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Expert: Speaking Lingala Did Not Prove Soldiers Were from Bemba’s Militia

A linguistics expert has said it was not possible to tell that the Lingala speaking soldiers, who brutalized civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR), were members of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s forces merely because of the language they spoke.

Testifying in Mr. Bemba’s war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Professor Eyamba George Bokamba said that there were Central African citizens who spoke Lingala, although this language is native to the Congo. These speakers included members of the armed forces of the CAR.

According to Professor Bokamba, there is a large Lingala speaking population in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in the Republic of Congo. In addition, there are an estimated 86,000 Lingala speakers in Angola and other speakers of the language in Gabon, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. The expert did not have the figures for speakers of the language in the CAR, but he said he had seen estimates of around 10,000.

Given there were Lingala speakers in several countries, said the expert, it was impossible to conclude that the soldiers who prosecution witnesses said spoke Lingala and perpetrated crimes during the 2002-2003 Central African armed conflict belonged to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) – Mr. Bemba’s private militia.

The identity of the perpetrators is critical to the five charges against Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the DRC. He has denied prosecution claims that his solders committed rapes, murders, and pillaging, and that as their commander-in-chief, he made no efforts to rein them in. He argues that any of the armed groups active in the conflict, including forces loyal to former president Ange-Félix Patassé and rebel forces led by François Bozizé, could have committed the alleged crimes.

The MLC were in the neighboring country to assist Mr. Patassé repel a coup attempt led by Mr. Bozizé, who ultimately captured power in March 2003 and remains the country’s president.

Professor Bokamba said some of the Lingala speakers in the CAR were Congolese who escaped turmoil in their home country. Others were traders and migrant workers, including miners. The Central African nationals who spoke the language were exposed to it in a number of ways.

“One is the traders who from the 1900s to recent times have been navigating the Oubangui river. CAR is separated from the Congo by the Oubangui river and this is literary a highway for riverine traders,” he said.

Bangui, the CAR capital and where the prosecution alleges the accused’s fighters committed many of the crimes, is located opposite Zongo town across the Oubangui river. Many other Congolese towns, including Gbadolite where the MLC headquarters were, lie along the river.

The expert stated that Central African soldiers resident in Bangui would have been exposed to Lingala. They could also have been exposed to the language through listening to Congolese music that is popular in CAR. He said an estimated 70 percent of Congolese music is produced in Lingala.

Furthermore, the expert said he had gathered from various sources that during the 1970s and 1980s, the Congolese government had a training programme for CAR soldiers. The training took place in Congo, and since Lingala had since colonial times been the official language of the Congolese armed forces, such soldiers could even have learnt the language, depending on the length of their training programs.

However, the expert said he did not know whether any of the Central African soldiers who took part in the 2002-2003 conflict had been trained in Congo.

Prosecution witnesses have stated that they identified rampaging soldiers as MLC forces based on their use of Lingala phrases, such as those meaning “come here” and “give me money.” The witnesses, Central African natives who spoke Sango, admitted to not being Lingala speaker.

The expert explained that with four variants of Lingala, for one to reach the conclusion that the speakers of those words were Congolese, it would have helped to know what version the rampaging soldiers were speaking so as to know if they were native Lingala speakers, had learned Lingala as a second language, or to know what part of Congo they came from.

“Can a Sango speaker differentiate between a Central African and a Congolese speaker of Lingala?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.

The expert said it was possible “if this individual who is making the assessment is a trained linguist who knows Congolese varieties of Lingala and knows the way a Central African speaks.” Additionally, such a person needs to be trained to know the pronouncements of Lingala in the CAR and Congo, and to differentiate accents, phonology, and syntax.

Tomorrow morning, Professor Bokamba continues to give evidence in the trial with cross-examination by the prosecution.