Don’t be in a rush to do business in world’s top cobalt producer

Felix Tshisekedi became DRC’s new president in January 2019. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When a foreign investor with multimillion-dollar projects across Africa was told the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo wanted to see him, he booked a suite at one of the country’s top hotels. After six days of waiting, he left.

Since Felix Tshisekedi took the helm of the world’s biggest cobalt producer almost five months ago, private planes jam the main airport in Kinshasa, the capital, and hotel lobbies teem with businessmen and Congolese who’ve returned from countries such as the U.S. and South Africa with hopes of working with his administration. But it’s been slow going. Tshisekedi only appointed a prime minister last month and hasn’t yet named a cabinet.

“Nobody knows what’s going on — it’s very difficult for businessmen to make sense of what is happening because there is no government,” said Claude Kabemba, director of Johannesburg-based Southern Africa Resource Watch. “Those who are driving the process are not very concerned about the day-to-day activities of the government and not much concerned about investment.”

Huge challenges confront Tshisekedi, 55. The largest and one of the least-developed nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Congo relies entirely on mining for its exports. It’s also one of the most difficult places to get anything done, with the World Bank ranking it 184th out of 190 countries in its latest Doing Business report, just above South Sudan, but below war-torn Central African Republic.

‘New beginning’

Tshisekedi is negotiating with many people and that takes time, said Gilbert Mundela, a senior adviser to the president who’s been living in a Kinshasa hotel since his recent return from the U.S. This is the first taste of power for Tshisekedi’s political party after nearly four decades in opposition.

“We’re looking at a new beginning for Congo,” Mundela said. “My president is inundated by requests for meetings from investors. You have to vet them to find out who is good and who isn’t.”

Under Tshisekedi’s predecessor, Joseph Kabila, who clung to the presidency for 18 years after inheriting it from his father, foreign donors and business regularly complained about deep-seated corruption and bad governance. With his siblings, Kabila built a business empire worth brought hundreds of millions of dollar, a Bloomberg investigation found.

The World Bank says that about 90% of all business activities in Congo take place “below the radar,” public institutions are dysfunctional and some state workers haven’t been paid in years.

Mining bosses such as Glencore Plc’s Ivan Glasenberg and Barrick Gold Corp.’s Mark Bristow saw Tshisekedi’s arrival as an opportunity to lobby against legislation Kabila adopted last year that significantly increased royalties and taxation. The president has indicated so far he’ll stick with his predecessor’s reforms.

Mundela, the presidential adviser, said miners shouldn’t be deterred.

“In Congo, we have everything the world needs,” he said. “Congo isn’t going to eat its gold, its copper, its cobalt. Congo wants it to be transformed so that we can have access to what we need for our people.”

As a leader, Tshisekedi will have to overcome widespread skepticism among Congolese. His victory over rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu was shrouded in controversy. The authorities shut down the internet immediately after the Dec. 30 vote and only eased the blackout 20 days later — once Congo’s top court had validated the electoral commission’s results, which gave Tshisekedi 39% of the vote, compared to 35% for Fayulu.

That outcome was disputed by an influential domestic Catholic organization, which used tens of thousands of observers, and leaked troves of ballot data that showed three times more people voted for Fayulu than Tshisekedi.

Tshisekedi’s ability to pass laws will be restrained in the 500-member parliament and the Senate, where Kabila’s Common Front for Congo coalition, or FCC, won overwhelming majorities. The group further tightened its grip on parliament after the Constitutional Court disqualified the election of 23 opposition lawmakers last week. On a provincial level, all 26 governors except one are Kabila allies.

While Tshisekedi rejected allegations he made a backroom deal with Kabila, he’s agreed to govern Congo in coalition with the FCC — enabling Kabila to continue to have a huge say in the way the country is run.

“Felix is a puppet,” Fayulu, 62, said in an interview. “Kabila spent 18 years in power and did nothing for the people. Do you really think Kabila would let Felix Tshisekedi succeed?”

As their alliances remain locked in talks about the composition of the next government, Congo waits.

“Investors may have a short window of stability after the government is appointed, but they shouldn’t necessarily expect greater clarity,” said Vincent Rouget, a Congo expert for Control Risks. “Tshisekedi is pursuing a delicate balancing act between showing he’s in charge and preserving the networks loyal to Kabila.”

(By Pauline Bax and William Clowes)

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