Where Kiefer Is King

Congo’s Army of Jack Bauers

The hero of the television series ‘24’ is the most popular person in war-torn Congo—and local tough guys are taking his name as their own.

GOMA, Congo—Food is scarce, running water almost unheard of, and the number of paved roads can be counted on one hand. But there’s one thing the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has no shortage of: Jack Bauers.

There’s a Jack Bauer to help recover your stolen phone; a Jack Bauer to foil market bombings; and the Jack Bauer who sets up interviews with rebel fighters and then smuggles you across the battle’s frontlines.

In Goma, the provincial capital in eastern Congo, two decades of war have eroded the roads; the buildings are crumbling, along with any hope for peace and stability. There’s little faith in the far-away national government to halt the violence that has long plagued the country. Instead, many believe that what the Congo really needs is its own Jack Bauer.

Jack Bauer and I meet for the first time at a decrepit downtown roundabout where a sign emblazoned in French, proclaiming “Justice” “Peace” “Work,” hangs below a roaring leopard head. Bauer has just arrested a man he believes to be a leader of a well-known rebel group, and asks to reschedule our meeting so he can deliver the prisoner to his superiors.

This Jack Bauer is one of the most famous military captains in the area, but no one seems to know his real name. “I just call him Jack,” multiple people tell me.

The next day, we meet again on the porch of an expensive hotel in Goma. The sun is bright after the recent rainy season, and Bauer’s eyes are hidden behind large shades. Smoking a cigarette and sipping ginger juice, he reveals his name is Jean Bidel Bukasa. The drink’s virility properties may be overkill—the 36-year-old local celebrity already has five children from four different women.

The American spy show 24—in which hero Jack Bauer foils nefarious plots to destroy the world, one day at a time—is ubiquitous in eastern Congo. Reruns of 24 air on the restaurant televisions not playing soccer matches. On the streets, murals of Kiefer Sutherland cover movie store facades. And the series’ terrorist-fighting protagonist, hellbent on halting plots to destroy his country, has spawned countless local imitators.

“People love 24 because Congo has been through a lot of things and they think we need someone who can react as Jack Bauer,” Bukasa explains. With no faith in the government or international community, some Congolese have taken the country’s security into their own hands. He’s is one of the numerous men in Goma who has adopted the name of the swashbuckling agent.

“It really inspired me,” he says. “It shows me, as a security guy, how I can save my country, how I can protect my country from attacks and assist its citizens.”

Over the past 20 years, the Congo has survived two foreign-backed wars, an onslaught of outsiders exploiting its vast natural resources, and an explosion of armed rebel groups who continue to stir up trouble in the restive east. An estimated 5 million people have died due to this conflict.

It’s a country where assassinations, disappearances, and corruption are the norm, and not even the most far-fetched conspiracy theories like the over-the-top plotlines of 24 are implausible.

So, an army of Jack Bauers has stepped in to save their country. Bukasa believes it’s been left to him and his brothers-in-arms to fight Congo’s wars. Orphaned, he joined the army at age 16 and climbed to the rank of captain in the intelligence unit of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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In 2005, a rebel group called CNDP had begun a rise to power. As Bukasa tells it, the insurgents sent militiamen to his home to kill him. Exits out of Goma had been shut down, but he managed a daring escape and smuggled himself 150 miles away to a safer city. By the time he arrived, his shocked senior officers had presumed him dead. Impressed, they anointed him Jack Bauer. “It was a dream come true to hear them call me that,” he recalls.

Since then, Bukasa says, he’s become the go-to guy for impossible missions. He recently snuck himself into territory of the notorious FDLR rebels—remnants of the Rwandan genocide perpetrators who’ve been hiding out in Congo’s jungles for 20 years—to retrieve the body of a military commander who’d been killed.

“When this ideology of Jack Bauer comes to me it’s like taking drugs,” he says, showing photos of the corpse on his oversized tablet-phone. “I have no fear.”

Now, Bukasa uses the techniques he’s picked up from the show to capture the region’s most wanted criminals. “If I’m planning an operation I have to watch 24 to study,” he says. He declines to reveal what exactly those inspired moves are, though gives a foreboding hint: “I think Jack Bauer is someone who doesn’t really respect the law, he can do anything and then he’ll think later.”Bukasa continues flipping through photos. There’s a group of four men whom he says raped a woman. A robber who evaded capture for years. Some of these pictures he posts on Facebook, which he says is necessary to let people know who the bad guys are.

He pulls up a picture of what appears to be a decapitated head. He says it was taken of one of the victims of a recent rebel attack on the city’s airport. “The security in Goma is horrific,” he says. “If I told you I could change everything I’d be lying to you. My goal is just to see good changes.”

The conflict has slowed, but there’s no forgetting the carnage in battle-weary Goma. Aid-branded Land Cruisers—belonging to Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and UNHCR—form humanitarian parades through the unpaved streets and pull into walled compounds with armed guards and watchtowers.

In response to the violence, the United Nations installed the headquarters of its largest and most expensive United Nations peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, in Goma. Its operations are tucked away in temporary container offices behind blue gates, though its presence dominates the city of 1 million. Shiny white UN trucks and tanks are around every corner, but with a mandate that prohibited offensive action until recently, its presence is widely thought to be ineffective. On the weekends, soldiers and civilian UN employees, flush with hardship income, dine at expensive restaurants and cruise the disco ball-filled clubs. They’re popularly known as the “tourist army.”

“These people are jokers,” Bukasa says. “They’re just here for a picnic, really. They’re not doing anything.”

Bukasa is not just a military captain, but a boxer, self-proclaimed dandy, and aspiring actor with three movies under his belt. He shows off a clip from a recent film on his phone where he’s a rebel boss drinking whiskey and plotting the kidnapping of the American ambassador. In the credits, he’s listed as “Jack Bauer.”

He also mentors other aspiring Jack Bauers, instructing them to be honest, not greedy, and willing to sacrifice to help the country’s most vulnerable people. “Those who are named Jack Bauer they have to show they’re really Jack Bauer because we need their help,” he says.

If the wannabes get too reckless, Bukasa puts them in their place. When he was sent on a remote mission, another member of his department took the nickname for himself. Furious, Bukasa complained to his superiors back to headquarters, who assured him it wouldn’t last. “They’re just mirroring me,” he says of the others. “They’re not really Jack Bauer, they’re faking.”

The other Jack Bauers don’t agree.

“There are other people who call themselves Jack Bauer but when they see me they can’t call themselves Jack Bauer again,” says Anderson Kombomayo. The 28-year-old intelligence captain is Bukasa’s counterpart in the police force. He shows up to our meeting in a camo shirt, MONUSCO branded across the chest. On his bicep is a tattooed dinosaur with his first name arched above in capital letters. On his chest, he says, he plans to tattoo a picture of Jack Bauer’s face.

After the 2012 insurgency by a Rwandan-backed rebel group called M23, Kombomayo was tasked with retrieving more than 1,500 criminals who’d escaped from Goma’s central prison. For his successes, the police department bestowed on him the ultimate honor: “You are going to be the Jack Bauer of our department,” they told him.

“I learn the moves of Jack Bauer like a cause,” Kombomayo says. For two hours per day, he’ll watch episodes on his phone, studying them intently. When he’s off the clock, he binge watches. “I must get it in my mind and it must stay,” he says.Perhaps no one has watched 24 with as much dedication as Caleb Kabanda.

Kabanda got his first glimpse of the show at a neighbor’s house over a decade ago. When an electricity outage forced a break in the viewing session he hoped on a motorbike and rode immediately to the market to purchase the first four seasons. For three days and two nights he watched without sleeping. Now he’s seen the entire series five times over.

“If you want, I can tell you the plot of every season,” he offers over a glass of red wine at a lakefront restaurant in Goma. He’s forgotten, perhaps, that six months prior, in the course of three-hour trek in the jungle, he recounted 24’s most important plot points to me, season by season.

When Kabanda calls himself Jack Bauer he breaks into a distinctive smile, revealing a gap of four missing front teeth, but the source of his nickname is no laughing matter.

Since Congo’s first civil war broke out in 1996, Kabanda has worked with foreign journalists as a fixer—a hybrid translator, security expert, and logistical coordinator. Today, the 38-year-old’s services are used by the biggest media organizations and visiting dignitaries, including Ben Affleck, who runs the Eastern Congo Initiative. His job has put him at the frontlines of the country’s rebellions, sent him deep into militia territory, and given him an endurance to rival the on-screen terrorist hunter.

“Only Jack Bauer makes the impossible things possible,” Kabanda says of his fixing talents. At that moment, the impossible task is getting a New York Times journalist with visa problems past the country’s notoriously difficult border crossing. Kabanda describes his exploits in between string-pulling calls to high-ranking ministers.

Kabanda got his nickname in 2008 by an impressed Washington Post journalist whom he’d helped out of dangerous scrapes, including an arrest. “I saved her from many terrorist attacks,” he says. She called him Jack Bauer and he called her Madame President, referring to the female leader of the show.

With Kabanda’s catchphrase, “I will fix it” —sometimes sprinkled with “It’s handled,” in homage to the problem-solving Olivia Pope of Scandal—his adopted name doesn’t feel too far-fetched.

While the journalist-assisting Jack Bauer does his part to bring the plight of the Congo to the world’s attention, he believes there’s a greater role for 24 in his country.

“Most Congolese watch thinking that if our president watched this show he could help the Congolese people,” Kabanda says. “But he doesn’t even watch 24.”

A visit by the real Jack Bauer would do what the president cannot, Kabanda believes. Kiefer Sutherland in the flesh could be the most effective form of intervention yet.

“All Congolese know that if he comes he will save the Congo,” Kabanda says. “Oh my God—he’s the most popular person in the Congo. More popular than any actor or president. If he gives a message on the radio to armed groups and says, ‘I give you one week to surrender your weapons,’ I’m telling you, all these groups will stop fighting.”

During his 2013 visit, Anthony Bourdain suggested a similar solution: “The State Dept. should send Kiefer Sutherland as special envoy to Congo. Most admired man here. By far. #JackBauer,” he tweeted. Sutherland declined to comment, but Kabanda asked that his invitation to visit the Congo be conveyed in this article.

In a seemingly neverending conflict, where nearly every form of diplomacy has been disappointing, Jack Bauer is the man for the job.

“Congo should not be suffering the way we’re suffering,” Kabanda says. “Congolese should not be living the life we’re living. Congo could be the paradise of the world if we had a good president and a Jack Bauer.” Then he adds, modestly: “Not the way I am—I am just a little Jack Bauer, trying to get the world interested in my country."

The International Women's Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic's reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.