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Vol 65 No 11

Published 23rd May 2024


Tshisekedi unruffled in his labyrinth

After a spectacularly incompetent coup fails, the ruling party points fingers at Rwanda and Washington

Shots rang out in the Gombe diplomatic enclave of Kinshasa early on 19 May when over 50 men in combat fatigues drove in convoy towards the residence of President Félix Tshisekedi, known as the Palais de la Nation (Dispatches 21/5/24, A failed coup with an American twist). Leading the charge was Christian Malanga, 41, a diaspora politician and gunslinger who has lived in Eswatini and the United States. He served in Congo’s army (Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo – FARDC) in 2006-7 before unsuccessfully running in parliamentary elections in 2011.

As the main convoy approached the Palais, a group broke off to attack the house of Vital Kamerhe, the Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy and a candidate for the presidency of the Assemblée nationale, the third most powerful post in the country. Elections for that post were due on the day before the coup attempt but were postponed by Tshisekedi. 

It took Kamerhe’s guards about 40 minutes to repel the attack. The other contingent had moved on to Tshisekedi’s house. Live Facebook footage was broadcast showing Malanga and his fighters in the Palais, shouting ‘Félix dégage!’ They were brandishing the green and red flags of the former Republic of Zaire, ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko until he was ousted in 1997 by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who renamed the country Democratic Republic of Congo (AC Vol 65 No 7, Mobutu-style economic nationalism returns).

Within hours Malanga was shot dead – executed, according to his supporters. Soon after dawn, the authorities announced the putsch had been neutralised. Officials later said Malanga was also planning to attack the residences of Prime Minister Judith Suminwa and Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Bemba but produced no evidence. 

Those arrested by the military included Malanga’s son, Marcel, 21 whose social media clips show him posing with bundles of cash and wearing a cap supporting US presidential candidate Donald Trump

Another US citizen, Benjamin Zalman-Polun, 36, a business partner of Christian Malanga, was arrested. US court documents show that he pleaded guilty in 2014 to marijuana trafficking and negotiated a plea bargain. General Sylvain Ekenge, FARDC spokesperson, said a British man had also been arrested. Security sources say Marcel was found near the Congo River, waiting until nightfall so he could swim across to Congo-Brazzaville.

The official version leaves more questions than answers. Few think that Malanga, a well-travelled man whose media clips show him meeting military officers in Israel and supposedly receiving a knighthood in the Vatican, acted without instigation. 

There are many corners from which Malanga could have sought support. Political tensions were running high in Kinshasa. Tshisekedi is yet to form a government five months after winning presidential elections. Congo’s army and its local allies are losing ground in the east to M23 insurgents, backed by Rwanda (AC Vol 65 No 6, How Brussels was caught out by the Kivu war). Tshisekedi’s supporters quickly accused Rwanda and Washington of backing the plot. Some add in Kenya and Uganda as co-conspirators (AC Vol 64 No 22, Kagame tests his security playbook to the limit).

Intelligence sources in Kinshasa said Malanga had joined assassination attempts against Joseph Kabila, President from 2001 to 2019. They linked Malanga to Faustin Munene, a former Defence Chief who had fled across the river to Congo-Brazzaville in 2010 after Kabila’s forces had attacked him at home in Kinshasa. Munene joined an ill-fated attack on Kabila’s presidential compound in 2011. 

In 2018, Kabila’s then head of military intelligence Delphin Kahimbi told diplomats that Malanga had joined a plot led by former rebel commander General John Tshibangu, a long-time Tshisekedi supporter, to oust Kabila. Later that year Kahimbi got Tshibangu arrested in Tanzania. It was weeks after Tshibangu published a video of himself, flanked by militia fighters on the South Sudan-Congo border, threatening to depose Kabila. 

About a year after Tshisekedi took power, Kahimbi died in mysterious circumstances in his house in Kinshasa. The authorities said he had hanged himself. In 2022, President Tshisekedi appointed Gen Tshibangu, then released from prison, as military commander in his home region of Kasai.

Tshibangu is a flamboyant operator and serial defector who fought in several Rwandan and Uganda-backed rebellions in eastern Congo before joining Kabila’s government. He dumped Kabila in 2012.

His associates say he knew about this latest coup plot in advance and had convinced Malanga that he would support it. Congo’s new intelligence chief, Daniel Lusadisu, an acolyte of the president’s father, Étienne Tshisekedi, also knew Malanga via Tshibangu. And Lusadisu may also have known the coup plot was coming.

Tshibangu’s role is muddy.  He was photographed in Nairobi in January with Kenya’s President William Ruto, who is seen as sympathising with Rwanda. We hear Tshibangu had wanted to return to Kenya just days before the coup attempt to meet Ruto again and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who was visiting Nairobi at the time. 

Tshibangu’s mission was unclear. Relations between Tshisekedi and Ruto have been frosty since Kinshasa expelled a Kenya-led East African intervention force meant to pacify eastern Congo. Two Kenya Airways employees were detained in Kinshasa in April over claims about inadequate documentation for some ‘valuable cargo’.

We hear the cargo amounted to several million US dollars in cash. The matter was settled and the Kenyan officials were released earlier this month but no explanation was given about who would get the dollars. Some are claiming a link to Tshibangu’s Nairobi mission and the failed coup.

His close allies say that Tshibangu set Malanga up for the coup. Both men have extensive links with African and foreign intelligence services. A confidential UN report, which profiled Tshibangu in 2017, detailed his frequent visits to Russia, where he met several intelligence officers.

The night before the coup attempt, senior presidential guard commanders had left the Palais de la Nation to go to the nearby Pullman Hotel to attend a birthday party for Tshisekedi’s newly appointed aide-de-camp Emma Tabu Eboma. Interior Minister Peter Kazadi was also there. 

Tshibangu’s allies said he passed this information to Malanga as intelligence, and as a show of support for the coup plan.

The attack on Tshesekedi’s Palais, with badly equipped and untrained fighters, came to nothing. But the attack on Kamerhe’s compound, which raged for 40 minutes, looked a serious assassination attempt. But with what purpose?

Running mates in the 2018 elections, Kamerhe and Tshisekedi have had a strained relationship. In 2020, Kamerhe was jailed for embezzling $50 million. He was released on appeal in 2022, then Tshisekedi brought him back into government. 

The two are said to have made a pact in the 2018 elections under which Kamerhe would back Tshisekedi, who would return the favour when he leaves office after two terms.

But Tshisekedi now wants to amend the constitution to prolong his presidential term. If Kamerhe gets elected as speaker of the Assemblée nationale, he will probably try to block Tshisekedi’s plan. That might explain why, amid the chaos of Malanga’s coup plan, some of the fighters tried to eliminate one of Tshisekedi’s more troublesome officials.



The manic blame game following the bizarre attack on President Félix Tshisekedi’s house could hamper the United States’ efforts to boost relations with Kinshasa and access the cornucopia of critical minerals in Congo-Kinshasa. Some government officials and activists in Tshisekedi’s Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS) accuse Washington and Rwanda of backing the failed putsch. 

US Ambassador to Kinshasa Lucy Tamlyn immediately distanced herself from coup leader Christian Malanga, saying that the embassy would cooperate with the government ‘to the fullest extent as they investigate these criminal acts’.  

She and her colleagues will be asked about the links between Malanga who lived in the US and Eswatini, and two US citizens – Benjamin Zalman-Polun and engineer Cole Patrick Ducey. The three had registered several companies in Mozambique, supported by US government programmes and with links to officials in Maputo. 

One of those companies registered by Malanga and his associates is CCM Mining Solutions Limitida, which holds 70% of Chua Mining Limitada. And 30% of that company is held by ABAS Construçōes Limitada with links into the Maputo nomenklatura. 

ABAS has appointed André Bernardo Timana as its director-general and lists as shareholders Angelo Bernardo Timana and Bernardo Tafula Timana.  

Angelo Timana is registered as a co-owner of another company called Sociedade de Desenvolvimento de Moçambique (SODEMO) Limitida, alongside Paulino Manuel Cossa, Leonardo Marcos Simbine, and Carlos Gilberto Mendes. The last three run entities benefiting from US government support. 

Cossa founded AFORAMO, a private water association partly funded by USAID. Simbine is a senior official in Serviço Nacional de Investigação Crimina (SERNIC), Mozambique’s agency dealing with organised crime and supported by the US’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the European Union.   

Secretary of State for Sport Mendes oversees youth programmes in Mozambique which also tap USAID funding. Bernardo Timana also has shares in Aerogest Limitada alongside Neto Pachinuapa, the son of retired General Raimundo Pachinuapa, one of the ruling Frelimo’s most senior figures. Gen Pachinuapa is also a former governor of Cabo Delgado province where Rwandan troops are fighting Islamist insurgents at the request of President Filipe Nyusi (AC Vol 65 No 1, Frelimo set to steal the polls again). 

Social media pictures dated September 2023 have also emerged showing Malanga meeting Gen Alberto Chipande, a former defence minister, also from Cabo Delgado. Chipande and Pachinuapa are from Nyusi’s Makonde ethnic group.  

The Makonde fighters give paramilitary support to Rwandan troops in Cabo Delgado and are known as the forças locais. Heroes in the liberation struggle against Portugal, Gens Chipande and Pachinuapa also built business empires in northern Mozambique. The region has been plagued by the smuggling of arms, drugs and banned timber products. 

Some Congolese politicians, especially in the ruling UDPS, are talking up these links between Malanga, Mozambique politicians and businesspeople as well as US funding, positing some conspiracy against Tshisekedi. An advisory issued by the US embassy recommended that staffers don’t drive around Kinshasa in USAID vehicles. We hear the agency has started audits to uncover how Malanga and his business associates were able to access US funding. 

On the streets in Kinshasa and other cities, pro-Russian sentiment is growing, as documented by the Congo Research Group in 2023. Russian officials will be watching closely how the aftermath plays out in Congo and Mozambique.  

In 2019, Russia’s Wagner military company led by Yevgeny Prigozhin was hired by Nyusi to boost his election campaign. It was also deployed to fight against the Islamist insurgents in Cabo Delgado. That didn’t work but Moscow has maintained strong ties with Maputo, helped by Mozambique’s historic ties with the Soviet Union. 

For now, relations between Moscow and Kinshasa are far weaker, with Tshisekedi’s officials spurning offers of Russia’s military help against insurgents in eastern Congo. But should the ructions around the failed coup prompt a change in diplomatic orientation, Moscow may see some lucrative opportunities in Congo’s mining heartlands. 

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