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DRC: John Numbi, Kabila’s influential general, feels the heat

By Romain Gras
Posted on Thursday, 4 March 2021 07:27

John Numbi in court, in Kinshasa, in January 2011 © JUNIOR KANNAH / AFP

John Numbi is close to former president Joseph Kabila. Should he be worried by new revelations in the Chebeya-Bazana case? Is it just co-incidence that 1,800 soldiers have been deployed to Katanga, where he lives? A portrait of a general as influential as he is feared.

Holed up on his farm in Lubumbashi ever since he lost his army post last July, can John Numbi sense a change in the wind? For nearly 11 years now, the double murder of leading human rights activist Floribert Chebeya and of his driver, Fidèle Bazana, has hovered over the head of this 59-year-old general, a high-ranking officer close to former Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

Suspected of being the instigator of this emblematic crime – since it was with him that Chebeya and Bazana were meeting on the night of the tragedy – Numbi has always denied having played any role in the murder of the director of the NGO La Voix des sans voix [Voices of the Voiceless] and his driver.

At the time, the assassination had made headlines. 47-year-old Chebeya was found dead in his car on 2 June 2010. Bazana’s body, meanwhile, was never found. Two trials have been held, four death sentences have been handed down – three of them in absentia – but the procedure has failed to provide a sense of closure for the families of the victims and the NGO. Often cited but never prosecuted, Numbi was never in legal jeopardy.

A grim account

The case returned to the front page of Congolese newspapers recently, thanks to the testimony of two policemen, Hergil Ilunga and Alain Kayeye Longwa. Currently in exile in an East African country, the two men admitted to taking part in the murders of Chebeya and Bazana. In an account as detailed as it is sinister, they claim that the double murder of 1 June 2010 was carried out under Numbi’s orders.

Numbi has not reacted to these new accusations. He also did not respond to any of our questions.

“These testimonies are in line with what I said in 2012,” says Paul Mwilambwe, who was present in the offices of the Congolese National Police, then headed by Numbi, on the evening of the tragedy. “If we want to reopen the case today, there is no reason for some people to remain at large.” Sentenced to death in absentia in June 2011 at the end of the first trial (he had fled to Senegal, where legal proceedings were opened in 2015), this Congolese policeman was the first to break the silence in the documentary L’affaire Chebeya, crime d’État [The Chebeya affair, a state crime]?

Suspended from his investigative duties a few days after the murder, Numbi was finally presented as a witness in the first trial, to the great displeasure of the civil parties.

Arrests and house arrest

However, Ilunga and Longwa’s testimony may have changed the dynamic. Jacques Mugabo, another member of the commando who was convicted in absentia in 2011 in the Chebeya case, was arrested in mid-February in Katanga, where he had been living in hiding for several years. Officially, he was arrested for his alleged links with the Bakata Katanga, “Gédéon” Kyungu’s militia, which still leads many deadly incursions into Katanga.

Also sentenced in absentia in 2011, Major Christian Ngoy was arrested on 3 September for illegal possession of arms. Ngoy, one of Numbi’s collaborators, is imprisoned in the military prison of Ndolo. He was also cited by the two policemen in exile, while General Djadjidja was placed under house arrest. Bazana’s body was reportedly buried on a parcel of land belonging to General Djadjidja.

That leaves Colonel Daniel Mukalay, who had been sentenced to death at first instance before his sentence was reduced on appeal. According to our information, he was taken from his cell in Makala prison last week and transferred to the premises of the military prosecutor’s office, where he was interrogated. A meeting was even organised with Mugabo. Do the two men’s versions corroborate those of the two policemen?

Even though Mwilambwe and Ilunga welcome “this positive step forward”, they have still demanded that their safety be guaranteed before they will agree to testify. “I do not envisage my return to the country as the situation currently stands, because my safety and that of my family members are not guaranteed,” said Mwilambwe. “The military justice and the Kabila system that convicted us are still the same.” Ilunga does not envisage returning to the DRC either. He says that he and his family feel threatened, but that he is willing to testify from abroad. “We took risks,” he says. “We are ready to talk.”

When questioned, a member of Kabila’s entourage denounced “a disturbing coincidence in the timing of these two policemen’s testimony.” The new evidence comes at a time when several relatives of the former president are losing influence.

Kabila father and son

While these various developments have given the families’ hope of seeing justice finally served at the highest level, they do not however bode well for the reopening of the trial. But they might provide the opportunity to pose questions surrounding the alleged responsibility of Numbi, an influential and feared general whose rise – which began in the early 1990s – is closely linked to the Kabila family.

Born in 1962, Numbi, of the Luba people from Katanga – like Kabila – began making a name for himself (and a network) through the Jeunesse de l’Union des fédéralistes et républicains indépendant [Union of Federalists and Independent Republicans’ youth militia] (Juferi). This was a structure suspected of having taken part in the hunt for and massacre of Kasaians in the 1990s. Imprisoned at the end of 1996 in Lubumbashi, he escaped in February 1997.

Numbi’s adventure alongside the Kabilas began a few weeks later when Laurent-Désiré Kabila and the rebels of the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo [Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo] (AFDL) were on their way to Lubumbashi. “It was Laurent-Désiré Kabila who made him a soldier, despite Numbi’s lack of training. When the Mzee came to power, he very quickly gave the rank of commander to a number of officers,” says Jean-Jacques Wondo, a Congolese army specialist.

An opportunist, Numbi quickly took command of the fourth military region in Katanga. The fall of Pweto in December 2000 cost him his post, but he quickly returned to business after Kabila’s death, taking over the Air Force.

“Disciplined and organised” according to some, “authoritarian and zealous” to others, but above all “loyal”, Numbi has over the years built up a solid reputation within Joseph Kabila’s inner circle.

Kabila entrusts Numbi with secret missions. In 2007, he met with Laurent Nkunda in Kigali to discuss the “mixing” process, whose objective was to integrate the fighters of the Conseil national pour la défense du peuple [National Committee for the Defence of the People] (CNDP) into the regular army. Numbi also negotiated two years later the joint operation with Rwanda Umoja Wetu (“Our Unity”, in Swahili) to hunt down members of the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] (FDLR).

Hard work

“His destiny has always been closely linked to that of Kabila. [Kabila’s] enemies are also his enemies,” says a diplomatic source based in Kinshasa. This logic has proven to be true on several occasions.

Close to Augustin Katumba Mwanke, formerly one of Kabila’s most trusted advisors, Numbi is also known as the man who does the regime’s dirty work. He often carries out these kinds of jobs alongside the dreaded Simba battalion, made up of former Air Force soldiers and described as a real “police within the police.” Administratively dependent on the Rapid Intervention Police, this unit led by Major Ngoy only responds to orders from Numbi. It was this unit that intervened in 2008 in Bas-Congo, where Kabila intended to restore the state’s authority in the face of the Bundu Dia Kongo movement.

A special investigation by the Human Rights Division of Monuc (now Monusco) concluded in 2010 that “the choice made by the authorities to entrust the conduct of these operations to the Simba battalion was not consistent with an intention to minimise damage and harm during these operations.” According to the investigation, “the majority of the acts of excessive or illegitimate use of force were allegedly committed by the Simba battalion, which was poorly trained and equipped with military weapons rather than police ones.”

According to Chebeya’s family, the human rights activist wanted to meet with Numbi because he had compromising information about this episode.

A “problematic” person

Although the scandal surrounding the assassination cost him his position as Inspector General of the Congolese National Police, the general has not lost his influence. Accused in early 2014 in a report by the UN Panel of Experts of providing “arms and ammunition to the militants of Kata Katanga”, Numbi appeared for a time threatened. Several of his residences were searched, but the matter was not taken further.

From 2016, when DRC citizens took to the streets to oppose a third Kabila presidential term, Numbi was placed under US and European sanctions. However, his role remained essential as the president needed the loyalty of the security services more than ever. “Numbi’s influence goes far beyond the police. Many officers in the Republican Guard, and in other branches, owe their positions to him. That’s what allows him to return to business despite the sanctions,” says Wondo.

Decorated with the honorary title of Grand Officer of the Order of National Heroes in June 2017, Numbi officially rejoined the army in 2018 and obtained the post of Inspector General of the army shortly before the tense presidential election.

Does this “first peaceful transition of power” leave a bitter taste in Numbi’s mouth, whom a diplomat described as “one of [Kabila’s] most political generals”? Since coming to power, Felix Tshisekedi has made Washington one of his main allies. The latter guarantees him unequivocal support but demands, behind the scenes, that the new administration distances itself from the previous one and people deemed “problematic.”

This wish was granted on 17 July, when several changes were made in the army. Replaced by Gabriel Amisi (aka Tango Four), another high-ranking officer under sanction, Numbi found himself on the sidelines. However, Tshisekedi’s entourage finds it difficult to manage Numbi and some advisers are afraid to let him go.

Kinshasa, however, has assured that the two policemen’s testimony “has been taken into account.” Emissaries of the Congolese head of state discreetly met with Kabila in mid-February while on a visit to Lubumbashi. Was the subject brought up?

The presidency announced the deployment of 1,800 soldiers of the Republican Guard to Katanga. Officially, they are there to fight against Gédéon’s militiamen. But it also happens to be where Numbi still lives.

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