Thursday, November 9, 2017

The General in his Resort

I went boating with the alleged war criminal General François Olenga a few weekends ago (in August, 2017), at the riverside resort he built on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Olenga is President Kabila’s former top military advisor, and since June, 2017 has been under sanctions from the US Treasury. Troops under his command allegedly tortured and raped detainees and arbitrarily executed opposition figures; on several occasions they fired live rounds into crowds of protesters, killing dozens. Local human rights groups say he killed a street kid who supposedly stole his phone. The Treasury froze any assets Olenga might have in the US and made it illegal for Americans to do business with him.

If those sanctions are having an impact, it’s not evident. His resort, Safari Beach, which was also sanctioned, appears to be thriving. I visited on a Sunday. You pull off the cratered road west of the airport to a clean strip of asphalt lined with dwarf coconut trees. The lawn is manicured. There are red-tiled paillotes and yellow cottages and white marble statues that might be Greek or African. The main building overlooks the river, which is blue in its broader expanses rather than brown, and astonishingly under-exploited. In the six hours we sat on its banks I saw perhaps two commercial boats pass by, a flat-bottomed fishing boat and a barge heaped with boxes. This, remember, twenty navigable klicks upstream from one of the world’s biggest cities. By late afternoon there were a hundred or so guests, mostly African, but a fair number of whites, drinking and dining on the terrace overlooking the river. The cocktails were the bright plastic color of playground equipment. A band played old Congolese rumba hits. Parties of guests were taking motorboats to picnic on a sandbank. A handful of Chinese were working on a dry dock below; tools lay about.

General Olenga was the chief of the Maison Militaire, or Military House of the President, which oversees Kabila’s praetorian guard, the Garde Républicaine, the successor organization to Mobutu’s feared Division Spéciale Présidentielle.  Educated at the University of Paris, Olenga spent years in Germany before joining Kabila’s father in 1997 in the Rwandan-led invasion that toppled Mobutu. He proved useful; he knew people in eastern Europe with arms for sale; Kabila named him head of logistics. He rose through the ranks, remained close to the son on his father’s assassination, cycled in and out of top positions. His response at being sanctioned was to point out, not unreasonably, that none of the other military and police chiefs had been proscribed. Also, he asked, why sanction Safari Beach? Its facilities were open to the opposition for meetings and retreats; they were as welcome there as the government. Sanctioning it was uncalled for.

At one point we were invited to join the general on his speed boat. He wore a pea jacket and Mammut army cap.[1] He is late middle-aged and scowly, but intelligent-looking. His daughter and her German fiancé joined us. They and the general conversed fluently in German. She wore a floral print scoop dress and a crucifix on a delicate gold chain. He had photochromic glasses, dark in the sun. The boat was bright metal red and the interior was a creamy leather. We moseyed up and down the river and then the engine cut out. The general spoke into his phone and a canoe puttered out to us with a jerrycan of gasoline. I thought to myself: I would not want to be the guy who was supposed to have topped off the general’s tank. The general yelled at the guy, but no more than your average mogul might have done. We reached the dock and the general and his daughter walked arm-in-arm off the gangplank.

Although we hadn’t interacted much on the expedition, we joined the general at his table. He mostly spoke to his business manager, in a pink dress shirt and slacks. The general spoke better German than he did, the fiancé told me. At one point he complained about the band. The lead singer was flirting with his fiancée, he said. We clicked through the pictures I had taken on the boat.  He asked if I could send him one, of the two of them. There was a breeze. Perhaps the band leader didn’t understand who he was dealing with, said the German. There was an edge to his voice. We could take him around back, there were soldiers here who could help us, a dozen or more, easily summoned. I asked him about his wind farm. He swore me to secrecy and told me details I promptly forgot. His English wasn’t very good, and I was mostly nodding. It was a 2013 Riesling.  

In announcing the sanctions against Olenga, John E. Smith, the director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said, “This action against Olenga sends a strong message that continued acts of violence, aggression, and suppression by the Congolese military against its own citizens are unacceptable. The United States is prepared to apply additional sanctions against those who undermine the DRC’s democratic or electoral processes.”

Three weeks later I saw pictures of the couple’s wedding. She wore the crucifix. He wore the glasses. They were clear and his eyes are green.