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.
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. 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. 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.”
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: 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.  This has had devastating effects, as average Congolese citizens earn less now than they did in the 1970s in real prices. 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. 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. 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. 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.
The international community largely analyzes Congo as a fragile or failed state, 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. 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), 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.