KINSHASA - The mysterious death of Democratic Republic of Congo's top rights activist threatens to undermine President Joseph Kabila's attempt to draw a line under the nation's troubled past with a lavish independence jubilee.
Floribert Chebeya, who has faced past harassment for work against arbitrary killings and torture of political dissidents, was found dead in his car two weeks ago after being summoned to meet the chief of the national police.
"This has been a public relations disaster for DRC and very harmful," said one diplomat in the capital Kinshasa.
"(The death of) one of the best known human rights activists ahead of the anniversary of independence couldn't send a worse signal to the international community," the diplomat said of the June 30 celebration, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the king of former colonial power Belgium are due to attend.
Chebeya's still unexplained death comes as the nation approaches a major crossroads, seven years after a 1998-2003 war in which more than 5million died and which left the economy in ruins.
International Monetary Fund officials visited Kinshasa to put final touches to an expected deal to wipe $8billion (R61billion) of foreign debt from DRC's books - something Kabila had wanted to declare during the celebration of 50 years of independence, but which is now seen a few weeks later.
Part of the image DRC wants to project that day will be of a country able to stand on its own feet. That explains its haste to announce a wind-down of the United Nations' 20500-member peace mission - which the body will start doing this month despite concerns over persistent rebellions across the country.
Chebeya's death triggered diplomatic concern from donors including the United States, Britain, Canada, France and Europe.
While Ban and Belgium's King Albert are still expected to attend the event, the opposition MLC political party has said it will boycott the celebration, due to include a street parade seen attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Chebeya's family says his funeral will be held on the same day, a move that could spark flare-ups. - Reuters