“The DRC can be the Saudi Arabia of the Electric Vehicle industry!” – Jeannine Mabunda Lioko

By Patrick Smith, in Cape Town
Posted on Monday, 27 June 2022 10:25

Jeannine Mabunda Lioko, from Twitter.

We are sitting around a café table in a wharf on Cape Town’s waterfront, a few hundred metres from the Mining Indaba, where thousands of engineers, bankers and assorted geeks are crowding into the city’s conference centre, breaking cover after two years of pandemic prohibition.

Jeannine Mabunda Lioko, a former speaker of parliament in the DRC, has just been explaining to a crowd of investors why the West’s ban on fossil-fuel projects in Africa was hypocritical and misplaced. She melds diplomatic politesse with a steely assertion of her mineral-rich country’s national interest.

Thanks to geopolitical shifts and Moscow’s war on Ukraine, her arguments win an enthusiastic hearing, if not immediate pledges of finance. Mabunda is well into the fifth chapter of her career, into which she has crammed stints as an executive at Citibank, a senior staffer at the DRC’s central bank, running a state investment fund, minister of industry, presidential adviser on the campaign against sexual violence, and then becoming the first woman president of the national assembly in Kinshasa.

Today she dons another cap – that of a businesswoman and company director raising funds to tap the DRC’s green mining economy. Producing more than 70% of the world’s cobalt and 60% of its coltan, the DRC can claim to be the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle and communications industries, argues Mabunda.

But the parallels end with the production figures. The DRC’s ‘scandale géologique’ has never generated stratospheric foreign reserves for the country, let alone benefited the vast majority of its people.

“How do we change a reality in which our miners dig up the fuel for the green energy revolution, but they live in homes without reliable electricity?” asks Mabunda.

As a technocrat turned political player, with a senior perch in the former ruling party of former president Joseph Kabila, Mabunda calibrates outrage at her country’s predicament with some sense of hope that the trends are moving in the right direction.

A conflict country

Just after the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, Mabunda was recruited to the Banque Centrale du Congo by its new governor Jean-Claude Masangu Mulongo, a respected colleague at Citibank, which was wielding a Goldman Sachs-style influence in Kinshasa at the time. Alongside the Marxists and nationalists grouped around Congo’s new leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, technocrats such as Masangu and Mabunda were trying to build new systems, breaking away from kleptocracy to better account for public finances and how mineral riches are exploited.

Amid the ensuing chaos – the murder of Kabila I, the contested succession of his son Joseph and multiple armed interventions by neighbouring regimes – how much remains of those quixotic attempts at reform?

“It’s difficult to go from a conflict country without institutions and the rules of the game uncertain […]. We can do better and the fact that it is now a public debate is a beginning in the past these things were not even tabled.”

Mabunda pauses, mulling the immensity of the country and its aspirations. “Of course, we can do better […]. like I said, 84 million people is a huge mass of people and they are impatient […]. In front of them, you have a new set of rules. But that’s not enough; a tone has to be set.”

As Mabunda veered from central banker to heading the Fonds de promotion de l’industrie (FPI) and then to attempting to manage the opaque finances of the DRC’s state enterprises, she landed in the belly of the beast. It was, she insists, Masangu who set her on this path.

“He assigned me to work on reform inside the [central] bank, to make sure that women were promoted. He always asked me disruptive questions – the questions that people do not like were for me.”

Her great leap forward came when Masangu recommended she apply to be director of the FPI – just as the World Bank was backing public-enterprise reforms with millions of dollars. From there it was a short step to the political arena, as minister for state enterprises, pushing laws to reform state-owned companies. She tried to commercialise some of the DRC’s biggest state companies, attempting to separate them from political patronage.

Partisan politics

Perhaps it was those parlia­mentary debates that pushed Mabunda into full-time partisan politics in 2011, as a member of parliament (MP)  for her native province of Equateur, representing Kabila’s Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie. Mabunda quickly rose and was drawn into Kabila’s circle, first as a campaigner against gender-based violence and then as the first woman president of the national assembly.

It all changed after the messy national elections of 2018, when Kabila’s preferred successor, Emmanuel Shadary, failed to win more than a derisory quota of votes and Kabila made way for a ‘negotiated’ election victory for Félix Tshisekedi.

In the febrile aftermath, Tshisekedi took over the presidency but Kabila still controlled the top generals and spies, while his ruling coalition commanded a majority of votes in the assembly.

As Tshisekedi supporters persuaded more of Kabila’s MPs to cross the floor to his Union Sacré alliance, Mabunda was one of the next targets. Was she ever tempted to cut a deal and flip to Tshisekedi’s alliance?

“Politics is like any work […] you choose a side. My choice was the Front Commun pour le Congo coalition, not because I had a job under Kabila but I was able to convince the people of my community in northern Equateur that we have to be in the political game.”

The power race

It went beyond the partisan game, according to Mabunda: “If you are a former speaker of parliament, you have to let democracy happen.”

The bigger story, she says, was that competitive party politics still seems new in the DRC. “We come from a conflict country where rebels were at the forefront. We transferred the use of force and guns to a constitution, setting the rules of the game. It’s still a power race.”

Unwilling to be drawn on speculation about the alignments for the elections next year or whether they will happen, Mabunda is set on staying in politics, whatever the stakes.

“What matters is how we make sure this sense of democratic leadership is endorsed by the Congolese […]. You’ve got strong men in Congo, in Burundi, in Rwanda. Central Africa is apparently a space for strong men, but they are chosen by the citizens.”

As Mabunda races off to her next meeting, she leaves a question hanging. Amid the strong men contesting for power in the DRC next year, might they be joined by a strong woman … with a quarter of a century of staying power in the system?

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