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Tshisekedi needs to clean up his inner circle


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Tshisekedi needs to clean up his inner circle

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President Félix Tshisekedi this week waxed lyrical about the opportunities his country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), offered to international investors. He was the keynote speaker at the Financial Times (FT) Africa Summit on investing in Africa.

Tshisekedi extolled the attractions of the DRC’s huge reserves of minerals critical to the green industrial revolution, such as cobalt, lithium, copper and chrome. Also, the country’s enormous untapped agricultural potential with 80-million hectares of arable land, of which only 10-million had been planted, and the vast potential of the Congo River for creating green hydrogen.


The DRC president acknowledged that international investors could have doubts about the business climate, including questions about institutional strength and the insecurity in the east. But he blamed the latter on Rwanda's ‘predatory power’ and its support for the ‘terrorist’ M23 group. Tshisekedi lashed out at the international community, particularly the media, for its ‘complicit passivity’ in allowing the impression to persist of a continent only of problems.

But is the DRC really so attractive to investors, and is the president helping to make it so? It’s common cause that Tshisekedi didn’t win the 2018 presidential election and that a deal was struck with outgoing president Joseph Kabila that allowed Kabila to retain considerable power while Tshisekedi got the top job.


The United States (US) and others came to accept that the best they could do in the circumstances was try to ensure power shifted from Kabila to Tshisekedi. The US helped by imposing sanctions on key Kabila allies still ensconced in government.

Tshisekedi acknowledged the alleged deal only by saying he hadn’t managed to control Parliament until two years into office by forming his ‘sacred union’ coalition that ousted Kabila’s. At the FT event, Peter Pham, US special envoy to the Great Lakes when Tshisekedi assumed office, observed that Tshisekedi now seemed confident in his presidential power and judged the transition a success.

Many questions nonetheless remain about the degree of that success. One is why international investment has not flooded into a country so brimming with potential. When asked for an update on the almost mythical Grand Inga Hydropower Project, Tshisekedi surprisingly professed himself mystified about the decades-long delays. He described the foreign investors who had shown interest, including a Chinese-Spanish consortium, a former World Bank official and most recently, the Australian company Fortescue.

Tshisekedi again seemed to blame international investors and perhaps governments, suggesting that the project would go ahead if the US and Europe were involved. He agreed this meant the delay was ‘political’ saying: ‘I think there are some problems at the international level because I see no one wanted him (Fortescue boss Andrew Forest) to go alone to the DRC and to do something about it.

But is that the only obstacle to the investments the DRC badly needs, in Inga and otherwise? Is it all about international politics and rivalries among foreign powers as the president seemed to imply?

The continuing saga of Dan Gertler suggests something else is afoot. Gertler is the Israeli businessman who ‘amassed his fortune through hundreds of dollars worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals’ in the DRC, as the US Treasury said when it froze his US assets in 2017. It said he used his friendship with Kabila to buy mining assets at below market value and sell them at massive profit. Presumably Kabila and his cronies took big cuts in the deals.

Gertler persuaded the Trump administration to suspend those sanctions, but the Biden administration reinstated them almost immediately. The US seems determined to dislodge Gertler’s grip on the DRC as a first step in cleaning out the massive corruption that has bedevilled the country, especially under Kabila.

But Gertler is a determined individual ‘who is doing all that he can to remove the obstacles that prevent him doing further business in the DRC,’ Stephanie Wolters, DRC expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs told ISS Today. And that’s because, as she notes, Gertler is a ‘one-horse show. The DRC is his entire career as a multi-billionaire.’

In February the DRC announced it had done a deal with Gertler in which he had to surrender to the state billions of dollars of assets in exchange for the reimbursement of expenses and Kinshasa’s support in lifting the US sanctions. But neither side has published the full deal, raising suspicions in DRC that it’s a better deal for Gertler than Tshisekedi’s government cares to admit.

And this week, Africa Intelligence revealed that Gertler seems prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain his influence in the Tshisekedi administration. That would strongly suggest he still has contentious commercial ambitions in the country.

The bulletin reported that Gertler launched sting operations against senior officials in Tshisekedi’s inner circle who were acting against his interests. Africa Intelligence said Gertler used private eyes masquerading as potential investors to lure Tshisekedi’s oil minister Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga and his presidential adviser Vidiye Tshimanga to meetings in Brussels and London respectively. Both were supposedly recorded taking bribes and forced to resign.

So Wolters says Gertler’s efforts to intimidate potential enemies around Tshisekedi seem to have worked. ‘Other ministers who are not on his side are feeling increasingly threatened and are increasing their own security.’

Where does Tshisekedi stand on this? Wolters notes: ‘He can’t do business with Gertler unless he chooses to turn his back on or face the wrath of the US.’ She added that Tshisekedi ‘seems to want to support Gertler’s effort to get sanctions dropped, but it’s a very delicate matter and Tshisekedi needs to tread carefully because the US is a really important supporter of the Congolese government.’ All this intrigue leaves doubts about Tshisekedi’s true intentions for Gertler.

Instead of making extravagant claims about the DRC’s investment opportunities and blaming the lack of investment on prejudices about Africa, Tshisekedi should firmly and transparently get rid of the likes of Gertler. How can he expect honest investors to sink their funds into such a murky cesspool?

Written by Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria


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