dirt digging

Moïse Katumbi and the mercenaries: DRC’s rehashed controversy

By Romain Gras, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala

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Posted on August 8, 2023 11:09

Moïse Katumbi, presidential candidate in 2023 for Ensemble pour la République. (Johanna de Tessières/Collectif Huma for JA/TAR)
Moïse Katumbi, presidential candidate in 2023 for Ensemble pour la République. (Johanna de Tessières/Collectif Huma for JA/TAR)

Seven years after ‘Mercenarygate’ hit the DRC courts against then-presidential candidate Moïse Katumbi, the case has resurfaced.

In a letter sent mid-July to the public prosecutor at the Supreme Court, Jean-Claude Bukassa – President Félix Tshisekedi’s security adviser at the time – asked for an update on the status of the 2016 case against opposition leader Moïse Katumbi, in which Katumbi was accused of hiring mercenaries.

This was one of the key legal cases of Joseph Kabila’s last years in power. In May 2016, the Congolese justice system accused Katumbi, then a declared candidate in the presidential election, of having recruited ‘mercenaries’, including former US soldiers, to ensure his security.

Charged with ‘undermining the internal and external security of the State’, Katumbi denounced the case as a ploy to use the courts to sideline his political ambitions. He then left the country, beginning a three-year exile.

The proceedings continued in the DRC but the case was dropped in 2019, against a backdrop of political détente following Félix Tshisekedi’s accession to power.

Bukassa was replaced as security adviser on 1 August. In the letter, whose authenticity has been confirmed by two sources – one at the Supreme Court and one in Bukassa’ entourage – the former adviser recalls that the Attorney General of the Republic, Flory Kabanga Numbi, had accused Katumbi, ‘without prejudice to a specific date, but during the period from 2014 to 2016’ of having ‘raised or caused to be raised armed troops, engaged or enrolled soldiers, and supplied arms and ammunition without government order or authorisation’.

Katumbi was governor of Katanga from 2007 to 2015, a position he left at the same time as resigning from Kabila’s party. In March 2016, he launched his campaign for president, backed by an alliance of opposition parties.

According to Bukassa in his letter, the case, which concerns a ‘period not covered by the statute of limitations, is ‘still pending before the Supreme Court of Justice, now called the Cour de Cassation [following a judicial reform undertaken in 2018]’.

Case closed – or is it?

Three months after Tshisekedi came to power, in April 2019, the military prosecutor’s office finally closed the case against six of Katumbi’s bodyguards, saying it was ‘inappropriate’ to continue investigating the case in order to avoid jeopardising ‘the policy of reconciliation’ advocated by the new Congolese president.

However, the part of the case that involved civilians – including the former governor of Katanga – had indeed merely been suspended.

This is what Bukassa emphasised in his July letter.

‘The authorisation [granted to the oppositionist to return to the country] does not absolve him of the acts of which he is accused,’ wrote Tshisekedi’s former adviser, who asked for ‘clarification on the status of the case’ without, however, demanding the opening of new legal proceedings.

Tussle with Félix Tshisekedi

Katumbi, a presidential candidate in the 20 December 2023 election, is in the midst of a political tug-of-war with the incumbent Tshisekedi.

The candidate for Ensemble pour la République, who had lent his support to Martin Fayulu in the 2018 election, briefly became close to Tshisekedi after the break-up of the alliance between the Congolese president and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila.

In recent months, he has repeatedly denounced what he considers to be a smear campaign by the authorities, following the arrest of his adviser Salomon Idi Kalonda and the still unsolved murder of his party spokesman Chérubin Okende.

The authorities reject these accusations, but have promised to shed light on the death of the former minister Okende.

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