Is Albert Yuma Mulimbi angry that he was not in Kolwezi on 15 January?
On that day, the Deziwa mining company celebrated the opening of a brand-new copper and cobalt mine and processing plant. According to a source close to Yuma, “He put all of his talent and energy into the project. His absence is a big blow for us.”
In the speech he was supposed to give, the iconic chairman of Gécamines’ board of directors had planned to revel in the fact that in 10 years’ time Deziwa would transfer 100% of operations over to Gécamines (which currently owns a 49% stake in Deziwa). But where will Yuma be 10 years from now?
No official justification for his absence has been given, but it is well known that Yuma was not authorised to leave Kinshasa and that the powerful Direction Générale de Migration is making sure to restrict his movements.
The measures come on the back of the financial dispute pitting him against Israeli businessman Dan Gertler.
The €200m case is the subject of much speculation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The stakes are so high that the prosecutor’s office in Kinshasa took up the matter at the end of 2019.
Yuma, along with Gécamines’ managing director and secretary general, has been asked to make himself available to the courts. On 27 December 2019, in a statement made on national television, President Tshisekedi himself urged the courts “to do their job.”
If the case has had such a big impact, it is because Yuma, 64, is an important figure in the DRC’s economy. In addition to chairing Gécamines’ board of directors since 2011, he runs the Fédération des entreprises du Congo, the Conférence Permanente des Chambres Consulaires Africaines et Francophones and the Central Bank of the Congo’s Audit Committee.
Above all, he is a close ally of former president Joseph Kabila, and both are Katangan and from the small town of Kongolo.
Will Yuma crack under pressure? In September 2019, as the boss of all Congolese bosses, he was part of the delegation which accompanied President Tshisekedi on his first official visit to Belgium. The two men had been on good terms these past months.
Nevertheless, Tshisekedi, who came into power just a little over a year ago, has put anti-corruption measures at the top of his priority list and knows that his country’s citizens and international partners fully expect him to follow through on his promises.
The fact is, Yuma is a divisive figure. A technocrat who studied at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, he began his career in the early 1980s at Belgian textile company UTEXAfrica, now known as TEXAF and primarily involved in real estate.
He made his fortune at the company, and Kinshasa has not forgotten the lavish wedding he organised for his daughter in July 2019.
A skilled speaker, at times haughty and always impeccably dressed, he has expressed sovereignty-focused views over the past several years and readily criticises Western investors, who he accuses of not paying “an adequate portion of their revenues and profits to the Congolese people,” whilst being much more conciliatory towards his Chinese partners.
In 2017, the non-governmental organisation Global Witness accused Gécamines of mismanaging and embezzling sums totalling several hundreds of millions of dollars. Yuma denied the claims and defended his record.
However, the West is on edge and takes a dim view of his close relationship with Kabila, who is suspected of trying to stay in power, and Gertler, who has been sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury since December 2017. At that time, they were still friends.
To make matters worse, in 2018, Yuma positioned himself as an ardent supporter of the new Congolese mining code, which was set to be stricter with foreign investors compared to the previous code. At that time, according to a person close to the former president, “Yuma was in direct contact with Kabila, who consulted him unofficially on a number of matters.”
Today, Yuma finds himself at the centre of a battle being waged by Kabila and Tshisekedi. Gécamines is of crucial importance to the economy and, by extension, to those in power.
This is nothing new, as part of the reason why the Belgians supported and funded the Katangan secession in the 1960s was so that they could retain control over the company, then known as Union Minière du Haut Katanga.
When Tshisekedi began his term as the DRC’s leader in early 2019, he made sure to assert his authority over Gécamines’ management and was directly advised by Dany Banza, once considered to be close to Kabila rival Moïse Katumbi, on the issue.
The President did not succeed in removing Yuma, who Kabila attempted – in vain – to force him to appoint as prime minister, but in early June Tshisekedi signed several orders which overhauled the company’s management team.
Now Yuma finds himself working alongside a managing director, Sama Lukonde Kyenge, who also happens to be close to Katumbi.
The tensions arising from the decision have been so high that the state portfolio ministry, under the control of Kabila’s coalition, refuses to implement the reform orders (however, the two heads of the executive branch seem to be close to reaching an agreement on the matter).
What is in Tshisekedi’s best interest appears to be to get rid of the troublesome Yuma, first of all because, as a member of the President’s inner circle put it, he “is being targeted by the US and could be sanctioned”.
But what will Kabila do? Yuma is still key to his firm grip on the mining sector, just like former mines minister Martin Kabwelulu.
According to a source from the Kabila-allied Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC): “Turning him over to the courts would be a sign of weakness in the eyes of Tshisekedi and send a bad signal to his own supporters since they may see it as proof that Kabila is losing power and influence.”
In other words, if a Kabila machine heavyweight like Yuma can be given over to the courts, then anyone can.
The former president is all too aware of this. Just as he knows that if Yuma ends up in the hands of the courts, his economic and financial networks could be threatened.
Tshisekedi, on the other hand, does not seem like he will let the case go. On 31 December 2019, he met with Kabila and reiterated that he wanted the truth to be brought to light about the case.
On 10 January, two FCC members of the government – justice minister Célestin Tunda Ya Kasende and decentralisation minister Azarias Ruberwa – tried to make a case for Yuma in the middle of the council of ministers’ meeting, arguing that Yuma is vital to Gécamines’ smooth operation.
However, Tshisekedi dismissed their argument, explaining that he had blocked a letter that his attorney general had wanted to send to the state prosecutor to ask him to authorise the Gécamines executives’ trip to Lubumbashi, where the company’s headquarters is located. According to a minister, “The President was very upset that day. He took a hard line on the issue.”
It remains to be seen whether or not a political, as opposed to a legal, solution may be found, bearing in mind that the FCC does not plan on backing down.
On 22 January, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the leader of Kabila’s party, issued a public warning: “[Yuma] didn’t commit any wrongdoing. People are looking to blame him for something, but for what exactly? If we hear that something bad has happened to him […], we’ll paralyse the country.”
A €200m power struggle
To grasp the origins of the case, we have to go back to October 2017. At that time, Fleurette Mumi, a company owned by Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, agreed to loan Gécamines €200m ($221.9m). An initial instalment of €128m was paid to the miner. Six months later, in April 2018, this portion of the loan fell due.
However, the mining company refused to pay back the sum. According to Gécamines’ legal team, paying this debt at a time when Gertler is being sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury (and has been since December 2017) could lead Gécamines to be sanctioned. Gertler’s legal team has refuted this argument.
Meanwhile, the loan taken out by Gécamines from Fleurette Mumi has been transferred to another Gertler-owned company, Ventora Development Sasu.
Ventora brought the case before a Congolese court to recover the €128m loan and the Lubumbashi Commercial Court ruled in its favour in a decision dated 14 November 2019. Gécamines has appealed the ruling.
Pending a legal or political solution, citizens continue to speculate over how Gécamines used the funds. The company initially asserted that they were used to finance development projects but later explained that the money was used to pay tax advances.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.