Congo Siasa

The Republican Guard

I found the following story on a Cedric Kalonji’s fantastic website recently. I can’t vouch for it’s authenticity (neither can Cedric, it was posted by a reader as a comment), but I’ve heard so many similar stories that it sounded plausible:

“There is a presidential residence in Lubumbasi, on the avenue formerly known as Kamanyola. When you get within 500 meters of this residence, it’s strictly forbidden to drive faster than 30 kilometers/hour, to stop and above all to talk on the phone. Last July (in 2008), my wife’s brother, who had just celebrated his wedding, was in a car with his bride when they had a flat. Do you know what the soldiers guarding the residence did? (I should add that Kabila stays in the house maybe once a year) They came and dragged the groom out of the car and beat him up without any questioning. Is it the groom who controlled the mechanics of the car that they should beat him up like that on the day of his wedding? There are people who are beaten up simply for talking on their phone around this residence, as if talking on the phone could compromise the president’s safety when he’s 2,000 kilometers away. Go figure, it’s a county of crazies.”

This reminds me of my friend Serge Maheshe, reporter at Radio Okapi in Bukavu who was killed by unknown armed men in 2007. A few months before his murder, he also had had a run-in with the presidential guard. He lived in a house next to the cercle sportif (sports club) in Bukavu, with his wife and newborn son Gabriel Michel. President Kabila had taken over the cercle as his residence when he was in Bukavu – it’s on the tip of a peninsula and easy to protect. One evening, Serge’s brother was coming to visit him and parked his car on the side of the road close to the roadblock, right next to Serge’s house. One of the presidential guards approached him to ask him what the hell he was doing, parking his car there. When he didn’t get the right answer, the soldier grabbed Serge’s brother and put him face-down on the ground, handcuffing him. Serge came out of the house to see what the commotion was about, and was promptly also shoved into the dust and handcuffed as his wife looked on.

Serge was released shortly afterwards, but he filed a complaint with the local commander of the republican guard. When nothing was done to sanction the culprits, Serge made his story part of a larger story about abuses of the presidential guard around Bukavu, of which there were many. Soon, he was received death threats on his phone, telling him to shut up. MONUC, which helps fund and manage Radio Okapi, had to invite the republican guard commander to its office to solve the problem. The threats stopped for a month, after which Serge was killed. The murder is unsolved to this day, and there are several plausible accounts for who may have been responsible.

Similarly, at the UN part of the Lubumbashi airport in 2005 and 2006, the presidential guard beat up UN local employees and allegedly even fired on a Radio Okapi reporter. The point is that if this is what the republican guard does to a UN employee, what must regular Congolese face? Apart from Article 140 of the Law on the Army and Defence, no legal stipulation on the DRC’s Armed Forces makes provision for the GR as a distinct unit within the national army. The guard reports directly to President Kabila; some of its units were supposed to have been integrated into the national army, but only a few battalions of the estimated 10,000 have done so thus far.