There is some irony in Winne Madikizela-Mandela choosing a hotel that is the namesake of her former husband to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2016. Their separation 24 years prior wasn't a friendly one, but by then, he had been dead for three years and this had been shifted to the background.
This is part 5 of 7-part series
It all happens in the lift. Gone are the pretences, the theatrics adopted in the lobby. In the bronze-walled rooms of the Fleuve Congo hotel, visitors can no longer lie. Here, trapped in a few square metres, you have to reveal who you are.
Do you press the button for the fifth floor, the floor just above those reserved for the administration? Then you are just an ordinary journalist. Is your room on the 15th? Then everything indicates that you are a prominent artist or a businessman out prospecting. Do you move up to the 20th or 21st? You must be a minister, a discreet advisor to a powerful person or a successful businessman. The 22nd and last floor is obvious: the presidential suite.
To say that you are staying at the Congo River is like travelling in business [class]. It announces who you are
From up there, the view of the gargantuan Congo River is incomparable. On the opposite side is another world: Brazzaville, a few buildings and a bridge. Back on the Kinshasa bank, turn your head to the left and just behind the wall topped with barbed wire, you will see the residence of the former president, Joseph Kabila, before your gaze gets lost in the vegetation. To the right is the white villa of former presidential candidate Martin Fayulu, and then part of the Gombe, the ‘autonomous republic’ that houses official buildings and the villas of the richest Kinshasa residents. It is breathtaking.
However, it’s not just for the view that the whole of Kinshasa flocks there nor, it seems, for the ultra-modern gym, where few clients sweat, or even for the swimming pool, which is totally empty. As for the tennis court, it is much less popular than the clay court of Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the illustrious inhabitants of the neighbourhood. No, the establishment’s guests prefer the privacy of the small straw beds on the terrace or, better still, the suites. “To say that you are staying at the Congo River is like travelling in business [class]. It announces who you are,” says a politician. “Only the cream of the crop stays here.”
Since its opening in 2012, the 25,000 square metres of this five-star establishment have become the place to be. It is certainly not the only one: François Beya, the president’s powerful security advisor, prefers the Sultani, and just after his victory in the 2018 presidential election, it was at the Béatrice that Félix Tshisekedi could be seen. However, the Fleuve Congo has something unique. All the stars who come to Kinshasa choose it: Former footballer Samuel Eto’o; singers Damso, Dadju and Gim’s; world boxing champion Junior Makabu…
It is also where the Congolese state accommodates its guests and some of its dignitaries. Some government figures even have year-round reservations. With rooms that cost between €300 ($299) and €1200 a night, guests are bound to be important.
The staff are well versed in their demands, even the most outlandish ones. There are those who ask, for example, that the entire room decoration be changed before their arrival: they provide a photo of the place as they want it. Those who are unsatisfied with the tournedos, lobsters and other dishes on the menu, demand insects.
Small calibre on the belt
However, on this day in November 2021, the problem is of a different magnitude. In the hall, it’s all hands on deck. Six heads of state are expected. Officially, they are here for a forum on positive masculinity that is taking place at the hotel. The metal detectors are out, the red carpets are being frantically brushed and, alongside a few overexcited supporters brought in by bus, dozens of heavily armed military 4×4s have invaded the Tshatshi Boulevard that runs alongside the hotel. The place is now bunkered. To enter, you have to show a white coat.
The atmosphere on the floors is electric. The emergency exits have all been opened to allow for an express evacuation, and composed figures have taken up positions on each of the landings. Their suits do not manage to conceal the small guns tucked into their belts. Paul Kagame’s security has taken up its position.
READ MORE DRC-Rwanda: Félix Tshisekedi's headache
It is rare that the Rwandan president travels to Kinshasa; this is only the second time since Félix Tshisekedi came to power in 2019 and Kagame will only stay a few hours, at the bare minimum. The two heads of state absolutely must talk: at the end of November, Tshisekedi is about to authorise the Ugandan army to carry out operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) on its soil. He must inform his Rwandan counterpart, and it is in a suite in the Fleuve Congo that he does so.
Far from the Palace of the Nation, where he welcomed his peers earlier in the day, Tshisekedi is holding many face-to-face meetings at the top of the five-star tower. He is not only talking with the Senegalese Macky Sall, to whom he will hand over the presidency of the African Union in February 2022 but also with Denis Sassou Nguesso. The Congolese are at home here: this is his favourite hotel when he sleeps in Kinshasa; one of his cousins even got married here, but today he will only be passing through, returning to Brazzaville by helicopter in the evening.
‘Africa’s Wall Trade Centre’
Some speculate that it is the size of the rooms (at least 37 square metres) and the large number of suites that make the Fleuve Congo so popular. In these small flats, one can receive guests in complete safety and privacy. After the announcement of Tshisekedi’s victory in the 2018 presidential election, when the disputes were as intense as the pressure, it was in one of the hotel’s suites that Corneille Nangaa took refuge, recalls a keen political observer. The president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) does not live very far away…
We all live in the neighbourhood and spend hours in the lobby of this hotel: receiving at the Fleuve Congo is easier
The prestige of the building dates back to the vision of the man behind its construction: Mobutu. Although the hotel has only been in existence for 20 years, this large glass tower on the banks of the river changed the face of Kinshasa in the mid-1970s. It was a time when the president was not yet a field marshal, but was already dreaming big. He wanted to erect the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa so he launched the construction of the building, which was then called CCIZ – the International Trade Centre of Zaire. There were also the construction sites of the Sozacom building and the Limete interchange tower with its four pillars and huge spire.
At the time, there was no fear of megalomania or comparisons: the CCIZ was nicknamed the ‘World Trade Centre’, like the tallest New York towers of the time. Mobutu Sese Seko dreamed of setting up the world’s largest commodities exchange there. In the end, the tower was used for administrative offices and ministries, but day by day, its occupants left the premises until the CCIZ was completely abandoned after only 20 years. The reason? The windows completely cover the building and cannot be opened: the premises must be permanently air-conditioned so as not to suffocate. This costs a fortune!
It was not until the early 2010s that a man fantasised about reviving the place. His name is Cong Maohuai, but in Kinshasa, he is known as Simon Cong. This businessman is a key intermediary between the Congolese state and several large Chinese companies. He owns Sopeco, the company that manages the tolls on the road between Kinshasa and the port of Matadi, and on the road between Kolwezi and Lubumbashi, in Katanga. To make matters worse, Cong is on very good terms with then president Joseph Kabila and his family. He is also close to Guy Loando Mboyo, a lawyer who became Tshisekedi’s minister for territorial development with the rank of minister of state.
This multilingual Chinese businessman who speaks perfect French injected several million dollars into the rehabilitation of the tower – there is talk of $30m, although this figure cannot be verified (Cong refused to answer our questions). He transformed it into a hotel and inaugurated its rebirth in 2012. Managed by the Swiss group Kempinski since 2014, it is now administered by Blazon Hotels, despite contacts with Accor Hotels.
The first five-star hotel in the city, it is also the headquarters of the Congo Construction Company, a company owned by Du Wei, a friend of Cong. The businessman is also well known in Kinshasa and his company is one of the major actors exposed by ‘Congo Hold-up‘, the investigation led by a consortium of media and NGOs on the massive embezzlement of funds during the years of Joseph Kabila’s reign (2001-2018) for alleged roles in the ‘contract of the century’- an agreement signed between the DRC and China that has never been honoured.
Ruinart versus cognac
Frequented by businessmen as soon as it opened, it is also a favourite of politicians. It is customary for governments to meet within its walls, which are decorated in a slightly old-fashioned style. “We all live in the neighbourhood and spend hours in the lobby of this hotel: receiving at the Fleuve Congo is easier,” says an adviser to the Congolese president. The last two prime ministers, Sylvestre Ilunga and Sama Lukonde received prospective ministers here. One can wait for an audience for days, or rather nights: the most strategic meetings are held around 2 am when the city is sleeping.
The Congo River is not to everyone’s taste, however. “You get bored,” says a Kinshasa entrepreneur. It’s not complicated to get drunk. Just cross the boulevard and walk through the doors of another five-star hotel, the Pullman.
Here again, it’s upstairs. On the eighth and top floor is the trendiest place in town. This is where the offspring of politicians come to have a drink and dance at weekends: as guest stars, the president’s children are often seen there. At the Belvedere, the obligatory drink is champagne, which is consumed in large quantities and to be in the know, you have to order Ruinart.
The atmosphere is definitely different from that of the Congo River, where it doesn’t matter what you drink, as long as it’s expensive. When on the terrace, the sweet notes of Congolese Rhumba resound; what the customers regularly ask for is “the most expensive bottle on the menu”. It is a cognac that costs $6,000.
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