“Gideon” is just one of several monikers associated with the former soldier-turned Congolese presidential candidate-turned-televangelist-turned-prophet.
These include “the prophet of the eternal” or “Paul Joseph Mukungubila” or sometimes simply, “prophet Mukungubila”.
The self-proclaimed prophet’s Monday morning rise to fame was captured live on Congolese state broadcaster RTNC, when a group of men stormed onto the set of “Le Panier,” or “The Breadbasket” show.
Amid scenes of utter confusion, Le Panier’s two presenters were taken hostage as men armed with machetes and sticks shouted orders in the local Lingala language, mobile phones rang, and at one stage, a vuvuzela incongruously appeared on the set. Then the state TV service was abruptly cut.
But before the transmission stopped, a voice off-camera proclaimed in Lingala, “Gideon Mukungubila has come to free you from the slavery of the Rwandan”. Congo’s President Joseph Kabila is often derisively referred to as “the Rwandan” by his opponents – a term that underscores the deep animosity among many Congolese citizens against their country’s tiny, eastern neighbour’s meddling in their insecure, but resource-rich homeland.
As the international community struggled to assess the situation in the troubled African nation, news organisations across the world were scrambling for information about the mysterious “prophet” who appeared to be at the centre of the Congo’s latest crisis.
A long-shot presidential candidate
Mukungubila, who hails from the southeastern Katanga province, has vocally opposed the peace negotiations.
In an open letter released on December 5, Mukungubila criticised what he called Kabila’s soft stance on the M23 rebels. “Imagine negotiating and signing an agreement with a defeated M23 that no longer exists while emphasising integration – it’s simply unacceptable. These are people who massacred, who murdered Congolese people, and we know very well that they are Rwandans,” said the statement.
“Gideon Mukungubila is known in Kinshasa as a prophet of God who has always condemned and launched verbal attacks against the government,” explained Adam Shemisi, a Congolese journalist, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “He denounces everyone in power. We wonder how he was able to mobilise this militia that managed to take journalists hostage. ”
The televangelist’s opposition to Kabila took an overtly political form when he ran for president in the 2006 Congolese election.
But as an independent in a race with 33 registered candidates, Mukungubila was not considered a frontrunner.
“He ran for president in 2006, which does not mean he was a serious contender for the presidency,” said US journalist Philip Gourevitch in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister station, RFI. “He’s not somebody who has left a visible track as a national figure until his name popped up [on Monday] to the great surprise of everybody.”
Mukungubila admits followers involvement
Even in a country that’s no stranger to insecurity, Monday’s incident in the heart of the capital, which killed around 40 people, caught observers off-guard. By noon, a Congolese army spokesman said there had been clashes between security forces and gunmen in the Katanga provincial capital of Lubumbashi and the death toll had mounted to more than 70.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende advised caution over reports holding Mukungubila or his supporters responsible for the attacks.
“The attackers presented themselves as supporters of Mukungubila. We are checking because this could be an attempt to fool us,” said Mende.
But in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 later Monday, Mukungubila confirmed that some of his followers were among the attackers. He insisted, however, that the incidents were a spontaneous reaction to attacks against his congregants over the weekend.
“I think that using the word ‘assailant’ is going too far. I was the one who was attacked. Seeing that, my brothers…were upset. It wasn’t just in Kinshasa that they attacked. They took the airport. In [the central Congolese city of] Kissangani, they entered the town,” said Mukungubila.
From prophet to trouble-maker
Monday’s incidents came a day after Gen. John Numbi, the country’s top cop, was suspended and replaced by Gen. Charles Bisengimana, an ethnic Tutsi, sparking criticism in some Congolese circles over the perceived over-representation of Tutsis in senior security positions. Local media reports referred to the new police chief as a “Rwandophone” in a country where anti-Rwanda sentiment runs high.
In a statement published on Facebook, officials at the Ministry of Restoration from Black Africa said the latest unrest started on Sunday evening in Lubumbashi, when “children” distributing leaflets of Mukungubila’s message that Congo could not be ruled by “a foreigner” were arrested.
The arrests were followed by attacks against top Ministry of Restoration from Black Africa supporters, the statement added, which in turn fuelled Monday’s attacks.