Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spying in the Congo

There was a nice piece by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on spying. He describes how the Spanish government found dead body of a British man off their coast in 1943. Attached to his waist was a briefcase with some secret-looking documents. The Brits frantically tried to get the documents back, but the Nazi spies were quicker, uncovering the Allies' plan to attack southern Europe through Greece and Sardinia. Hitler quickly moved a Panzer division to the Peloponnese.

The only problem was: it was a set-up. The Brits wanted the Germans to believe that; the Allies invaded a relatively defenseless Sicily on July 10, 1943. Gladwell then goes on to explain the perverse distortions in intelligence services, where the more secret the operation and the intel, the smaller the audience, the more incentives for distortion and the less fact-checking. Moreover, intel operatives are so used to their counterpart trying to trick them, they see every piece of information as a potential set-up: The Brits will think the Germans wanted them to believe that the British wanted them to believe that...and so on, into infinite regress.

I have had some experience with Congolese and Rwandan intelligence services, who face similar problems. The most damaging such instance probably came after the AFDL arrived in Kinshasa in 1996 with Laurent Kabila at its helm, but surrounded by Rwandan security officers. From the moment he arrived in Kinshasa, he began thinking that Rwanda was going to get rid of him, egged on by his own coterie of wizened rebels who had little love for the Rwandans. His secretary, personal bodyguard and many security officers were Rwandans.

On the Rwandan side, they began watching him suspiciously, wondering what he would do. The people to take the first step were probably the Congolese Tutsi who had arrived with Kabila and were almost immediately marginalized. By March 1998 - only ten months after they took power - Moise Nyarugabo and Deo Bugera had (by their admission) begun planning to replace him, although allegedly without Rwandan support. They were mostly just frustrated that they had been marginalized and that Kabila had mismanaged his initial months in power.

The Rwandans probably didn't really get involved in trying to get rid of Kabila until later, although the facts are murky. Given that the guy - Commander David - who held his pen and pad and stood outside his room at night well into 1998 was a Rwandan, it's hard to believe that they wanted to get rid of him until much later. But the Congolese insist that the Rwandans mounted several assassination attempts in June and July 1998, just after Laurent Kabila asked them all to leave the country. By then, the Rwandan intelligence was reporting that Kabila had begun recruiting the very ex-FAR soldiers that the AFDL had initially set out to defeat.

Kabila did eventually recruit those soldiers, sending his trusted aide Daniel Mulunda Ngoy (now they head of the PAREC demobilization initiative) to Brussels and Nairobi to meet with ex-FAR leaders in May or June 1998.

But what came first? Kabila's paranoia and recruitment of the ex-FAR, or Rwandan attempts to get rid of him? Intelligence services from both sides hyped up these possibilities - that was their job. They also had a bunch of over-eager Congolese spies they had hired, who wanted to ingratiate themselves with their higher-ups. Perverse incentives.

There are many intelligence agencies in the Congo - the National Intelligence Agency (ANR), the National Security Advisor (he has his own agents), the General Directorate of Migrations (DGM, an immigration police), the police intelligence service, and my favorite - the Military Detection of Anti-Patriotic Activities (DEMIAP, the military intelligence agency).

But not all Congolese spies are inept. I have dealt with some ingenious ones. Here are some favorite stories:
  • A Congolese intel agent had several phone numbers he had gleaned from call sheets that were linked to FDLR operatives. He wanted to know who these numbers, which were called frequently, belonged to, so he went to some friends at Vodacom and Celtel and asked them to find out. As phone numbers in the Congo aren't registered, he gave two ladies some money and they began calling them. When someone answered, the phone company worker said: "Congratulations! This is Celtel's Grand Prize Lottery, we wanted to inform you that you have won a refrigerator! We just need your name and address so we can get the prize to you." The names rolled in: several Congolese generals, a few businessmen...
  • Another intel agent was called by someone in Kabila's cabinet who was very frustrated with the outcomes of some of the votes in the provincial assembly in the town where he was based. MPs were taking money and orders from the government but voting the other way, but because the vote was secret no one could find out who the traitors were. So the intel agent proudly showed me a device he had created, a ballot box that made sure every ballot fell on top of the previous one, so afterwards they could open the box and know who voted which way. He cackled gleefully.
  • More later...

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