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Kinshasa (AFP) Jan 06, 2014
Defections, corruption, war crimes -- DR Congo's top military commanders have tended to make headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years.
So the rocket attack that destroyed Colonel Mamadou Ndala's vehicle on Thursday did not only kill the nation's rising star but also the man who embodied the hope for a disciplined, effective and republican army.
With key backing from a special UN brigade, Ndala was the champion of the war against the M23 rebellion, which late last year handed the Democratic Republic of Congo's forces their first clearcut victory in half a century.
"Brave", "a patriot", "humble": top army officers, residents of eastern DRC and even some of his critics have been heaping tributes on Ndala, who died at 35.
According to relatives, Mamadou Moustapha Ndala was born in the northeastern Orientale province that neighbours troubled North Kivu and joined the army in 1997.
"He was never hung-up about his modest education and was very well-read: he routinely referred to De Gaulle and Charlemagne in conversation," a rights activist who knew him said.
"He was incredibly easy-going and modest, miles from the extravagance Congolese officers are known for. He liked sport, combat films and kept his private life to himself."
"He was brave, polite and open-minded," said one major, speaking on condition of anonymity.
His battlefield heroics and charisma had made him a key player in eastern DR Congo and his tall figure and gap-toothed smile had become ubiquitous on TV screens in North Kivu.
"Mamadou", as many residents and fellow servicemen called him, rose to prominence during the 18-month insurgency by the M23 rebel group around the main hub of Goma.
The rebel outfit -- which was accused of being a Rwandan proxy -- briefly captured the North Kivu capital in November 2012.
When the rebels pulled out under intense diplomatic pressure, Kinshasa decided to rotate its units in a bid to obviate the risk of internal dissent and defections.
Commandos were also sent in to beef up government positions in the area and among them was the young Ndala, who had recently been promoted to colonel.
He was the protege of the region's top commander, General Jean-Lucien Bauma, also a native of Orientale, but Ndala quickly made a name for himself.
He is credited with several of the military victories that saw the Congolese army -- until then seen as less effective than the M23 -- begin to turn the tide on the rebels.
Goma residents began calling him a "liberator" and his popularity was such that in July last year, people poured out of their homes in a bid to blockade the airport when a rumour emerged that he had been recalled to Kinshasa.
He earned further kudos that same month for single-handedly calming a threatening mob angered by the United Nations' perceived passivity in the face of M23 attacks.
His death near Beni as his units hunted down Ugandan rebels triggered an outpouring of praise from government officials and top brass for a commander who was never far from the frontline.
"Mamadou, in line with his feats on the battlefield, had successfully carved himself an image as determined commander," said Christoph Vogel, a PhD researcher focusing on DR Congo.
"Despite his modest background and his love of the cameras, he had managed to establish good working relations with his UN colleagues," he said.
The United Nations has one of its largest peacekeeping missions in the troubled country but it had long been decried as toothless as atrocities continued to be committed.
However a special UN brigade of elite forces deployed in October with an unprecedented offensive mandate has changed the game.
With the intervention force's backing, DR Congo's regular FARDC forces are bent on going after all the other rebel groups still active in North Kivu and neighbouring provinces.
After the M23 on Ndala's check-list was the ADF-Nalu, a Ugandan Islamist group which has been based on the Congolese side of the border since its creation in 1995.
Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher with the US think tank Enough Project, said Ndala "embodied the hope that his country can aspire to building a truly republican army if the political will is there".
Ndala had already become a victim of his own legend however.
"He was loved and respected by his men but some battalions that did great work out there against the M23 felt all the credit was going to Ndala," a foreign military officer said.
"He was good at what he did, there's no doubt about it. But lately he was becoming a little full of himself."
The young colonel knew that success came at a price.
"I know there are jealous people out there," he told AFP days before his death.
The deadly ambush was blamed on ADF-Nalu but his supporters and some local media outlets have relayed theories according to which the regime itself ordered an assassination.
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