Small Wars Journal

Congolese General’s Assassination Sheds Light on a Country’s Current Plight

Share this Post

Congolese General’s Assassination Sheds Light on a Country’s Current Plight

Malcolm Beith

“Mamadou, why did they kill you? You were sent to save us…”

About a thousand residents—men, women and children—stood in the dusty main road in Beni, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as the song’s lyrics blared from speakers inside the open-air tribunal.

The four military judges waited patiently in front of the mayor’s office, as the prosecution and defense teams assembled in the tribunal. The 20 defendants, all members of the Congolese military, took their seats on two pews. They laughed, slapping each other on the back and exchanging handshakes with the defense lawyers.

Two soldiers began to hang up portraits of Gen. Mamadou N’Dala Moustafa.

N’Dala was 37-years-old when he died on Jan. 2, 2014 in an ambush near the eastern Congolese city of Beni. He had earned the trust and respect of his fellow soldiers, UN troops and the Congolese population. His death, and the trial of his assassins, is crucial to understanding the current situation in Congo as President Joseph Kabila clings to power illegally, and the complicity between the Congolese military (FARDC) and rebel groups in the region, as well as in understanding Kabila’s relationship with his own generals. It’s also important to understanding progress of foreign-funded initiatives in the central African nation. The UK’s Department for International Development (Dfid) suspended its “Security Sector Accountability and Police Reform Programme” in October 2014 after a Human Rights Watch report was released showing that police in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, who had benefitted from UK aid, had executed at least 51 young men and disappeared 33 others. The European Union, through a program known as EU SEC, has a budget of roughly €4.6 million a year to help Congolese authorities rebuild an army that will ideally be able to guarantee security throughout the whole country. The trial also shed light on attacks in Congo's North Kivu province, a key oil exploration zone and tin-producing region. The attacks have left at least 500 civilians dead since late 2014.

N’Dala led the Congolese army, known as the FARDC, against the M23 rebel group in the North Kivu capital of Goma in November 2013, with the backing of troops from the UN mission in the country, Monusco.

“At that moment there was a window of opportunity,” says Kris Berwouts, a Congo analyst who worked with the UN. “The Ndala assassination it was the first stone through the window of opportunity. The man was iconic because the people of Beni made him an icon. But he’s also the product of 40 years of kleptocracy, he’s not a saint or anything. He was very visible when the M23 was neutralized. The army was no longer seen as an institution that ran away, They hadn’t won for a long time, the people were proud of it: This is our army.”

“The way he was killed was a very Congolese thing, It’s about greed, it’s about jealousy. It’s not about the gray themes of war and peace. He was killed because his star was rising too fast. I don’t think Kabila had him killed, but he was blocking the enrichment of other generals and soldiers. These people are in the camp of Kabila but that doesn’t mean Kabila ordered it.”

Monusco, which receives roughly $400 annually from the U.S. State Dept. is effectively fighting the UN’s first war. There are currently 20,000 UN peacekeepers in Congo, with 3,000 troops operating as the Forward Intervention Brigade (FIB)—the UN’s first and only offensive military force, mandated by Security Council Resolution 2098 in 2013.

Clashes continue to occur regularly between FARDC, Monusco troops, and rebel groups. Almost every other day, a peacekeeper in the East is accused of shooting a civilian by accident. (Most of these are quickly debunked as spin by motorcycle gangs working with or on behalf of rebel groups.) Monusco officials believe about 24 rebel groups currently operate in eastern Congo alone, and in recent years, they’ve begun treating them like mafias, involved in illegal smuggling of all varieties of contraband, rather than rebels. Working with Monusco, N’Dala planned an offensive against the Uganda-backed ADF, the Islamist group thought to be responsible for the recent massacres. N’Dala died before the operation began, when his convoy was ambushed outside the city of Beni on Jan. 2, 2014. He was promoted to general posthumously.

N’Dala was “dedicated to the leadership of the troops in the field… [he was always] on the front line, in permanent contact with the troops,” says Monusco Force Commander Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, who worked with N’Dala on several occasions, including the offensive to retake Goma. “[N’Dala] had courage, dedication, leadership and [was] humble, calm and determined.” The UN defeated the M23 in the first week of Dec 2014, after three significant battles, with the UN reinforcing the Congolese Army with some coordinated actions of the Intervention Brigade and our excellent attack helicopters from Ukraine and South Africa. 

“When I arrived in Goma, in June 2013, Mamadou was already famous,” says Dos Santos. “The M23 and its supporters had respect and feared him. Mamadou was a real combatant, a real ‘commando,’ commanding a special forces unit. He and his battalion were always ready to accomplish combat missions.  He was very calm, friendly and used to be in the very front line with the soldiers. I met with him many times during the fights against M23 and inside our bases, because he used to be present in all the celebrations in our camps. General Bahuma (who was also killed in 2015) and Mamadou were great soldiers and the pillars to defeat the M23 and to give the first significant victories to the Congolese Army, even with M23 with strong military and political support from abroad. At that time there was a clear pride in the Congolese people. The population considered the victory not only as a fight against the M23, but against the rebel group and its supporters. Just after the defeat of the M23, the FARDC started an insistent and insane pressure to fight the FDLR, but the Congolese government decided to go against ADF and not against FDLR. 

But there were also problems within the UN, and with its leadership. “I went to Congo because they thought I was an expert in tribal conflict,” says Berwouts. “It turns out the tribal war was within the UN.” 

On Jan. 17, 2018, the UN came under fire again, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni blamed it for “preserving terrorism” in Congo, according to Reuters.

The N’Dala trial began under murky circumstances, when N’Dala’s chauffeur died of unknown causes on the second day of the hearings. The chauffeur’s lawyer told officials in Monusco’s justice affairs division that there was no reason to believe his client had taken his own life, even though he was also a primary suspect in the case. One month later, an autopsy had yet to be conducted, Monusco officials said.

“The chauffeur was in good health in court,” said Toe Ghislain, a judge who works in Monusco’s justice affairs department. “He was on his feet from 10 am until 4 pm. The next day, he died?’’

“This is more than a simple penal trial, it’s political,” said Ghislain.

The conventional wisdom was that the ADF would be blamed for N’Dala’s death, but the reality has proved different.

The two military prosecutors, Major-Gen. Timothee Mukutu Kiyana and Lt. Col. Jean Baseleba, had reputations that precede them, having tried top military officials in the past. “They’re aggressive, like any good prosecutors,” said law professor Nyabirungu Mewne Songa, who taught both lawyers at the University of Kinshasa. “They know they’re responsible for going to the limits of their abilities to find the truth. They’re confident in what they do.”

During defense testimony, one of the four military judges admonished lawyers for trying to redirect testimony toward the ADF: “This is a trial about the death of Gen. Mamadou, not a trial about the nebula that is the ADF,” he said.

On Nov. 17, Lt. Col. Nzanzu Birocho was sentenced to death for his role of receiving $27,000 from the ADF as part of a conspiracy to kill Col. Mamadou N’Dala Moustafa. He was ordered to pay $2 million to N’Dala’s family, and $900,000 to the other injured parties, his lawyers said. Birocho will likely serve a life sentence, as a moratorium was placed on the death penalty in Congo in 2004. The verdict cannot be appealed under Congolese law, but his lawyers plan to take the case before the African Court on Human Rights. Five other soldiers, a member of the ADF and a civilian were also convicted.

State of Confusion  

The trial temporarily helped quell suspicion and ease rifts in Beni, which had been upended by the attacks. It also shed light on central African efforts to combat terrorism and insurgencies.

N’Dala was born in Congo, though his father was from Mali; he didn't come from an eastern Congolese tribe. He was also a Muslim in a largely Christian nation that is currently combatting Islamist rebel groups like the ADF, believed to be responsible for the recent attacks. Yet N’Dala was considered one of Beni’s own—as were his killers.

Kabila has on occasion used the threat of the ADF—and purported links to Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, which the UN rejects—to seek support with the United States and UN Security Council. According to some analysts, it’s one of the few cards he still has that could keep him in power.

Prior to his sentencing, defense lawyers had argued that the defendant Birocho was a native of Beni, and therefore would not have sought to harm a respected member of society like N’Dala.

“The fact that someone comes from Beni does not mean he is not the enemy,” argued the lead military prosecutor, Gen. Timothee Mukutu Kiyana.

But officials in Beni acknowledge that residents do not currently know who is on their side. “We are responsible for instilling security,” said Beni Mayor Jean-Edmond Nyonyi Bwanakawa. “The population lives in terror of being killed. The trial reveals the complicity of certain FARDC elements with the ADF phenomenon.”

The police force of about 800 has been relatively helpless in providing security for Beni’s 500,000 inhabitants, the mayor said. Police say they are underpaid—salaries are about $100 a month.

When the attacks first occurred in early October 2014, young men took to the streets at night to conduct patrols themselves. They killed a mentally unstable man who was speaking in a peculiar manner because they saw him as a threat. The mayor promptly put an end to such patrols.

On Oct. 31, another group of citizens took the law into their own hands. Five people—one of them female—were spotted at a bus stop that went to the town of Ouicha. They were trying to find a bus to Eringeti, the site of several recent killings, and a group of citizens became suspicious, according to Beni’s mayor.

The travelers spoke a different language, and several locals decided to search their luggage, where they found machetes—the weapon used in most of the recent ADF attacks. One of the suspicious travelers tried to run, before the angry mob caught up with him. The man was beaten, burned and after cutting off his limbs, some of the assailants began to eat pieces of his body, the mayor said. Reuters reported the story as an act of cannibalism, drawing further sensational attention to the story, which some Congolese simply debunked as a traditional ritual aimed at scaring foreigners.

“By the time the police arrived, it was too late,” Mayor Nyonyi Bwanakawa admitted. “The people saw an opportunity to take the law into their own hands. This man had nothing to do with the ADF.”

Hundreds of suspected ADF members have been arrested in the Beni area since the attacks began in 2014. Monusco officials admit they are not certain of their links to the rebel group. Investigations are ongoing. According to a paper by the Congo research group, “Three protests against Monusco and FARDC convoys since the killings began have resulted in at least two Congolese deaths, as confidence in the authorities has waned. In recent weeks, top UN officials have visited Beni and warned the population of being manipulated into blaming the authorities, Monusco included.”

President Joseph Kabila visited Beni on Oct. 30, 2014 and appealed for support of both Monusco and the FARDC. No killings have been reported in the area since, but just after Kabila’s visit, a statue of the president in the center of Beni was torn down and left in the street for days.

“The population needs this trial,” said Nyabirungu Mewne Songa, the law professor. “It’s a sign that state authority still exists.”

International observers and members of Congo's opposition have expressed concern that Kabila will try to change the constitution to run for an illegal third term in 2016. In August, one opposition leader, Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, was sentenced to a year in jail for inciting ethnic hatred—he called Kabila a “Rwandan”—and defamation for calling him a “killer” and a “thief.”

Congo’s annual defense budget remains about 1.4 percent of GDP, a figure that has not changed since the official end of Congo’s second war in 2003, according to World Bank figures.

During a visit to the UN Security Council in September 2014, Kabila spoke of the threat of terrorism in Africa, and praised his armed forces—and their work with UN troops—for combatting Islamist groups posing a threat to peace and development on the continent. He did the same in 2017.

The assistant military prosecutor in the N’Dala trial, Lt. Col. Jean Baseleba said that the defendants were all linked to al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, a Somali-based militant group. (The defense denied the claims, and the accusations did not factor into the verdicts.) Congolese and Ugandan officials have said in the past that the ADF is linked to those same terrorist groups, though Monusco officials say there is no evidence to support such connections.

As a result of a 2014 military reshuffle, Congo was divided into three defense zones. Gen. Gabriel Amisi, who was suspended in 2012 after a UN Group of Experts report accused him of selling arms to Hutu militias, now oversees western Congo, a key oil-producing region. Amisi was also accused by the UN Group of Experts of being illegally involved in tin-mining operations in North Kivu province, where Beni is located.

Gen. Jean Claude Kifwa, who was accused in the UN experts report of trading arms to rebel groups for ivory in eastern Congo, is now in charge of southern Congo, which boasts the country's largest copper, coltan and cobalt mines. Gen. Leon Mushale Tshipamba oversees the military in eastern Congo, which is known for its tin mining and is also the site of oil exploration projects.

Dos Santos Cruz, the Monusco force commander, denied a. “It’s normal to have this kind of modification. It happens everywhere,” he said. “I see the reshuffle as a normal step to achieving more operational, logistic and administrative effectiveness.”

Dos Santos Cruz rejected the possibility that the deaths of N’Dala and another well-respected general, Lucien Bahuma, who passed away Aug. 31 of heart complications, would leave a power vacuum in eastern Congo. 

Gen. Emmanuel Lombe, now in charge of the 8th military region based in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, has all the “characteristics of a military leader,” dos Santos Cruz said.

Newfound Confidence?

The N’Dala verdict and other trials were seen to be increasing public confidence in the judicial system and the military.

“The positive developments have been on the military side,” said David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transnational Justice, shortly after the verdict. “It’s been one of the few openings for accountability. We can build on that, and see a civilian system evolve. We want to see strong civilian courts.”

In May, Lt. Col. Baseleba led the prosecution against 39 soldiers for crimes committed during a 2012 military offensive. Although only two of the soldiers were charged with rape—a UN investigation had uncovered 135 cases of sexual violence in a 10-day period—Baseleba considered the verdict a success, according to media reports following what became known as the Minova trial. 

Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Kinshasa, called the Minova trial verdict “disappointing,” and condemned “poor investigations and an unwillingness to go after senior commanders who had overall control over the troops.”

“In the end, it appears that the wrong set of accused were sitting in the dock,” she said.

On Nov. 7, Gen. Jerome Kakwavu was sentenced to 10 years in jail for war crimes including rape and torture. He was the highest-ranking military official to be sentenced since the start of the first Congo war in 1996.

“While there has been significant progress in recent years in bringing those responsible for serious crimes in Congo to justice, huge challenges remain in bringing perpetrators of serious crimes to justice,” Sawyer said. “The number of cases that go to trial is still very low compared to the number of crimes that are committed and military justice staff often lack the expertise to investigate complex crimes,” she said. “Certain commanders still seem to be shielded from justice by senior political officials and the military hierarchy.”

Gilbert Kambale, president of the Civil Society of Beni, said the verdict in the N’Dala trial should ease local residents’ concerns, though the manner in which the trial was perceived to have been conducted mattered most. “If the trial is seen to be transparent, the public will applaud the decision,” he said.

On Nov. 4, with Birocho on the stand, one of the military judges in the trial chastised a defense lawyer for “theatrics.”

“This isn’t a spectacle,” the judge said. “We could have made this a closed trial, but we wanted the public to be engaged.”

Since the Mamadou trial, dozens of open-air trials have been held in Beni.

The ADF launched further attacks on the heels of Birocho’s conviction, as Kambale warned. After one recent killing in the Beni area, a note was left behind, warning: “We will continue to terrorize and attack and kill until Birocho is released.”

He has not been released; the attacks have continued. Fifteen UN peacekeepers were killed and 53 others injured in December 2017. The UN said the ADF was behind the attack.

Other groups have also capitalized on the military pressure being placed on the ADF. “All the armed groups follow the same line,” says Monusco force commander dos Santos Cruz. “The main challenge is to collect intelligence to make pre-emptive action possible.”

The rebel groups have two options, dos Santos Cruz said. “Surrender voluntarily or they will be defeated by force.”

The rebels don’t appear to be backing down. “We are even going to reach Kinshasa,” Dalton Waubwela Mwila, secretary-general of the group known as the CNPSC, told Reuters in late 2017, threatening a move against Kabila. “Our ultimate objective is to be in Kinshasa.”

Rwandan forces and the Ugandan government have joined or supported some of the rebel groups in recent years, according to the UN. And some in Washington continue to tow what some might consider an outdated line. A 2015 study by Mercy Corps, World Vision and Search for Common Ground found that there is still a “market for violence” in Congo. 

Herman Cohen, a long-time Africa State Department hand and lobbyist who represented Kabila’s father and has met with Congolese opposition members at their request in Washington, has called for the release and return of Jean-Pierre Bemba—convicted on war crimes and for using rape as a weapon of war—because “Congo needs him” and recently called for “Rebels in eastern #DRC [to] be taken seriously as patriots fighting for democracy,” prompting one regional blogger to respond bluntly: “No please. We saw enough with the so-called rebels you (USA) brought in in 1996 & 1998.”

Cohen has since changed his tune on Twitter, calling the M23 “multifunctional: they suppress legitimate opponents to the government, and also help start violent rebellions in order to justify further delays in elections.”

About the Author(s)

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of The Last Narco (Grove Press, 2010)— about the life of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera— the undisputed leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. He is fluent in Spanish, lived in Mexico from 2007 to 2009, and has been tracking news stories in El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada for years concerning allegations of ties between the Mexican political parties and the Sinaloa Cartel. While based in Mexico City, he regularly traveled to the hills of Sinaloa, Michoacan and Ciudad Juarez to conduct field research; he also visited several penitentiaries throughout the country to talk to drug traffickers. He has extensive contacts throughout Mexican officialdom; and regularly visits Mexico to update his reporting on the drug war. He wrote about the drug war regularly for Newsweek, and since the publication of The Last Narco, he has written pieces on the drug war for Foreign Policy Magazine, The Sunday Times, National Catholic Reporter, World Politics Review, The Sun (UK), Nogales International, FHM magazine, High Times and The Australian.