Soccer-loving Congolese businessman eyes run for presidency

The owner of one of Africa’s top soccer clubs and ex-governor of a region that contains the continent’s richest copper deposits appears to be preparing to run for president in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s just not saying so yet.

Since September, Moise Katumbi has resigned from the ruling party, stepped down as governor of the former province of Katanga, met with opposition leaders in Europe and become increasingly vocal in his criticism of perceived attempts by current President Joseph Kabila to hold on to power. He’s also sold Mining Company Katanga, which he founded nearly two decades ago, to a French buyer for an undisclosed sum.

Asked last week whether he’s considering running for the presidency, Katumbi, 50, demurred. Instead, he backed the opposition’s call for the government to release a revised election timetable for six votes over the next year that should culminate in a presidential election in November 2016. Provincial assembly and gubernatorial elections scheduled in October didn’t take place.

‘Everything Possible’

“When the calendar is published, that will be the right time to come and ask the question,” Katumbi said in an interview at the stadium of his football team, TP Mazembe, in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi on Nov. 7. The club won the African Champions League title the following day. “I am just a former governor. I can’t talk about the national level but I think everything is possible.”

Analysts reckon his mind is already made up.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Katumbi will run for president,” said Jason Stearns, a senior fellow at the New York- based Center on International Cooperation who wrote a book about Congo entitled “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters.” Congo’s political elite expects him to run and deals are already being done behind the scenes, he said.

Speaking in TP Mazembe’s chairman’s box as the team trained, Katumbi was reluctant to discuss a potential campaign and more comfortable talking about the economic figures he achieved as governor.

TP Mazember in 2011 PHOTO: Mustafa Ennaimi
TP Mazember in 2011
PHOTO: Mustafa Ennaimi

Copper Mining

Elected as a member of parliament for Katanga in 2006, he became governor in 2007 and has overseen an economic revival in the province increasing copper production from 8,000 metric tons in 2006, according to Katumbi, to more than 1 million tons in 2014, Chamber of Mines data shows. With the support of the mining industry, his administration built more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) of roads and reduced the price of corn flour from $45 to $10 a bag, he said.

Now he’s concerned that companies that he helped to lure to the Congo, including Glencore Plc and Freeport McMoRan Inc., might pull back on investments because of concern that the election cycle may cause instability.

“I wanted stability, I wanted investors to feel free to participate in the economy of the province, which they did,” Katumbi said. “Today nobody wants to invest in the country because there is uncertainty. Money doesn’t like noise.”

Foreign Investment

The former governor didn’t always make it easy for foreign investors. He raised taxes, banned the export of unrefined ore and forced mining companies to invest in agriculture. Katumbi has also faced criticism from opponents that he has used his political office to bolster his family’s business interests. He insists he has nothing to hide and is ready to, along with other politicians, provide full disclosure on his past and current business interests.

Born in Katanga in 1964 to a Congolese mother and an Italian-Greek father, Katumbi says he never planned to enter politics.

“I was a business man,” he said. “At the time I came in, I said that if in six months I have not made at least a small change, if there is not confidence between me and the population, then I will resign.”

Election Timetable

While Katumbi campaigned for Kabila in Congo’s first democratic elections in 40 years in 2006, his half-brother Raphael Katebe Katoto was the leader of an opposition party who backed Kabila’s main challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Eight years since becoming governor, his popularity continues to grow, aided in part by the national appeal of TP Mazembe, which is the only African team to ever make the World Club Cup final.

Invited back from exile in Zambia in 2003 by Kabila, Katumbi has worked closely with the president since. He says he always advised Kabila and the ruling party to respect the constitutional term limits. Opposition leaders, including Vital Kamerhe of the Union for the Congolese Nation, have said the congested election schedule are intended to create delays that will allow Kabila to hold on to power beyond the end of his second and final term.

“My fight today is first the publication of a revised election calendar,” he said. “I am a pragmatic man, if there is no calendar there will be no election.”

– Bloomberg [Thomas Wilson]