Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 March 2001
Issue No.525
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Lebanese nightmare in Congo

The violent death of 11 Lebanese nationals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has focused the spotlight on one of Africa's most controversial communities, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal Nkrumah Traditionally, there is a spasm of violence against the Lebanese trading communities in Africa every time there is a presidential assassination or coup d'état. From Senegal and Sierra Leone to Liberia, Ivory Coast and Congo, the Lebanese are often the first foreign residents to come under fire when political troubles erupt. The reasons are legion -- and not entirely of the Lebanese traders' own making.

Political violence against the Lebanese has a complicated background, including a strong racial component. Even though the Lebanese wield tremendous influence, they are less imposing when compared to Western expatriates whose governments have more clout. Evidence of this came in the wake of reports confirming the deaths of 11 Lebanese nationals at the hands of Congolese soldiers in January. Indeed, the Lebanese government failed to register a strong protest with the Congolese authorities, Lebanese community leaders complained.

"Had the victims been Westerners, there would most probably have been strongly-worded protests and perhaps swift and severe recriminations," Roland Lumumba, son of the late Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, head of the Congolese-Arab Chamber of Commerce and currently a member of the Congolese parliament, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Still, there are genuine grievances among the Congolese population, who resent Lebanese high visibility and monopoly of key sectors of the economy, especially in the service, entertainment and commercial sectors," he added.

Abdel-Sattar Ashour, president of the Lebanese Cultural Association (LCA) and Victor Haddad, LCA secretary-general, concurred. They said that Lebanese-owned retail shops and import-export companies closed last week in protest of the brutal killings. "According to a persistent rumour, [the Lebanese] have been executed," Foribert Chebaya, president of the human rights group Voice of the Voiceless, told reporters at a Kinshasa press conference last week.

There are fewer than 250,000 Lebanese nationals in Congo, a vast country of over 50 million people. It is, however, one of the wealthiest, most influential and dynamic Lebanese communities in Africa. But as the fortunes of the Congolese economy deteriorated in recent years and the country became engulfed in political turmoil, many Lebanese businessmen and their families fled the country. Some trudged across the Congo's porous borders to friends and relatives in neighbouring countries, while others hurriedly returned to Lebanon.

Those who remained in the DRC, a failed state, feel betrayed. The Lebanese reckon that they have contributed to giving the country a semblance of normality at a time when its economy is in shambles. Their critics argue that Lebanese traders contributed to the Congo's economic ruin and general chaos by providing luxury goods to Congolese elites at exorbitant costs. Their domination of the import-export business and illicit arms and diamond trading is widely seen as detrimental to Congolese national interests.

The Lebanese presence in Congo is such a hot potato that Congolese politicians are often reluctant to encourage public debate on the subject. In the past, the Lebanese were closely associated with the notoriously corrupt regime of the late military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. With Mobutu's demise, the Lebanese quickly sought new business partners in Laurent Kabila's administration, and Kabila did little to disrupt their lucrative diamond and arms smuggling businesses. Thus any threat to the Lebanese community inevitably amounted to a threat to its partners in government and business circles.

Congolese Foreign Minister Leonard Okitundu has met with Haitham Jomaa, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry official in charge of emigrants' affairs, currently in Kinshasa to assess the situation. Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud has demanded to know the precise circumstances of the deaths of the Lebanese nationals, some reported to be teenagers.

The Lebanese community in the DRC is equally divided between Muslims and Christians. The fact that all 11 victims were Muslim, mainly Shi'ites from southern Lebanon, was not seen as a coincidence, as Laurent Kabila's alleged assassin, "Rashidi", was a Muslim Congolese.

Col Eddy Kapend, Laurent Kabila's chief-of-staff, was the first to announce the assassination on 16 January. When he was taken into custody soon afterwards, names of certain Lebanese businessmen were apparently found in his address book. Along with Kapend, an ethnic Lunda from the mineral-rich province of Katanga, Gen Yav Nawej and "other members of their tribe," were also arrested, human rights activist Chebaya disclosed. The Lunda people are said to have connections with diamond-rich Angola, a country intricately involved in the Congolese civil war. Whether the two men's association with Muslim Lebanese businessmen was coincidental or part of a larger and more sinister plot remains a mystery.

On 6 February, incoming President Joseph Kabila ordered an investigation into the murder of his father. In a move that may serve certain business interests, the inquiry, originally scheduled to release its findings on 6 March, was extended for another month. Government spokesman Dominique Sakombi said that investigations into the Lebanese deaths are to be given top priority. He noted that his government regarded the Lebanese as fellow Congolese citizens and regretted the hostility expressed by certain Congolese groups. Congo's Justice Minister Mwenze Kongolo said that the Lebanese were killed by Congolese soldiers acting without authorisation.

Leaders of the Lebanese community in the DRC are considering pressing charges once the Congolese government releases its findings. The dispute over the Lebanese deaths has reached a point where enlightened statesmanship -- rather than tenacious lawyering -- is crucial. Further litigation could bring destructive consequences. The stakes are too high to leave this conflict to the dubious litigation practices of the Congolese judiciary, which is largely bankrolled by key Lebanese businessmen. The integrity of Congolese legal procedures under such circumstances is suspect.

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