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

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What you didn't know about Congolese history: The Killing of LDK

#1 - Laurent Kabila's assassination

Ah, this is mired in a web of rumors and conspiracies. All I can say is: buy my book, out next spring, on the Congo war.

But as an appetizer: Basically, there are two schools of thought.

The first one, supported by the Congolese government, lays the blame squarely at Rwanda’s doorstep, which it said had acted through a gang of discontent former child soldiers close to Anselme Masasu.

Masasu had grown up along the border between Rwanda and the Congo, the son of a Shi father and a Tutsi mother. He had many friends in the Tutsi community, and when they left school to join the RPF rebellion in the early 1990s, Masasu, eager for adventure, joined up as well. He was twenty and rose to the rank of sergeant in the Rwandan army. His charisma and keen wit brought him to the attention of his superiors and he was chosen as the fourth member of the AFDL leadership in 1996.

As one of the original founders of the AFDL, Masasu often exaggerated his position, calling himself Commander-in-Chief of the army and granting himself the rank of general. In the ethnically-fuelled politics of Kinshasa, Masasu represented the Kivutian wing within the army, and was seen as a threat by Katangans close to Kabila.

In November 1997, President Kabila had Masasu arrested and put out a press statement, accusing him of “fraternizing with enemies of the state” and clarifying that he was not a general. When many kadogo protested and signs of a possible mutiny appeared, Kabila allowed him to go free.

However, as soon as Masasu was set free, he began criticizing Kabila again in the foreign press. In Kinshasa, the security services became convinced that he was recruiting former kadogo to attempt to overthrow the president. Masasu was arrested along with over fifty other soldiers; several weeks later, on November 27, 2000, he was executed on the frontline at Pweto.

Young recruits from the Kivus constituted up to a third of Kabila’s army of 50,000. Masasu’s execution prompted riots in military camps in Kinshasa, and hundreds of kadogo were arrested or fled across the river to Brazzaville. Although details are murky, at least several dozen were executed by firing squad in the capital. It was then, according to interviews of kadogo carried out by a French journalist, that a fateful meeting was held among the young Kivutians who had remained in the president’s bodyguard. “I will kill him,” Rashidi Kasereka is reported to have said, furious over the killing of his friends, to a group of twenty other presidential guards, who cheered their approval.

After the assassination, a group of kadogo were eventually arrested. According to Kabila’s security services, when they interrogated these prisoners, they admitted to being part of a plan to kill Kabila.

There are several other indications that Rwanda was directly involved. 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. Former Rwandan government officials have also supported this version of events.

Second possibility: The Angolan connection

Others, however, dismiss the Rwandan conspiracy theory. They argue that if the Rwandans had wanted to get rid of Kabila, they would have launched an offensive, either in Kinshasa or along the front line, to accompany their coup. There was nothing. These skeptics, including the French political scientist Gerard Prunier, usually point their finger at Angola, President Kabila’s erstwhile ally. According to UN investigators, Angolan UNITA rebels 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. The Angolan rebels would mask the true origin of the diamonds and Kabila would get heftly kickbacks in return.

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 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. This theory is also challenged by the subsequent arrest of both Kapend and Yav, the former for having allegedly orchestrated the assassination, the latter for his extrajudicial execution of the Lebanese citizens. One would imagine that if Angola had wanted to get rid of any leaks of information they would have eliminated both altogether – prisons in the Congo are notoriously porous themselves.

Third possibility: The Kadogos

This version of events does not feed into anyone's conspiracy theories. Here, the kadogo killed LDK because he mistreated them, not in the pay of Rwanda. Since the early days of his rebellion, Kabila had surrounded himself with child soldiers, much to the chagrin of visiting diplomats and dignitaries, who were often accosted by the youths asking for a couple of dollars or some cigarettes. When one visiting foreign businessman, a friend of the president, warned him against using these kadogo, Kabila replied: “Oh no, they could never hurt me. They’ve been with me since the beginning. They are my children.” In another frequently described incident, the kadogo prevented Kabila’s wife from leaving the residence, protesting that they hadn’t been paid and were hungry. In order to shut them up, she opened up the chicken coop behind the residence and allowed them to help themselves to the hens and eggs.

Other possibilities: No time to explore them here, but American involvement has been mentioned (a business card of a defense attaché in the killer's pocket), as has that of Joseph Kabila himself....


Anonymous said...

Can't wait to read your book when it comes out! Love your blog!

Unknown said...

I give my vote to the 3rd possibility. There are certain evidences about the Mbongo Zero agreement by kadogos in Brazzaville around 2001, which contained their plan to carry out a coup d'état against Kabila and capture parts of Kinshasa. Rashidi Kasereka (the actual killer) was one of the plotters who signed the pact...

Great post again, great blog!

Alex Engwete said...

I like the cloak-and-dagger version of Kinshasa Radio-Trottoir (grapevine) which spices up your "second possibility" as follows:

The "majors" (or multinational oil companies) and other big international companies operating in Angola wanted to rid themselves of Jonas Savimbi, a threat to their interests. They voiced their concerns to the CIA, erstwhile backer of Savimbi. The CIA then approached the Angolan authorities with a quid pro quo offer: we give you the GPS coordinates of Savimbi and you gun him down; in exchange, you rid us of Mzee Kabila killed!

And kudos to you, Jason, for the book. You're in my thoughts these days as I'm rereading Thomas Turner's "The Congo Wars" in Kinshasa...

Jason Stearns said...

I don't think we will ever get to the bottom of it. Maybe Oliver Stone will make a movie in a couple of years: LDK.

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