ONE recent afternoon in south-eastern Congo, hundreds of people descended on a provincial politician as he walked through a dusty slum, pointing out where a road should be paved and new electricity lines built. The crowd chanted his name, then the name of his football team, Tout Puissant Mazembe, the 2010 winner of the Africa club championship and runner-up to Inter Milan in the FIFA Club World Cup last December.
Moïse Katumbi is governor of Katanga, the richest province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to about 5% of the world’s copper and nearly half its cobalt. He is a millionaire businessman who grandly claims to be “someone who cares about the social welfare of the people”. His popularity has grown with his football club’s success and the rising price of copper, which hit record highs earlier this year. That has brought mining companies from all over the world to the governor’s door.
The resulting influx of cash has made Mr Katumbi somewhat independent of the central government in Kinshasa, a thousand miles away. He levies his own taxes, forces mining companies to build roads and hospitals, and routinely blocks exports by companies who are not making their “social contributions”. The governor has said he will not run for president in November’s elections and, for now, is supporting the incumbent—Joseph Kabila, a fellow Katangan. But flush with success, Mr Katumbi remains both a threat to the reclusive president and an important ally.
Critics query Mr Katumbi’s early business deals in Congo and neighbouring Zambia as well as supposed arms shipments to Angolan rebels during that country’s civil war, though it would be hard to find many Congolese politicians who did not make a buck during one of central Africa’s many conflicts over the past few decades. More worrying are the mining companies which allege they are blackmailed into using infrastructure outfits linked to the Katumbi family. Jean-Claude Muyambo, an opposition politician, says the impressive increase in provincial revenues obscures the fact that the governor runs a kind of “mafia.”
Such is the state of Congolese politics that accusations of this kind are generally viewed as small fry. “At least he’s doing some positive things with the money,” says one foreign mining executive. But roads alone do not make a sustainable future. Katanga’s health and education record places it at or near the bottom of the country’s eleven provinces.
Mr Katumbi has vowed to leave office next year, a proposition that has long-term investors concerned. “Everyone is asking the same question—what is the future in terms of stability without Moïse?” says a businessman from a foreign mining and infrastructure company. Some claim the governor is being pushed out by Katangan tribal leaders to make room for Mr Kabila’s brother, Zoe. Mr Katumbi insists he wants to focus on his football club and mining interests. “Why can’t there be a Congolese billionaire?” he says. Best to avoid the fate of that other Congolese billionaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s dictator of 32 years until 1997, whose lavish tastes took Congo to the brink of ruin.