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Looking at Africa’s ancient kingdoms through a DRC rebel group

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Looking at Africa’s ancient kingdoms through a DRC rebel group

The recent escape from jail by the leader of one of the DRC’s many secessionist groups has ignited a long-simmering debate about the neglect and often elimination of Africa’s ancient history. The DRC’s BDK rebels not only want to secede from control by the capital Kinshasa, but want to return to the country’s ancient kingdoms as a model. The discussion has spilled beyond the borders of the DRC to involve the whole continent. Why has Africa’s pre-colonial history been discarded? Tom Collins investigates.

Earlier this year secessionist group, Bundu dia Kongo (BDK)’s self-styled leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, was imprisoned in the Makala Jail, Kinshasa, for allegedly insulting President Joesph Kablia and for inciting violence between BDK’s supporters and the police.

A couple of months later the jail was stormed by armed BDK members, Nsemi was freed from his prison cell, and he is now on the run.

These events are the culmination of a long-standing antagonism between the DRC separatist movement and the government. However, apart from occasional run-ins with the police, the BDK has inconspicuously blended into DRC’s panoply of rebel groups.

In 2002 a BDK demonstration took place in Bas-Congo, the heartland of the movement, and amid clashes with the police 14 people were shot dead.

In 2008, BDK supporters were accused of harassing, vetting and killing missionaries and those not local to Bas-Congo. The PNC (Police National Congolaise) came down hard, killing hundreds of local civilians, destroying places of worship and raiding BDK strongholds in the provincial capital, Matadi.

Now, following Joseph Kabila’s decision not to stand down in December as he was required by the constitution, tensions have been rising and the call for secession is growing ever louder.

Who are the Bundu dia Kongo?

Hans Hoebeke, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Congo, described BDK as a “politico-religious, mystical organization, under an unpredictable charismatic leadership”.

The movement is based in southwest DRC and wants to restore the Ancient Kongo Kingdom which previously straddled parts of Angola, The Republic of Congo and Gabon.

It believes that the Bas-Congo region has been severely underdeveloped due to its inclusion in the DRC and blames much of their economic misfortune on non-natives holding senior positions of provincial authority in the area (i.e. those not indigenous to Bas-Congo).

According to BDK, only by reinstating the Kingdom of Kongo can the region realise the large potential arising from its natural petroleum resources and access to ports.

The movement also has its own Christian influenced cosmology, in which supreme beings landed on the Ethiopian plateau and created the Bena Kongo people who eventually headed south and created the Kongo Kingdom.

Through this worldview, they see themselves as leading a cultural revolution against Arab and Occidental hegemony, by making themselves the focal point of history.

Bas-Congo security officials say they are a small but dangerous sect, numbering in the 100,000’s, and often advocating the use of violence against ‘illegitimate’ state authorities.

Ne Muanda Nsemi

Ne Muamda Nsemi is the spiritual leader of the BDK and previously taught at the University of Kinshasa. He was chosen by ethnic Kongo leaders to lead the organization in 1969 after he claimed to have received a vision from Akongo, the movement’s Supreme Being.

Attempting to legitimise the movement, in 2006 he was made MP for Bas-Congo and was later elected as an independent to the National Assembly in Kinshasa.

However following the violence in 2008, the government revoked the BDK’s status as a social and cultural organization, and effectively muzzled its political voice. In response, Nsemi created the Bundia dia Mayala (BDM) which exists today as a political party even though Nsemi is now a fugitive.

Indeed, the mysterious leader has been trying for a while to set up his party as a credible form of opposition, yet following his escape from prison it remains to be seen whether Nsemi will continue this tactic in his separatist bid to bring back the Kongo Kingdom.

Regardless of his tactics, what makes the movement unique is their explicitly stated wish to revert back to a pre-colonial ancient kingdom in which the Bakongo people – descendants of the Kongo Kingdom – fared better.

Rarely does African separatism situate itself within such a linear view of African history, tracing its past to a pre-colonial political organization and welding it seamlessly with its future.

Separatism informed by ancient kingdoms

The link between past and present and its function in creating a historically informed nation state, is an experience that has been deployed by much of the world – except in Africa. Africa’s experience has been fundamentally different.

Colonialism represented a grisly rupture right in the middle of African historical consciousness, and after the dust had settled, many were unsure about how a pre-colonial past was to inform the post-colonial state.

To varying degrees, the legacy of great African kingdoms like Dahomey, Asante, Zulu and Kush have made an appearance in modern day politics, but by and large, the main political thrust has been to push forward, seeing historical identities as too divisive in newly defined states.

Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah immediately set about muzzling the power of the hereditary Asante chiefs; Rwanda and Burundi quickly booted out their monarchy and Museveni today still deals with opposition from Uganda’s five kingdoms. In short, echoes from Africa’s past are either actively discouraged in politics or allowed only a ceremonial role.

Mirroring the state, separatist groups have rarely looked backwards to move forward and instead have used the modern nation state as their reference point for concerns about ethnic, linguistic or religious marginalisation.

Biafra, South Sudan and Cassamance all cited marginalisation and poor representation from the central state as a reason to secede; as do Western Sahara, Ambazonia in South Cameroon and Azawad in Mali today.

Each movement’s identity forms the basis of their secessionist ideology and although historically tempered, these identities are not looking to be defined by ancient kingdoms but more by the unworkable deal served up to them by the state.

The Kingdom of Kongo

The BDK is unquestionably looking to be defined by an ancient kingdom, and it uses this idea to react against and delegitimise Kinshasa, hence, it is responding to the central state, but is looking backwards to go forwards.

Looking back, the Kongo Kingdom at its zenith stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Kwango River in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in the south.

It existed for over 400 years as an independent state, from c.1390 to 1891, until it became a vassal state to Portugal and was eventually assimilated and disbanded into the Angolan colony.

The origins of the kingdom are found in a powerful dynasty of rulers hailing from the Mpemba Kasi country (just south of Matadi, the BDK stronghold today), who slowly expanded their rule, taking over the nearby Loango kingdom as well as Mwene Kabunga kingdom, and making Mbanza Kongo their capital.

The capital was a densely populated regional trading hub, dealing in ivory and local resources as well as manufacturing copperware, ferrous metal goods, raffia cloth and pottery.

From the capital, a large and complicated administrative structure sprawled out, comprising provinces, duchies and states each with their own dukes known as Mwene’s running the show and answering to the central authority.

After the Berlin Conference of 1884 during which European powers carved out Africa by drawing lines on a map, and numerous internal and anti-Portugese conflicts, the kingdom was forcibly outlawed in 1914.

From then it has existed in local folklore, oral culture and the work of some historians – but apart from being reimagined by the BDK – has largely been forgotten and is of little importance to Kinshasa and Luanda. 

Why have old kingdoms been so well forgotten?

The Kongo Kingdom echoes the sad story of much of Africa’s many other ancient kingdoms. Huge and complex structures with great powers and responsibilities have all too frequently washed into the sea of memory.

Broadly, there are three main reasons why ancient kingdoms have been forgotten:

First is the simple fact that not much in the way of written documentation exists about these civilizations; a written history was not formally created by many of the ancient rulers, meaning that much of what we know has to be inferred from artifacts, artwork, and colonial documentation.

Second is that with a lack of solid history the African past has been manipulated and corrupted by Western historians and Western popular myth.

Old hat western historians have for a long time attempted to deny the validity of an African past which exhibited any signs of civilisation and organisation.

Rather than accept any African historical sophistication, scholars have instead preferred to suggest ludicrous theories such as that Phoenicians built Great Zimbabwe; and the alarmingly common idea that aliens are responsible for Egyptian and Sudanese pyramids.

These arguments all work to the same effect of denying a rich African history, and embody a broader vein of thought that was used to excuse first the slave trade and then its close cousin, colonialism.

In terms of the slave trade, the belief in the West was that if Africans can be shown as ‘savages’ or ‘sub-humans’ with no previous organization or structure, then the slave trade was not morally repugnant.

In terms of colonialism, the thought was that if Africans can be shown as ‘uncivilized’ and anti-modern with no previous organisation or structure, then colonialism can be justified in the superficial manner of ‘trying to help’ by spreading ‘civilization.’ There was only one definition of civilisation – the Western civilisation as it manifested itself from the 15th century onwards.

A great deal of time and effort was expanded to propagate these beliefs, ranging from pseudo-science, which for example involved German colonists measuring the craniums of the Khoikhoi (labeled derisively as ‘Hottentots’) of southern Africa, to often cruel stereotypes in illustrations and cartoons to the Tarzan type of novels in which the ‘child-like savages’ are saved by the White man.

This narrative clearly precluded any notion of history or civilisation of the African prior to the arrival of the European. The African pre-colonial history has therefore been actively underwritten, rewritten and in many ways denied, making its memory hazy at best. Worse, many early Africans, educated in colonial mission schools, bought into this version and this helps explain the next point.

Third is the aversion post-colonial independence leaders felt towards one of the main remnants of the old order: the traditional chiefs. They saw the African past as antithetical to African progress and the African future.

Traditional chiefs around the continent were seen as obstructive to forming a central state as they represented a power divide, which, if not countered, could challenge the capital, claiming regional and historical legitimacy that outdated modern borders.

It was thus the strategy of many leaders to actively undermine and forget the African past, wanting instead to encourage unity around their newly inherited and defined modern states.

As Samora Machel in Mozambique said: “For the nation to live, the tribe must die.”

To this effect, leaders saw the beginning of their history as the modern creation of their nation and wanted to look no further back into what they saw as a divisive and murky past.

Ancient traditions continue to exist in music, art, dance and folklore, often through the work of traditional storytellers like West African griots, but it has been the work of many to exclude it from politics and the nation.

What can be learnt from the BDK?

The battle between history and modernity is a battle that has raised its bloody head worldwide in countless situations and is broadly a battle between globalization and traditionalism, and often the capital versus the periphery.

As BDK bangs the drum of regional underperformance – lamenting the loss of a previous great kingdom – Kinshasa is unnerved and looks in the other direction.  

Each nation has had its own bouts with this dilemma: Japan modernized extremely quickly and got rid of the old samurai kingdom; France took its aristocracy to the chopping block following its revolution and England has placated its monarchy into a mere figurehead.

Nevertheless, the revival of old history is gaining pace in all these countries even if the history now being depicted in popular forms is often whitewashed and sanitized. The aim is to project a continuous narrative of greatness, unity and stablity going back to ancient folklore.

The BDK is an African answer to this strategy as it represents an active link in the chain of linear African history.

BDK’s use of the past gives them anchorage in an unsteady future and also a positive and legitimizing raison d’être, which if mirrored by the state, could counter international and domestic claims that the African state is a hastily knocked up structure used only to profit its foremen.

Admittedly, it is much harder for African states to try and draw links to the past as they often only divide their citizens, but nonetheless, it is important they find their genesis in a past more ancient than the end of colonialism and to accommodate these perhaps multiple pasts into the modern state.

The idea of Africa as a fledgling continent – just starting out on its road to modernity – serves only to reaffirm its perceived inferior status within the world.

While the BDK itself with its violence and narrow political aims is nothing to be proud of or to emulate, it has struck a chord with its reliance on a neglected historical past and this is perhaps the only lesson it has to impart to the rest of the continent.

If African states were to find a way to use the great Kingdoms of the past to inform their current identities and politics, then Africa’s history would not be dark or murky but instead filled with light.

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