18

THE ASSASSINATION OF MZEE

KINSHASA, CONGO, JANUARY 17, 2001

On January 17, 2001, Laurent Kabila’s military advisor Colonel Edy Kapend was sitting on the lawn outside of Kabila’s office at the official residence.1 They had made it into a new year, he thought to himself, which was an achievement in itself. The Rwandan army had almost taken their mining capital, Lubumbashi, but had been stopped at the last moment. Now the president was trying to transform himself politically by forcing a Burundian Hutu rebellion, which had been supported by Kabila against the Tutsi military junta in their country, to go to the peace table with the Burundian government, which would improve Kabila’s international reputation. Later that day, he would fly to Cameroon to announce those talks; then he would fly to Washington to try to rebuild bridges with George W. Bush’s incoming administration. Things were looking up—at a New Year’s gathering, the president had even given some of his closest staff presents of 100,000 Congolese francs, which, even though the rising inflation meant that the gift was only worth around $500, was a highly unusual gesture for tight-fisted Kabila.

As Kapend waited outside, Kabila was speaking with his economic affairs adviser, Emile Mota, about his upcoming trip. The president was wearing his habitual safari suit—off-white this time—and was in a good mood. Across town, a large peace rally was being held at the national stadium, and the gloom of the past year seemed to have lifted from the capital. The French doors were open to the terrace—Kabila did not like air conditioning—so that a breeze from the Congo River could blow through. Rashidi Kasereka, one of Kabila’s bodyguards, clicked his heels together at the door to ask for permission to enter. It was lunchtime, and security was lax, as some bodyguards had gone to eat.

Like most of the president’s bodyguards, Rashidi was a former child soldier—kadogo—from the Kivus, who had been with Kabila for years. Kabila was used to Rashidi approaching him, so he wasn’t taken aback when the young man bent down to whisper something in his ear. As Rashidi stepped up, he pulled out a pistol and fired three times, hitting the president in the neck, abdomen, and shoulder. Another bullet lodged in the sofa next to where Emile Mota was sitting, terrified.

Briefly stunned in shock outside, Colonel Kapend grabbed the gun of one of the presidential guards and ran around the building, to the patio outside the president’s office, only to find another bodyguard standing over Rashidi’s dead body. Furious, Kapend shot another round of bullets into the corpse.

Inside, Kabila’s secretary, Anny, ran through the corridors, screaming that le chef had been shot. The president lay sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood, still clutching some documents in his hand. Within several minutes, the president’s Cuban doctor and the minister of health had arrived, ripped open his shirt, and tried to resuscitate him. He had clenched his tongue between his teeth, and Kapend thought he could hear him moaning still.

Finally, a helicopter pilot was located to fly the president to the Ngaliema medical clinic nearby. The doctors and soldiers tore down the long velvet curtains from the windows to transport him. “He was so heavy that even four of us had a hard time lifting him,” an aide remembered.2

Immediately, the president’s closest associates called an emergency meeting, together with the military representatives of the Angolan and Zimbabwean armies.3 They had no idea who was behind the assassination, but they worried that dissidents within the army would take advantage of the power vacuum. They decided to keep the assassination a secret until they could decide what to do.

They bundled Kabila’s corpse, together with all the nurses, doctors, and cleaning staff from the clinic, into a presidential airplane and flew them to Zimbabwe. Colonel Edy Kapend went on television that afternoon ordering the army high command to stay calm and maintain discipline. He did not say a word about the coup that many in the capital assumed must be under way. The next day the government put out a clipped statement, saying that the president had been injured in an assassination attempt and was in Harare for treatment. In the streets, Angolan and Zimbabwean soldiers patrolled and manned key roadblocks.

When he was finally pronounced dead several days later, the news stunned the capital. Mzee, as most Kinois refer to him, had been the overwhelming figure of Congolese politics since his arrival in Kinshasa, no matter what one thought of him. Congolese had become used to his weekly television and radio appearances, his long, verbose, and often funny harangues about domestic and international politics. Within his own cabinet, it was Mzee’s metronome that kept the beat and made sure that all the disparate interest groups stayed in line and were prevented from infighting. It was as if the conductor had died in the middle of a symphony and now the horns, strings, and percussion were vying for primacy.

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No one had been a more insistent augur of Kabila’s death than the man himself. “He spoke about it all the time,” Information Minister Didier Mumengi remembered. 4 The president had thought that it would be a western conspiracy, that he had prevented foreign corporations from getting at Congo’s resources, and that they would eliminate him. He saw himself as Patrice Lumumba, the independence hero who was gunned down in a Belgian-American plot almost exactly forty years to the day before Kabila’s own assassination.

Kabila was paranoid but not necessarily wrong. There was good reason for western corporate interests to be angered. Kabila had reneged on several mining contracts, most notably with Banro, a Canadian company, and with Anglo American, a London-based mining giant.

But Kabila was an obstacle to more than just corporate interests. Three years after he had taken power, his war machine was failing, Congo’s economy was in tatters, and he had failed to carry out any meaningful reforms. At the beginning of the 1998 war, the social misery had been made bearable thanks to the upsurge in patriotism that the Rwandan aggression had provoked. Just after the Rwandan attack on Kinshasa in August 1998, 88 percent of people polled in Kinshasa said they had a favorable impression of their president, a leap of 50 percent from a year before.5 For a brief period, the capital forgot about its misery and hunger and channeled its energies into supporting the government. When asked about the reasons for the war, a full half of Kinois answered that they thought it was “a conspiracy of western powers,” while 19 percent thought it was due to “Tutsi hegemony in central Africa.”6 Few cared about the incompetence of their own government.

The euphoria had been short-lived, however. The war bankrupted the country and undermined Kabila’s ambitious development plans. By 2000, inflation had risen to 550 percent, and civil servants were barely paid. Long lines of cars gathered in front of gas stations, waiting for fuel; the only reliable providers of gasoline were black-market hustlers—the so-called Ghadaffi, named after the oil-rich Libyan leader—who set up shop under broad-rimmed umbrellas along the streets with their jerry cans and siphons. Mutinies broke out in the capital’s military barracks when poorly paid soldiers refused to go to the front line. On several occasions, Kabila’s motorcade in Kinshasa was stoned in the densely populated shantytowns. As he passed by, women lifted their colorful blouses to show him their stomachs, crying that they were hungry. Several billboards with Mzee’s picture, exclaiming, “It’s the man we needed!” had to be taken down, as they became subject to regular pelting with rotten fruit.

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Inflation, corruption, and general administrative stagnation: These were the characteristics of Laurent Kabila’s regime. In retrospect, Kabila’s supporters blame all of his regime’s woes on the war. In reality, however, Mzee helped bring his problems on himself through a slew of incoherent and poorly executed initiatives.

The government’s monetary and fiscal policies were a case in point. In order to hoard much-needed foreign currency, the government decreed that all monetary transactions would take place in Congolese francs, and it kept the currency at an artificially high value. Traders had five days to exchange their U.S. dollars and euros for Congolese francs or face sanctions. They then had to pay all of their taxes according to the official rate. Since the rate at the Central Bank was four times lower in 2000 than that on the black market, incomes of businesses and civil servants were devastated. Of course, the few government employees who were allowed to buy foreign cash at the official rate made a killing, encouraging them to keep inflation high.

“Mzee wanted solutions now, not two years in the future. We would go to him with elaborate plans for the economy,” his information minister remembered, “but he would say ‘Two years! I will be dead in two years. Bring me projects that can bring us cash in two weeks!’”7

The war scuttled all plans for long-term reform and prompted quick fixes that only further debilitated the state. The diamond industry was another example. With the former cash cows of the economy—the state-run copper and cobalt companies—moribund, the government was almost solely reliant on diamonds and oil, which made up 75 percent of exports.8 However, Kabila’s monetary policy prompted diamond sellers to smuggle most of their goods to neighboring countries to avoid transactions in Congolese francs. To make matters worse, in August 2000 the president granted a monopoly of all diamond sales to Dan Gertler, a young Israeli tycoon, in return for $20 million a year. The move was intended to provide the government with some much-needed cash, but as a result Kabila crippled the sector and alienated the powerful Lebanese diamond trading community in Kinshasa. Without smuggling, the entire diamond market in the Congo was estimated to be worth $600 million. Under Kabila’s whimsical policies, Congolese exports shrunk to barely $175 million.9

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In the meantime, the news from the front line was consistently bad. All Congolese belligerents and their foreign allies had signed the Lusaka Cease-fire in August 1999, but—invoking Mao Tsetung’s dictum “talk/fight, talk/fight”—Kabila was determined to fight to the end. He consistently blocked the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, believing it would prevent his military triumph.

By August 2000, however, Kabila was alone in still believing in victory. The war had stumbled fitfully into its third year. The Ugandan-backed MLC (Movement for the Liberation of the Congo) rebels routed the government’s troops in the north of the country, pushing down the Congo River toward the regional hub of Mbandaka, just several hundred miles up the river from Kinshasa itself. In the center of the country, Rwandan troops and their RCD allies had surrounded the garrison city of Ikela, cutting off Congolese and Zimbabwean troops and slowly starving them.

The government readied itself for a decisive standoff in the small fishing village of Pweto, on the southeastern border with Zambia. “For Mzee, Pweto was a symbol of resistance,” a presidential advisor told me. “He wanted to defend it at all costs.”10 If Pweto fell, little would stand in the way of Rwanda from taking Lubumbashi, the country’s mining capital and Kabila’s hometown.

The leader of the Burundian Hutu rebels in the Congo at the time remembered Kabila calling him in August 2000. “He said: ‘This time we will break their back,’ and told me to get ready for a new offensive.”11 Kabila freed up $20 million for the operations and moved his army command to Pweto, entrusting the offensive to General John Numbi, an electrical engineer and former head of a Katangan youth militia.

Many officers didn’t share Kabila’s optimism. General Joseph Kabila, the titular head of the army since 1998 and the president’s son, told the Burundian rebel commander in private he didn’t believe they would succeed. Zimbabwean commanders muttered similar doubts and said their soldiers would just hold defensive positions. The Burundian rebel leader himself had been let down on several occasions, taking control of towns only to wait in vain for reinforcements that Kabila had promised him. He also shared the general skepticism regarding General Numbi’s competence: “He spent his time elaborating plans on his laptop and drawing sketches that nobody paid much attention to. He wasn’t a real soldier.”

Like much of the state, the Congolese army was a hulking, decrepit edifice. Although the president claimed to have 120,000 soldiers, most diplomats put the real figure at around 50,000, a mix of former Mobutists, kadogo recruited during the first war and trained by Rwandans and Ugandans, Katangan Tigers, and new recruits. Some foreign military analysts put precombat desertion rates—those who fled even before fighting had begun—as high as 60 percent; only front line units received regular pay and food. In Kinshasa, families of soldiers on the front line were routinely evicted from their houses so new recruits could be lured by offers of free lodging. Even then, the army was hard-pressed to attract new soldiers and by 2000 had begun to enlist the young children of soldiers to send to the front.12

While many officers had significant expertise, much like his predecessor President Kabila valued loyalty more than competence and left many important operations in the hands of old maquisards (bush fighters) or inexperienced Katangans. Even where competent officers were deployed, the president often micromanaged operations himself and used parallel chains of command, confusing his own offensive.

Given this shambles of an army, Kabila had to rely on his allies. Zimbabwe had increased its deployment to the Congo to 11,000 troops, while Angola and Namibia had smaller contingents, tasked largely with defending Kinshasa. There were also 15,000 to 25,000 Burundian and Rwandan Hutus who were working for Kabila on a mercenary basis.

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It was just north of Pweto, in the small village of Mutoto Moya, that, amid the long elephant grass of the savannah, one of the war’s most important battles took place. Located in the middle of gently rolling plains, the village stood at the gateway to Lubumbashi, the capital of the mineral-rich province, just four days away by foot along good roads.

Around 3,000 Rwandan and Burundian troops had been held at a stalemate for months by twice as many Zimbabwean and Hutu soldiers. The two forces stared at each other across 8 miles of twin trenches, separated by a one-mile stretch of empty land.

Mutoto Moya was one of the only instances of trench warfare in the Congo. Both sides had dug man-high trenches that meandered for miles. Inside the muddy walls, one could find kitchens, card games, makeshift bars, and cots laid out for soldiers to sleep. This was one of the few instances when Africa’s Great War resembled its European counterpart eighty years earlier.

For the Rwandan and Burundian soldiers, many of whom had grown up in cooler climates, the conditions were poor. It was hot and humid, and huge, foot-long earthworms and dung beetles shared the space with the soldiers. When it rained, the soldiers could find themselves standing knee-deep in muddy rainwater for hours, developing sores as their skin chafed inside their rubber galoshes.

Many came down with malaria and a strange skin rash they thought was caused by the local water supply. Termites from the towering mounds nearby ate into the wooden ammunition boxes, and jiggers lay eggs under soldiers’ skin. Luckily for the Rwandan staff officers, every couple of months they could go for much-needed R&R on a nearby colonial ranch, where there were dairy cows, electricity, and a good supply of beer.

It was telling that the most important front of the Congo war was being fought almost entirely by foreign troops on both sides. “The Rwandans didn’t trust the RCD with such an important task,” remembered Colonel Maurice Gateretse, the commander of regular Burundian army troops. “They had behaved so badly that we radioed back to their headquarters, saying they should be removed. They would use up a whole clip in thirty minutes and come and ask for more. These guys were more interested in pillaging the villages than fighting.”13

A cease-fire negotiated between the two sides held until October 2000, when Laurent Kabila unilaterally launched his offensive. In an effort to prevail by sheer numbers, the Congolese cobbled together a force of over 10,000 soldiers, including many Rwandan and Burundian Hutu soldiers. With the support of armored cars and Hawker fighter aircraft from the Zimbabwean army, the Congolese forces overran the enemy trenches and pushed their rivals back to Pepa, a ranching town in the hills some thirty miles away. There, Laurent Kabila’s troops took control of the strategic heights overlooking the town. Zimbabwean bombers pursued and bombed the retreating troops, forcing them to hide during the day and march at night.

Back in Kigali, President Kagame was furious. He radioed his commander on the ground, an officer nicknamed Commander Zero Zero, who was known for his brutality and his love of cane alcohol. Kagame told him that if he failed to retake Pepa, “don’t even try to come back to Rwanda.” The Burundian commander, Colonel Gateretse, received a similar warning from his commander back home, who told him he would have to walk back to Burundi—three hundred seventy miles through the bush—if he lost.

In order to retake Pepa, they would have to scale a hill with almost no cover and with thick buttresses prickling with heavy machine guns and mortars at the top. “It was like those movies I saw of the Americans at Iwo Jima,” the Burundian commander commented. “We would have to hide behind every hummock and bush we could find.” They received reinforcements over the lake from Burundi: An additional 6,000 Rwandan and Burundian troops arrived on barges for the onslaught.

They launched their challenge early in the morning. Thousands of young soldiers clambered up the steep slopes toward the fortifications above. There was little brush for cover; this was cattle country, and all the trees had been chopped down for pasture. “It was a massacre,” Colonel Gateretse remembered. Kabila’s army “sat at the top with their heavy machine guns and just mowed the kids down. You would hear the mortars thunder, the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns and screams as our boys fell.” One by one, the walkie-talkies of their officers trying to scale the hill went dead.

After two days and hundreds of casualties, the Rwandans and Burundians sat together to rethink. They decided to send a light, mobile battalion around Kabila’s position to attack from the rear, while the bulk of the troops continued their frontal offensive to distract their adversaries. The flanking maneuver, however, was risky, as the terrain was difficult and the Congolese had patrols throughout the surrounding areas. The soldiers would have to cover forty miles by foot in one night to catch them by surprise, a tough feat even by their standards. They forced some unlucky locals at gunpoint to serve as guides for them and set out at nightfall at a light trot with little equipment other than their AK-47s, several clips of ammunition, and a few rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

It worked. After a morning of catfights up the mountain, incurring even more casualties, suddenly the machine guns at the top of the hill went silent, then turned around, and began firing the other way. The flanking expedition had broken through Kabila’s rear guard, sandwiching the remaining troops. In a desperate surrender attempt, Kabila’s soldiers put up any white material they could find over their sandbags: tank tops, tarps, underwear. It didn’t make much difference. “We didn’t take many prisoners, we were too angry, and, anyway, where would we have put them?” Colonel Gateretse remembered. It was their turn to mow down the enemy.

Most of Kabila’s forces, however, escaped, and began running back toward Pweto, toward their army’s forward operating base. Much of the Congolese top brass had assembled there, including General Joseph Kabila.

What followed was a three-week-long road battle as the Congolese, Hutu, and Zimbabwean forces retreated under constant fire. The road wound through the bucolic cattle country, lined with eucalyptus trees planted by Belgians decades before. The Rwandans had the tactical advantage: They were highly mobile, carried only the essentials, and ambushed the Congolese at every turn in the road. The Congolese were encumbered by their artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles; they sought refuge on the high ground to the sides of the road, using bunkers and foxholes they had dug there. But inevitably, the Rwandans would outpace them and cut off individual units.

Washington Post journalist who visited the road later reported: “The road south toward Pweto remained speckled not only with green and white butterflies, but with corpses—here the body of young man cut down clutching an AK-47, here a splayed green poncho topped by a skull.”14

In the meantime, panic was breaking out in Pweto. The government’s coalition had made the fatal mistake of bringing the bulk of its armory across the Luvua River. Only one ferry, however, was available for transport, and there wasn’t enough time to evacuate their equipment before the Rwandans arrived. Worse still, under duress, Congolese logistics broke down. “President Kabila told me that they had run out of ammunition,” one of his commanders remembered. “It was very suspicious. All of a sudden, we ran out of everything—fuel, ammunition, money.”15

With the Rwandans just a few miles away, the army high command, including General Joseph Kabila, tried to board a helicopter to flee back to Lubumbashi, only to find that there was no fuel for that either. “It was like Mobutu all over again,” a presidential aide told me. “Someone had sold all the helicopter fuel to make a profit. We were the victims of our own ineptitude.”16

The group of generals had to scramble to the ferry—aptly named Alliance, a dirty-pink, rusty contraption—along with their Zimbabwean colleagues and flee across the Zambian border. When the ferry got back to the Congolese side, soldiers tried frantically to load a forty-ton Soviet T-62 tank on board. They misjudged the balance, and the ferry sunk in the harbor along with its precious cargo.

It was a fitting end to the rout of Congolese forces. When the Rwandans arrived in the fishing town hours later, they found a neat line of thirty-three tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and one ambulance lined up in front of the ferry and charred a crispy black. The fleeing soldiers had doused the equipment with diesel and set it alight. Unopened syringes from the medical kits cracked underfoot. Amid the jettisoned equipment, they found a note left by a fleeing officer that read: “Attaque.”17

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President Laurent Kabila, who had been following the fighting from Lubumbashi, two hundred miles away, was devastated. For twenty-four hours he had no news from his son Joseph, whom he considered the closest member of his confused, sprawling family network. When he heard that his son and the rest of the army command had fled to Zambia, he had them all arrested, including Joseph, and brought back to the Congo.

Kabila urgently flew to Zimbabwe to obtain assurance that they would prevent Lubumbashi from falling, but President Mugabe was visibly upset. One Zimbabwean official commented: “[Kabila] is like a man who starts six fires when he’s only got one fire extinguisher.... The fire fighters are the Zimbabwean Army.”18 The war in the Congo was costing Mugabe $27 million a month and a consistent battering by Harare’s newspapers, which complained about the costly war in the Congo while at home there were food riots. Shortly before the Pweto debacle, Mugabe lost a key referendum to amend the constitution, while the opposition made huge gains in parliamentary elections. “Enough,” he told Kabila. “Negotiate with your enemies.”

Desperate, Kabila flew to Angola, where he met with President Edouardo Dos Santos. There, the message was even more severe. By the end of 2000, the Angolan army, which had never sent many troops to the front line, had badly thrashed Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels in the north of the country and was no longer so dependent on Kabila’s military collaboration. One of Kabila’s aides recalled: “Dos Santos told him to liberalize the diamond trade, float the exchange rate, and meet with his opponents.”19 In other words: Everything you have tried has failed. The stick hasn’t worked; you have to try with some carrots now.

In order to ram the message home, the Angolan president confided that western intelligence services were conspiring to get rid of Kabila and that several of his generals had been contacted. But then he smiled and patted his counterpart on the back: “I told them not to do anything—better a scoundrel we know than one we don’t.”

Kabila was deeply affected by this conversation. “He talked about it for days after he got back to Kinshasa,” his aide said.20 The president knew that he didn’t have the finances or the military domestically to prop up his dysfunctional government and that without the backing of Angola and Zimbabwe his days were numbered. Kabila asked his staff to draw up a list of opponents he could negotiate with, but nobody had faith in dealing with him anymore. He sunk into an insomniac depression, canceled all his meetings, and withdrew to his presidential palace. Stubble began appearing on his usually clean-shaven face, and he told his aides, “If Lubumbashi falls, I will kill myself.”21

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So who ordered the killing of Mzee? Congolese imagination is knotted around Kabila’s death, entangled in multiple narratives and histories that compete to explain why the scrawny bodyguard shot the president. Part of the problem is that there were too many people who had a reason, who stood to benefit from his death. As the Economist quipped, fifty million people—the country’s entire population—had a motive. By the time of his death, Kabila had managed to offend or alienate not only his enemies but also most of his allies.

There are two main theories about his death. The first, the one supported by the Congolese government, lays the blame squarely at Rwanda’s doorstep, saying that Rwanda had acted through a gang of discontented former child soldiers from the Kivus close to Anselme Masasu. When Edy Kapend had informed Joseph Kabila of his father’s death, the twenty-nine-year-old reportedly teared up on the phone, and before Kapend could fully explain what had happened, he blurted out, “Those people from the Kivus killed my father.”22

Anselme Masasu—known as “Toto” to his friends, for his youthful appearance (mtoto means “child” in Swahili)—had grown up along the border between Rwanda and the Congo, the son of a father from the ethnic Shi community and a Tutsi mother. He had many Tutsi friends, 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. The Rwandan army hoped that he would be able to encourage non-Tutsi youth in the eastern Congo to join what they feared might be perceived as an exclusively Tutsi affair. Even before the AFDL invasion, Masasu infiltrated and began enlisting children and young men to the cause. He was considered the commander of the kadogo, always present on the front line, eating beans and corn with his “children.” Years later, many former kadogo I spoke to still referred to him with respect and love—he had been their father after they had left home.

Masasu remained close to Colonel James Kabarebe, even after the Rwandans had been kicked out of the Congo. 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. “He rose from sergeant to general in nine months,” recalled former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya. “I think it went to his head.” In the ethnically fuelled politics of Kinshasa, Masasu represented the Kivutian wing of 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. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison, of which he served fifteen months, some of it in solitary confinement in a cell one square yard in size. When kadogo protested and signs of a possible mutiny appeared, Kabila allowed him to go free.

Nevertheless, as soon as Masasu was set free, he began criticizing Kabila again in the foreign press, claiming that he had been unjustly imprisoned. In Kinshasa, the security services became convinced that he was recruiting former kadogo to attempt to overthrow the president. They accused him of holding meetings with 1,200 kadogo as part of an effort to start a new insurgency. A witch hunt for kadogo from the Kivus was launched in Kinshasa. Security services stripped detainees bare and searched for ritual scarification on their chests and backs, claiming that Masasu was anointing his adepts with traditional medicine to make them invincible to bullets. Unfortunately, many soldiers from the east carried such scars from when traditional healers had treated them for pneumonia or bronchitis as infants.

Masasu was arrested along with over fifty other soldiers. Several weeks later, on November 27, 2000, he was executed on the front line at Pweto.

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Young recruits from the Kivus constituted up to a third of Kabila’s army of 50,000. 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.”23 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.24

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.25 It was then, according to interviews of kadogocarried out by a French journalist, that a fateful meeting was held among the young Kivutians who had remained in the president’s bodyguard.26 “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 fled across the river to neighboring Brazzaville. According to the Congolese authorities, they had been part of the plot to assassinate Kabila. The president of the neighboring Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who didn’t want to appear to be sheltering coup plotters, promptly arrested them and had them brought back to Kinshasa. Several of them had been close to Masasu—they included his former chief of staff and military advisor. According to Kabila’s security services, when they interrogated these prisoners, they admitted to being part of a plan to kill Kabila. The kadogo said they had received money to organize the coup from Lebanese businessmen; the security services had already suspected their involvement and had executed eleven Lebanese. The businessmen had allegedly been incensed by Kabila’s grant of the quasi-monopoly of diamond sales to the Israeli trader. “It was strange, though,” remarked Kabila’s national security advisor, who had followed the interrogations. “They were very calm during our questioning. They said that they knew they would soon escape.”27 Sure enough, shortly afterwards, the leaders of the Masasu group engineered a break from the Makala prison through an inside job.

The Le Monde journalists, who spoke with several of the fugitives, concluded that the assassination had been the work of a bunch of bitter former child soldiers who were seeking revenge. This is possible. However, the whole affair—the lax security at the presidency, the escape from prison, the murder of the Lebanese—seems to be too well choreographed, too slickly greased to have been the doing of a few renegade bodyguards. 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. Second, when they did flee, along with several affluent Lebanese businessmen, they made their way directly to Rwanda, where some were eventually given influential political and business positions by the government. Last, a former 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.”28

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Others, however, dismiss the Rwandan conspiracy theory. If the Rwandans had wanted to get rid of Kabila, the argument goes, they would have launched an offensive, either in Kinshasa or along the front line, to accompany their coup. Instead nothing happened. In fact, the assassination ended up working against Rwandan interests, as the dead president’s successor was able to reestablish support for his country among diplomats, reinvigorate the peace process, and emasculate Rwanda’s Congolese ally, the RCD.

Skeptics of the Rwandan conspiracy theory, including the French political scientist Gérard Prunier, usually point their finger at Angola, President Kabila’s erstwhile ally. In 2000, the Angolan army had come 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. The Angolan rebels would mask the true origin of the diamonds, and Kabila would get hefty kickbacks in return. 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.29

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, as he was known, 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. 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. It also isn’t clear why Joseph Kabila, who is known for his deep attachment to his father and may have had a good idea of who killed him, would have so easily assumed the presidency surrounded by people who had been involved in the plot.

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Any number of narrative strands could have ended in Laurent Kabila’s death. Other theories include one that he died of a natural death: He had apparently fallen sick with malaria the day of his death, and according to a human rights organization, the doctor at the clinic where he was treated did not notice any bullet wounds on his body. Another conjecture is that he had been shot by a group of his own generals whom he had sacked for their shoddy performance in Pweto. A year later, Kabila’s deputy director of protocol appeared in exile in Brussels, suggesting that the Zimbabwean army was behind the murder but providing little evidence or rationale for his claim.30

As so often in the Congo, the truth may never be known. Observers of Congolese politics should steel themselves with a deep skepticism of simple truths in general. Information, in particular regarding matters of state, is often rooted in hearsay and rumor. Indeed, politicians have become adept at using rumors as a tactical weapon, spreading them on purpose to distract from the truth or to smear their opponents.

Sometimes it seems that by crossing the border into the Congo one abandons any sort of Archimedean perspective on truth and becomes caught up in a web of rumors and allegations, as if the country itself were the stuff of some postmodern fiction. This is, in part, due to a structural deficit; institutions that could dig deep and scrutinize information—such as a free press, an independent judiciary, and an inquisitive parliament—do not exist. But it has also become a matter of cultural pride. People weave rumors and myths together over drinks or while waiting for taxis to help give meaning to their lives. It may, for example, be easier to believe that Joseph Kabila’s real name is Hippolyte Kanambé and that he is a Rwandan, acting in the interests of Paul Kagame, or to believe that the conflict in the Congo was all an American corporate conspiracy to extract minerals from the country. Either might be easier to swallow than the complex, tangled reality. Doesn’t it give more meaning to the Congolese’s grim everyday existence?

A military tribunal in Kinshasa held a nine-month-long trial at the central prison of 135 people arrested in conjunction with Kabila’s assassination. Day after day, prisoners, soldiers, family members, and people in search of entertainment filed into the court, ushered to their seats by prisoners in blue-and-yellow uniforms. The judges sat in front of a mural that had been painted by a prisoner with an artistic bent: a rustic picnic next to a pond, garnished with wine, grapes, a violin, and a bouquet of roses. As the defendants stood and gave their testimony, the audience jeered or clapped. They were particularly noisy during the speeches of Colonel Charles Alamba, the chief prosecutor, who distinguished himself by long, irrelevant digressions. At one point, he castigated Edy Kapend for having had children with more than one woman. “We practice monogamy here—we don’t recognize polygamy!”31 The audience groaned in dismay.

The court did not provide the accused with decent defense lawyers and barred independent observers from the courtroom for much of the trial. The prosecutors were military officers and as such answered to their superiors, a fact that undermined their independence. Many had little or no legal training. They arrested and put on trial wives of some of the soldiers, including Rashidi’s, without any evidence to indicate they were involved. Emile Mota, the economic affairs advisor who had been present during the assassination, was arrested while he was on the witness stand because he allegedly had contradicted himself. At no point did anybody provide convincing evidence that any of the accused was guilty, nor did the reasons behind Kabila’s death become any clearer.

The judge eventually sentenced thirty people to death, ten of whom had been tried in absentia.

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By the time of his death, Kabila had become the central figure in the country. Everything about him was big, from his figure to his bombastic language to his acts. In many ways, he was heir to the man he had spent most of his life trying to overthrow: Mobutu Sese Seko. Laurent Kabila, too, was a strong, often autocratic ruler who governed by decree and repressed all opposition. “Kabila, c’était un vrai chef,” Congolese often remember fondly. He was in charge, a fact he reminded most of his associates of by arresting them for short periods and then releasing them again; almost no one escaped this treatment. But there were no monumental relics of his rule: Kabila was not given to the same kind of Louis XIV extravagances as his predecessor. He lived a relatively modest life and had little tolerance for most kinds of corruption. If there is one thing the Congolese will remember Mzee for, it is the war. It consumed both Kabila and his government and pushed them into a frenzy of patriotism and, at times, xenophobia. He became obsessed with winning. After all, he had grown up a rebel and felt much more at ease in trying to win a war than to rule a country. But when he became a martyr to his most dear cause, the country heaved a sigh of relief.

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