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Vol 62 No 24

Published 2nd December 2021


Exposed – the cost of Kabila's state capture 

Millions of leaked bank papers which expose the mechanics of former leader's plunder of the state could up-end national politics

Using evidence from the biggest ever leak of financial documents in Africa, an international investigative journalism consortium has tracked the main sources of the staggering wealth, reckoned to run into billions of dollars, of former President Joseph Kabila and his family.

The paper trail, based on a leak of over three million documents from the Banque Gabonaise et Française Internationale (BGFI), shows how Kabila, his family and business associates, captured some of Congo-Kinshasa's key institutions between 2001 and 2018 and siphoned off immense sums of money. It is the biggest political scandal in Congo-K since President Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted in 1997 by Kabila's father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

Resources desperately needed for schools and public health services were diverted from the state treasury to private companies controlled by the Kabila family. The new government under President Félix Tshisekedi, which inherited a near empty treasury when it came to power in 2019, is struggling to finance an ambitious secondary school programme and shore up public health services to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and serial outbreaks of Ebola. 

Confronted with the evidence of these transfers and the wider state capture system by the consortium, Kabila and his business associates have declined to respond.

The revelations come four months after new Finance Minister Nicolas Kazadi signed a US$1.52 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund under which the Kinshasa government has committed to reform many of the state institutions looted by the previous government and its friends. Since the pandemic hit, the country's non-mining economy has shrunk by 1.3% while inflation and the fiscal deficit surged, undermining vital social services (AC Vol 62 No 13, UN slams resources plunder). 

The media consortium sets out in forensic detail how the Kabila family's deals worked and present his successor President Félix Tshisekedi with some stark choices (AC Vol 62 No 3, Félix tips the scales). 

Tshisekedi, already waging a cold war against Kabila and his business allies such as Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler, could use the consortium's extensive evidence to launch an investigation similar to South Africa's Zondo Commission which has spent three years hearing testimony on how members of the ruling African National Congress made corrupt deals with business people (AC Vol 62 No 10, Gertler's billions). 

Such a move would show the government was taking on the corrupt networks and ending the illicit outflows. 

Alternatively, Tshisekedi, whose Union Sacrée's shaky majority in parliament depends on the votes of some former supporters of Kabila, may consider a head-on confrontation with the patrons of the ancien regime to be too politically risky.

Most important, with national elections due in 2023, will be how Congolese voters see the corruption revelations. Will they prompt the kind of national argument and political convulsions seen in the state capture saga in South Africa or the 'Car Wash' scandal in Brazil? Civic activists in Congo-K are set to demand action on the Kabila corruption files. For now, the government's response is harder to assess.

These files, documenting millions of transactions between Kabila's inner circle and BGFI, central Africa's biggest bank, shine a light on the plundering of the country's most important institutions, including the Banque Centrale du Congo, the central bank, the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI) and the state mining company Gécamines. 

The consortium of investigative journalists and non-profits, grouped under the name 'Congo Hold-up', has revealed that the Kabila family and its associates looted at least $138m of Congolese public money from 2013 to 2018. 

The vehicle for the plunder was the local branch of BGFI, a bank with a history of malfeasance and links to the ruling families of Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. The BGFI, 11% of which belongs to the family of Gabon's President Ali Bongo grew out of the now-defunct French Intercontinental Bank (Fiba), which was at the centre of one of the biggest corruption cases of the 20th century, the Elf scandal in France (AC Vol 48 No 6, Financial secrecy).

BGFI and Fiba laundered funds in a succession of scandals implicating the ruling cliques of Gabon and Congo-B.

The Congo Hold-up consortium came together after the campaign group the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) and France's leading investigative news outlet Mediapart were leaked the millions of BGFI records. They were joined by the European Investigative Collaborations network, partner media groups and non-governmental organisations, and spent over six months analysing the data.

The initial findings that $138m was stolen from state institutions between 2013 and 2018 is the tip of the iceberg. Reports in the coming days will uncover several other cases of grand corruption involving many millions of dollars and detail how Kabila's government corrupted key institutions.

Over $100m more in suspect funds went to Kabila's entourage through BGFI, about a third of it in cash and the rest transiting through an account held by BGFI at the Banque Centrale du Congo (BCC), the central bank.

Key to the embezzlement was Francis Selemani, CEO of BGFI in Congo-K from 2012 to 2018.

Selemani is, according to researcher Eric Kennes's 2003 Biographical Essay on Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the adopted brother of Joseph Kabila. Selemani and Joseph Kabila were brought up together in Tanzania by one of the wives of Adrien Kanambe, a guerrilla comrade of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who led the forces that overthrew Mobutu and preceded Joseph Kabila as president (AC Vol 38 No 7, Kabila's long march). When Kanambe died in 1985, soon followed by his wife, Selemani was adopted by Laurent-Désiré.

Selemani's role in the Congo Hold-up scandal has been detailed by Mediapart in its investigation into Sud Oil, a company under Selemani's control, acting through a proxy. Originally an oil services company, Sud Oil was taken over by the Kabila family in the autumn of 2013.

Selemani's wife Aneth Lutale owned 80% and Kabila's sister Gloria Mteyu 20%. After that it stopped working in oil and became a repository for cash stolen from state institutions.

Sud Oil took in over $90m from public institutions, including national mining company Gécamines, the BCC, CENI, and even funds meant for Congolese peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

Over half of the stolen funds were withdrawn in cash by Selemani's front-man, Sud Oil General Manager David Ezekiel. Mediapart describes how Ezekiel withdrew $30m in cash from Sud Oil and related companies from May to December 2018, just before Kabila left the presidency in January 2019 after 18 years in power. Anti-corruption group The Sentry also reveals that Selemani and his companies received millions of dollars from Sud Oil, and bought 17 properties in America and South Africa. Congo Hold-up said its questions were ignored by almost all the parties concerned, including Selemani, BGFI, Kabila and the BCC.

This scandal looks set to rock the political system in Kinshasa and exacerbate the rivalry between Kabila and President Tshisekedi. Their fractious relationship dates back to the rigging of December 2018 elections. At that time, Kabila wanted to stop the real winner at the polls, Martin Fayulu, from taking power. Fayulu had promised a full audit of the state institutions plundered by the Kabila family.

Kabila agreed to leave office and allow Tshisekedi to take the presidency, believing him to be pliable (AC Vol 60 No 2, Data leak exposes plot to steal presidential vote). At first, Kabila controlled all the key power centres: the army, parliament and the cabinet. Then in January, Tshisekedi forced out prime minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, a Kabila ally, and started to claw back power. Some top security officials then switched allegiance to Tshisekedi.

Despite losing political power, Kabila retained extensive financial holdings, with allies in key economic positions, among the most important of whom is Albert Yuma, who remained chairman of Gécamines – source of 85% of Congo-K's export earnings – after Tshisekedi became President.

Kabila's ally mining magnate Dan Gertler has held onto royalty rights to several of the country's richest copper and cobalt mines, which are set to earn him at least $1.76bn between 2021 and 2039, according to a detailed analysis by campaigning coalition Congo n'est pas à vendre.

Much of Congo-K's food industry and agribusiness is in the hands of two of Kabila's business partners, Alain Wan and Marc Piedboeuf. They run Kabila's vast private landholdings, grouped together in the company Ferme Espoir.

Until now, Tshisekedi has done little to rein in corruption or take on Kabila's vested interests, despite the administration's appointment of a tough-talking anti-corruption tsar, Jules Alingete (AC Vol 61 No 24, Tshisekedi’s moment of truth).

Faced with money-laundering revelations over the Kinshasa branch of another African bank – Cameroon's Afriland – in February, Tshisekedi said nothing (AC Vol 62 No 5, Bank officials 'expose money-laundering network'). Neither did he act when rogue officials manipulated the judicial system to hand down death sentences, in absentia, on the two whistleblowers who had exposed the money-laundering (AC Vol 61 No 16, Fury greets Gertler report).

In the Afriland case, it was Gertler and a financial network linked to Hezbollah that was in the frame. This time, Kabila is at the centre of the story. The BGFI scandal takes in the key players in Kabila's network, some of them still hold powerful positions within the political and business system (AC Vol 62 No 15, Court documents show Gertler at centre of $360m cash laundry).

Activists will pressure Tshisekedi to act, launching investigations and prosecutions. Ignoring the revelations from Africa's biggest data leak would make Tshisekedi look weak at home and abroad.

It could also trigger problems with the country's correspondent banks and regulatory authorities in the United States and Europe, where some of the laundered cash was used to buy property. Failure to act would also undermine Kinshasa's new IMF programme and could hold back growth and investment.

As the corruption revelations are relayed across the country and the world, Congolese will be watching Tshisekedi's reactions.

Their anger and frustration with the continuing theft of public resources under from Mobutu through the Kabilas – father and son – to Tshisekedi, is poignantly summed up in a song by the Musique populaire de la révolution, Nino Tosali Té (What haven't we tried?). 'What use are the studies we have done? they sing, 'We're selling kola nuts and cigarettes in the street to survive'. 

More than half a million people listened to the song on their mobile phones within hours of its release. When the song was briefly banned by the state broadcasting companies, it underlined just how remote the political class had become from people's concerns.

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