Well-dressed, articulate and easy on the eyes, Moïse Katumbi is among the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s wealthiest men — and, some say, the former Belgian colony’s best chance at building a truly democratic republic in the near future. The problem? He’s stuck in Paris, having taken refuge there for medical treatment a few months ago. And while the man who aims to replace 15-year incumbent President Joseph Kabila plans to return to Kinshasa soon, there’s no guarantee he won’t go directly from the airport to … jail.
Born to a Congolese mother of royal Zambian descent and a Jewish Greek father, Katumbi, 51, grew up along the border of Zambia in the village of Kashobwe. After starting his career in his family’s fishing business as a teen, he went on to build a mining and transport empire. The successful businessman and politician with an apparently permanent furrowed brow — he always looks worried, despite his good looks — owns one of Africa’s winningest soccer clubs, TP Mazembe, and was estimated to have a net worth of roughly $60 million in 2014. He’s also the popular former two-term governor of his home province of Katanga, and in May of this year, he threw his hat in the ring for president, becoming the first candidate to draw support from seven disparate opposition parties. Katumbi, perhaps the country’s best hope for strengthening a democratic future, has, together with a prominent DRC exile and opposition leader, vowed to hold a “Grand Meeting” or Rassemblement in Kinshasa today. The event, if it happens, promises to be dramatic: Tens of thousands pouring into the streets to demand a democratic transition in the 81.7 million–strong DRC.
“Katumbi’s emergence is Kabila’s worst nightmare.”
Kabila likes it at the top, perhaps too much. He’s tried postponing elections, proposing constitutional changes (without any luck so far), arresting opponents, pressuring the high court to allow him to stay in power until votes are cast and more. The president assumed office in 2001 after his father’s assassination, and has made good on very few political promises — instead presiding over a stalled economy, delayed law reforms and electricity shortages. Today, most of the DRC suffers from economic hardship; while GDP and other economic indicators have slowly risen, gross national income per capita for 2015 was just $410, according to the World Bank. A presidential election was due this year, but Kabila relies on glissement (slippage) tactics to keep the reins — and he has the army’s backing.
Enter Katumbi who, barely after announcing his bid for the presidency in May, faced an arrest warrant and allegations — which he has repeatedly denied in the press — that he had recruited foreign mercenaries, presumably to stage a coup. A month later, he was in South Africa seeking medical treatment after a downright Bond-worthy incident in which he says government forces injected him with a mysterious substance. During his absence, a Congolese court sentenced him to three years in prison for the illegal sale of a building — though one judge has already admitted getting pressure from above to condemn the businessman. OZY could not reach Katumbi or the president’s representatives for comment.
Katumbi has not returned to Kinshasa since the ruling, instead holding meetings with exiled opposition figures such as Étienne Tshisekedi in Paris and London. Tshisekedi had recently decamped to Belgium but received a huge welcome when he returned to Kinshasa last week, a development that serves as a de facto campaign advertisement for the opposition. And for voters to have their say.
Many analysts believe that if a free and fair election were held in DRC tomorrow, Katumbi would win. And he’s “proved that he’s capable of democratic turnover, something Kabila apparently is not,” says Gérard Prunier, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. As governor, Katumbi became something of a larger-than-life figure, Prunier explains, taking on wage regulations in a populist, homespun fashion. He would go shop by shop, asking workers whether they were getting the minimum wage. If the staffer said no, Katumbi was known to demand results: “Things often changed by the next morning,” Prunier says.
Katumbi’s also credited with halting the movement of illegal raw materials and boosting local production of resources in the mining province over which he governed. His infrastructure initiatives helped provide running water to the majority of Katanga’s citizens, according to African Business magazine; before, fewer than 5 percent had access. Girls’ education also experienced a boom. And then Katumbi pulled an anti-Kabila: After two terms, he got up and left, respecting the term limits.
Some have questioned this cavalier governing style and his amassing of more wealth while in office. But Katumbi maintains he was a highly successful businessman long before he became a politician. Even before his business career, though, Katumbi was a supporter of Kabila and a member of the president’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy. The two men hail from the same province, Katanga, which only heightens their rivalry. “[He] best represents Kabila’s failure in his own backyard,” says Phil Clark, associate professor in comparative and international politics at SOAS, University of London. “Kabila takes that personally.”
Some also question Katumbi’s ability to drum up support in the eastern Kivu regions, which have already seen escalating violence in recent months. Indeed, much of his popularity stems from his southern Congolese province, known primarily for farming and mining — particularly copper and cobalt, as well as tin, uranium and diamonds. It was here that Katumbi was raised, along the eastern border in a small village near Lake Mweru. He started in his father’s fishing trade and from there branched into mining, food processing and transport. In 1997, he launched his own mining firm — recently purchased by a French company — and became president of the popular soccer club, a source of Katangan pride. They’ve won the CAF Champions League five times.
Katumbi’s proven a somewhat popular figure with opposition party leaders, which have famously failed to agree or coalesce around a unity figure in the past, much to their disservice. “If there’s anyone who could unseat Kabila, it’s Katumbi,” says Kevin Amirehsani, senior analyst at Global Risk Insights. “He has the support of Western donors and even has a D.C.-based PR firm working for him.” And the platform writes itself. End economic troubles, boost growth, stamp out corruption, end arbitrary arrests, respect the constitution — which has been rewritten six times since 1960 … the last time under Kabila. All easier said than done.
“Katumbi’s emergence is Kabila’s worst nightmare,” says Clark.