After rumors circulated on Saturday evening, the Congolese Defense Minister confirmed today that General Lucien Bahuma Ambamba passed away last night in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa. He reportedly died of a cerebrovascular accident after falling ill on Thursday night in Kasese, Uganda, where he met his Ugandan counterparts to evaluate ongoing military operations against the ADF rebel group in Congo. Bahuma’s death is a major blow to the leadership of the army.
During his last function as commander of the 8th military region in North Kivu, Bahuma led the army into battles against the M23 and ADF rebel groups. According to photo journalist Pete Muller who covered the conflict extensively, “General Bahuma was as fine an officer as I’ve ever encountered and was a critical player in the FARDC’s victory against M-23 rebels last fall (see also Pete’s video dispatch).” Other observers say that he was a respected and progressive soldier who helped reorganize the army in the east. Tellingly, he has never been singled out by the United Nations Group of Experts for misconduct. An independent military expert said s/he has never heard anything negative about him.
The Congolese Defense Minister described Bahuma as “a man absolutely devoted, a brave officer, someone who put his heart and soul to his mission,” while civil society representatives in Beni called him the “pride” of the army and the “liberator” of the territory. Condolences came also from the Congolese Prime Minister, the Governor of North Kivu, and the Chief of MONUSCO.
His passing comes eight months after the assassination of Colonel Mamadou Ndala (video here). While the circumstances of death are different, some see parallels between the two incidents, provoking suspicions that his death was not natural but the result of poisoning. Fighting the M23, Mamadou and Bahuma won the hearts and minds of many Congolese and the deep respect of their fellow soldiers whom they regularly accompanied to the front (video here). Jeune Afrique calls Bahuma a “homme de terrain.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an expert on the army said the “army in North Kivu is very shocked. The two heros fighting M23 have disappeared at a time when there are rumors that ex-M23 elements are remerging. […] It will be difficult to convince them that he [Bahuma] died of a natural death. There will be a trauma inside the army.” The newspaper La Prospérité said the “news had the effect of a bomb.”
If true, this could weaken an army which soon may have to engage one of the most complex armed groups remaining in eastern Congo, the FDLR. In addition, civil society in Beni is afraid that his loss might negatively affect ongoing operations against ADF.
All the while in Goma, the news about the General’s death have already sparked an improvised demonstration of female military dependents on Sunday, followed by demonstrations of students in Goma and wives of soldiers in Beni on Monday. In response, the Governor of North Kivu Julien Paluku and the civil society in Beni territory called on the population to remain calm and police deployed to strategic points in Beni town.
While one should avoid hasty speculations and await the autopsy promised by the spokesperson of the Congolese government, it is important to bear in mind that the government has yet to deliver the results of its investigations into the killing of Mamadou. It is therefore important that the South African authorities provide for a transparent and swift examination, free of political interference. (See similar demands by the Congolese civil society organization LUCHA and North Kivu’s civil society).
The next few days and weeks will also bring a few reshuffles in the army. According to some MONUSCO officials, General Lembo will replace Bahuma, whose former boss General Amisi, who has recently been cleared of serious charges of leaking weapons to rebels, might be reinstalled, too. This, however, would be a “catastrophe,” according to an expert on the army.
The Life of General Bahuma
Born on 26 June 1957 in Yangambi in Orientale Province, General Bahuma has a long track-record in the Congolese army. Bahuma underwent military training at the officer school in Kananga, Kasaï-Occidental (later in France, too) before he served with the Special Presidential Division of former dictator Joseph Mobuto. Later he became the commander of the Training Center for the Pambwa Commando in North-Ubangi, Equateur Province. He was then appointed commander in the military wing of the Movement of the Liberation of Congo (MLC) of Jean-Pierre Bemba, who stands accused of several counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in front of the International Criminal Court. After serving as commander of the 5th military regiment in Bas-Congo, he replaced General Mayala as commander of the 8th regiment in North Kivu in July 2012.
- If you want to get a feeling of how Congolese are reacting to the news, consider joining the Facebook group Parlons-En!, follow Congolese journalists on Twitter and listen to Congolese radio stations online.
- International coverage from RFI (here, here and here), Jeune Afrique (here and here), BBC, Associated Press.
- Congolese reporting on Radio Okapi (here, here, and here), Le Congolais, L’Avenir, ACP, La Prospérité, and Le Potentiel. Here’s also an overview of reactions by Congolese media on Monday, 1 September.
- For pictures of General Bahuma, Colonel Mamadou and the latest M23 crisis, see photography by Pete Muller (@pkmuller), Phil Moore (@fil), Daniel McCabe and Simone Schlindwein (@schlindweinsim).
- For detailed accounts of Bahuma’s and Mamadou’s fight against the M23 and ADF, see here and here.
Photo credits: Pete Muller (photos 1,2) and Phil Moore (photos 3-12).