Eric Mwamba

The Predator State

The secrets of the Congolese elite's wealth

“My official salary is less than 750 euros. And yet I can make up to 225,000 euros per month,” says Jean-Pierre Mushizi (40), a respected member of the political elite in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Mushizi, who wears a diamond watch and glasses of pure gold, was a counsellor at the Ministry of Economics between 2006 and 2011. The job set him up for life. He doesn’t mind talking, anonymously – Mushizi, like many names in this story, is a pseudonym – about the several ways one can get massively rich in the DRC. The only requirement, it seems, is a high-level job in the government. Once that is in place, all else follows. As long as you don’t fall out with your benefactors, or the President, that is.

malian soldiers
Chéri Chérin, La femme double nos joies et triple nos dépenses, ("The woman doubles our joys, and triple our spending")

‘Jean-Pierre Mushizi’, who has worked with three consecutive Ministers of Economy, owns a marble, three-storied villa in Mont-Fleury, one of Kinshasa’s better neighbourhoods, with a car park area full of supercars in front of his house. But he isn‘t actually here that often: a month later we meet him in Sandton, an uptown area in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his family has been living for five years. Again: a marvellous villa, bathing in a sea of green. His three children, who go to an expensive American school, are lounging at the pool.

The Mushizi family is but one of hundreds of families of Congolese elite dollar millionaires, who are not bothered by the lack of functioning schools, hospitals, roads and services like electricity in the country they govern. They simply live elsewhere, most of the time: somewhere where there are international schools for the kids, vast shopping centres, and proper public services. That way, you can occasionally suffer, without giving it too much thought, the pot-holed roads of Kinshasa. Or the DRC’s average per capita income of 150 euros per year (among the lowest in the world) or the fact that you (well, no, not you, everybody else) have to pay cash for every measly public service you get, be it at the post office, the police station, the primary school or the ministries. The civil servants in the lower regions, after all (and again, unlike you) often don’t even get their formal salaries.

Stopping good governance at all costs

‘Mushizi’ candidly explains how he and his fellow elite members get richer and richer all the time. It all starts with your high-level government job, he says. The rest mainly consists of blocking any efforts to improve governance. If accounts and transactions would be checked, and if the checking would lead to measures to stop improper enrichment, and if these measures would be implemented, a lot of people would lose their villas in Mont Fleury and abroad. “Most ministers and directors of state companies are against good governance reforms. Sometimes the council of ministers, under pressure from Western partners, embarks on programmes to improve governance. But once that happens, bribes are quickly dished out to thwart those plans,” he says.

As an example, he cites a case where an assistant of another minister offered him 110,000 euros to stop a good governance monitoring project. “I had it raised to 520,000,” he says. A Congolese official of the World Bank confirms that that is what happens. “We had started a computerisation project of public expenses in order to reduce corruption. But the project could not be executed, because the people who were capitalising on the existing system didn’t want it to.” Suddenly, nobody was implementing the project. Our official knows what happened: they were bribed.

For this very reason, it is practically impossible even to find out how many people work for the different ministries in the DR Congo. Multiple attempts to do so, often financed by other countries, have come to nought. There will always be someone who manages to thwart a waterproof count in order to capitalise on the confusion by keeping part of the paid out salaries for himself.

Never got that money

Another strategy is to undersell and collect under the table. The money that the governmental elite pockets comes from all kinds of development aid, the jumble of formal and informal taxes, lots of government services charges and the money flows that the natural resources – which Congo has in abundance – generate. The way to pocket that money is simple: one simply declares a received amount much lower than what was actually received. For example, reports by the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), which lists the amounts of taxes paid by extractive companies, show that both in 2008 and in 2009 the companies stated having paid a much higher amount in taxes than what the different government services claimed to have received.

Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila

In one widely published case, at the end of 2011, British MP Eric Joyce denounced that the Congolese state had missed out on 3.75 billion euros in income it should have obtained from the sale of four mines to four companies registered on the Virgin Islands and owned by Israeli diamond dealer Dan Gertler. The sale price, Joyce said, was way under market value. The companies were owned by Gertler, who was – and is – a good friend of Congolese president Joseph Kabila and his number two, the recently deceased Katumba Mwanke.

The Congolese Parliament itself has published various critical reports on the subject. In 2009 the Senate came out with a report on mismanagement in the mining industry which denounced that the country collected a mere 68 million euros from mining, while it missed out on 337 million euros. The Senate stated that under-billing, tax evasion, smuggling, fraudulent contracts and bad bookkeeping were to blame. The president of the commission in question, David Mutamba Dibwe, stated that the ‘majority of the mining exports’ are ‘not declared’ and that the ‘badly equipped’ tax authorities are not capable of tracking the transactions.

Houses on hospital grounds

Another way for the people at the top to amass riches is by acquiring public grounds and buildings illegally and at a very low price. At Kintambo Public Hospital in Kinshasa, about ten new houses of VIP’s are located on its grounds, behind corrugated iron fencing guarded by police officers with Kalashnikovs. When asked, the office of the Land Register Administration refuses to release the names of the people who commissioned the illicit construction works. “Ministers and members of the army’s higher management are among the people building on these grounds,” states Jacques Bakabi, who works at the information office of the so-called Fast Intervention Police that is guarding the terrain. “But the incessant protests from locals have now become such an embarrassment that the President himself has stopped any further construction.”

And this is new, and perhaps indicates a ray of hope for the Congo. A few years ago, protesting local activist Pascale Nkelenge would have been carried off to jail for even raising her voice about the issue. Now she is here, part of the ‘incessant’ marches, and, together with her fellow protestors, seems to have no intention to let off any time soon.
But then again, neither is the practice. Laurent Simon Ikenge, who was Minister of Urbanisation and Housing from 2006 to 2008, has claimed publicly that “not a day goes by without public real estate being undersold to private persons, without any regard to the regulations.” The former Minister also said that he regrets that “all recommendations made in different reports had no effect”.

SOS-Kinshasa, a not-for-profit organisation carrying the slogan ‘Touche pas à mon école’, has made the fight against the appropriation of school grounds into its core business. Leny Ilondo Ye Nkoy, president of the organisation, calls the judicial system the ‘weak spot of the Congolese democracy’. Since 2008 the organisation has compiled a list of seventy schools in Kinshasa alone that have fallen prey to the appropriation of grounds. Countless complaints have been filed with the public prosecutor of Kinshasa, but “justice hasn’t set up a single investigation yet,” says Ilondo.

The anti-corruption industry

Another way to get rich quickly, ironically, is to be part of an anti-corruption exercise. With so much corruption, and so many concerned international donors and NGOs, you have to do anti-corruption exercises. But clearly, it is risky to do anything that actually touches on the interests of the wealthy and powerful. It is much safer and easier to be part of a commission, gather some disconcerting facts, publish a report that explains the problem, and leave it at that. Ever since ‘le petit Joseph’ Kabila came to power in 2002, there have been yearly anti-corruption inquiries, commissions, reports and hearings. Literally none of them have had any impact on the practices, but many of the individuals involved in them have been paid very handsome fees indeed.

The President's example

At the very top of the thieving hierarchy sits the President, Joseph Kabila, on whose benevolence all in the elite depend. The 50-odd million euros provided by the yearly state budget for the presidency is but a fraction of Kabila’s income. He is in a position to top it up by underselling Congo’s riches and pocketing the difference, like in the case of the sale of the four mines that was exposed by British MP Eric Joyce. Then there is the Sovereign Fund, that allows him to draw money ‘when needed’, at his discretion.

There are also quite a few extras, such as the trips and the other official expenses: a source at the state protocol office narrates how the president “spends without counting” while on official visits, bringing a crew of over two hundred people for local trips and about a hundred for international visits. During the 67th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 2012, Kabila and his crew stayed in the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, where many of the rented rooms cost up to 4,000 euros a night.

And then there are the ‘gifts’ that he and his political party, the PPRD (People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy), receive from political, official and business friends who want favours: a ‘you scratch my back; I scratch yours’ scenario. In a letter dated 20 September 2005, the office of the provincial council of the PPRD expresses its delight about the efficient contributions of the trustees of mining company Gécamines and the national railway company SNCC. In the letter, the individual trustees are recommended to the party’s hierarchy with name and surname. The same document states how Belgian entrepreneur “George Arthur Forrest and his group stand out because they have supported us step by step in the gradual implanting of the party”.

The rewards one reaps in return for such support can be substantial. Take banker Mazhar Rawji, for instance, a good friend of Kabila’s. “We have various well-documented notes on irregularities where Rawji and his brothers’ companies Beltexco and Marsavco are concerned, but we were formally forbidden to investigate those companies. Even the lowest-ranking police officer of our team knew that it touched upon the president’s interests,” says a financial squad policeman. The same scenario, very likely, explains why the judicial investigations into the individuals who built their houses on free hospital grounds came to nought.

With all his money, the president collects cross motorcycles, SUVs and ranches. He owns an ultramodern ranch in Kingakati village, 130 kilometers from Kinshasa, one in the suburbs of Lubumbashi, and one in North-Kivu near Beni. “If the ranches were to offer meat and food to the locals, Kabila and his entourage would be quite popular,” says an official of the Ministry of Agriculture in Lubumbashi. “Instead, the ranches are nothing more than vessels to recycle the millions of euros that he garnered through shady operations.”

The advisor who perished in a flurry of bank notes

What Kabila and his inner circle know about the handling of money comes, all observers agree, from Augustin Katumba Mwanke’s expertise. Mwanke, a mining businessman who was Kabila’s advisor from 2001 to his (Mwanke’s) untimely death last year in 2012, was a wizard of shady finance. He is said to have designed all the natural resource sale deals for the President, and also to have handled the Sovereign Fund on Kabila’s behalf.

That the man was incredibly wealthy and powerful is clear from the current special state of his birth town, Pweto, in North-Katanga near the border with Zambia. The town, that was hardly accessible in the past, is on the world map now; the airport carries his name. Mwanke International hosts many private jets, as well as big cargo planes. The area is full of extremely luxurious houses, a four-star hotel and, most magnificent of all, a Mwanke family residence. The villa counts a big central staircase to in- and outside lounges and a garden at Lake Mweru beach.

Augustin Katumba Mwanke
Augustin Katumba Mwanke

Electricity supply is not a problem here: Pweto is supplied through a special line from Zambia and by a hydroelectric power station on the Congolese Luala River. Plaques reading ‘Gift from the Honourable Mwanke’ are everywhere in the town.

One frequent visitor to Pweto was Israeli diamond mining boss Dan Gertler, says one of Mwanke’s former drivers. “The patron called him Dany. He flew out here in his jet a few times per week. I always went to pick him up from the airport. His visits were unplanned. He really felt at home down here. He gave us money, lots of it, a thousand times more than what I make in a month.”

Mwanke was so powerful that even those close to Joseph Kabila started to become uncomfortable. In a document ‘Safety Information for the Attention of His Excellence’, Théodore Mugalu, the head functionary of Joseph Kabila’s State House, expressed concern about Mwanke’s shameless international wheeling and dealing. In the document, written in August 2010, Mugalu revealed that Mwanke was transferring large sums from the Presidency’s Sovereign Fund to banks in Luxemburg, Hong Kong, Panama and Moscow. He described in detail in which banks Mwanke deposited the Sovereign Fund’s money and gave the bank accounts. He also described how Mwanke was ‘controlling Parliament through permanent bribery’, paying MP and later Parliament Chair Evariste Boshab up to 32,000 euros per month, and warned that the advisor was becoming so powerful that he could threaten to succeed or even replace Kabila.

One and a half years after Mugalu warned Kabila about his increasingly powerful advisor, in February 2012, Katumba Mwanke lost his life in plane crash in Bukavu. The wildest stories do the rounds about this incident. One of them, often repeated, talks about the dollar notes that flurried when the airplane crashed. Allegedly, Mwanke was on his way with a load of cash to buy a farm on Idjwi Island in Lake Kivu.

The predator state

The theft of public funds and properties has as a consequence that little to no money is left to do the things a state is supposed to do. Pay salaries of its teachers, police personnel and other civil servants, for example. As a result, they too, extort the public. “It cost us fourteen months to transport water tubes from Matadi port to the Kasai region, just because we were not sufficiently prepared to bribe people,” someone from the Belgian development cooperation testifies.

This goes for any citizen’s initiative, be it the construction of a fishing pond or the importation of a container of goods for trade. One pays for every form, every permit, every service. Without the bribe, nothing happens. The dysfunctional state thus becomes a predator as far as development is concerned. Theft at the top becomes a cause of corruption at all levels in society: it is the ripple effect of the stone thrown in the pond.

The management of public finance

But things may slowly, very slowly, be getting better. Whilst, in 2004, the IMF found that according to official figures, only 0.18% of the DRC’s national income came from natural resources – a laughable figure, clearly massively understating the value of exports and hiding the fact that the real money that came in did not go to state coffers – in 2012 the figure had risen to a more acceptable 26.5%. This probably still isn’t the full amount that is coming in, as the percentage should be between that of Nigeria’s income from oil (72%) and Botswana’s sale of diamonds (31.5%), but at least it’s massively up. IMF representative in Congo, Oscar Melhado, carefully phrases this as ‘still a potential for an increase’ of the mining revenues. Melhado adds that: “The IMF is offering technical assistance to enhance the management of public finances, the tax authorities and the taxation policy.”

The management of public finances in the DRC has a long way to go. For the moment, most towns and provinces outside Kinshasa, like the civil servants, don’t get anywhere near the funds they need to provide services like roads, schools and clinics to the public, and the majority of the people continue to be miserably poor. To change this, checks and balances on public finance would have to be built in on every level: every town, province, department and state enterprise. An uphill battle, hampered by the fact that so many at the top of state structures are not exactly looking forward on checks and balances on their activities. But activists like Pascale Nkengele, the whistleblowers I spoke to, the Congo’s investigative journalists and the – numerous  – civil servants who are passionate about rebuilding their country are, meanwhile, becoming more and more vocal, too.

This report was produced with support from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism. It was edited by ZAM’s Evelyn Groenink and (Belgian Magazine) Mo* s John Vandaele, who also added personal touches. Mo* published it in February this year and Huffington Post in March. Translation by Rafael Njotea. All names of people quoted in the article have been changed.

Eric Mwamba (40) is a Congolese journalist living in Australia. A past chairman of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) and correspondent for, among other media, L’Eveil and Le Phare in the DRC, he is now setting up a new project: ‘Wealth Magazine’, that is to investigate natural resources, companies and personalities in the Congo.

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