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Death of Chebeya & Suspension of Numbi

I have been traveling – apologies for the feeble Congo Siasa presence of late.

And there has been a lot of news. Last Wednesday, one of Congo’s leading human rights advocates, Floribert Chebeya, was found dead in his car on the outskirts of town. The cause of his death is unknown, but was last known to be on his way to a meeting with General John Numbi, the Inspector General of the police. According to some sources, later in the evening he texted his wife, saying that he hadn’t been able to meet with Numbi. His wife tried calling him numerous times after 9pm, but his phone was off. He was found dead the next morning. His family has been allowed to see the corpse, but no autopsy has yet been performed.

To add insult to injury, the Kinshasa police chief issued a statement suggesting that the body had been found “without any visible sign of violence, whose pants fly zipper was open and beside whom were two condoms already used and one unused tree-condom pack; a box of the [Indian-made erectile] stimulant Davigra containing a bubble pack of two tablets already used; two artificial nails and a few women’s artificial hair extensions.”

The Congolese government’s reaction was surprisingly swift. Investigators arrested Daniel Mukalay, the head of the notorious special services of the police, who apparently immediately implicated his boss, General Numbi. Numbi has been suspended from his position, although he remains a free man.

There are many bizarre aspects of the case: Why did he go alone to see Numbi and not accompanied by his colleagues, as he was used to? With such high stakes, why did Mukalay confess so easily? And above all, what was the motive: if this was indeed Numbi, then he would surely know that by killing one human rights defender he was not going to make any of his problems go away, quite to contrary?

Let’s take look at the accused. John Numbi is by all accounts one of the most powerful men in the country. Originally from Katanga, he was trained as an electrical technician before he took a leadership role in the JUFERI youth militia that conducted anti-Luba witchhunts in Katanga in 1991/1992. When Laurent Kabila’s AFDL arrived in Lubumbahsi, Numbi was quickly contacted to help other youths in the province. He later became army commander of Katanga (although he has little military training) and, after Joseph Kabila came to power, commander of the air force.

But there have been tensions between Kabila and Numbi in the past. When a rogue presidential guard commander attempted a botched coup in 2004, Congolese security services suggested that Numbi might have been behind it (the coup leader Eric Lenge was friend of Numbi and the air force blew the attempts to arrest him). Numbi commands a lot of respect within the presidential guard and is seen as a threat by some in the presidency. Could this have been a set-up to frame Numbi? Possible, although of late Numbi had been a crucial player in negotiating the various peace deals with Rwanda.

Was this an attempt by Kabila’s inner circle to intimidate its critics before next year’s elections? Maybe. But the timing is bizarre. We are less than four weeks away from the country’s 50th anniversary celebration, an event Kabila has been preparing for and wants to use to highlight his achievements. Chebeya’s assassination throws a dark pall over the festivities. We are also quite a long way from next year’s elections.

What about Chebeya himself, did he have any particular problems with Numbi or the government? Yes, of course, they were legion. He had accused both Numbi as well as several other high ranking government officials of complicity in the Bas-Congo massacres of 2007. He had recently released a report on the killing of civilians by the Congolese army in Mbandaka and was demanding for those convicted for the assassination of Laurent Kabila to be released based on lack of evidence. The list goes on and on. Other Congolese human rights defenders had said similar things, as well. But yes, it is entirely possible that this was revenge for past reports.

The diplomatic community, together with local and international NGOs, have all demanded an independent investigation. I can only encourage this. But if the assassinations of Serge Maheshe (Radio Okapi), Didace Namujimbo (Radio Okapi), Pascal Kabungulu (Heritiers de la Justice), Frank Ngyke (La Reference Plus) are anything to go by, the investigation will be disappointing.

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