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, February 6, 2010

Who Killed Laurent Kabila?

A couple of weeks ago was the 9th anniversary of Laurent Kabila's assassination. The hulking "liberator" of Zaire was assassinated in his office on January 16, 2001 by one of his bodyguards as he met with one of his advisers. In a shambolic trial several months later, the presidential military adviser Edy Kapend, the commander of Kinshasa General Yav Nawej and dozens of bodyguards were all found guilty and sentenced to death.

The assassination remains one of the great mysteries of recent Congolese history. In the past year, several prominent officials have come forward calling for either those convicted to be set free or for a new trial to be held. Mwenze Kongolo, one of Laurent Kabila's closest associates, published a book last year, saying that Edy Kapend was innocent and should be freed. Kongolo was minister of justice at the time of the trial, so he might know what he's talking about (he's also become an often critic of Joseph Kabila). A few days ago, the Archbishop of Kinshasa Laurent Monsengwo also called for the trial to be finished, saying that the proceedings had never been concluded and that there had been many flaws. Here is a nice story on the debate by France 24 correspondent Arnaud Zajtman (ex-BBC Kinshasa) - I love the part when he asks Joseph Kabila about the trial and Kabila just shakes his head and basically says: "Why does Arnaud Zajtman also bug me about this?"

That there had been many flaws is obvious. A New York Times article provides a nice description of the surreal scene at the trial. At one point, the prosecutor accused Edy Kapend of practicing polygamy, and the judge had the sole witness to the murder, Emile Mota, arrested for no reason after he took the stand.

"One prisoner, who said he was an architect held for a crime he did not commit, had painted a mural in front of which sat the judges, the prosecutor and the suspects. It depicts a bucolic scene of a picnic next to a pond, replete with grapes, mangos, bananas, bottles of wine and brandy, a violin and a bouquet of red roses.

During the proceedings, some of the women prisoners suckle their infants. The audience cheers or jeers at witnesses. During the noon breaks, prisoners, soldiers, lawyers and family and friends mix freely against the backdrop of the picnic. Sometimes cheerful Congolese music comes from the loudspeakers."

The basic facts are not contested. Kabila was speaking with Emile Mota, his health adviser, when his bodyguard Rashidi Kasereka asked for permission to enter. Acting like he wanted to whisper something into his boss' ear, Rashidi pulled his pistol and fired several shots into Kabila. He then fled the room and was shot outside the office by - here the testimonies diverge - either Edy Kapend or another bodyguard. We thereby lost the main witness to the murder. However, subsequent investigations by both journalists as well as the Congolese authorities did establish a few basic facts. The plot was probably executed by a bunch of former kadogo, or child soldiers from the Kivus, who were notoriously underpaid. But they had probably just carried out the plot - who was behind it? The problem was that by the time of this death, Kabila had made too many enemies - plenty of people apparently were gunning for him. Here are some of the main theories:
  • Some French journalists from Le Monde suggested that it was the child soldiers acting on their own. A few months before the assassination, Kabila had ordered Anselme Masasu, the symbolic leader of the kadogo to be executed, as he was suspected of conspiring with Rwanda. Masasu was hugely popular among the child soldiers, and after his execution in November 2000, Kabila had rounded up a bunch of other kadogo and killed them, as well, or had them arrested.
  • Angola. In 2000, the Angolan army had gotten close to crushing UNITA, its rebel adversary of twenty-five years. Nonetheless, according to UN investigators, UNITA continued to rake in revenues of $200 million a year through diamond deals and it appeared that Kabila, in a desperate bid for cash, had begun to allow UNITA to deal through Lebanese gem traders in Kinshasa. According to French and British insider periodicals, by the end of 2000 UNITA operatives were once again active in Kinshasa. President Dos Santos, who had supported the initial rebellion against Mobutu precisely to root out UNITA bases in Zaire, was livid. This hypothesis is supported by the curious behavior of General Yav Nawej, the commander of Kinshasa who had close ties to Angola, along with Edy Kapend, the president’s military advisor. The day before the assassination, General Yav ordered the disarmament of select northern Katangan units in Kinshasa’s garrison, who were the most loyal to Kabila. Then, within hours of the assassination, General Yav ordered the execution of eleven Lebanese, including six minors, belonging to a diamond trading family. In the meantime, Kapend had gone on the radio and ordered the commanders of the army, navy and air force to maintain discipline and calm, rankling these officers, who thought such commands to be far above his pay grade. According to this scenario, the Angolans did not instigate the assassination, but found out about it ahead of time and then told their men in Kinshasa – Yav and Kapend – not to intervene. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the kadogo acting on behest of Angola, as they had few links to Luanda and were much closer to Rwanda. It is, however, equally difficult to believe that only the pro-Angolan officers within the presidency would have discovered the coup plot, given the porous information networks in Kinshasa.
  • Rwanda. There are several indications that Rwanda was directly involved. First, according to the Congolese security services, before fleeing, the Masasu crew admitted to being in cahoots with Kigali. Secondly, when they did flee, along with several affluent Lebanese businessmen, they made their way directly to Rwanda, where they were eventually given influential political and business positions by the government. Lastly, a high-ranking Rwandan security official told me that he had seen Colonel James Kabarebe on the day of the assassination. Kabarebe, who was still running Congo operations for the Rwandan army and would soon be promoted to become head of the army, reportedly slapped him on the shoulder and said: “Good news from Kinshasa. Our boys did it.” The problem with this theory is that, if it had been Rwanda, they certainly didn't take advantage of the situation - no major military activity was reported within the days and weeks after the assassination. Also, if it had been Rwanda, they seriously misjudged the consequences. Laurent Kabila's successor Joseph proved to be much more adept diplomatically than his father, and turned the tide against Rwanda amongst many donors.
Alas, as with some many parts of Congolese history, we will probably never know the answer. What is probably certain is that dozens of innocent people are sitting in Makala prison in Kinshasa for no good reason. I visited Kapend there last year - he has his own cell, with a poster of a Dutch tulip garden hanging over his bed. In the middle of the tulips, he had handwritten: "At the end of the day, both God and I know the truth, and it is that Edy Kapend is innocent." Maybe. Maybe not. But I doubt the Congolese justice system will ever tell us.


K said...

Emile Mota is no health expert. He was the president's economic advisor if I'm not mistaken

Alex Engwete said...

The version of the Congolese grapevine, the Radio-Trottoir [Sidewalk Radio], adds a dimension of cloak-and-dagger to Theory #2 above... (and, btw, there's a parallel history of the Congo being told on Radio-Trottoir, going as far back as the start of the colonial period: a book needs to be written on the mythologies of Radio-Trottoir)...

According to Radio-Trottoir, CIA operatives approached Angolan authorities and offered them a quid pro quo deal: we give you real time GPS coordinates of Savimbi and you rid us of Laurent Kabila, who's a nuisance to our interests.

Angolan authorities are hesitant, worrying about the power vacuum that would be created in Kinshasa. The CIA reassures them: it's been taken care of; the "son," who's actually Rwanda's plant, is with the program!...

Jason Stearns said...

1. You are right, I stand corrected. Mota was an economics adviser, who had been talking with Kabila about his upcoming visit to Cameroon.

2. Congolese authorities (and Edy Kapend) still insist that Rashidi had the business card of the US Defense Attache on him when he was killed. Of course, when I asked people at State they just laughed.

David Aronson said...

Stephen Ellis has written such a book, along with gerrie ter Harr, called Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa, about how indigenous belief systems shape the practice of political power in Africa. As far as I know, it is one of the few books to pay close attention to how Africans themselves think about politics, to provide an anthropology of power.

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Unknown said...

I think these theories are great, specially with this UNITA continued to rake in revenues of $200 million a year through diamond deals and it appeared that Kabila, in a desperate bid for cash, had begun to allow UNITA to deal through Lebanese gem traders in Kinshasa.That is also good for the politic situation in this country.\chase auto loan

Anonymous said...

A book review of that book ends (just before you have to buy a paid subscription in order to read the rest), "Ellis and Ter Haar, by contrast, emphasize religious belief: particularly the conviction of Africans, in all walks of life, that unseen spiritual beings lie behind events in …
[Full Text of this Article]"
I would consider that observation an acute assessment of the mzungu mind--that everything is on the surface, that the murder of LD Kabila is like an episode of the old Perry Mason show on US tv, where, if you watch the full hour, you'll get the whole story. To paraphrase synthetically Nietzsche and Hesse, it's a cartoon view--a white view of the word.
Where I live, the state of Maine, is a third world nation in the US, and people keep coming here to save Mainers from themselves, a sizeable group of Mainers sell their souls to the mzungus, and things don't change, because there is a heart of light in Maine like there is in Africa, Joseph Conrad turning the victims into the victimizers, etc.
Thesis--the legal premise that defense of the territory is the first job of any government is true and proven by the resistance of places like Maine and Africa to being saved by mzungus. From this premise grows the definition of the legitimacy of a regime. A regime is not legitimate because other mzungus say it is so, but because it vindicates the independence of the territory.
So territories are divided into two groups--the aggressors and the aggressed-upon. Their legal systems ensue.
So it would be better to bring some Congolese to the US and get them to decide why the US invaded Vietnam, etc. You'd more likely come up with good questions and good answers.
What is the famous book title--a pedagogy of the oppressed?

Anonymous said...

My name is Christopher Rushlau, and I meant to write "world" in the phrase "white view of the world". Although it is also a white view of language and cognition, now that I mention it.

Anonymous said...

The Angolan connection makes sense to me. Angola failed to nail Savimbi on their own. This now explains how Savimbi was killed. Lets wait for another 'incident' from DRC!

Anonymous said...

the circumstances under which savimbi was killed tempts one to take the Angolan theory!

Thesi said...

The link below paints that really it was Rwanda who killed LD Kabila and the mastermind was James Kabarebe who is the uncle of Hypolipe Kanambe Kabarebe who came to change his name to Joseph Kabila. Therefore President Joseph Kabila is the adopted son of Laurent Kabila because the later married his mother when his real father died in 1977. What the senior Kabila did not know is that his son was a puppet of Kagame through his uncle James Kabarebe and he was actually planning to assisinate him to weak DRC government authorities for well being of Rwanda.
I think this explains why the DRC is so weak because there is a virus at the top of the government. DRC is accusing Rwanda and Uganda of masterminding the rebel operations in the eastern but Congo still negotiates with those countries. I dont think of any African country with such weak army.

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