Americans in alleged Congo coup plot formed an unlikely band (2024)

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Three Americans involved in a brazen weekend attack on Congo’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, Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge, said.

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

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 U.S. 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 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 organizer of the United Congolese Party, a movement aimed at organizing emigres like him against the “current Congolese dictatorship government regime.” 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 U.S. political figures, including former Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and New York Rep. 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 Congo. 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 Congo.

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.

Congo 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 a.m. 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 U.S. passport circulated by Congolese 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 2014 to drug trafficking charges in the U.S., admitting that he conspired with a friend to ship at least 20 kilograms 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 U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa said it was aware “U.S. 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.”

___

This story has been corrected to show that Zalman-Polun pleaded guilty in 2015.

___

McCombs reported from Salt Lake City, Utah; Schoenbaum from West Jordan, Utah; and Biesecker from Washington. Associated Press writers Christina Malkia in Kinshasa, Congo; Michelle Price in New York; and Eric Tucker in Washington, contributed to this report.

Americans in alleged Congo coup plot formed an unlikely band (2024)

FAQs

Americans in alleged Congo coup plot formed an unlikely band? ›

Three Americans involved in a brazen weekend attack on Congo'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 ...

What is happening in Congo in 2024? ›

The crisis in DR Congo has resulted in the internal displacement of 7.2 million people (March 2024), making it the second largest internal displacement crisis on the African continent. Since the beginning of 2024, more than 738,000 people have been newly displaced in DR Congo.

What happened in the Congo coup? ›

May 20 (Reuters) - Security forces thwarted a coup attempt in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday in which armed men targeted the homes of top officials and briefly occupied the office of the presidency in the capital Kinshasa, authorities said.

What is the difference between DRC and Congo Brazzaville? ›

Officially known as the Republic of the Congo, the country is often called Congo (Brazzaville), with its capital added parenthetically, to distinguish it from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is often referred to by its acronym, the DRC, or called Congo (Kinshasa).

What was the US involvement in the Congo? ›

In August 1960, the U.S. Government launched a covert political program in the Congo lasting almost 7 years, initially aimed at eliminating Lumumba from power and replacing him with a more moderate, pro-Western leader. The U.S. Government provided advice and financial subsidies.

What is the main problem in Congo? ›

The greatest needs of the people of the DRC revolve around food security. A staggering 62% of the population (about 60 million people) live on less than $2.15 per day, and the combination of conflict and natural disasters continue to complicate the food situation.

Why not to go to Congo? ›

There is widespread poverty, social exclusion and health risks in many parts of the DRC. You may be at greater risk of being robbed or attacked in rural areas. Transport and accommodation are extremely limited outside Kinshasa and the major towns, so make travel arrangements in advance.

What is going on in the Congo right now? ›

Currently, DRC is embroiled in an ongoing political confrontation with Rwanda. In 2022, M23 rebels resurfaced after five years of inactivity and gained control of large parts of North Kivu province by July 2023.

What was the main cause of the Congo crisis? ›

On July 5, Congolese soldiers in the Force Publique mutinied against their white Belgian commanders at the Thysville military base, seeking higher pay as well as greater opportunity and authority. The mutiny quickly spread to other bases and violence soon broke out across the nation.

How did the Congo conflict end? ›

Eventually involving belligerents from across the African continent, the war officially ended on 18 July 2003 when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo took power. Although a peace agreement was signed in 2002, violence has continued in many regions of the country, especially in the east.

Is Congo-Brazzaville rich or poor? ›

Economy of the Republic of the Congo
Country groupDeveloping/Emerging Lower-middle income economy
Statistics
Population5,244,363 (2018)
GDP$11.576 billion (nominal, 2019 est.) $32.768 billion (PPP, 2019 est.)
GDP rank137th (nominal, 2019) 128th (PPP, 2019)
29 more rows

Is it safe to travel to Congo-Brazzaville? ›

Crime. Reports of crime, particularly opportunistic crime such as pickpocketing, have increased in Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, and criminals target foreigners. You're at greater risk of crime at night, and also in rural areas.

What is the new name for Congo-Brazzaville? ›

In 1970, Congo (Brazzaville) changed its name to the People's Republic of Congo, and on 15 November 1971 — to Congo.

What does the US get from Congo? ›

The top U.S. import from the D.R.C. is oil, accounting for more than 90% of all U.S. imports. The two countries have signed a bilateral investment treaty. The United States also has signed a trade and investment framework agreement with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, of which the D.R.C. is a member.

Can Americans go to the Congo? ›

American citizens should not travel to the DRC without a valid visa, and should apply for one well in advance of any trip to allow for unanticipated delays. Visas are not available at the airport. Travelers should not count on Congolese visas being available in neighboring countries.

Is Republic of Congo a US ally? ›

The United States remains a partner with the DRC and other central African nations in their quest for stability and growth on the continent, and facilitated the signing of a tripartite agreement on regional security in the Great Lakes region between the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda in October 2004.

What is going on in Congo right now? ›

Congo faces unprecedented crisis as violence displaces 250,000 in the last month, a UN official says. A senior United Nations official says intensifying violence in Congo's eastern region has pushed a humanitarian crisis in the region to “unprecedented” levels.

Is the second Congo war still going on? ›

Eventually involving belligerents from across the African continent, the war officially ended on 18 July 2003 when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo took power. Although a peace agreement was signed in 2002, violence has continued in many regions of the country, especially in the east.

How is the Congo changing? ›

Worsening socio-economic conditions, political instability and civil war have contributed to increased migration from the rural areas towards the cities. About 70 per cent of the economy is informal, and dominated by rural sectors; industrial development remains embryonic. Per capita GDP in 2008 was US$182.

When did the Congo crisis start? ›

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