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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.

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