Global Policy Forum

Life in Congo: Another Coup, Another Crisis

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By Marc Lacey

New York Times
June 20, 2004


What happened here in the wee hours of June 11 had all the earmarks of a coup: Soldiers stormed into the government radio station, took over and announced over the air that they were running the country. "We are ready to turn this city into a battlefield," threatened Maj. Eric Lenge, the ringleader, urging people to stay indoors, remain calm and wait for further instructions.

But Congolese know their coups, and few believe that this was a real effort to topple President Joseph Kabila. Rather, they say, it was subterfuge, a political game, an elaborate ploy to throw a chaotic country into even more confusion. The government swiftly announced that it had put down the coup and that Major Lenge had fled. But some opposition newspapers suggest that an ally of Mr. Kabila may have orchestrated the whole thing to allow the president to solidify his power.

Congo has endured plenty of turmoil in the last three months. It continues to try to put down an armed rebellion in the east led by military commanders who have refused to join a national army. The damage from a recent outbreak of rioting is still visible around Kinshasa, the capital, and an armed uprising at the end of March attributed to former loyalists of the longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, left residents huddled in their homes.

But what worries the battle-hardened Congolese most are the crises to come. Elections loom as early as next June, and the recent outbreaks of violence are seen as opening salvos. Dictatorship has trumped democracy for much of Congo's history, despite an active civil society that has jockeyed hard over the years for a say in the country's affairs. "We have to expect the worst," said Jean Pierre Bosala, 42, a teacher turned street hawker who doubts the election will be held. "There are some politicians who are afraid that the elections might not go their way. Nothing would surprise me anymore."

The civil war that engulfed Congo in 1998 was finally quelled five years later. At its worst, the fighting drew in Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia on the side of the government and Uganda and Rwanda as backers of rebel forces. In all, an estimated three million people died. Congo's government was shaken but never ousted. The signing of a peace deal in South Africa last year has ended most of the fighting but has not erased the enmity. Congo's relationship with Rwanda remains particularly tense.

For now, a transitional government is ruling Congo. Mr. Kabila, who took over in 2001 after his father was assassinated, has four vice presidents, two of whom come from rebel movements that were trying until recently to take power by force. There are 60 ministers and 620 Parliament members, representing a dozen factions. The unwieldy arrangement was intended to help the country get its footing after the long war.

Major Lenge's 2 a.m. radio broadcast was but one sign that peace remained an elusive goal. He had been assigned to the presidential guard, an elite force whose primary mission is to keep Mr. Kabila alive. Since the failed putsch, he has become a fugitive, although the government's pursuit seems halfhearted.

After his group took control of the radio station, they moved on through the streets to the power station and plunged the capital into darkness. Then he and his renegades went to a military base near the airport, near the Congo River. The government then announced that it had the base, and Major Lenge, surrounded. But he and his few dozen followers still escaped in a convoy of jeeps. The government then announced that it had a helicopter tracking him. But Major Lenge was spotted driving through the city, always well out of reach of the pursuing soldiers. Eventually, he got away. The government announced at one point that he was near the border with Angola. A week later, government officials said he and his followers were still in the capital and were responsible for some gunfire heard outside the American ambassador's residence.

The country's top military man, Gen. Liwanga Mata Nyamunyobo, bristles at criticism of the way the coup was handled. "You think I didn't react?" he said in an interview. "You wanted me to take a jeep with a gun and start chasing him - pop, pop, pop, pop? Is that how a general acts?"

The ham-handed pursuit is just one factor that has raised questions in the minds of many Congolese about Major Lenge's escapade. Why would a man who was so close to Mr. Kabila, who stood by his side protecting him, not just shoot him if he wanted to topple the government? Why would a mere major try to pull off such a stunt with a few dozen men in a city full of soldiers?

The theories are many. Major Lenge was known for his aggressive ways and maybe he grew angry at his patron, the president, and acted impulsively. Or, more likely in the minds of many Congolese, maybe there was somebody who put Mr. Lenge up to the venture - either a presidential loyalist who wanted to help Mr. Kabila consolidate his power, or a hard-liner who wanted to scare the president.

The renegade soldiers in eastern Congo have been much more effective in wreaking havoc. Two former commanders from a Rwanda-backed rebel movement known as the Congolese Rally for Democracy captured the town of Bukavu from government soldiers on June 2.

The rebel group has joined the government, but the commanders, Gen. Laurent Nkunda and Col. Jules Mutebusi, have amassed their own band of dissident soldiers. They say they are defending the rights of the relatively small group of ethnic Tutsi in eastern Congo, but the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have accused them of exaggerating the accounts of attacks on Tutsi. The government accuses Rwanda of being behind the aggression. The United Nations has 10,800 peacekeepers in Congo, which is roughly the size of Western Europe, but the organization has found the country too vast and the crises too frequent to control.

If there is an encouraging sign in all of this, it is that the fragile transitional government, made up of people who were once enemies, has not collapsed. All the violence, however, has only highlighted the need to create one military out of all the armed bands that roam the country. Until that is done, it will be too easy for anyone toting an aging Kalashnikov - a significant percentage of the population - to handle what ought to be political differences with the pull of a trigger.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.