Africa is growing. In spite of terrible wars, famine, misery, corruption and dictatorships, new generations of politicians and industrialists are coming to the fore, full of enthusiasm and energy. They come up against a very difficult reality, and generally, to get to the top, they have to use the same systems as the corrupt previous generations, or emigrate. But things, slowly, are changing. China was the first to realise this and has started investing billions (followed by France) in road and mining infrastructure, but also in renewable energy.
The main axis of development is brand new, and very fragile – it starts from the Red Sea coast and reaches the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, on the opposite side of the continent. In between is a giant: the Democratic Republic of Congo, for half a century in the hands of a bloody dictatorship or the Kabila family, which, interested only in its own benefit, has invested in corruption and accepted suicidal deals for the country in exchange for bribes. Now, for the first time, there is hope that this is at an end. The new president, Felix Tshisekedi, who grew up in the Kabila alcove, now seems ready to prove his independence and really change Congo’s fortunes.
The Tshisekedi presidency
Young followers of Tshisekedi celebrate his election
On 30 December 2018, with the election of Felix Tshisekedi as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (one of the most beautiful, rich, and guardian nations of the mountain gorilla and other miracles of flora and fauna ), a new chapter in the country’s history begins. The leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress UDPS party is the son of Etienne Tshisekedi , the historical opponent of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who crushed the nation under one of the bloodiest dictatorships in history, lasting 32 years .
The election took place with the support of the Trump administration, which had initially promised checks and condemnations on possible electoral fraud (which regularly took place), in which the opposition candidate Martin Fayulu was defeated, who probably obtained more valid ballots: State Department officials justify his election by asserting that rejecting Tshisekedi’s election would have triggered violent conflicts, while the new president guarantees a peaceful transition of power, after the years of the Kabila clan’s rule, notorious for its corruption.
Many in Congo believe that Tshisekedi, siding with the United States and the European Union, has made a deal with the outgoing, pro-Chinese president Joseph Kabila: a deal that gives the former president and his family significant power and influence, behind the scenes, in order to win the next elections . Joseph Kabila, his family and other trusted individuals control some 70 companies, and is the indirect holder of at least 120 mining permits on the country’s key resources: valuable minerals, such as cobalt, as well as diamonds and gold .
With his advisors, known as the ‘Mobutisti clan’, Kabila remains the real power, while Fayulu represents the Congolese business class, fed up with the regime. If Fayulu had become president, it would have been the end for the Mobutistas: the Lamuka coalition, to which Fayulu belongs, is planning a radical revision of the mining code to make it transparent, and an all-out war against the Rwandan Hutu militia FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and the various Congolese Mai Mai armed groups that in the east control the territories of the illegal coltan, gold and diamond mines and are business partners of the Kabila family.
Kabila offered Tshisekedi the presidency and Vital Kamerhe the vice-presidency, on conditions that they would guarantee the interests of the family and the clan. During his last term in office, the former president faced the introduction of sanctions by the United States and the European Union for blocking the New Year’s Eve Agreement , signed on 31 December 2016, which provided for the formation of a government of national union. However, Kabila formed a government with only part of the opposition and delayed the elections . The sanctions had a negative impact on the Congolese economy, and on internal security, because the UN Stabilisation Mission, called Monusco, practically stopped functioning .
The unexpected foreign policy turnaround
November 2019: Felix Tshisekedi (right) in conversation with Wang Qishan (left), Chinese Vice President
Surprise: once elected, Tshisekedi decided to distance himself from his predecessor and accused Kabila’s loyalists of blocking efforts to fight corruption, to coordinate a loan programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to introduce a comprehensive free education system. He then sought the support of industrialists and all politicians to reform the state and improve social services: he initiated a review of mining contracts, pursued a diplomatic rapprochement with neighbouring countries and made the DRC (with its extensive tropical forests) a prominent nation in the global debate on climate change issues . He also appointed three new judges to the Constitutional Court in October 2020, ensuring the loyalty of this institution, which once served Kabila .
On the economic front, Tshisekedi has promised over USD 86 billion of state investment over 10 years to fight unemployment, eradicate poverty and increase the average income of the population. For these reasons, according to the IMF, most Congolese (80% of whom live below the poverty line) will want to re-elect him . But the real news is that Tshisekedi has managed to convert the loans paid by the Chinese during the years of Kabila’s presidency into refunds for unpaid taxes, thereby, in one single action, reducing the DRC’s external debt by a third. This makes him a true hero.
For about two years he was a compromise candidate, and the parliamentary majority remained controlled by Kabila. In January 2021, several hundred MPs from the Common Front for Congo, including the prime minister, joined the coalition promoted by Tshisekedi, the Sacred Union. Last December, he removed Albert Yuma, one of Kabila’s lieutenants, notorious for his corruption, from the presidency of Gécamines, the country’s largest mining company and the biggest supporter of the state budget. His deputy, Vital Kamerhe, was sentenced to 13 years in prison at hard labour for embezzling almost USD 50 million of public funds . Kamerhe’s supporters claim that the trial is a political move to prevent him from running for president .
There will be elections in 2023. The disputed appointment of Denis Kadima as head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) threatens to weaken Tshisekedi’s governing coalition: Kadima comes from the same province as the president, could strengthen his leadership, but could also undermine the perception of the integrity of the vote and split the unity of the Sacred Union . The leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches, the most respected arbiters in Congo, question Tshisekedi’s commitment to a fair electoral process, accusing him of totalitarian drift .
In reality, once elected, Tshisekedi discovered, little by little, that there was a way forward to win his re-election and, at the same time, do something good and lasting for his country. He chose to make the review of foreign policy a crucial component of the reform agenda that he pledged to pursue during his five-year term, with the strengthening of the DRC’s presence on the regional and international scene, the restoration of the country’s image globally, all to improve the government’s negotiating capacity and the further opening of the nation to the world – the only way to improve the quality of life, fight corruption and secessionist forces, the inhuman exploitation of Congolese mineral resources, improve social services, give everyone a real education .
The sensitive issue of mining licences
Felix Tshisekedi (right) receives a memento from Prof. Isaac Macharia, Chairman of the Board of Equity Group (left) and Dr. James Mwangi Equity Group Managing Director and CEO (centre) during the signing of the Accession Treaty by the DRC after admission into the East African Community (EAC) and in support of Kenya-DRC trade relations
During an Equity Group meeting, organised to celebrate the signing of the Accession Treaty by the DRC into the East African Community (EAC), Tshisekedi, in order to promote trade relations with Kenya, announced the implementation of new reforms, some of which include Kenya Builders & Concrete Co. Ltd, which is planning a cement company, and Tru Foods Limited, which is setting up an edible oil production plant. In the contracts for the reform of logistics and industrial infrastructure decided by the Congolese president, some of the companies that have made commitments include Rentco Africa Limited , Option Group, Greenlight Planet Limited , Jumbo Foam Limited, BIDCO , Geomaps , and Nyanja Associates, plus several others . A total of twenty-six Kenyan companies were awarded contracts worth USD 1.6 billion .
Tshisekedi has now moved on to redefining the mining licences: the real test of fire for his intentions and ability to change things. The Congo government is reviewing the copper and cobalt concessions controlled by China Molybdenum Co and China Railway Group . In May 2021, Tshisekedi, together with Finance Minister Nicolas Kazadi, formed a commission that negotiated new contracts with two companies (increasing tax revenues by more than two-thirds and improving wages and treatment of workers) – and is now going through the same process with Sinohydro Corp. and China Railway Group. At the invitation of the US, Kinshasa is renegotiating the commodity and royalty rights controlled by the Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler (sanctioned by the US Treasury Department), and the Anglo-Swiss multinational Glencore . Glencore owns three companies in the DRC: the Kamoto Copper Company, Katanga Mining and Mutanda Mining (MUMI) . Some of the permits expire soon and Tshisekedi is threatening not to renew them .
The President has instituted a ban on issuing and trading mining permits until the country’s mining register is verified, a measure aimed at combating fraud within the industry. He told ministers that he wanted to put an end to the squandering of mineral resources caused by the corruption of politicians and officials involved in the administration of the mining register . At the same time, Tshisekedi is investing in promoting economic opportunities for artisanal miners (thousands of starving people, who risk their lives every day for a few dollars), to improve people’s livelihoods, to defuse tensions in the mining sector. The competition between industrial and artisanal miners is a source of great tension and violence: the government is fighting not to leave space for artisanal mining areas, but to find another, more humane job for the workers.
As for Glencore, here too the US has weighed in on the Congolese government’s decisions: the Swiss multinational is unscrupulously active with Russia and in particular with Rusal, of which it owns 8.75 per cent, as well as marketing its aluminium. The company is affected by US sanctions. Glencore’s business in the Congo is now being investigated by the British Serious Fraud Office and the Ontario Securities Commission in Canada.
In 1997, Gertler (with DGI Dan Gertler International) bought its first mine in the DRC
Special mention must be made of Dan Gertler, whom we have already mentioned in our articles . Upon taking office, US President Joe Biden reminded Tshisekedi to distance himself from Gertler, a friend of Kabila and Donald Trump . In 2017 Gertler gave a controversial EUR 128 million loan to Gécamines, human rights and anti-corruption organisations questioned whether this loan was a cover for money laundering . The DRC and Gertler’s company Ventora have reached an agreement in which their permits for oil exploration, gold and iron ore mining are revoked. In return, the DRC agrees to reimburse Gertler for certain expenses and allow him to keep valuable royalty streams from three copper and cobalt projects. According to André Wameso, Vice-President of the Commission who negotiated the agreement, this historic step was made possible by the sanctions imposed by the United States on the Ventora group.
In 10 years of partnership, Glencore has lavished more than half a billion dollars in loans and shares in the offshore companies owned by Gertler, enabling it to realise at least $67 million in risk-free profits. In 2009, Glencore lent $45 million to one of Gertler’s companies in the British Virgin Islands to acquire Katanga Mining, a large copper mine, with the backing of the Kabilas, who eliminated the shares of other investors.
The control of the diamond, gold, copper, cobalt and coltan (columbite-tantalite, used to optimise energy consumption in new generation chips) deposits has been, and still is, in the hands of foreign powers, including China, which does not disdain to use local armed groups, criminal and terrorist gangs that smuggle in money and weapons to manage its business. An ultra-billion dollar business with global strategic significance . Most of the mines are concentrated in the east of the country, where more than 100 armed groups are vying for power in a guerrilla warfare that has caused some 4.5 million people to flee. If Kinshasa takes measures to fight them, the local militias react by committing kidnappings and killings. One example: regarding the murder of the Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio, carabiniere Vittorio Iacovacci and their driver Mustapha Milambo on 22 February 2021, today the Congolese judiciary raises strong doubts about a possible involvement of ENI with the murderers. The central government has never managed to put order in an area marked by years of conflict . This is why Tshisekedi authorised US special forces to help the Congolese army against the ADF, an armed group linked to ISIS, the deadliest of the dozens of armed militias .
To achieve peace, Tshisekedi needs the neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda, because many of the fighters of rebel groups like the ADF come from those countries. In any case, he tries to keep the balance between all foreign pressures: on the one hand, he has shifted the orientation of foreign policy towards the West, on the other hand, he negotiates agreements with Chinese companies. During a visit to the mining town of Kolwezi , he declared: ‘It is not normal that those with whom our country has signed mining contracts become rich while our people remain poor’. To achieve this, administrative processes for breach of contract must be avoided at all costs.
But Tshikesedi negotiates new contracts. First in the crosshairs was the 2008 mega-contract, in which the Chinese companies China Railway Engineering Corporation and Sinohydro, forming a joint venture called Sicomines with the Congolese state company Gécamines, undertook to build roads, hospitals, railways, schools and electricity grids in exchange for access to 10 million tonnes of copper and 600 thousand tonnes of cobalt. The joint venture was supposed to spend 3 billion on the country’s infrastructure and invest another 3 billion in the actual mining – but to date only 825 million dollars worth of work has been carried out: no hospitals, no universities, only 356 km of paved roads and 854 km of gravel roads.
The natural riches of the Democratic Republic of Congo contribute a record percentage of the world’s production of the currently most strategic minerals
During the debate on the failed works, the Congolese judiciary disclosed that there had been bribes paid by the Chinese to the entourage of former President Kabila. On the basis of 3.5 million documents from the Congolese branch of the Gabonese bank BGFIBank, it has been reconstructed that 55 million dollars from various Chinese companies operating in the Congo passed through the current accounts of a ghost company controlled by the Chinese, the Congo Construction Company (CCC), much of which was then withdrawn in cash by emissaries of the Kabila clan or transferred to the current accounts of its companies.
The clan has control of the Congolese branch of the bank: Gloria Mteyu, Kabila’s sister, and Aneth Lutale, Kabila’s sister-in-law and wife of the CEO Francis Selemani, Kabila’s half-brother, are majority shareholders. Of the $55 million, $41 million was withdrawn in cash between January 2013 and July 2018, and at least $30 million of this went into the clan’s pockets. When the president’s exit appeared imminent, Chinese companies recovered $10 million already paid in cash withdrawals, despite the fact that disciplinary proceedings against the bank were already under way .
Due to corruption, one fifth of the country’s mining revenue, $750 million, was lost between 2013 and 2015 . A report by the Plateforme de Protection des Lanceurs d’Alerte en Afrique (Pplaaf) and the French newspaper Mediapart , the NGO The Sentry and the journalistic network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) , denounces the payment of $138 million (including the aforementioned $55 million) as a hidden fee for the signing of a $6.2 billion contract for the exploitation of Congolese copper and cobalt granted to Chinese companies .
A complete review of past mining contracts is now being carried out, a task conducted with the support of the US government. The most suspicious contract is the one with China Molybdenum, which bought two large cobalt sites from the American Freeport-McMoRan for USD 3 billion, and which is fully implicated in the BGFIBank scandal, having among other things acquired CCC in 2018. Chinese investors, backed by their country’s banks with $124 billion, control 70% of the entire mining sector in Congo, and in particular 15 of the 19 mines that produce cobalt, the mineral indispensable for the production of electric cars (currently 70% of all the world’s cobalt is controlled and processed by China) .
For this achievement, we have Hunter Biden, the son of US President Joe Biden, to thank: the capital management company of which he is a partner, BHR, whose majority share is held by Chinese investors, brokered the purchase by China Molybdenum of the Tenke Fungurume site, which alone ensures a cobalt production higher than that of any other country in the world. Biden promises America and the world a future centred on electric mobility, but the minerals to make the kind of vehicles needed are controlled by the Chinese, thanks in part to his son’s flair for business.
In search of new industrial partners
Miners in cobalt mines sift and wash ore without masks or gloves, exposed to a high risk of respiratory diseases and serious infections
Last August, the Congo government, at Tshisekedi’s proposal, re-evaluated the reserves and resources of the Tenke Fungurume mine in order to claim its rights. Gécamines, which owns 20% of the mine, petitioned the courts in December to seize the Chinese’s shares. The court appointed Ngoie Mbayo as temporary administrator to replace Jun Zhou, the managing director appointed by China Molybdenum. This decision has reawakened the interest of world markets in Congo: the country has attracted 12 foreign investment projects in untapped areas compared to five in 2019 . China Mobile International , the Egyptian Benya and the American Raxio have announced projects for the country’s digital communication infrastructure.
The DRC also registered its first two renewable energy projects: Sun Plus (US) and DPA Africa Asset Co. (Mauritius) launched plans to develop solar energy in the country . But that is not enough. A scourge is the widespread use of child exploitation by American multinationals. A coalition of researchers and lawyers has filed a complaint against Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, five technology giants accused of knowingly profiting from child labour in cobalt mines: in 2014, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, estimated that 40,000 children work in the Katanga mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo .
For several months, IRAdvocates investigated the cobalt supply chain and its two key suppliers: Chinese company Huayou Cobalt and mining giant Glencore. Both benefit from child labour in the mines through the companies, which operate mining sites in Lualaba and Haut-Katanga. According to the documents, Huayou Cobalt supplies cobalt to Apple. The Chinese company also owns Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM) and Compagnie Miniere de Musonoie (COMUS), which operate in Lualaba. The Belgian company Umicore, which works for Glencore, is also one of Apple’s suppliers. Glencore and Umicore formalised their partnership in May 2018 .
Tshisekedi wants to broaden the investor base and weave relationships with companies that can build infrastructure that is crucial for the country’s development. In April 2019, the president flies to Washington and meets with billionaire Robert Friedland . Also waiting for them are Mike Hammer , the US ambassador to Congo, and Sun Yufeng , head of Citic Metal , a Chinese state-owned company, the largest investor in Friedland’s company, Ivanhoe Mines .
Sun Yufeng and Friedland ask for support for a new copper company, designed to consolidate China’s influence over Congo. The two tell Tshisekedi about Citic’s ability to build large infrastructures: roads, railways, ports and bridges, something few Western mining companies could match. Friedland has his eye on the Kamoa-Kakula mine, a huge copper deposit worth at least USD 10 billion. So far, mining companies have given up on the mine for fear of the situation in the country, but Friedland has turned to China’s Zijin Mining and Citic Metal to generate over a billion dollars to build Kamoa-Kakula, which is 20 per cent owned by the Congo government .
The meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Félix Antoine Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on 30 August 2019
Friedland is expected to eventually cede control of Ivanhoe to Zijin and Citic. China has long wanted to have a large mining company to rival those of Western groups such as BHP, Anglo American and Rio Tinto. Imports from Congo take place through a system of non-repayable financing, rights to exploit the deposits, presence of Chinese technicians and workers, and control of exports and transport by sea. In return, China has allowed Congolese goods exported to the Asian country to be duty-free – a circumstance that has led China to control the supply of rare raw materials to Congo, above all cobalt, especially after the DRC joined the New Silk Road project.
But Tshisekedi is not at all convinced, and decides to join the great Japanese project for the development of the African continent: TICAD, the International Conference founded in 1993 in collaboration with the United Nations, the World Bank and the African Union Commission (AUC) . In 2019, Tshisekedi became the first Congolese head of state to attend a TICAD summit in person . The CEO of ANAPI (the Congolese Investment Promotion Agency), Anthony Nkinzo Kamole, expects investors from the rising sun, instead of Chinese investors, to participate in infrastructure tenders .
During the years of Kabila’s presidency, on the other hand, the Chinese have ruled: among the many Chinese companies operating in the DRC are Huayou Cobalt, Chengtun Mining, Wanbao and CNMC (China Nonferrous Metal Mining Co. Ltd), the majority owner of the Deziwa copper and cobalt mine in a joint venture with Gécamines. Ivanhoe Mines’ latest venture concerns the Western Foreland site: Friedland has announced that it plans to carry out a USD 16 million exploration programme in the immediate vicinity of Kamoa-Kakula . Now Tshisekedi is calling everything into question – even though he only has two years before the new vote, and no one can know whether he will still be in the saddle to complete the work he has just begun.
Africa is the eighth largest economy in the world and by 2063 the continent aims to be the third largest. The Democratic Republic of Congo has the potential to become the continent’s largest energy producer. According to a study commissioned by Eurometaux , a grouping of metals industrialists, (including global mining giants such as Glencore and Rio Tinto) the European Union risks not having enough critical raw materials for renewable technologies . The reform programme being pursued by President Tshisekedi is moving in the right direction, turning the country into a major player on energy and technology change issues, as a European partner, and not a Chinese subject. The country of the mountain gorillas, after years of suffering, now glimpses the hope of becoming a world leader in the production of renewable energy sources.