Controversial sales of $5.5bn DR Congo assets revealed just before elections

Allegations of a DRCongo mining fire sale raises more questions than answers just as the country faces elections, no wonder Joseph Kabila is 100 per cent sure.

UN delivers voting materials © UN

It’s a story that’s been kicking around the sidelines for months with questions raised over the sale of Congo mining stakes to Israeli businessman Dan Gertler by state owned Gecamines, but now documents have surfaced that paint a much bigger picture. Allegations of $5.5bn in ‘losses’ as DRC mining assets have been sold at knock down discounts to British Virgin Island front companies, suggest not only complicity at government level but raise questions about the oversight role of the IMF and World Bank. 

All this surfaces just a week before the DRC faces national elections and fears that the country is heading towards post-election violence. Documents reveal that not only were sales not put out to public tender, but that money was apparently diverted to Joseph Kabila’s electioneering. Kabila, having amended the constitution to prevent a run-off, certainly has the most well-funded campaign, enabling him to buy all the front lit bill boards in Kinshasa and fly around a country the size of western Europe. Kabila campaigns on the slogan “Na Rais 100% sure” against a backdrop of increasing violence and a chaotic opposition.

Now it emerges that foreign mining companies, embittered over the stripping of concessions, having been courted by the opposition in the run-up to the elections. A visit to Canada and Belgium by UDPS candidate Dr Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, seen as the most likely challenger to Kabila, resulted in meetings with foreign investors. This included First Quantum, with Tshisekedi inviting investors to return after the elections “when Kabila is gone.” State-owned news agency, L’Agence Congolaise de Presse, condemned Tshisekedi, accusing him of acting against his own country just as they faced litigation. Other pro-Kabila reports suggest that Tshisekedi is colluding with foreign companies in order to gain power at any cost even if it results in a ‘bloodbath’. Whether true or not, he wouldn’t be the first. Canadian mining company American Mineral Fields bank-rolled Laurent Desire Kabila when he toppled Mobutu, in exchange for mineral rights. When he failed to play ball, they hired in a Dutch private security company “International Defence and Security” in order to continue.

Tshisekedi, with a long and chequered history, is viewed as an elder statesman by many. Now hampered by lack of funding and attacks on his age and party, Tshisekedi has been prone to outbursts, including a tirade on TV in which he suggested his supporters should storm the prisons to release jailed cohorts. Frequently, marginalised by international observers, this has just increased their disinterest. Meanwhile, the US Ambassador referred to the constitutional changes as: “an internal affair.”

In the background lurks the shadow of the MLC leader Jean-Pierre Bemba who is facing war crimes charges at the the International Criminal Court but still wields considerable influence. Bemba was a very close contender to Kabila in the last elections and all the main opposition candidates have trekked to the Hague to seek his backing. He has so far refused, although Congolese will note wryly that Bemba has money, militia and media and while he may be playing a long game, if he chooses to back a candidate it will have an effect.

Against this backdrop of increasing electoral chaos, Tshisikedi, Vitel Kamerhe and Kengo wa Dongo, the three frontrunners, have complained of fraudulent voter registrations, intimidation and violence from the pro-Kabila camp. The latter has now been echoed by a UN report on election violence that blames a crackdown imposed by politically manipulated police, intelligence agents and justice officials.  Meanwhile, the logistical problems of delivering 62,000 ballot boxes in a country with little infrastructure, a candidate list that is so long the voting slips are printed on A3, are enormous. With minimal support from international observers compared to the previous election in 2006, its worth asking what exactly the International Community expect?

Away from the elections, the UK’s Department for International Development has said that UK aid to the DRC will increase from about £147 million in 2011 to £258 million a year by 2015, making the UK Congo’s biggest bilateral donor. The World Bank figures for 2009-2011 are $1,078 million and will also be increased. DFID has reworked their funding criteria towards the UK national interest, with Andrew Mitchell arguing that aid should be used to enhance UK security but as the DRC has never been a terrorist threat to the UK it raises questions about the definition of interests and security.  Apart from piece meal projects, neither the UK, EU or the US have taken much interest in the security of Congo’s citizens, and the UN force MONUSCO is spread thinly over a vast area. The international community failed to use their financial leverage against Rwanda and Uganda when their troops were in the DRC, and beyond making noises, they have all but ignored the murders of human rights activists and journalists.

With investments of this size it seems absurd that electoral support is relatively small, a contradiction that is echoed throughout the international community’s approach to the DRC. Critics have argued that there is an ongoing miscalculation by the West in its dealings with Congo’s politicians while cynics suggest that as long as business can function securely, the general ambient is irrelevant. Angola is perhaps a strong example of the latter view with extractive industries operating in conjunction with private military organisations in enclaves so far removed from the realities of day to day life, they exist in separate worlds. In this way of thinking, political leadership signifies not much more than the ability to sign contracts. DRC watchers will be paying close attention when the electoral results are finally confirmed.