Moïse Katumbi defies easy categorisation. He is an astute leader, a successful entrepreneur, a soccer fanatic, a homespun philosopher and the man who seems to be single-handedly turning around the fortunes of what is potentially the wealthiest corner of Africa. This profile is by African Business editor, Anver Versi.
Africa’s pantheon of high achievers is remarkable in its abundance of odd but endlessly fascinating individuals. Fewer come more odd or more intriguing than Moïse Katumbi, the governor of the minerals-laden Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The 48-year-old politician-cum-entrepreneur- cum-football club proprietor-cumphilanthropist laughingly refers to himself as a new Moses come to lead the people of this immensely rich but severely underdeveloped province, the size of Spain, to the Promised Land.
The fact that his father was a Greek Jew from Rhodes, who fled the Nazis between the world wars and started a family in the DRC with a Congolese woman of high birth, may be only a coincidence – but in this case, it could be a pertinent one.
Katumbi, usually resplendent in his widebrimmed hat and sharp white suit, essential accessories in a country that holds ‘les sapeurs’ (officially, the society of fashionable and elegant gentlemen) in extremely high regard, does often resemble his biblical namesake when he leads thousands of adoring followers during his various campaigns. His habit of dispensing dollar notes to all who ask has not dented the enormous popularity he enjoys.
But this is where he displays a sharp departure from the norms of those who aspire to high political office. He is a reluctant politician. He says he took to politics by default – his aim was to arrest the steady decline of what is, hectare by hectare, perhaps potentially the richest piece of real estate in Africa.
He claims that the usual real motives for people vying for political office – the opportunity to make money from their positions – do not apply to him as he was already wealthy before he became governor.
Despite the ease with which he has taken to public life and the tangible differences he has already made to the province, he says he cannot wait to vacate the hissing pit oflocal politics and return to the sanctuary of his business world and the sheer pleasure of leading his football club.
However, when he talked about quitting politics in 2011, he sent such a shudder through the province that nearly a million people signed a petition asking him to please stay on. He has stayed on as governor but has made it clear that he will not stand again when the next provincial elections – which should have been held last year – eventually take place.
In an interview with our sister publication New African, he said that if he had to choose between being governor and remaining as chairman of his beloved TP Mazembe football club, he would have little hesitation in going for the latter.
The club is probably the best-funded and organised in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, it made history by becoming the first club from Africa, breaking the European and South American stranglehold, to reach the final of the Fifa Club World Cup, where it lost to Inter Milan.
His early life and influence remain something of a mystery but he showed a sharp eye for business opportunity when he began selling salted and fresh fish to the state-owned giant mining conglomerate Gécamines while still in his teens.
He recalls that the profit he made from his first transaction was $40. He has added several noughts to that figure since, from his transport, mining and real estate businesses. It is estimated, though nobody is quite sure about this, that he is worth around $60m.
Around 2000 he moved to Zambia, where he has substantial interests in the transport sector, because of the messy wars on the DRC-Rwanda border. How much is rumour and myth is difficult to discern amid the plethora of claims and counterclaims but the threats to Katumbi must have been sufficiently worrying for him to go into a self-imposed exile to Zambia for three years.
In 2003, Joseph Kabila, having succeeded his assassinated father, Laurent Kabila, as president of the DRC, sent word to Katumbi to return home and sort out the increasingly fractious situation in Katanga’s mining sector.
Katanga, with its copper, gold, diamonds and the all-important coltan (an essential input in the manufacture of mobile phones), has always been a very tempting morsel in this vast country. Moïse Tshombe’s attempts, aided and abetted by Belgium and the CIA, to hive it off the rest of the country soon after independence in the 1960s led to the country’s first brutal war.
In the late 1990s, several countries, including Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa became involved in disastrous wars in the area. It has also attracted all sorts of adventurers eager to bite chunks off the mineral smörgåsbord that Katanga is seen as. Katumbi was elected governor in 2007 and immediately set about implementing some of the new mining regulations that Kabila’s government had drafted. He put a stop to the illegal movement of raw minerals. “On the day of my election,” he recalls, “I blocked 552 trucks at the border. Only two had government authorisation to export. The DRC was therefore losing 5,000 tons of raw material a day on the illegal market.”
He also banned the export of raw materials and encouraged local processing and production. “In 2013, production of copper cathodes should reach 1m tonnes (from 18,000 tons in 2007) and we should reach 1.5m tons in 2015. In the future, the DRC will clearly become one of the world’s largest producers of copper cathodes,” he says.
His impact on services has been dramatic. Around 30% of the province’s dilapidated road infrastructure has been rebuilt; in 2007, only 3% of the population had access to running water; that figure has changed to 67%. In 2007, only 400,000 children went to school, of which girls formed only 15% – today 1.2m children attend school, 45% of whom are girls.
When he took office, revenues to the province amounted to $100m; this has jumped to $1.5bn today. He says the situation in the DRC is a “geological scandal”: “We not only have minerals in abundance, we have good rains, good soil. We should be as economically strong as South Africa.”
That the country is not, he blames on selfserving politicians. “Today, their behaviour isa crime because these people (the politicians) do not invest in their people. The Congolese do not merit this. They merit a big change, which the President is helping to bring about.
“We must fight corruption so that one day the people can say ‘I am happy to be a Congolese’. I want the people to feel free in their own country, to eat three times a day, to send their children to school, to have nice hospitals. I do not like to see anyone suffering,” he says.
Perhaps this is why the people of Katanga are not prepared to allow their ‘Moses’ to abandon his leadership before the Promised Land has been reached.