Who Tried to Kill Congo's President?

A failed coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo raises serious concerns about the country's uncertain future


As the Democratic Republic of Congo's fledgling democracy prepares for its second-ever set of presidential elections this November, an attempted assassination -- or possibly coup -- has brought instability to the capital city and heightened concerns about the fragility of the state and of its leader's grasp on power. Though the attack failed, it has raised questions about how long President Joseph Kabila can hang on.

On Sunday afternoon, gunshots were heard in Kinshasa's exclusive Gombe neighborhood. At least 14 men attempted to take control of the presidential palace there; others possibly attacked the nearby Kokolo military camp, although it's still not clear what happened there. Congolese Minister of Information and Media Lambert Mende told UN-backed Radio Okapi that a "heavily armed group" had infiltrated the palace but was stopped after a shoot-out with Republican Guard members. "Six of the assailants fell, some were arrested, another group fled and was pursued by police and Republican Guard." He added, "There is really no reason to panic."

Though this could have been a coup attempt, it more closely resembles a failed assassination. Jason Stearns, author of a forthcoming book on the DRC wars, wrote on his blog, "I doubt this was a coup attempt, which would have required the defection of a large part of the military command." A coup requires planning who will take over, but, as Stearns notes,. -" I don't think several dozens [of] soldiers could have taken over the state apparatus."

But whatever the attackers' goal, the larger question -- who sent them and why - remains a mystery. Kabila has no shortage of enemies and the Democratic Republic of Congo remains a turbulent place. Here are some of the theories that have been floated of who was behind the attack. Some of more plausible than others, but, taken together, their sheer number carries a worrying message about the instability of DRC politics and of Kabila's rule.

Anti-Government Militias  Stearns writes that, for the past week, he has heard reports from opposition members and government officials that a small group of men was organizing to launch an attack. A source within the national security service told him that people and guns had been coming across the Congo River. These fighters are said to have included former troops in the army of Mobutu Sese Seko, the long-deposed president of Zaire, as well as members of the anti-government Enyele militia, based in the country's west.

The Movement for the Liberation of Congo  The attack may have been organized by rogue elements within this political party, which has a history of violent opposition. In 2007, fighting broke out between the Congolese army and MLC members furious over their leader's loss in the 2006 presidential election. An MLC official tells Stearns that a few dozen members may have been arming themselves just prior to the attack.

A leading MLC member told me that his party had been contacted by state officials this week, who accused former soldiers in [former MLC leader] Jean-Pierre Bemba's bodyguard of preparing a rebellion in Kinshasa. When the MLC official I spoke with looked into it, it turned out that some youths and former MLC soldiers had indeed been organizing, buying machetes and plotting an attack, but that it was small group of perhaps 40 to 60 people and was allegedly unconnected to the MLC political leadership. According to this source, before the MLC could do anything about it, the attack was launched.

Political Opponents  Since winning the young country's first election in 2006, Kabila's support has dropped precipitously. The country's east, which overwhelmingly supported his 2006 campaign as the "architect of peace," has largely dropped its support for Kabila after years of continued, endemic violence. So when he pushed parliament to loosen election law, allowing presidential candidates to win with only a plurality of votes rather than the old requirement of a majority, it looked to many like Kabila was trying to finesse his way to another five-year term that he would not have otherwise won.

Kabila faces a divided opposition. Former National Assembly President Vital Kamerhe, though popular, has thus far failed to unite opposition parties. Perennial opposition figure Eugene Tshisekedi told Reuters that he will run independently. If these two candidates both run, they will likely split the vote and Kabila will almost certainly win. But if Kabila had been killed, either Kamerhe or Tshisekedi might have had a chance at winning. It's extremely unlikely that either of these two men was involved; neither seems like the type to plot an assassination, nor would their supporters. But the tenuous three-way near-stalemate means that Kabila's sudden death would have thrown the country's political order into chaos.

Kabil Himself   Rumors are already flying on Kinshasa's Radio Troittoir ("Sidewalk Radio," the Kinois means of spreading gossip) that the Kabila regime staged Sunday's violence as an excuse to crack down on the opposition. This seems unlikely -- after all, a number of the attackers died, which is a big sacrifice for a publicity stunt -- but the fact that people seem willing to consider it as a possibility is significant.

Whether the perpetrator was one of the above or someone totally different, it bodes ill for the country's weak democratic institutions and uncertain path towards stable, legitimate democratic rule. But, on the bright side, whatever the attacks' aim, it failed. As local newspaper Le Potential put it, "It is intolerable that at this time when the people are about to elect new leadership that attempts to destabilize the institutions established by law occur." The paper explained, "Taking power by force would only bring the Congo back to the drawing board and reopen a Pandora's box regarding legitimacy of power. Fifty years after independence, Congo does not need a coup."

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty