DRC: Chinese ambassador pays visit to opposition leader Moïse Katumbi

By Eric Olander
Posted on Monday, 18 April 2022 09:06

China’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zhu Jing, made a high-profile visit over the weekend of April 10 to one of the country’s most important power brokers in the heart of the cobalt mining zone in the southern mining belt in Katanga province.

Zhu paid a visit on Saturday to the sprawling estate of Moïse Katumbi, former governor of Katanga province who is also one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen and leader of the opposition party “Ensemble pour la Republique” (Together for the Republic).

The fact that both men allowed a camera crew to tag along as they toured Katumbi’s farm and his various business ventures while notably ending the day at the headquarters for Ensemble provides an important clue that they were eager to use the visit as an opportunity to convey messages to key stakeholders in Kinshasa and even as far away as Washington, D.C.

Katumbi’s relationship with China goes back decades to the early 2000s when then-president Joseph Kabila was in power and when the former governor played an instrumental role in some of the early mega cobalt/copper mining deals that are now so controversial today.

“Mr. Katumbi is an old friend of China,” Zhu told a reporter during the visit. “He’s been an initiator of a number of big projects between China and the DRC, particularly in Katanga province,” he said making a veiled reference to deals like the massive $6 billion Sicomines contract signed back in 2008.

But to fully appreciate the significance of this visit, one must also study Katumbi’s complex political history. He’s swung wildly across the spectrum, first as a loyal backer of then-president Joseph Kabila in the early 2000s but after a falling out, he threw his considerable political heft behind Kabila’s rival Félix Tshisekedi.

But that alliance didn’t last long and soon after the new president assumed office in 2019, Katumbi withdrew his support over a dispute on how to organize the country’s elections. That then prompted Motumbi to launch his own party, Ensemble, with him as a likely presidential challenger to President Tshisekedi in next year’s general election.

So, as the presidential election campaign gains momentum and Chinese companies under intense pressure from the Tshisekedi administration over the terms of mining contracts signed during the Kabila-era, the optics of a visit like this are very important.

A MESSAGE FROM ZHU TO PRESIDENT TSHISEKEDI: Zhu could have met with Katumbi in private without press, but he didn’t and this was likely a strategic decision to send a two-pronged message:

  1. China has options in the DRC beyond President Tshisekedi and they are not afraid to explore them.
  2. China is expert in fostering deep, meaningful relationships with opposition parties that allows it to smoothly manage power transitions in Africa and other Global South regions. This is what that looks like.

A MESSAGE FROM ZHU TO THE UNITED STATES: There is a misguided perception among a number of U.S. stakeholders that China’s current dominance of the Congolese cobalt mining sector has been shaken by the political turmoil over the past year related to the contract reviews initiated by President Tshisekedi. This visit, in part, was intended to challenge that assumption.

During his weekend southern tour, Zhu also stopped by to say hello to Fifi Masuka Saini, the powerful interim governor of Lualalaba province that is, incidentally, home to the massive Tenke Fungurume copper/cobalt mine operated by Chinese mining major China Molybdenum.

The message here was clear: China’s ties among the people who matter in the mining belt are solid.

One interesting side note about this weekend’s visit is that Zhu was protected throughout his journey in the southern DRC by the Hong Kong-based private security contractor Frontier Services Group (yes, the same FSG co-founded by former Blackwater founder Erik Prince). FSG is very active in both Katanga and Lualalaba provinces protecting Chinese personnel and property.

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