Americans involved in failed DRC coup as army thwarts plot

Americans involved in failed DRC coup as army thwarts plot
Fecha de publicación: 
21 May 2024
Imagen principal: 

A day after the army in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said it had thwarted an attempted coup involving several Americans and a British man, many in Kinshasa are questioning the attackers' motives.

Three Americans involved in a brazen attack on DRC's presidential palace formed an unlikely band under the leadership of eccentric opposition figure Christian Malanga, who dabbled in gold mining and used cars before persuading his Utah-born son to join in the foiled coup, according to officials' description of events.

Six people, including Malanga, were dead and dozens arrested, including the three Americans, following that attack and another on the residence of a close ally of President Felix Tshisekedi, the Congolese army spokesperson, Brigadier General Sylvain Ekenge, said.

Ekenge said Malanga was killed in a shootout early on Sunday with presidential guards. The situation "is under control," he said.

A bizarre attempt

Authorities said they were still trying to untangle how Malanga's 21-year-old son, Marcel, went from playing high school football to allegedly trying to unseat the leader of one of Africa's largest countries.

"My son is innocent," his mother, Brittney Sawyer, wrote in an email to The Associated Press, declining to elaborate.

Sawyer had regularly posted proud family photos on social media, including one in December showing Marcel, a young sister and a toddler hugging in matching Christmas pajamas. In 2020, she posted photos of Marcel lifting weights and dancing during Covid lockdown.

In a Facebook post early Monday, Sawyer angrily wrote that her son had followed his father. "This was an innocent boy following his father. I'm so tired of all the videos being posted all over and being sent to me. God will take care of you people!"

One video that circulated on social media showed her son alongside a bloodied white man, whose identity was unclear, both covered in dust and surrounded by Congolese soldiers. Marcel has his hands raised and a frightened look on his face.

It was far from the persona that Marcel appeared to have been building in videos recently posted on Facebook and TikTok showing him posing with stacks of dollar bills and talking about women.

His father, Malanga, had described himself on his website as a refugee who thrived after settling in the US with his family in the 1990s. He said he became a leader of a Congolese opposition political party and met high-level officials in Washington and the Vatican. He also described himself as a devoted husband and father of eight.

Court records and interviews paint another picture.


In 2001, the year he turned 18, Malanga was convicted in Utah in incidents including assault with a firearm that resulted in a 30-day jail sentence and three years of probation. That same year, he was charged with domestic violence assault in one incident and battery and disturbing the peace in another, but he pleaded not guilty and all counts in both cases were dismissed.

In 2004, he was charged with domestic violence with threat of using a dangerous weapon, but he pleaded not guilty and the charges were dismissed. Since 2004, records show several cases related to a custody dispute and a child support dispute. It is unclear if the disputes involved Sawyer.

Malanga's relatives gathered on Monday afternoon at the West Jordan home of his mother, Chantal Malanga, to mourn. A steady flow of friends dropped by with plates of food and to offer condolences.

Sydney, a cousin of Christian Malanga's who answered the door, told AP the family was feeling "heartbroken" and "so raw" after learning of his death. They were discussing plans for a possible funeral in Utah, she said, without giving further details.

Malanga described himself as the organiser of the United Congolese Party, a movement aimed at organising emigres like him. He also described himself as president of the "New Zaire" government in exile and published a manifesto that detailed plans including creating business opportunities and reforming Congo’s security services.

Photos on Facebook and his website show him meeting then-senior US political figures, including former Utah Republican Rob Bishop and New York Representative Peter King.

Bishop told AP he did not recall the meeting and couldn’t tell when the photo was taken. King could not be reached for comment.

Dino Mahtani, an independent researcher into African issues, said he first heard of Malanga in 2018 while serving as a political adviser to the United Nations in DRC. He said Congolese authorities voiced suspicions that Malanga was involved in a purported plot to kill then-President Joseph Kabila.

In an interview, Mahtani said he had never met Malanga in person but thinks Malanga was obsessed with capturing some form of power in DRC.

He also speculated Malanga had been set up or betrayed in the weekend attack, given the implausible way it was carried out.

"Somebody put him up to this. It could be external plotters, but given his previous close relationship with at least one of Tshiskedi's current military commanders, there's some chance the plot was known about internally and this allowed them to move quickly," Mahtani said.

The alleged coup attempt began at the Kinshasa residence of Vital Kamerhe, a federal legislator and a candidate for speaker of the National Assembly of Congo. His guards killed the attackers, officials said.


Malanga, meanwhile, was live-streaming video from the presidential palace in which he is seen surrounded by several people in military uniforms wandering around in the middle of the night. He was later killed while resisting arrest, Congolese authorities said.

DRC officials have not commented on how the attackers were able to get inside.

"Its really difficult to imagine how 20, 30 guys thought that by storming the presidential palace when nobody is around at 4 am in the morning could somehow take over the Congolese state," Mahtani said.

A second American allegedly involved was identified as Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, according to images of a US passport circulated by DRC media.

He graduated from the University of Colorado and attended business administration classes at Georgetown University, court records indicate. He later started a commodity trading business and worked as a courier and Uber driver, the records show.

His connection to Malanga appeared to be through a gold mining company that was set up in Mozambique in 2022, according to an official journal published by Mozambique's government, and a report by Africa Intelligence newsletter.

Zalman-Polun pleaded guilty in 2015 to drug trafficking charges in the US, admitting that he conspired with a friend to ship more than 20 kilogrammes of marijuana from a home base in Lake Tahoe, California, to customers across the United States. Prosecutors requested leniency, citing the "substantial assistance" they said he provided in their investigation.

His attorney in that case did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

No information was released on the third American.

The US Embassy in Kinshasa said it was aware "US citizens might have been involved in Sunday's events," adding in a statement that it would cooperate with authorities "as they investigate these violent criminal acts."

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