On April 19, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) military intelligence arrested two Kenya Airways staff in connection with missing customs documents for unspecified valuable cargo.

Their detention triggered a diplomatic standoff between Nairobi and Kinshasa, threatening to undermine the cordial relationship between the two East Africa Community (EAC) members. In late April, Kenya Airways suspended flights to DRC, while Kinshasa responded by refusing to accept the papers of the newly posted Kenyan ambassador.

As the events unfolded, the contents of the cargo that began the diplomatic row remained a secret. 

However, on May 16,  Musalia Mudavadi, Kenya’s foreign affairs minister, said the cargo was $8 million in old banknotes withdrawn from circulation by Trust Merchant Bank (TMB), a subsidiary of Kenya’s KCB Group, which was being transported to the US for replacement.

Mudavadi told a parliamentary committee that the cargo had documentation and denied any suggestions that it was an attempt to launder money as claimed by DRC authorities.

“Trust Merchant Bank (TMB) in DRC with the approval of the DRC Central Bank was giving away currency that had been withdrawn from circulation so that the currency can then be repatriated to the Federal Reserve Bank of the US for destruction and then they can issue new currency,” Musalia Mudavadi, Kenya’s foreign minister, told Parliament on Wednesday.

“This is the tradition, they have done it before, and they do it in other countries. Even, when our currency retires it is normally taken back to the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), the issuing authority. If it is the sterling pound they take it back to the Bank of England.”

The two employees, a Kenyan and a Congolese national were released on May 6, after Mudavadi visited Kinshasa to restore normalcy– paving the way for KQ toresume flights to the country, one of the airline’s profitable routes.

TMB, which KCB Group acquired in 2022, said in a statement that the old dollar notes consignments were accompanied by the right documentation and approved by the country’s regulators including the Central Bank.

“Our bank has complied with all the formalities required for this operation, which is not the first of its kind and is inherent to the operation of banks, particularly for notes unfit for circulation, either because of their condition or because of their series,” TMB said.

DRC’s military intelligence alleged the money was being transferred to Nairobi via Kenya Airways to fund opposition and rebel activities. On December 15, a DRC opposition outfit met in Nairobi in the run-up to the December 2023 elections to form a coalition against President Felix Tshisekedi.

With the resumption of KQ flights to Kinshasa and Goma, a city in the troubled Eastern DRC, Tshisekedi is also expected to visit Kenya as part of a détente and for bilateral talks with President William Ruto.

“I was in Kinshasa a few days ago as a special envoy of President William Ruto, I delivered a special message. We also went further to make sure that we normalise our relationship with DRC and so we expect a state visit from the head of state of DRC which he acceded to and will give a date,” Mudavadi told lawmakers.

Since joining the EAC bloc in 2022, DRC has emerged as an important trading partner for Kenya. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), exports to the central African nation grew the fastest compared to other African countries at 49% to $202.2 million (KES26.45 billion) in 2022.

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