By David Lewis
KINSHASA- The Congolese presidential candidate who had contracted South African, U.S. and Nigerian security consultants accused of plotting a coup said on Thursday their arrests were a government attempt to intimidate him.
re than two months before historic elections set for July 30, Democratic Republic of Congo’s government said on Wednesday it had arrested a total of 32 South Africans, Nigerians and Americans involved in a suspected coup plot.
With the government releasing few details so far, diplomats have expressed reservations about the accusations and say domestic political rivalries may be behind the men’s arrests.
Most were employed in Congo by a South African security firm and were contracted as security consultants for Oscar Kashala, one of 32 candidates challenging incumbent Joseph Kabila for Congo’s presidency in the July polls.
Kashala, a Harvard-trained cancer researcher who has lived in the United States, said the consultants were helping him in his bid to be elected president. He says if he was elected, he would try to rebuild the war-torn country.
“I believe some members of the government are afraid of losing the elections and they have tried to put up a smokescreen here,” Kashala told Reuters. “This clearly amounts to intimidation and harassment by the authorities,” he added.
The July 30 elections will be the first free and fair polls held in more than four decades in the former Belgian colony.
They are intended to draw a line under Congo’s last war, a five-year conflict that sucked in six foreign armies and caused a humanitarian crisis that has killed 4 million people.
After the conflict officially ended in 2003, a transitional government, which included the warring parties, political opposition and members of civil society, was set up to lead the vast African country to elections.
But the polls have been repeatedly delayed by continued fighting in the east and the sheer logistical challenge of holding an election in a country the size of Western Europe, as well as by wrangling and corruption in the current government.
The United Nations has its biggest peacekeeping operation in the world deployed in Congo — some 17,000 soldiers and police — and the European Union has also agreed to send a much smaller force to help with security during the elections.
Most of the 32 people arrested by Congo’s security services last week were South Africans working for a Pretoria-based security firm, Omega Risk Solutions.
Kashala said Omega had been contracted by AQMI Strategy Corp, a U.S. consultancy firm, to help provide security for him.
Security sources said one American employed by AQMI, as well as two others contracted by the firm, were detained along with the South Africans and Nigerians accused of plotting the coup.
“These people will be released because the claims don’t hold water,” Kashala said.
South Africa’s ambassador to Congo, Sisa Ngombane, said the Congolese authorities had only contacted him on Thursday about the detainees.
“The government must now prove the authenticity of the charges, so the process can take its course,” he told Reuters.
Ngombane said the authorities had told him the arrested men had been engaged in “intelligence work” that went beyond the normal activities of a security company.
Kashala, a wealthy but relatively unknown candidate, said he believed the fact he had not taken part in the past conflict meant he offered the Congo a fresh start.
“I am a very rare breed of Congolese. I live abroad and I can earn $375,000 a year without stealing any money,” he said. — Reuter