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The reluctant politician in DR Congo’s powerhouse

By Interview by Elissa Jobson in Addis Ababa and Patrick Smith
Posted on Tuesday, 28 January 2014 16:45

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is never more united than when its football teams are winning.

Get the speeches that African leaders have made and check

So when Moïse Katumbi’s team, Tout Puissant Mazembe, won the Confederation of African Football Champions League trophy in 2009 and 2010, days of national rejoicing followed.

Yet Katumbi’s day job since 2007 has been governor of Katanga, a province the size of Spain and the richest in the country.

For many, Katumbi seems far from the madding crowd of Congolese politicians. He has some rich corporate backers for sure, but he also has popular support and styles himself as a reforming governor who delivers.

In business since his late teens, running transport and mining service companies, he has unsentimental views about politics: “When I came to power, I said I’m going to run this province like a business.”

In business, non-delivery usually means bankruptcy, says Katumbi, and he laments that there are no such sanctions for politicians.

“Get the speeches that African leaders have made and check. They make nice speeches, but there is no follow up. Today, what is killing Africa are those fake promises.”

However strongly he denies it, Katumbi is widely seen as a contender for the presidency.

On the question of presidential ambitions, he is uncharacteristically coy and chuckles: “People always ask me that question. The time for elections is not yet there. We should try and help President [Joseph] Kabila to realise what he promised to the people. There are a lot of surprises which can come.”

When pressed on the matter – and although there is a ‘Katumbi for President 2016’ campaign on social media – his disavowal of interest in the top job intensifies: “I never wanted to enter politics. I don’t like politics. I was a very successful businessman. My target today is to help President Kabila to finish his mandate.”

That may be true, but what comes after Kabila’s mandate is another story.

Katumbi has been raising his profile on the conference circuit, with corporate barons such as Glencore Xstrata’s Ivan Glasenberg singing his praises.

Among the DRC’s political class, a mere mention of presidential ambition can cause convulsions in Kinshasa.

Kabila, a member of the Balubakat ethnic group from Katanga, is due to finish his second term in 2016.

The capital is already seething with gossip about how his allies plan to change the constitution to allow him another term or at least prolong the current one.

On that subject, Katumbi is categorical: “President Mobutu [Sese Seko] stayed for 32 years in power. You can see the crisis we had because Mobutu stayed too long. I don’t think even President Kabila wants to change the constitution. I’m in his party, and I’m against people changing the constitution. We have to respect our constitution.”

Armed attacks

No president in Congo has ever left the office voluntarily.

A spate of armed attacks in December 2013 raised tensions a month after the army seemed to be defeating rebels in the east.

Followers of failed presidential contender Joseph Mukungubila are said to have killed more than 100 people in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi.

Who or what was behind the attacks is hard to decipher amid the claims and counterclaims.

Some saw them as a shot across Kabila’s bow in case he has plans to stay in office beyond 2016.

Whatever the case, Katumbi says he has no time for such tactics: “We need a Congo in which people have been elected, not taking up guns. These people [rebels] are going to understand that they are going to face the law.”

For a governor, Katumbi has strong views on national security and the need for a robust and well-trained army.

Although militias have ripped across the poorer northern reaches of Katanga, security is much improved in the wealthier southern zones, which host most of the foreign mining companies.

Katumbi says the population of Lubumbashi, the province’s capital, has quadrupled to about five million since he became governor.

Life in Lubumbashi – with new roads, shopping malls and luxury hotels – is far better than in Kinshasa, say the new arrivals and locals alike.

Mining transparency

For now, Katumbi’s own project – a business-savvy government with a dose of reform and a more efficient administration – has won him plenty of friends in Lubumbashi and its environs.

Katumbi has presided over massive investment in Katanga’s copper and cobalt mines.

His target is to get the mines to produce 800,000tn of copper this year.

They churned out 750,000tn last year, compared with less than 20,000tn a decade ago.

In the process, he has reduced some grand corruption, but it is far from eliminated.

Indeed, Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel reported that the Congolese state lost $1.4bn from the sale of underpriced assets to mining companies between 2010 and 2012.

Katumbi airily dismisses such claims: “These companies are on the stock market. I invite all those people to come to my province because we are working in a transparent way.”

Rather than hit the companies, Katumbi says it is up to the government to explain what it is doing with tax revenue: “Are the people benefiting from this money or not?”

It is that ability to meld his corporate ties with a vote-winning political platform that has served Katumbi well so far in his political career.

If he wants to move onto the national stage, with all its complexities and compromises, his populist style will come under heavy strain.

Nonetheless, he has no shortage of supporters urging him onwards. ●

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