It was about ten o’clock on Friday morning when his wife found the body. General Delphin Kahimbi lay dead in his home in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Up until Thursday, the day before his death, the 50-year-old army general with two gold stars on his shoulder-flap was Vice Chief of State of Congo’s armed forces and director of the feared military secret service, one of the most powerful men in the civil war country, in which the military often has more power than politics.

Kalimba was a close confidante of former President Joseph Kabila, who ruled Congo from 2001 to 2019. Before he was appointed military intelligence chief in 2014, he had been stationed in Eastern Congo since 2006 to fight rebels. For many, he was considered a hero and patriot, but his balance sheet is mixed and opponents of the regime consider him one of the worst torturers and criminals in the country. 

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Kahimbi has been on the EU and US sanctions lists for violations of human rights since 2016 and has not been allowed to travel to Europe since. Previously, he regularly flew to Paris for sweeping weekends, which he documented on Facebook with photos.

“He was like a little god, everyone was afraid of him,” said one of his TEH employees on the phone from Kinshasa, shortly after the news of his death leaked out. “There are many who wanted to kill him when he no longer carries weapons and has no bodyguards.”

He no longer had any weapons or bodyguards when he was found dead on Friday. They were taken from him the night before after he had been suspended from his post on Thursday after intensive consultation with the Congo’s National Security Council. The immigration authorities pulled his passport because he is said to have planned a trip to South Africa to buy surveillance technology. He was put under house arrest.

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Tshisekedi against Kabila’s generals

Why – that’s still unclear. Congo’s new president, Felix Tshisekedi, had apparently initiated an investigation into Kahimbi. He evaded money, hoarded weapons and bugged the new Tshisekedi government.

Unlike his predecessor Kabila, Tshisekedi has no military past, and generals like Kahimbi, who rose under Kabila, are still considered to be his most powerful figures in the country’s political and military chess game.

The fact that Tshisekedi declared war on these high generals was already evident in early February when Congo’s powerful ex-secret service chief Kalev Mutond was arrested at Kinshasa airport at short notice. The alleged issue was that, despite being released by Tshisekedi, he continued to use his diplomatic passport immediately after he took office.

It already became clear that Congo’s new civilian president is now starting to settle accounts with the old Kabila regime. But within the security organs, Tshisekedi has powerful opponents. Now the power struggle is in full swing.

Close confidants speak of suicide

The US appears to be putting pressure on Tshisekedi to get rid of the generals under sanctions. Mike Hammer, US Ambassador to Kinshasa, tweeted on Thursday after the general’s suspension: “We have repeatedly said that those who are corrupt, who commit human rights violations or undermine the democratic process must be held responsible.” Kahimbi himself said shortly before his death, this was “remote-controlled persecution by Western powers”.

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Wife Brenda Kahimbi now suspects a heart attack against the Reuters news agency, close confidants of the general speak of suicide. Opponents of the regime speculate that Kahimbi had been killed when he had to hand over the weapons to his superiors the night before his death.

The army leadership met on Friday afternoon. In a video statement on Saturday, Don de Dieu Kilumba, member of the General Staff, assured: “All steps have been taken to clarify the circumstances of this sad loss.”