Understanding Congo’s Violent Kleptocracy

By Sasha Lezhnev with John Prendergast

For nearly a century and a half, the Congo has been a “violent kleptocracy,” a system of state capture in which ruling networks and commercial partners hijack governing institutions and maintain impunity for the purpose of resource extraction and for the security of the regime.[1]

Ruling networks utilize varying levels of violence to maintain power, subvert democratic processes, and repress dissenting voices. The usual channels of accountability or governmental oversight are viciously repressed. They hire Western public relations firms to whitewash their records, control or own the media, and construct a network of international legal, accounting and banking allies to hide their ill-gotten gains.

In the most recent iteration of Congo’s violent kleptocracy, President Joseph Kabila and his associates benefit from grand corruption and have held onto power by any means necessary. From King Leopold II over a century ago to Kabila at the time of our writing this, Congo’s leaders have redirected billions of dollars from the Congolese state and people, and have used brutal violence at times to gain or maintain the ultimate prize: control of the state and its vast natural resource base.

Simply put, Congo’s leaders and their commercial partners, foreign and domestic, frequently do not pursue Congo’s national interest. They pursue their personal interests, to the severe detriment of their people and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

During President Kabila’s tenure, up to $4 billion per year has gone missing or been stolen due to the manipulation of mining contracts, budgets, and state assets.[2] This follows trends set by King Leopold, the Belgian colonial authorities, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Desire, who preceded Joseph as president before the elder Kabila’s assassination. These regimes have partnered with commercial actors to rob Congolese people of their valuable natural resource assets. These leaders’ international partners have also profited significantly, some of whom reportedly have paid large bribes to do so. For example, in a U.S. Department of Justice plea agreement, the U.S. hedge fund Och-Ziff asserted that some of its business partners, including Israeli businessman and Kabila confidante Dan Gertler, according to sources familiar with the case, paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to Congolese officials in order to receive billions of dollars in mineral concessions at very low prices.[3] Gertler was sanctioned by the United States in December 2017 for his involvement in corrupt mining and oil deals in Congo.

Congo analyst Jason Stearns elaborates: “Many companies, Congolese and foreign, have benefited enormously from the conflict… The problem has been one of regulatory failure, of mining cowboys allowed to get away with mass fraud, hiding behind shell companies registered in Caribbean islands and working the corrupt stratosphere of Congolese politics, and of Western governments not caring about the behavior of their companies once they leave their borders.”[4]

The Building Blocks of the System

From the days of Leopold to the present, top officials in Congo and their associates have created seven “pillars” of violent kleptocracy:[5] letting security forces pay themselves, remaining in power to avoid losing everything, ensuring there is no accountability for the crimes committed, creating parallel state structures to stifle dissent, ensuring that high level officials benefit from corruption, personally profit from natural resource deals, and creating confusion to divert attention from corruption.

This is why the government resists serious reform of its army, justice sector, and state-owned companies, which are at the heart of many crises in Congo. [6] This has had devastating effects, as average Congolese citizens earn less now than they did in the 1970s in real prices.[7] The system coexists with a formal side in which the state performs some functions, and some basic infrastructure financed by China has been built. However, there is a logic as to why Congo has not developed into a more peaceful, capable state. A weak state that provides few services but keeps army commanders busy, mineral wealth opaque, and impunity continuous for regime leaders serves them by allowing them to maximize profits and maintain power.

There are a number of studies that help elucidate the nature of the kleptocracy. The Carter Center analyzed mining contracts and elucidates how Congo’s state mining company, Gécamines, has been used by high-level officials to create a parallel state and privatize the natural resource wealth of the country.[8] The Congo Research Group working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting found that President Kabila’s family owns stakes in more than eighty companies in Congo and abroad, with enormous benefits accruing to the family.[9] Global Witness and the Carter Center unearthed evidence that over $750 million in natural resource revenues went missing from the state-owned company Gécamines over a three-year period.[10] Kabila appoints the chairperson of Gécamines. And The Sentry showed how Hezbollah financiers used a bank run by Kabila’s brother to move money through the international banking system, despite several warnings from bank employees that doing so could violate U.S. sanctions, in addition to other illicit financial flows.[11]

The international community largely analyzes Congo as a fragile or failed state,[12] pumping in aid and peacekeeping assistance to make up for the lack of investment or interest in the provision of state services. Official foreign aid to Congo averaged a whopping $2.6 billion annually from 2006 to 2013.[13] Meanwhile, the outflow of stolen resources into the bank accounts of Congo’s leaders and their international accomplices may be greater than the inflow of foreign aid money each year.

Throughout Congo, structural and political violence have been a nearly constant foundation of the governing system. From King Leopold’s Force Publique to Mobutu’s special paramilitary units to Joseph Kabila’s Republican Guard and national intelligence agency, the Agence Nationale de Rensignement (ANR),[14] repression has been at the core of most regimes in Congo, even when formally democratic. It has produced arbitrary arrests, torture, assassinations, and massacres of activists, opposition leaders, and students. It has also engendered alienation, dispossession, and vulnerability. Although not all of that violence has been the result of predation, much of it is linked to Congo’s kleptocratic system of rule. At the very least, rulers have often been willing to unleash violence on citizens to retain their power and protect their racket.

China is a more recent major entrant into opaque deals for Congo’s minerals. The biggest deal was struck between China and Congo in 2007. However, there were no human rights conditions on aid like some of the deals with the West; the relationship has been marked by complete non-interference in Congo’s affairs. The deal was a joint venture with three Chinese state-owned enterprises. Congo’s state-owned mining company had a 32% share, while Chinese investors owned the rest, principally around copper and cobalt. Chinese state-owned companies build roads, telecoms, mining infrastructure, houses, universities, and hospitals. The deal was originally for $9 billion, but because of Congo’s massive debt, the IMF had leverage, and forced Congo to renegotiate the deal, eventually lowering it to $6 billion. Congo was subsequently flooded with cheap Chinese products, killing the Congolese textile industry.[15]

[1] This terminology is used by the Enough Project in a series of publications providing examples of such violent kleptocracies and their international facilitators.

[2] This is as of 2011 and based on African politics and development scholar Pierre Englebert’s combination of three factors. First, A. Batamba Balembu’s study of corruption in Kinshasa estimated at 55 percent of potential budget revenue, is extrapolated to a $2 billion loss in taxes and fee revenues overall in Congo. Second, the losses from mining and oil are estimated based on production and price of approximately $500 million (see p. 9 of Englebert study below). Third, Englebert estimates that $1.5 billion per year is lost from the under-valuation of mining rights, extrapolated from the Africa Progress Panel and Eric Joyce estimates of losses of $1.36 billion from 2010-2012 and $5.5 billion from 2008-2011. Together, total losses for the state might have reached up to $4 billion in 2011-2012. However, commodity prices and the sale of assets have decreased in years since then, so the figure is likely lower now. A. Batamba Balembu cited in Oasis Tedika Kodila. “Corruption en République Démocratique du Congo: Tyrannie des nombres,” Congo-Afrique, (Vol. 51, No. 464, April 2012); Pierre Englebert, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Growth for All?” p.10 (Johannesburg: The Brenthurst Foundation, September 2014), available at https://pierreenglebert.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/brenthurst-paper-2014-06-final.pdf

a href=”#_ftnref3″ name=”_ftn3″>[3] According to the Plea Agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and OZ Africa Management GP, LLC, a company called “DRC Partner, together with others, paid more than one hundred million U.S. dollars in bribes to DRC officials to obtain special access to and preferential prices for opportunities in the government-controlled mining sector in the DRC.” According to a published report by Bloomberg, DRC Partner is Dan Gertler. In the plea agreement, DRC Partner is described as “an Israeli businessman… [who] had significant interests in the diamond and mineral mining industries in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC).” Plea Agreement Cr. No. 16-515 (NGG), United States vs. OZ Africa Management GP, LLC, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, September 29, 2016; Franz Wild and Keri Geiger, “Diamond Magnate at the Heart of Och-Ziff’s Africa Ambitions,” Bloomberg, September 30, 2016, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-30/the-diamond-magnate-at-the-heart-of-och-ziff-s-africa-ambitions. Global Witness, “Out of Africa,” May 4, 2016, available at https://www.globalwitness.org/documents/18357/Out_Of_Africa_final_EN.pdf; Michael Kavanagh, Franz Wild, and Jonathan Ferziger, “Gertler Earns Billions as Mine Deals Leave Congo Poorest Country” Bloomberg Markets, December 5, 2012 available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-12-05/gertler-earns-billions-as-mine-deals-leave-congo-poorest. In response to one Global Witness report, Gertler’s spokesman, the UK’s Lord Mancroft, said that any suggestion “that Glencore offered Mr Gertler preferential treatment is wholly misconceived” and that “there are legitimate commercial reasons for every transaction we are involved in.” Global Witness, “Glencore unfazed by muddy deals,” May 20, 2014, available at https://www.globalwitness.org/en/blog/glencore-unfazed-muddy-congo-deals/

[4] Stearns, p. 333.

[5] This is based in part on Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, (New York: W.W. Norton, & Company, Inc., 2015).

[6] For more information on the wider context of this phenomenon, see Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

[7] HDI was at its lowest in 2000 at .274 but since has improved, albeit minimally. In 1980 the score was .336 but in 2014 it was .333. United Nations Development Programme “, “Human Development Reports: Congo (Democratic Republic of the),” available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/COD (last accessed June 2015).

[8] The Carter Center, “A State Affair: Privatizing Congo’s Copper Sector,” 2017.

[9] Congo Research Group, “All the President’s Wealth: The Kabila Family Business,” July 2017.

[10] Global Witness, “Regime Cash Machine: How the Democratic Republic of Congo’s booming mining exports are failing to benefit its people,” July 2017.

[11] The Sentry, “The Terrorists’ Treasury: How a Bank Linked to Congo’s President Enabled Hezbollah Financiers to Bust U.S. Sanctions,” October 2017.

[12] Crisis States Workshop, “Crisis, Fragile and Failed States Definition Used by the CSRC,” London School of Economics (March 2006), available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/internationalDevelopment/research/crisisStates/download/drc/FailedState.pdf; World Bank, “International Development Association, International Finance Corporation, and Multilateral Guarantee Agency Country Assistance Strategy for the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Period FY2013-FY2016,” (April 12, 2013), Report No. 66158-ZR, available at http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/ WDSP/IB/2013/05/16/000350881_20130516171004/Rendered/PDF/661580CAS0Box30C0disclosed050160130.pdf; International Rescue Committee, “This Week’s Voices: Congo, ‘a fragile state, not a failed state,’” March 2, 2012, available at http://www.rescue.org/blog/weeks-voices-congo-fragile-statenot-failed-state;(http://www.rescue.org/blog/weeks-voicescongo-fragile-state-not-failed-state, (No authorized access to page); Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, “The Congo: Working to rebuild a failed state,” March 30, 2006, available at http://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/congo-working-rebuild-failed-state; Theodore Trefon, “Failed State: Can DR Congo recover?,” BBC News, November 21, 2011, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15775445; Fund for Peace, “Fragile States Index 2015,” available at http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/; Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills, “It’s time we admit the Democratic Republic of Congo does not exist,” Foreign Policy, June 24, 2013, available at http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/06/24/the-invisible-state/; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Monitoring the Fragile States Principles,” available at http://www.oecd.org/countries/democraticrepublicofthecongo/monitoringthefragilestatesprinciples.html

[13] This does not include peacekeeping assistance. This is from 2006 to 2013. World Bank, “World Development Indicators,” (last accessed January 2016).

[14] See, for example, Amnesty International, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Torture And Killings By State Security Agents Still Endemic,” (December 2007), available at https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/60000/afr620122007en.pdf; Human Rights Watch, “DR Congo: Crackdown on Presidential Aspirant,” May 9, 2016, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/09/dr-congo-crackdown-presidential-aspirant; Issa Sikiti da Silva, “The ANR: a threat to DR Congo’s media freedom,” Doha Center for Media Freedom, February 20, 2013, available at http://www.dc4mf.org/en/content/anr-threat-dr-congos-media-freedom.

[15] Van Reybrouck, p. 532.