Jason Burke Africa correspondent
Friday 30 June 2017 01.05 EDT
Last modified on Friday 30 June 2017 01.07 EDT
Reports of a militia cutting off toddlers limbs and stabbing pregnant women have raised the specter of another horrific civil war
Food rations at a camp
A volunteer brings daily food rations at a camp for people fleeing the conflict in the Kasai region. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of people have been killed and more than a million displaced in the most severe outbreak of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years, raising fears of a return to the bloody civil wars of the 1990s and increasing pressure on President Joseph Kabila to step down or hold elections.
The violence in the vast, resource-rich central African country has been concentrated in the central Kasai region, where local communities formed a militia in support of a local leader who opposed the government and was killed by the police last summer.
The authorities have been battling insurgents ever since, and there have been reports of dozens of massacres, ambushes and attacks on villagers. On Monday local officials announced the discovery of 10 mass graves, bringing the total found in Kasai since the outbreak of violence to about 50.
Western and African powers are concerned that Congo may slide further into anarchy, leading to a repeat of the war that killed 5 million people between 1996 and 2003. That conflict was the deadliest in modern African history, involving two rounds of fighting that dragged in the armies of at least six countries.
Demonstration in Kinshasa
Residents chant slogans against Joseph Kabila during demonstrations in Kinshasa in December. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
The fighting and atrocities in Kasai are only one component of a complicated and fractious nationwide picture. Scores of armed groups are thought to be active in the restive east, for instance.
On Thursday a police officer was killed during a raid on a jail in the capital, Kinshasa, hours after the government said it had cancelled a major independence day military parade on Friday for security reasons.
Last week the UN’s human rights council adopted by consensus a resolution brought by African countries calling for an investigation into the Kasai violence. In a statement, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, called the region a landscape of horror. The Bana Mura militia, which has been linked to the government, had carried out a string of ethnically motivated attacks in recent weeks, cutting off toddlers limbs and stabbing pregnant women, Zeid told the council.
Refugees from multiple villages … indicated that the Bana Mura have in the past two months shot dead, hacked or burned to death, and mutilated, hundreds of villagers, as well as destroying entire villages,? Zeid said. One aim may be to intimidate communities that have supported the insurgents.
Congo’s Catholic church said in a recent report that more than 3,300 people had been killed in Kasai since October. The church blamed government forces, their proxies and the insurgents. More than a million people may have been displaced and were threatened with malnutrition and disease historically the two biggest killers of civilians during conflicts in the country it added.
Kabila, in power since 2001, has repeatedly rejected calls to step down following the end of his second mandate in December, when a crackdown on protesters in Kinshasa and other major cities resulted in at least 40 deaths.
An agreement signed with the fractured opposition over the new year has broken down, raising the prospect of intensifying political unrest in the coming months as the president comes under increasing pressure to hold a long-promised election at some point in 2017.
There is a general sense that the political stasis means conditions are right for incoherent mobilisation. It is not explicitly political but there is great discontent at the direction of travel of the country and it feels rudderless, said Ben Shepherd, an expert in Congo at London’s Chatham House thinktank.
One potential flashpoint is the long-postponed repatriation of the remains of tienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader who died earlier this year. Another could be the possible return of Mo’se Katumbi, a popular politician who could become a focal point for dissatisfaction with Kabila.
Kabila’s supporters say the president is committed to holding an election but is prevented from doing so by a lack of funds and logistical obstacles, such as the lack of a complete and reliable electoral roll. Opponents accuse the 46-year-old, who succeeded his father 16 years ago with the support of western powers, of attempting to delay polls indefinitely.
Kasai is an opposition stronghold and some analysts suggest that the violence there suits Kabila, as an election is unlikely to be held while the region is restive. The US, EU and UK have expressed their support for early elections, which they may partially fund, and have imposed sanctions on a number of close associates of Kabila.
In a statement on Sunday, Kabila denounced interference in Africa by outside powers, which he said undermined the sovereignty of states.
Congo, a country of more than 80 million people and the world’s biggest cobalt producer, has been plagued by war and instability since the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator ousted in 1997 by a coalition of rebel groups.
Shepherd said that though there were some parallels between the current situation and the last years of Mobutu’s rule, the Congo could stagger on for some time. The government could totally lose control of Kasai and rebels would have to still walk 800km to get to Kinshasa.
If you go back to the history of armed insurrections [in the country], those which overcome the inertia of the size of the place have had regional backing and it is currently hard to see which local power would do that now and why. The appetite isn’t there, Shepherd said.
Democratic Republic of the Congo