US sanctions in the DRC are a thin smokescreen

By Arnaud Gallet - 29 December 2017 at 4:55 pm
US sanctions in the DRC are a thin smokescreen

Another businessman outed by the Paradise Papers has been sanctioned by the US government: Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler has been accused of handling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and President Trump has responded by declaring a “national emergency” with respect to corruption and human rights abuses. Without a comprehensive approach to restoring stability to the war-torn Congo, however, these new sanctions are little more than political bluster.

Last month, the Paradise Papers investigation exposed new details of Gertler’s deals in the resource-rich republic, including a loan in excess of USD$45 million in shares from the biggest miner in the world, Glencore. Announcing the sanctions, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said the businessman’s dealings had cost the DRC some $1.36 billion in revenues, with Gertler using his friendship with the DRC President Joseph Kabila to operate as a middle-man for undervalued mining asset sales to national and multinational firms.

“Nothing happens in Congo without Dan Gertler,” said one adviser to an international mining conglomerate, further exposing Gertler’s role in the Kabila family’s regime over the past two decades. A partner to the infamous New York hedge fund, Och-Ziff Management Capital, Gertler is charged in a separate case with paying some $100 million in bribes to Kabila and other top officials over the course of 10 years – sometimes in bags stuffed with cash, amid speculation the businessman is the inspiration for the Hollywood blockbuster Blood Diamond.  

Gertler’s political influence is said to have begun shortly after his arrival in 1997, when he offered the late president Laurent Kabila some $20 million to head off a rebellion in the east; in exchange, his IDI Diamonds firm was given exclusive rights to the purchase of artisanal diamonds. Another source has claimed Gertler paid the Kabila government $40 million to arm, train and direct a special forces team to quash a Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group. Gertler’s consolidation campaign on behalf of Kabila has been almost lucrative without limit: last year, he joined the Forbes rich list with a net worth of $1.2 billion.

Kabila hurting

Gertler’s waning star is a serious blow to the increasingly embattled Kabila, whose grip on power this year has been tenuous at best. With a rising opposition turning up the pressure on the Congolese leader, taking out his most important business partner will further cap his power – and undermine his reputation in the process. But is this enough?

Not quite. Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga province and leading presidential candidate, has been leading the charge against Kabila and his supporters, calling for the president to step down and allow an interim government to organise elections. Despite agreeing to hold polls before the end of 2017 in a negotiation brokered by the Catholic Church, Kabila has since delayed and pushed the poll to December 2018, citing scarcity of funds and the lack of a reliable electoral roll. Exiled in Europe on trumped up charges, Katumbi has had to lead the opposition from afar: for example, by calling for civil disobedience protests from the population to force Kabila to step down. A march against the President planned for this week has received his full support.

Gertler’s sanctioning comes on the back of several unexpected steps the US administration has taken recently in a bid to force Kabila to host elections amid an ever-worsening security situation. In October, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, paid a tearful visit to a camp for some 15,000 internally displaced Congolese in the country’s east, insisting that organizing “safe and fair elections” as a matter of urgency. Haley was in Congo to review the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country.

That same peacekeeping mission met with bloodshed earlier this month, with rebels killing 15 peacekeepers and wounding more than 50 more in the deadliest single attack on a UN mission in nearly 25 years. The attack was launched on their base at nightfall and lasted several hours, drawing international condemnation from within Africa and beyond. In response, a joint Ugandan and Congolese military operation killed more than 100 militants believed to be responsible, shelling eight “enemy camps” with air and artillery strikes.

Trump’s murky intentions 

But it would be a gross mistake to assume that an empathic Haley and the latest round of sanctions show an image of a concerned and benevolent US. The reality, however, is much starker. In a previous move, a leaked Executive Order (EO) revealed that Trump is all too willing to let businesses reap the benefits of the DRC’s violent diamond trade, proposing to lift “conflict minerals” rules circumventing the commercialization of so-called blood diamonds by citing the need to protect national security. International aid groups have criticised the proposal, saying the EO would only embolden corrupt businesses aligning themselves with local armed groups. Corrupt business practices have only served to fund the decades of bloodshed, and this new proposal is a step in the entirely wrong direction.

While sanctioning Gertler to hurt Kabila might increase the pressure on Kinshasha, the extra push won’t amount to much if the government isn’t forced into holding free and fair elections. Katumbi has long asked for UN protection to return to the country – which has been granted – but Kabila hasn’t taken any concrete steps so far. Next, the recent announcement that the US will slash its UN budget by almost $300 million could hamper peacekeeping operations in the country. While Washington hasn’t detailed which parts are on the chopping block, the country does supply almost 30 percent of the funds used for the deployment and training of Blue Helmets.

At the end of the day, Trump’s America First policy in Africa merely pays lip service to human rights, and fails to address the root causes behind the ongoing instability in the DRC – and may even worsen the situation in the beleaguered country. If the US were truly interested in restoring stability, free and fair elections are essential and urgently required. Until then, the people of DRC will continue to be robbed of their peace.

Image credit: Youtube

Arnaud Gallet

Arnaud Gallet

Arnaud is a French freelance writer with an African heart who has lived in 10 different Sub-Saharan countries in the past decade. He is currently based in Paris.

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