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No doubt he thought his warlord past was long behind him. Former rebel leader Roger Lumbala was arrested in Paris at the end of December and placed in provisional detention on 2 January after being charged.
Two days later, France’s National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office (PNAT) issued a public statement that reveals the serious charges brought against him: “complicity in crimes against humanity” and “participation in a group formed for the purpose of preparing war crimes”.
Looting, killing and rape
Lumbala’s alleged crimes date back to the Second Congo War (1998-2003) and cover a period spanning from 2001 to 2003. At that time, Lumbala was head of the Rally of Congolese Democrats and Nationalists (RCD-N), a rebel group backed by the Ugandan military. Though limited in size, the RCD-N has been linked to many clashes in the Haut-Uélé district, now a province in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Alongside a number of rebels from the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, Lumbala and his men fought the Popular Congolese Army (APC), a rival group, including during the military operation “Effacer le tableau” launched in October 2002.
Most of these facts are documented in a February 2003 UN Security Council report, which notes that the purpose of the operation “seemed to be for MLC/RCD-N forces to go from town to town destroying everything they could lay their hands on”. The document also mentions reports of acts of cannibalism. While the UN’s 2010 DRC Mapping Exercise Report (“Mapping Report”) was unable to confirm these allegations, the UN Security Council refers to “a pattern of looting, killing and rape as tactics of war”.
The war officially ended in June 2003 and, like many rebel leaders from that era, Lumbala became a politician, skirting prosecution. In keeping with the “1 + 4” leadership configuration, the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, was flanked by four vice presidents, including Bemba, and a transitional government was set up.
Lumbala was appointed minister of foreign trade, but his time on the job was short-lived. At the end of November 2004, the former warlord was dismissed from his role alongside five other ministers accused of corruption. However, his political career did not end there. Standing for the 2006 presidential election, he won just 0.45% of the vote, but would go on to land a seat in parliament and become a senator in Miabi (Kasai province).
An opposition figure to President Kabila, whom he accused of being responsible for the insecurity plaguing eastern DRC, Lumbala is perfectly at home in this turbulent part of the country where a constellation of rebel movements take shape. Early in September 2012, he was arrested at Bujumbura International Airport and briefly held in police custody for his alleged support of the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels. A few weeks later, M23 fighters took control of Goma.
Though he initially denied supporting the group, Lumbala eventually admitted he was a “partner” of M23. At the start of 2013, he was an M23 delegate during talks with Congolese authorities in Kampala.
Later, Lumbala found his way to France, where he applied for asylum but was turned away. Excluded from Kinshasa’s amnesty law enacted in 2014, he returned to the DRC in January 2017 after the signing of the Saint Sylvester agreement, which ended the legal prosecution of certain opposition figures, including Lumbala, by the Congolese state.
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Back in the political arena, he reaffirmed his support for opposition icon and Kabila rival Étienne Tshisekedi. A few weeks on, the man known as the “Sphinx” died in Brussels. In August 2020, as political turmoil gripped Kinshasa, Lumbala seized an opening to create a small party. It had no proper structure but pledged support to Félix Tshisekedi.
It probably never occurred to him that at that very moment, several thousands of kilometres from his home country, investigators from France’s Central Office for Combatting Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide and War Crimes (OCLCH) were preparing to arrest him.
The arrest came as a surprise to more than a few, as almost 20 years have passed since the alleged crimes were committed: according to the PNAT, it is the first “open investigation based on findings from the Mapping Report”. Several questions remain unanswered, however, such as the grounds on which the PNAT’s crimes against humanity division initiated legal proceedings against Lumbala in 2016.
Without elaborating on what led Lumbala’s case to be referred to the prosecutor’s office, Colonel Éric Emeraux, who served as head of the OCLCH from 2017 to 2020, said that “the PNAT can open a preliminary investigation based on mere suspicion supported by any piece of information, whether a testimony, media story or UN report”. He added: “The universal jurisdiction rule also allows France to investigate foreign suspects who have committed atrocities abroad provided that their place of residence is located on French territory, that they own housing and have bank accounts there, and the like.”
Lumbala is one of many people mentioned in the Mapping Report, which was published in October 2010 and set out to document the most serious crimes committed in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. Dr Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist and the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has continued to call attention to the document, but it remains a sensitive, divisive issue, particularly for the DRC’s neighbours. He advocates the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of offences committed during that period in the country’s history.
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