DRC: Dan Gertler, from zenith to twilight

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 Thursday, 25 August 2022 13:55

Dan Gertler (photo by Jeune Afrique)

In the 2010s, the Israeli billionaire became a key player in the mining sector. However, during Joseph Kabila's second term in office, his star faded. Reports denouncing his practices and the losses they would entail for the DRC are accumulating.

This is part 3 of a 4-part series

At the turn of the 2010s, the battle for Katanga Mining and the entry of the Swiss giant Glencore made Dan Gertler a key player in the Congolese mining sector. It seemed that nothing could stop the Israeli tycoon. “At the end of the 2000s, Gertler took advantage of the momentum that accompanied the election of Joseph Kabila, the election of Moïse Katumbi as governor of Katanga and the increase in investment in the province,” says an insider of the former governor, who became an adversary. In 2011, Gécamines also changed boss.

This marked the beginning of 10 years of Albert Yuma’s reign, with whom Gertler also managed to establish a relationship of trust. Even today, it is not uncommon to see the two men chatting on the sky-blue sofas on the 21st floor of the Fleuve Congo Hotel, which is popular with Congolese and foreign VIPs.

Mazembe Almighty

Gertler then split his weeks between Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. He had homes in both cities and flew back and forth by jet. He was supported by a handful of rabbis who advised him on a daily basis, and he set aside time for prayer in each of the airports he visited. In Kinshasa, his home – at the time – was located near the Chabad Lubavitch Centre, managed by Shlomo Bentolila, who remains one of his confidants. On Thursday evenings, he would usually head back to Tel Aviv to spend Shabbat with his wife in the five-storey home they moved into in the early 2010s.

In the copper capital, too, Gertler has his habits. At the All Mighty Mazembe stadium, a temple of football in the Lush municipality of Kamalondo, it is not rare to see him walking around one of the club’s luxury boxes. A discreet philanthropist, the businessman invests heavily in charitable and medical projects in Israel and the DRC, notably through the Gertler Family Foundation (GFF) that was founded in 2004 to support the social aspects of his activities.

TP Mazembe supporters during a match against Lubumbashi Sport at the Mazembe stadium on 4 March 2015. © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu for JA

In Lubumbashi, he is financing the construction of a zoo and a French school. “When Katumbi conceived a project, the first person to put money on the table was him. Obviously, this helped to consolidate his influence,” says a close associate of the former governor. The tycoon also became one of the backers of Gécamines, granting them numerous loans.

These loans were later used as a counterpart in some of Gertler’s controversial transactions. Gertler’s entourage estimates that the total amount lent to Gécamines is close to $500m. In 2013, ten years after the Sun City agreements, Gertler’s net worth was $2.3bn, according to Forbes magazine.

Charm and coldness

During Kabila’s second term in office, Gertler’s star began to fade. His omnipresence in the Congolese business world was not appreciated by everyone. It irked certain advisers and ministers who felt that they were being kept out of the loop. Some neighbouring countries also voiced their displeasure. This was the case with Angola, which has a chequered relationship with Joseph Kabila. The relationship between the young, liberal-talking president and the Israeli billionaire was a source of discomfort for Luanda, but it was difficult to ignore for anyone wishing to do business with the DRC.

At the time, Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos wanted to start work on rebuilding the Benguela railway line, which was supposed to carry Katanga’s minerals from Kolwezi to the enclave of Lobito on the Atlantic coast. Unita had given up the armed struggle and Luanda was paying to clear the area of mines, but on the Congolese side, work was slow. The Angolan head of state eventually sent his son-in-law, the Congolese Sindika Dokolo, to investigate the situation. In the early 2010s, an appointment was made in Lubumbashi with Gertler. Gertler did not manage the project but was naturally interested in the case.

Gertler is one of his big cats who understands this kind of power play. If you don’t show your muscle against him, you’ll be crushed

On the day, Dokolo took off in a Falcon 900 seven hours late. The delegation arrived in Lubumbashi at 7 pm. On the tarmac at Luano airport, Gertler’s plane seemed ready to leave. For almost an hour, the two delegations evaluated each other. A short exchange finally took place at the airport, but the discussions did not go any further. “Dos Santos just wanted to test him,” says a former Kabila minister. “Gertler is one of his big cats who understands this kind of power play. If you don’t show your muscle against him, you’ll be crushed.”

Occasional interlocutors or former ministers who have had to meet him all paint the picture of a businessman who wields charm and an extreme coldness as he pleases. “In general, he lets you speak first. He listens to you but doesn’t look at you. Then, if he is interested, he speaks. If not, he withdraws,” says a Congolese mining executive.

Congolese businessman and art collector Sindika Dokolo died on 29 October following a diving accident. Sindika Dokolo Collection

“Some people compared him to Pierre Falcone [who worked] in Angola, to businessmen who save[d] the day. As much as Falcone is very demonstrative, Dan is more rigid,” says the ex-minister. A man who takes his jet to spend Shabbat at home, no matter where he is in the world, is a man of convictions. That they don’t agree with your philosophy is one thing, but his convictions are unshakable.

Offshore empire

Gertler is less and less steadfast in his business dealings. Reports denouncing his practices and the losses they will entail for the DRC continue to appear. His offshore empire, almost impossible to map (it stretches from Gibraltar to the British Virgin Islands, from Hong Kong to Panama), is gradually being revealed.

In 2010, he entered the oil market. He acquired two blocks on Lake Albert through two companies, Foxwhelp Ltd and Caprikat Ltd, linked to his group, Fleurette, all thanks to an impressive network of companies and foundations based in the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.

After Glencore, another giant, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), entered the mining sector and acquired several licences, some of which belonged to offshore companies linked to Gertler. These transactions led to the Kazakh giant being targeted in April 2013 by the British Serious Fraud Office for “fraud” and “corruption”.

An infamous Israeli businessman and others paid more than $100m in bribes to DRC officials […] to obtain special access and preferential rates in the mining sector

A few months earlier, in December 2012, the IMF announced the suspension of an aid plan signed with the DRC, which was still awaiting the transfer of over $200m. The reason given was the lack of transparency in a contract concluded in June 2011 between Gécamines and a company controlled by Gertler.

“As with all the transactions Fleurette has carried out with Gécamines, it is the DRC that determines the extent of disclosure of any transaction,” the Gertler camp said. In the wake of this, the Africa Progress Panel has pinpointed five agreements that Gécamines concluded between 2010 and 2013 with companies suspected of being linked to the Israeli billionaire. The losses are estimated at $1.3bn. A report that those close to Gertler dispute.

PHOTO: Mutanda copper mine in Katanga (here in 2012). © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

However, it is perhaps the 2016 Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] investigation that offers the most meticulous description of Congolese mining practices. It focuses on the US investment fund Och-Ziff, which was fined $413m in the US for corruption in Africa. The judgement describes the practices in question with implacable precision, with one exception: It does not mention any names. Instead, it states that in 2008 Och-Ziff entered into a partnership with “an infamous Israeli businessman with close ties” to the highest authorities in the DRC, identified as “DRC Partner”.

According to the investigation, he and others “paid more than $100m in bribes to DRC officials between 2005 and 2015 to obtain special access and preferential rates in the mining sector”. In an email dated 16 March 2008, ‘DRC Partner’ himself boasts of his influence: ‘The landscape of the DRC is being shaped and I am shaping it like no other’. At the time, the Fleurette Group said that it ‘vigorously contests all accusations of wrongdoing in [all] of [its] relationships in the DRC, including those with Och-Ziff’.

Today, Gertler, who insists that he has always acted in accordance with the rules, even describes himself as one of the country’s “main taxpayers”. In 2014, his group, Fleurette, claimed 30,000 employees. “The government knows what I have done for the DRC, we have never bribed anyone,” he says. Still, the Congolese civil society, united in the collective Le Congo n’est pas à vendre (CNPAV), as well as NGOs such as Global Witness, have become his bête noires.

The mere mention of their written reports still irritates Gertler. Walking nervously to his office, the businessman returns with a pile of reports, one of the most recent of which, from the CNPAV, is on ‘The DRC’s lost billions’. Released in May 2021, this vitriolic report accuses him of having caused the DRC to lose nearly $1.95bn in revenue between 2003 and 2021.

He refutes this, saying that his investments in the projects mentioned were only partially taken into account. “We have always been willing to give our figures to these organisations,” he says. “Appeasing civil society is a crucial issue for Gertler because he knows that his practices would not be as well known without all these reports,” says a member of Congolese civil society who wishes to remain anonymous.

To make matters worse for the tycoon, another major deadline loomed in 2016: The end of Joseph Kabila’s term of office, which was under increasing pressure from the international community. Several generals and ministers are under US and European sanctions. In the twilight of the regime, Gertler found himself in the spotlight.

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