DRC: Dan Gertler, the inevitable rise of Kabila’s businessman

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Dan Gertler: God, the Congo, and him

By Mathieu Olivier, Romain Gras, Special correspondent in Tel-Aviv
Posted on Wednesday, 24 August 2022 14:56, updated on Thursday, 25 August 2022 15:18

photomontage by JA

During the 2000s, Dan Gertler became omnipresent in the diamond sector in the DRC. A look back at how the businessman, now accused of corruption and sanctioned by the US, built his empire.

This is part 2 of a 4-part series

In April 2003, when the Sun City agreements were signed in South Africa under the eyes of Thabo Mbeki, Dan Gertler was proud. Very proud, in fact. Secretly, he has just participated in the elaboration of the peace process between the government and the Congolese rebel groups. He spent hours alone with Paul Kagame, talked for days with Joseph Kabila and used his influence with the Bush administration in the US. Thus, inevitably, the occasional diplomat, who is first and foremost a businessman, rubbed his hands together in glee.

The entrepreneur, barely 30 years old, was only known to a handful of people at the top of the Congolese state, but he had just succeeded in his first major gamble. In 2001, he gave up challenging Joseph Kabila’s suspension of the diamond monopoly that Laurent-Désiré Kabila had granted him in 1999.

He then accepted the role of the new Congolese president’s emissary to Washington, which would take Joseph Kabila to Sun City. In two rolls of the dice, he laid the foundations for a relationship that goes beyond simple friendship.

“The Sun City agreements have made us more than brothers,” says Gertler, comfortably seated in the Tel Aviv lounge where he welcomed us.

An ally named Katumba

The post-2002 period was above all an opportunity for the entrepreneur to expand his activities in the DRC for the first time. An expansion made possible by the proximity he now enjoyed with another key figure in the state: Augustin Katumba Mwanke.

Their relationship did not start well, however, as Gertler suspected him of having contributed to the revocation of his precious monopoly. A banker in South Africa who returned to the country after the fall of Mobutu, Katumba became governor of the rich province of Katanga before taking up the post of minister to the presidency when Joseph Kabila came to power.

[Gertler] hated me, blamed me for all the obstacles he faced

Recognisable by his thick moustache, he was then considered the eminence grise, the ‘Richelieu’ of the young president. For Gertler, he was above all the true holder of the keys to the Congolese mining vault.

If his monopoly had been suspended, “AKM” could not have been a stranger. “[Gertler] hated me, blamed me for all the obstacles he faced,” he says in his memoirs.

Katumba was Kabila’s confidant and Gertler his gateway to Washington, yet the two men were forced to interact. One day in 2002, aboard a jet en route to Washington, Gertler chose to confront him.

“Why are you stonewalling me?” he said to him. Secretive and silent, Katumba did not answer. “I couldn’t tell him anything, couldn’t promise him anything, and he was angry with me,” he said later.

A close relationship

Despite the icy atmosphere within the delegation, the mission, which culminated in a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was a success. Gertler’s lobbying seems to be bearing fruit.

On 21 July 2002, Katumba wrote a handwritten note to him saying: “I got to know you better, thank you for what you did behind the scenes.”

The two men developed a relationship that would become very close until Katumba’s death in February 2012. When Gertler was not in Kinshasa on business, it was Katumba and his wife, Zozo, who went to the Israeli resort of Eilat for a yacht cruise on the Red Sea.

“He was a secretive man, in a state [of] war. He discovered in Gertler someone who, like him, was not very forthcoming and who could provide solutions for Kabila,” says one of the negotiators of the Sun City agreement.

Dan Gertler and Joseph Kabila at the latter’s wedding on 17 June 2006. DR

Katumba’s friendship was to be a fundamental asset for the tycoon, who became honorary consul of the DRC in 2003. It was with the help of Katumba that the Israeli-controlled company Emaxon signed a contract with Miba, a Congolese diamond mining company in East Kasai, in 2003. In exchange for a $15m loan, Emaxon obtained from the Congolese state-owned company the marketing of 88% of its production for four years. This is one of the few contracts in which Gertler appears by name.

In 2005, the parliamentary commission headed by Christophe Lutundula decided that “it is neither fair nor acceptable for Emaxon to take over Miba’s diamond production”.

Afraid of scaring off potential investors who were slow to arrive in the DRC, the commission recommended renegotiation of the contract. No matter, the hyperactive Gertler has long since moved on.

Adventurers

At the end of the transition period, the Israeli, believing that the diamond sector was stagnating, turned to cobalt and copper, whose prices were soaring.

His first target was the KOV open-pit mine in Katanga. In 2004, he signed an agreement and formed a joint venture with the Congolese state company Gécamines through Global Enterprises Corporate Ltd (GEC), another of his companies, based in the British Virgin Islands.

“Gécamines was a rotten place, none of its projects worked,” says one of Gertler’s early partners, who recalls “endless meetings in dilapidated buildings”.

In this joint venture, Gertler and GEC own 75% of the project. For the occasion, the entrepreneur joined forces with his compatriot Beny Steinmetz.

Gécamines was a rotten place, none of its projects worked

The parallels between the two men, who have opposite lifestyles, are obvious. Like Gertler, Steinmetz comes from a large Israeli diamond family. The grandfather of the former knows the father of the latter. They also have a similar background: Both are adventurers who came to try their luck in African countries at war, at the risk of being accused of taking advantage of the chaos to get rich.

“The authorities were trying to bring in investors, but nobody was interested. Without investment, these deposits are worthless,” says Gertler.

‘Avoid stripping Gécamines’

Two years later, in July 2006, they made a splash on the London Stock Exchange with the company Nikanor, to which GEC’s 75% stake in the KOV project had been transferred. Nikanor raised over $400m for the IPO. “It was the first IPO in the history of the DRC,” says Gertler, referring to a “historic moment” for the company.

This foray into the mining sector was accompanied by other criticisms. In 2005, the Lutundula Commission urged the state to ”avoid stripping Gécamines of the deposits that are the backbone of its revival”.

“The mine was in ruins. People criticise [Dan Gertler] because he got it cheap, but you have to see what the project was like in its initial state,” says one of his first partners.

“At the time, when you invested in the DRC, you could only expect to make 10% or 12% profit, much less than in other countries,” Gertler says.

After winning the country’s first free elections a few months later, Kabila had to give guarantees to donors and show his intention to fight corruption. The mining contracts were reviewed, with the assistance of American experts from the Carter Centre. At the time, Gertler was not mentioned in their report.

“We were wrong, we only understood later that the key to the problem was in Gécamines and that the real master was none other than Dan Gertler. At the time, he was invisible,” says Columbia University professor Peter Rosenblum, who advised the Carter Centre on this mission.

Glencore enters the picture

Gertler’s omnipresence was reinforced by the entry of Swiss trading giant Glencore in 2007. The same year that GEC acquired a majority stake in KOV, the neighbouring Kamoto project came under the control of George Forrest’s group through Katanga Mining, of which the Belgian is the majority shareholder. The industrialist, who had good relations with Mobutu and with the Zimbabwean businessman Billy Rautenbach (a close associate of the late Robert Mugabe, one of the Mzee’s supporters), was one of the few players who survived the chaos of the war in the early 2000s.

Originally, KOV and Kamoto were part of the same entity, forming one of the country’s most lucrative potential assets. Reuniting them became the new goal of a hungry Gertler. Supported by Glencore, he faced George Forrest, who sided with a company, Camec, in which Rautenbach was a shareholder. On 30 August 2007, the government revoked Rautenbach’s licences. This decision, on which Gertler and Glencore have always denied having had any influence, contributed to undermining Rautenbach’s offensive.

After what was called the ‘Battle of Katanga’, there was only one sheriff left in town

Already a minority shareholder in Katanga Mining through the company RP Capital, Gertler nibbled away at the shares of the other participants with the help of Glencore, which took control of the company and enabled the Israeli, through a system of loans to some of his offshore companies, to retain a central role to the detriment of other shareholders. According to the NGO Global Witness, the businessman received a profit of $67m during these transactions.

‘The government saw that I could keep my promises’

“The granting of loans by Glencore to Fleurette [a group owned by Dan Gertler] was an arrangement between two companies with a long-standing business relationship,” said the Israeli.

To suggest that it was a manipulation to ‘dilute’ the other shareholders is completely inappropriate. “When success is achieved, people immediately exclaim: ‘Dan has stolen!’, but I bought George Forrest’s shares on the market and I have invested heavily in this Katanga Mining project!” says Gertler.

Rautenbach’s setbacks and Forrest’s loss of influence within Katanga Mining put Gertler at the forefront of the industry. “The authorities saw that I could keep my promises, that I was not there to leave immediately. I don’t know if you should call it charisma, but afterwards, several investors came,” says Gertler, who compares his investments to a “marathon”. “After what was called the ‘Battle of Katanga’, there was only one sheriff left in town,” says a minister at the time.

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