue and consensus- building in the search for solutions to some of the challenges to the peace-building process and national cohesion.
Nisma Bounakhla, Intern, Africa Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)