DRC: will Moïse Katumbi come out of the shadows?
From his exile in Belgium, oppositionist Moïse Katumbi is watching for signs that he can return to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But with several legal cases that he says are trumped up by the former government of Joseph Kabila, Katumbi is unwilling to go back without certain assurances.
Tough talk from Kabila
In his last interview with Jeune Afrique before stepping down as president, Kabila likened Katumbi to Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ. The conflict between the two politicians dates back to 2015 when the then governor of Katanga Province refused to back Kabila’s attempts to stay in power.
Katumbi poured a lot of the money he made in mining and other activities into a presidential election campaign. The vote took place two years later than planned and without him as a candidate. Forced into exile, Katumbi backed the opposition candidate Martin Fayulu. Katumbi provided money and personnel to the Fayulu campaign and lobbied the governments of neighbouring countries.
- Etienne Tshisekedi pulled out of the opposition alliance after it selected Fayulu. Prior to that, Tshisekedi had been one of Katumbi’s closest allies.
- Katumbi and Fayulu were part of the Lamuka (“Wake Up” in Lingala) alliance, which also included Jean-Pierre Bemba, Adolphe Muzito and Freddy Matungulu. The Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo claimed that Fayulu took more than 60% of the vote, but Tshisekedi was declared the winner and has been running the country since 24 January.
- Kabila, on the other hand, still controls parliament, and his political platform, the Front Commun pour le Congo, is due to take control of several ministries.
A matter of time…
Since the vote, Katumbi, 54, has travelled less and avoided the media, leading to speculation that he has given up. One of his close allies says no: “It’s not his character at all! He observes the situation, which has not yet been resolved. When the time comes, he will speak out and return to his country. It’s a matter of weeks, months at most!”
- Katumbi made a single public statement since Tshisekedi’s inauguration. On 23 March in Brussels, he accused Kabila of “fraud” and said that he is “evil”. He also said Félix Tshisekedi “remains a brother”.
Dealing with Tshisekedi
Fayulu maintains his hardline position against the new DRC government, and Katumbi has been urging those in the opposition to give the new President a chance. Like many Western governments and the Catholic church, Katumbi is looking for Tshisekedi to marginalise Kabila or provoke a conflict with him.
- Katumbi and Tshisekedi grew closer after the death of Félix’s father, veteran oppositionist Etienne Tshisekedi, on 1 February 2017. Katumbi sometimes provided Etienne with financial support.
Are their ties strong enough for a rapprochement?
Tshisekedi has made real efforts to allow Katumbi to return to the DRC. Katumbi no longer has a valid DRC passport because the Kabila government maintained that he previously had Italian citizenship – a claim that Katumbi denies.
Tshisekedi’s government issued Katumbi with new travel documents and sent an emissary to deliver them by hand in March. But he is not in a hurry to return.
Conditions for return
Katumbi is eagerly watching to see what the new government will look like. Key posts that will influence Katumbi’s strategy include that of prime minister – Tshisekedi has still to decide but sources say he has vetoed Kabila’s choice of Gécamines chairman Albert Yuma – and the ministers of mines, finance, the interior and justice.
- The justice ministry is important because Katumbi faces three cases: one linked to real-estate dealings, another focused on his use of foreign bodyguards and the third related to his possible Italian nationality.
- For Tshisekedi to withdraw the cases would allow him to show that he is turning a page on the Kabila days and also address some donor and activist concerns. But will he be able to?
Katumbi is unlikely to go back to the DRC if he thinks that Kabila still has the power to harm him.
Opposition in exile and at home
Katumbi’s political party, Ensemble, is the biggest opposition party in parliament, controlling just 66 of 500 national assembly seats. Katumbi has been out of the country for three years, though, casting doubts on his mobilising power.
If Katumbi is unable to return, he might adopt a more aggressive strategy. The opposition could turn to street protests and ratcheting up external pressure to push the new government team to negotiate. The DRC’s economic and social trajectories will shape how much latitude Tshisekedi has to manage expectations about restoring the rule of law and fighting corruption.
Katumbi’s business empire has been hurting since he fell out with Kabila. He sold his stake in mining services firm Mining Company of Katanga (MCK) to French firm Necotrans, which then went bankrupt and he only received $20m of the $140m sale price. Katumbi went to court in France and won back his rights to MCK, but it has not been easy to take back control from a distance as the Kinshasa authorities remained hostile to him. Most of Katumbi’s DRC investments are dormant, but he holds some discreet businesses interests in the country and the sub-region. He remains the owner of the Tout Puissant Mazembe football club, which won the national championship and the CAF Confederation Cup in 2017.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.