With the trial of the alleged killers of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara’s underway since October, we take a look at the destinies of eight African presidents who were assassinated. In the seventh part of our series, we revisit the 16 January 2001 assassination of DRC ex-president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who allegedly died at the hands of a bodyguard. 20 years on, his mysterious killing continues to confound the country.
Three shots ring out: bang, bang, bang. Time stands still as the sound of gunfire reverberates for hundreds of metres. It is just after 2pm on a Saturday in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, when panic sets in at the Palais de Marbre (Marble Palace), where President Laurent-Désiré Kabila lives and works. The ruckus is emanating from his office.
A young man suddenly races out. It is Rachidi Kasereka, one of Kabila’s bodyguards. Another bodyguard, Chiribagula Mulumba, quickly stops the assailant in his tracks with a shot to the leg. Moments later, the president’s aide-de-camp, Eddy Kapend, appears and kills him. Just a few steps away, wearing a khaki-green suit, the president lays unconscious in his office. He has been shot three times, including a bullet to the head, fired point-blank. Slumped over in his large beige armchair, the strongman is likely already dead. 54 hours later, Kabila’s death is reported to the public, but before then, the official line is that the leader known as ‘Mzee’ is merely injured.
A killer above suspicion
That day, 16 January 2001, began calmly. President Kabila hosted his health minister and a foreign official before the noon arrival of his deputy chief of staff for the economy, Emile Mota Ndongo. The pair still had a few matters to go over as they finalised their work ahead of a Franco-African summit in Yaoundé, which the president was scheduled to attend the next day. That morning had been so quiet that Constantin Nono Lutula, special security adviser to Kabila, hadn’t received the usual worried phone calls from his boss.
Living in constant fear for his life, the president had been stressed out in recent months. “If he heard a plane flying low overhead, he’d call me right away and ask, ‘What is that?!’” Nono says. “So much was going on, we had enemies left and right, both at home and abroad. I was always reporting something or [an]other to him.” A diplomat who had seen the president a short time before his demise recalls his odd demeanour saying: “He didn’t seem well and even came off as a bit crazy.”
I didn’t even know some of these people. We got arrested because somebody had to be guilty, not because we did anything.
The paranoid Kabila had actually decided to reside at the Marble Palace for security reasons. After installing himself as president in 1997, he hastily moved out of his original residence, the Palais de la Nation, deeming it too close for comfort, with regards to his enemies in Brazzaville, on the opposite shore of the Congo River. Eventually, he stopped working out of the Cité de l’Union Africaine, citing his distrust of Camp Tsahi, a military site he had to pass through every day to reach his office. He persuaded himself that the country’s troops were loyal to his predecessor, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Rising above its surroundings, the humble Marble Palace seemed more secure to Kabila. His family lived in one building, while his office was located in another and his closest associates stayed nearby in various annexes. Being a Saturday, there were only 30-odd guards, all of them kadogos – children he trained to become soldiers. Before his rise to power, they had travelled across the country to join his Kinshasa march. Loyalists above suspicion, in sum. Why would anyone have misgivings when the young bodyguard, Kasereka, asked to speak to the president? All he had to do was walk through the service entrance and pull out his gun.
Just a few minutes pass before Nono gets word of the incident. His deputy, Justin Kalumba, reports over the phone that “something strange is going on, a helicopter is taking off as I speak with the president’s body[guard]”. The special security adviser rushes to Ngaliema Hospital, where the head of state’s body, wrapped in a bloody sheet, is being taken. Kabila’s securocrats keep calling each other. “I spoke to Eddy several times over the phone. His voice was trembling with anger,” Nono tells The Africa Report.
It is decided that the body will be transported to Zimbabwe, the regime’s main ally in the region. What better way to hide his death? The hospital staff are also asked to board the aircraft – as witnesses, they could leak the news.
Rumours are already swirling, however. Back in Kinshasa, members of the Ugandan secret service have reported the president’s death. In Yaoundé, where several delegations are starting to arrive for the Franco-African summit, there is much speculation amongst the continent’s contingent of diplomats, while, in Brussels, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel receives a number of “reliable” reports over the phone.
“Two different, authoritative sources – definitely not pranksters – confirmed Kabila’s death. I was stunned and dismayed, and it occurred to me that we needed to be transparent. That way there wouldn’t be any room for scheming and no one would use the president’s absence as an opportunity to create chaos,” Michel says. On the evening of 16 January, the Belgian foreign minister announced Kabila’s death to reporters gathered at his office. The former colonial power made the news official before anyone else, arousing suspicion.
Kabila junior returns
Night has fallen on Kinshasa, but there is no calm. Members of President Kabila’s inner circle remain busy, holding meeting after meeting. The cohort includes Gaëtan Kakudji (interior minister), Jeannot Mwenze Kongolo (justice minister), Pierre-Victor Mpoyo (oil minister), Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi (ex-foreign minister), Zimbabwean and Angolan representatives, and even some military officials, including Eddy Kapend. He is the aide-de-camp who shot dead the alleged culprit, Kasereka, and had earlier appeared on national television, ordering all military personnel to remain in their barracks. Was he trying to seize power? Some accuse him of just that, but later on, during a closed-door meeting, when top administration brass pick Kapend as Kabila’s successor, he flatly declines.
The country neither has an official constitution, nor does it have rules governing the appointment of an acting president if the head of state is unable to perform his duties. So who would take the reins? Kakudji? He doesn’t want the job.
Before long, Kabila’s son, Joseph, starts to look like a serious contender. As a diplomatic source says: “There was a lot of bad blood between senior government officials. Appointing Joseph was the path of least resistance. In other words, something everyone could get behind.” With borders closed and air traffic suspended that afternoon, a lone plane flies over the Congolese sky during the night. On it is Kabila junior, then an army chief in Katanga Province, where he was leading a unit in the First Congo war. He is en route to Kinshasa airport as part of a secret mission.
The DRC wanted to put the past behind it. Kabila’s assassination was a shock and a relief all rolled into one.
Meanwhile, infighting has broken out. “Loads of people were being arrested,” says a former regime official. Who was behind the elder Kabila’s murder? Did Kasereka take justice into his own hands in retribution for the execution of Commander Anselme Masasu Nindaga two months before?
Though the erstwhile Kabila ally had fallen out of the president’s favour, many kadogos still looked up to him, but few embraced the theory of a lone-wolf assailant. Kasereka fired the gun, but did he have accomplices? Some claim that two strangers were present on the palace grounds the morning of the assassination, while others suspect Kabila junior, who had suffered a number of military losses. Then, there are those who think a ‘foreign power’ plotted the whole thing.
As head of a rebel army, Kabila senior had created plenty of enemies after bringing down Mobutu and seizing power in 1997. Shortly before his death, he was dogged by rebellions, was in conflict with his allies in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo, and was on bad terms with the wider international community. Were Rwandans exacting revenge? Did the Americans help them?
What of the diamond dealers and their grievances with the president? A few months earlier, in an effort to fill state coffers, Kabila had inked a deal in which he granted Israel-based IDI Congo an exclusive, 18-month monopoly on diamond exports. Lebanese businessman Bilal Héritier wasn’t too thrilled with the move.
“There are 36 different theories, but not one has been proved,” a former diplomat says. A Congolese court would later convict 130 people from Kabila’s orbit, including Kapend, Nono, Georges Leta (the former head of national intelligence) and Pascal Maregani (a security official working for the president). In 2003, more than 30 of them were handed death sentences .
“I didn’t even know some of these people. We got arrested because somebody had to be guilty, not because we did anything,” Nono says. So who took out Kabila? 20 years later, no one knows for sure. Many of the regime’s top brass have died, including Moto, Kakudji and Yerodia. Those convicted – Kapend, Leta and others – were pardoned in December 2020 and haven’t spoken publicly since their release.
“The DRC wanted to put the past behind it. Kabila’s assassination was a shock and a relief all rolled into one,” an observer tells us. On 18 January 2001, after two days of being off air, the national television station, RTNC, finally announced the president’s death.
According to the government’s version of events, Kabila had just died in hospital in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The news broadcast then revealed his successor as Kabila junior, who had yet to make a name for himself. A shy man of few words, the younger Kabila had, by all appearances, little in common with his father, with one exception, as he said a few years after the assassination: he’s convinced he will die “from a bullet wound to the head”.