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DRC: Felix Tshisekedi plans to take over the army

By Romain Gras, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 14:15, updated on Monday, 20 July 2020 09:54

Felix Tshisekedi DRC and army
President Félix Tshisekedi et the highers ranks from the miliatry on January 1, 2020 outside the Ministry of Defence /©Présidence RDC

Under pressure from Washington, the Democratic Republic of Congo's President Félix Tshisekedi may decide to dismiss generals and high-ranking officers targeted by international sanctions, prompting further reform in the army.

Is a certain paranoia spreading to the upper echelons of the army?

General Muhindo Akili Mundos, commander of the 33rd military region (South Kivu and Maniema), was summoned to Kinshasa to appear before the National Security Council (CNS).

Potential disciplinary action is expected.

From his post in Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu, Mundos, who is under international sanctions, and accused by the UN Group of Experts of having participated in the recruitment of ADF militiamen, is closely observing the turbulence within the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC).

READ MORE: Rwanda and the DRC get closer despite lingering tensions

Delphin Kahimbi found dead

For several weeks now, trouble has been piling up for some military officials considered close to former President Joseph Kabila — Mundos is just one example.

At the beginning of March, General Fall Sikabwe also went before the disciplinary council.

His appointment in South Kivu in 2015 led to the temporary cessation of cooperation with Monusco. But it is another case that is now causing him problems: he was implicated in an alleged embezzlement of bonuses and was suspended.

The most emblematic — and to this day most enigmatic — example of the tremors that are sweeping through the Congolese army remains that of General Delphin Kahimbi, who was found dead on 28 February.

Kahimbi was the undisputed head of military intelligence, close to Kabila since their passage through the AFDL, and one of the pillars of the security apparatus.

He was arrested on 20 February by the Directorate General of Migration (DGM) when he was due to travel to South Africa.

He was questioned by the CNS and suspended from his duties for attempting to destabilise the government.

He was also accused of having bugged certain members of the Presidency, which he denied during his hearings.

Since his death in troubled circumstances, the Kahimbi case has fuelled rumours that are as inevitable as they are unverifiable.

Did he die of a heart attack, as his wife had originally told us? Did he hang himself, as suggested by the first elements communicated by President Tshisekedi and the traces of strangulation found on his body? Was he murdered? To this day, the mystery remains unresolved.

An investigation by the military justice system is under way, even though the Council of Ministers of 6 March initially reported an independent procedure initiated by Monusco.

“Everyone is trying to reassure themselves about the reliability of the investigation,” explained a UN source.

READ MORE: DRC: Suspended spy chief Delphin Kahimbi found dead

No witch hunt

The question that one asks then: are the recent summons a sign that the time has come for the army to take over?

“It is possible that there will soon be a sweep ,” said a securocrat, close to the head of state.

“Most of the generals under sanctions could soon be replaced, along with other high-ranking officers who pose less of a problem, so it doesn’t amount to a witch hunt,” said  diplomat posted in Kinshasa.

Like Mundos and Kahimbi, the majority of generals under sanction have been retained by Tshisekedi. There are several reasons for this: the Congolese president is seeking balance with his coalition partner, Joseph Kabila, and several of the senior officers concerned are very close to the latter.

Their influence remains significant, and a too brutal takeover of the military services would have been perilous in this country where generals have already been accused of fuelling the rebels.

Tshisekedi has been walking on eggshells for more than a year, reluctant to use his constitutional power of appointment.

His entourage keeps reminding him that the “Head of State remains the supreme commander of the army”. The few adjustments made have so far been in homeopathic doses, and the few new faces he has appointed remain – for the most part – former collaborators of Joseph Kabila.

“The most important thing is the signature of the Head of State,” stated one of his collaborators.

“Even if he appoints someone who worked with his predecessor, this person knows that he owes his reappointment to President Tshisekedi.”

If some people are already talking about a great upheaval in the army, we should question its timing. On this issue, however, it can count on the explicit support of the DR Congo’s international partners, led by Belgium and the United States.

Fundamental reforms

While a new financing plan for the IMF is under discussion, Washington has multiplied calls for Tshisekedi to distance himself from his predecessor by pushing for fundamental reforms.

According to our sources, a representative of the US Treasury was expected in Kinshasa at the beginning of March, but his visit was postponed because of the covid-19 epidemic.

One thing is certain: the President is under pressure, and 13 months after his election, promises of change no longer seem to be enough. While he had announced that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would visit Kinshasa in February, it was Peter Pham, then Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, who made the trip.

The change is not insignificant, according to one Western diplomatic source.

“By finally focusing on Angola [Pompeo visited in mid-February], where Washington is highlighting progress in the fight against corruption, the United States wanted to send a message that it expects real change,” he said.

Pham hammered home the corruption issue during his visit to DR Congo, and put concrete demands on the table, such as the removal of those generals under sanctions. “We are limited militarily because they are still in the army,” he said.

He went so far as to mention certain names to the President.

In addition to Delphin Kahimbi, the cases of Gabriel Amisi, alias Tango Four, Deputy Chief of Staff of the FARDC, and John Numbi, Inspector General of the FARDC, were also mentioned.

His last text message sent a few hours before his death, Kahimbi denounced his suspension, as “a political affair conducted remotely from the capitals run by the imperialists”.

He was thus targeting — without naming them — US diplomats who, a few hours after his dismissal, had welcomed the progress made in the fight against corruption.

READ MORE: DRC: Félix Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila meet for direct talks

Divided entourage

For Tshisekedi, the stakes are high.

If he decides to clean up his act, it would strengthen his position even though he does not have a majority either in Parliament or in government.

“For the moment, it’s an attempt to regain control,” said Jean-Jacques Wondo, a specialist in the Congolese army. “And Joseph Kabila is also not in a capacity to defend the totality of the generals.”

According to our information, the President and his predecessor were due to meet on 1 March, the day Tshisekedi left for the United States. They finally saw each other on 12 March at the N’Sele residence (a few hours earlier, John Numbi had been received at the African Union City).

Could Washington’s support and the promise of better military collaboration with the Belgians be enough for the head of state to take the step?

In Kinshasa, Peter Pham also met with Joseph Kabila.

Did he try to convince him to give his partner more room for manoeuvre while the United States is considering an expansion of its sanctions list?

This is not out of the question.

READ MORE: DRC: Félix Tshisekedi’s new judges, and their many challenges

Bottom line

It remains to be seen what consequences could meet the ruling coalition of potential upheavals in the security apparatus, knowing that these would not be sufficient to solve all the problems of the army and to carry out the much awaited reform of the security sector.

The issue is divisive within the entourage of the Head of State. While the option of excluding the generals is widely favoured, the method is controversial.

The problem is, time is running out.

“Tshisekedi needs the financial support of donors to carry out his key reforms, and Washington is well aware of this. With Joseph Kabila, the United States favoured the tough approach and sanctions,” said one diplomat. “Now they know there is a real opportunity for change.”

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