A murder in Congo

What does the decade-old “Congo-case,” involving two Norwegian mercenaries, tell us about residue coloniality in Scandinavia?

Image credit NTB.

The so-called “Congo case” was one of the largest media spectacles of the decade in Norway. It has resulted in about a dozen books, several TV-documentaries, a podcast-series and a full-length feature film with some of Norway’s most famous actors in the leading roles.

A quick recap for those outside of Norway: The case concerns the alleged crimes of two Norwegian nationals, Joshua French (dual British passport) and Tjostolv Moland. In 2009, the two were operating from Uganda as for-hire mercenaries, under the thin guise of a security firm called SIG. As emerged later, the two were ex-Norwegian military, and they worked for a time as security on ships off the coast of Somalia. They ran unprofessional and inhumane training camps for local would-be soldiers in Uganda—as video evidence suggests. But business was not booming, so Moland contacted Laurent Nkunda, then leader of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). In 2009 Nkunda’s forces had stormed Kisangani, murdering and raping thousands of women and children. Moland wrote:

We (SIG) wish to offer you our services and our support, mister general. […] I have formed a picture of you as a highly intelligent and well-educated person. Therefore, I know that you will appreciate europeans supporting you in your intelligence-work, because europeans are unlikely to cause suspicion …

In May 2009, French and Moland went from Uganda into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on an unknown mission. On May 5, through a disputed series of events, they allegedly shot and killed their 47-year-old driver Abedi Kasongo, near Bafwasende, Orientale Province. French was arrested on May 9 in the Epulu game reserve, around 200 kilometers from Kisangani. Moland was arrested two days later in Ituri Province, a few hundred kilometers farther northeast.

The two accused asserted their innocence throughout several highly publicized court cases in the DRC. They alleged that the party had been ambushed by government forces, and Kasongo died as a result. In Norway a powerful campaign was launched by Joshua French’s mother, calling for the release of the prisoners. It gained massive support among Christian communities and put enormous pressure on the Norwegian foreign ministry for the return of French and Moland. At one point the foreign ministry even collaborated with the controversial Israeli diamond-billionaire Dan Gertler, who at the time carried considerable influence in DRC.

Moland and French did relatively well in prison at first. They hung up a sign outside their prison-cell that read “Leopoldville” (A Norwegian podcast series goes deeper into how the two shared a romantic nostalgia for the bygone era of white colonial Africa). They were fit, had access to servants, and to better food and alcohol from supporters outside prison.

As the years went by, the campaign kept up the pressure, but the situation for the two prisoners deteriorated. Moland wrote a letter confessing to the murder of Abedi Kasongo, which he read aloud in court. However, he was also severely ill with malaria at the time, so French and others dismissed the letter as the ravings of delirium. Moland died in prison in 2013. Norwegian coroners concluded the cause to be suicide. Joshua French served in Congolese prisons for almost eight years, surviving poor sanitary conditions and several rounds of severe illness, until his release and return to Norway in May 2017.

Image credit Marta Tveit.

In the end, as detailed in the Norwegian anthology, Maskepillet i Kongo (Foul Play in Congo), the international struggle for the release of French included “three Norwegian prime-ministers and four foreign ministers, one former president of the USA, the British prime minister and foreign minister, two Nobel-prize winners, several bishops, a host of Norwegian parliamentarians, and eighteen members of the European parliament,” among a host of others. There is no official record of how much tax money and other public resources were devoted to securing French’s release, but it has been estimated to be at least 4,7 million kroner ($500,000). Since his return to Norway, French has been touring the country to sold-out crowds, giving lectures about his “African adventures.”

The case left a bad taste in the mouths of many people. There are questions that we may never get the answers to. Why is Joshua French walking free, when there is mounting evidence that both he and Moland conducted paramilitary “missions” that may have contravened not only Norwegian law, but the laws of various African states, as well as international conventions and laws? Why was there such reluctance on the part of the Norwegian public to believe that the two were guilty of anything but an innocent “boys’ trip” that veered a little off-track in Africa? Why did we expect an independent nation in which the two had committed a crime to disregard its own judicial system and return the prisoners to Europe? Why does the same concern not apply to foreign nationals imprisoned in Norway? Why are French’s public speaking appearances so popular? Why the focus on the criminals and so little on the victim, who left behind his devastated wife, Bibiche Olendjeke, small children and extended family? What is so special about French and Moland?

Foul Play in Congo attempts to expand the debate to more than two men’s pursuits and motives. The aim of the anthology is to bring forth the largely overlooked Norwegian-Congolese and Norwegian-African perspectives. Furthermore, it attempts to give space to critical voices, of which there are many. Each of the contributors approaches the case from their unique points of view. Espen Wæhle, the maritime historian, tells the story of the first Norwegian mercenaries in the Congo, employed in Belgian King Leopold’s army in the 1800s. Halle Jørn Hanssen, the main contributor and the driving force behind the project, offers up his years of investigative reporting about the case. Artist and research scholar, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, examines the story behind the infamous so-called “blood-picture,” the shocking image of Moland wiping blood out of the ambushed Landover with a big smile on his face. (The same image now hangs in the Norwegian colonial exhibition at the Bergen University Museum). Irene Kinunda Afriyie, a Norwegian-Congolese teacher and journalist writes personal reflections, highlighting how Congolese immigrants to Norway have been affected by the case. Lars Løvold and Barthélemy Boika Mahambi, who both worked with the Rainforest Foundation in Congo at the time French and Moland were active, describe how a vulnerable and incredibly important bilateral rainforest preservation project, worth billions of kroner, fell through due to the French-Moland case. We get an afterword by the celebrated Norwegian anthropologist, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who writes about tenacious prejudices, historical repetitions, ignorance and, most of all, disappointment.

Joshua French has been mentioned nearly 40,000 times in Norwegian media since the case was first brought to the attention of the public in 2009. The media slant in this case was clear—the Congolese court authorities were ridiculed, Conradian exotification and reductionist analysis abounded, and the whole of DRC was arguably portrayed as a banana republic.

In the prologue of Foul Play in Congo I write: “This is not a book about Tjostolv Moland and Joshua French. This is a book about Norway and Norwegians.” Indeed, it is about Norwegian colonial imaginings of Congo, and of Africa. Though Norway’s active role in colonization and the triangle-trade was limited, the European colonial paradigm—especially expressed in the imagining of people with darker skin, reached its long tentacles up north. The residue is tangible in the form of mindsets based on the construction of race, inherited and planted in me, in us, here and now. The case shook our nation. It held up a mirror to one of the world’s most progressive countries, showing us some ugly truths. There is something that does not quite add up in how we like to represent and think about ourselves, and what this case brings out in us. Although we are far north, Norway as part of Europe has been a signatory to the mindset that made colonization, slavery and generally 500 years of European global domination possible. (Both Moland and French declared a deep respect for Margaret Thatcher, and disdain for “the feminist state Norway,” which to them was “anti-white” and “anti-men” (see Kongonotatene).

We are beginning to see it now, thanks to the unceasing efforts of local and global activists. Wrestling with the Congo case is part of the protracted process of understanding, and rejecting the race-contract. It materializes in a series of small and big moments that are about answering the question: How should we as Norwegians respond to increased globalization and contact with less-understood others?

The discourse has reached the point where one begins to look at the inner coloniality that inhabits the many, not just the few. Yet, 15,000 young people screaming “Black Lives Matter” in front of the Norwegian parliament recently, washes away some of the disappointment I too have been feeling working on the Congo case, replacing it with hope for the future.

Further Reading