It is quite an audacious undertaking to compare a brutally despotic dictator against an exiled man who was forced to flee his home country to protect his life, and have the dictator come out on top. Alas, that is exactly what a recent sponsored hit piece in the Washington Times set out to do. The men in question are Joseph Kabila, president of the – but in name – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 17 years, and Moise Katumbi, a figurehead of the opposition movement against Kabila.
Brian Smith, the op-ed’s author, paints a cartoonish image of Katumbi as a $5000 suit wearing, private jet sporting criminal mastermind that is tied to just about any “evil” figure one can thing of: cross-continental arms dealers, Mobutu Sese Seko, obscure lobby groups in the U.S. But to better understand how brazenly false these accusation are, it is necessary to take a look at the context of DRC politics and the events that have been unfolding in the country.
Joseph Kabila was supposed to step down from the presidency on 20 December last year after his second and final term. But to this day, Kabila has staunchly refused to do so, in reckless disregard of the country’s constitution. Amid rising protests against Kabila’s continued hold on power, he and opposition parties reached a transition deal on 30 December, according to which Kabila promised to step down after elections scheduled to be held before the end of 2017. Since then, Kabila has made it unequivocally clear that he does not intend to honor his part of the bargain. He has pushed the elections back continually so as to be effectively postponed indefinitely, all the while engaging in a relentless crackdown on opposition movements and public protests that are have been described as bordering on genocide.
These obvious attempts to prevent democracy from taking hold would normally be met with international outcry. The U.S. used to be the world’s foremost promoter and defender of democracy, but under the current Trump administration no leadership in that regard can be expected. That Kabila has been trying to take advantage of the current political climate in Washington is therefore not surprising. In May it was revealed that Kabila spent $5.6 million to unleash a wide-ranging and intense lobbying and public relations campaign in DC to whitewash his international image while his country is on fire. The money was paid to Israeli security firm MER Security and Communication Systems to provide policy advice, and lobby senior US Trump administration officials as well as members of Congress.
These efforts have been met with a warm welcome among the Washington establishment. It did not take long for Kabila’s men to bag heavy-hitters like high-ranking former lawmakers and the Trump campaign’s liaison with Capitol Hill. Swayed by a $45,000 payment, The Livingston Group, run by former Republican congressman Bob Livingston, took it upon itself to invite Washington insiders to the exclusive Capital Hill Club, officially to discuss human rights issues. At the same time, Republican Senator Bob Dole was engaged to connect Kabila representatives to the highest circles of the US political elite.
Accusing Katumbi of engaging in high-power lobbying for his cause in Washington is an irony that was lost on Smith. See his article in the Washington Times, which does not even hide the fact that it is blatant propaganda – the “sponsored “ tag on top of the page is an obvious give-away.
It is for this reason that the accusation of Katumbi being merely interested in self-enrichment is hard to justify. The op-ed even implies that, if it were not for Katumbi, the DRC would be “one of the richest nations on the planet” thanks to its wealth in natural resources. Yes, Congo should be a prosperous nation – but it is exceedingly difficult to create economic growth from natural resources when all the profits from their mining and selling are going straight into the president’s coffers. A report published by the Congo Research Group in July revealed that Kabila and his family partially or wholly own a sprawling network of more than 80 companies in the DRC and abroad. Just like the Belgian colonialists before him, Kabila is treating the country like his personal fiefdom.
As a result, the Kabila clan has economic stakes in every sector of Congo’s economy worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including more than 120 permits to exploit valuable minerals such as gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt. The DRC is Africa’s largest copper producer and the most important source of cobalt in the world, digging up as much as $10 billion worth of these minerals per year. However, only a dismal six percent of DRC’s revenues from copper and cobalt exports reach the National Treasury, the rest disappearing in Kabila’s vast network of corruption. No small wonder that the DRC is ranked as one of the poorest and least developed countries on the planet.
Any serious observer of the political situation in the DRC would be hard pressed to deem the horrific events wreaking havoc across the country as justifiable. With the opposition in the DRC showing no signs of giving in to the oppression, Kabila’s control over the country keeps slipping out of his hands at an ever-faster rate.
Just don’t expect a pay-to-play piece in the Washington Times tell you that.