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A Top Leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Political Opposition Returns

On a Monday in May, people’s phones began to buzz in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. News alerts were arriving from Congolese social-media forums—on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter—that scrutinize and declare reports, rumors, and conspiracies fake or real. The alerts said that the opposition political leader Moïse Katumbi Chapwe was planning to return to the D.R.C., after three years in exile. He was scheduled to speak on television that night.

This past December, days before the country held its first open Presidential election in twelve years, Félix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, an opposition figure, struck a grand bargain with the former President Joseph Kabila. Tshisekedi was soon elected President, in a disputed contest that was widely viewed as rigged. Tshisekedi and Kabila denied striking a deal, but members of the country’s political opposition scoffed at their claim. After weeks of street protests, the country’s highest court, which was seen as controlled by Kabila, ruled that Tshisekedi had indeed won. The new President inherited a deeply divided nation, one that has experienced a series of civil wars that have killed more people than any conflict since the Second World War. Hopes that democracy might finally take hold in the D.R.C. faded again.

The return of Katumbi, a leading opposition figure, could revive Congolese politics or lead to further fractures. Since Tshisekedi took office, in January, his record as President has been mixed. In a positive gesture, Tshisekedi pardoned seven hundred political prisoners and urged politicians in exile to return. Other developments have been more concerning. In April, ISIS claimed its first attack in the D.R.C., in an Ebola-stricken province in the country’s east. After a little more than a hundred days in office, Tshisekedi nominated a staunch ally of Kabila to be his Prime Minister. Only twenty-three members of Tshisekedi’s government are from his own party—the other forty-three are from Kabila’s .

Katumbi is the former governor of the D.R.C.’s southern Katanga Province, one of the country’s richest, because of its vast deposits of copper and cobalt. He is one of D.R.C.’s wealthiest men and is beloved by fans of Tout Puissant Mazembe, or “The All-Powerful Mazembe,” D.R.C.’s most successful soccer club, of which he has been the president since 1997. (The club’s logo is a crocodile with a ball in its jaws.) Katumbi, a onetime ally of Kabila, fell out with the former President in 2015, when he challenged Kabila’s right to run for a third five-year term in office.

In 2016, Katumbi fled the country after court charges, reputed to be politically motivated, were filed against him. The government accused him of illegally selling a house in his home town of Lubumbashi and of bringing U.S. mercenaries into the country. (Katumbi called both accusations “really bullshit, rubbish.”) While in exile, he co-founded the Lamuka opposition platform, and, acting as a gadfly, he criticized the Kabila regime in international forums and media for its corruption and disregard for the Congolese people’s rights and the country’s laws. A poll several months before the Presidential election showed Katumbi leading the race, but he was blocked from running.

Accurately gauging Katumbi’s popularity today is difficult. Two weeks before he returned, I watched as people crammed into bars and restaurants to see his announcement of his return, on a French television program. Just after seven, two journalists asked him about the decision of the D.R.C.’s courts to drop the charges against him, and if he had been in contact with Tshisekedi, the new President. (Katumbi replied that he had not.) Dressed in a suit and a blue tie, the former governor looked nervous. His large eyes flickered. After about three minutes of back-and-forth, Katumbi turned to the interviewers. “I came here today for this interview today for my return to the country,” he said. “I would like to return to the country, and I will give you the date. I will return on May twentieth, to Lubumbashi.”

On the Friday before Katumbi’s return, I flew from the D.R.C. to meet him in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. I had been instructed to check into a hotel and drop a pin of my location to a WhatsApp number. After a few hours, I received a call telling me to head to the lobby. There, a bald man approached me and asked me to follow him. We got into a black Lexus, and sped through the city’s suburbs. Two other men sat in the car, speaking Lingala—one of D.R.C.’s languages—and French. “It’s nothing like Kinshasa here,” one said, looking at the empty streets. “In Kin, things move.”

The car turned down an empty side street, at the end of which sat a low-slung lodge. Inside, Katumbi was pacing around the house’s drawing room in a purple-checked sports jacket. He looked pained. “I am so sorry,” he said, taking my hand. “I was supposed to be here at seven, like I said, but you know what the problem was? There was a strike in France. We were stuck at the airport for an hour and a half.” He asked if I had eaten, and showed me through to a room in which a group of Congolese exiles and Zambian friends of his hovered around a table laid for dinner. One of them said grace, and then everyone began to pile Congolese beans, fufu, and stewed fish onto their plates. Katumbi looked around and laughed. “You know, you don’t find this food in Europe,” he said. “So you can see everyone is busy!”

Katumbi started telling me how much he felt at home in Zambia. His first language, he said, was Bemba, a language spoken in Zambia’s northwest. His mother, the daughter of Bemba royalty, spoke it to him as a child. His father was a Greek Sephardic Jew, who fled Europe during the Nazi occupation and set up a trading and fish-importing business, in Lubumbashi. (His grandparents didn’t manage to escape, and died in Auschwitz .)

In the nineties, Katumbi moved to Zambia to expand the family’s fish business. “I was the first person to bring tilapia from Lake Mweru to Lusaka,” he told me, with a proud smile on his face. He expanded the business into emerald mining and transportation, becoming close to Zambia’s President at the time, Frederick Chiluba. In the early two-thousands, after Chiluba was elected out of office, the Zambian government accused Katumbi of having conspired with the former President to defraud the country of millions of dollars. The case was later dropped, and Katumbi denied the charges.

His discourse on Zambia was also a tacit denial of allegations that have surrounded Katumbi in the D.R.C., where critics contend that much of his wealth comes from corrupt dealings while he was governor of Katanga. Katumbi finished eating and reached across the table. He hefted a large bowl of boiled peanuts from the center of the table and led me into the drawing room. We talked about his career in the D.R.C., to which he returned in 2003, when Kabila’s government invited him to help straighten out the mining sector. After years of corruption, the state-owned mining giant was deeply in debt, and was beginning to privatize its assets.

In 2006, Katumbi won a seat as a parliamentary deputy, and then, in 2007, was elected governor of Katanga. He ran the province like a business and became popular because he handed out large sums of cash in poor areas, built roads, and outfitted schools. He supported education for girls and tried to stop children from working in dangerous mines. The province was soon faring well. “Fighting corruption took us from third place in contributions to the national budget to No. 1, after six months,” Katumbi told me proudly. When he became governor, three per cent of Katangans had access to running water. By 2013, that number had climbed to sixty-seven per cent.

Through this period, however, Katumbi remained loyal to President Kabila and his ruling party. He also profited from mining-services companies that were connected to him and that took advantage of the province’s economic boom. Katanga’s copper fields are the richest in Africa, and the province supplies at least sixty per cent of the world’s cobalt, a mineral whose price began ballooning under his governorship, owing to its use in cell-phone and electric-car batteries.

Jason Stearns, the head of the Congo Research Group, at New York University, criticized some of Katumbi’s business dealings as governor. He cautioned against seeing Katumbi as a savior and said that the handouts he made while governor were not structural reforms but, rather, populist maneuvers to gain political support. “I do not have black-on-white evidence that he engaged in corruption or peddling of influence when he was a state official in the Congo. But there are many questions to ask, and there appear to have been quite clear conflicts of interest during his time as governor,” Stearns said. “We need to be careful about seeing him as a hero.”

Journalists and activists I met in the D.R.C. also pointed to business that Katumbi is rumored to have done with the former President Kabila. When I asked him about the allegations that he had enriched himself as governor, Katumbi contended that he has made his money legitimately, and was successful long before he became governor. “I’ve never done any business dealing with Kabila,” he said. “People can talk what they talk.”

In 2015, Katumbi travelled to Kinshasa to meet with Kabila. At the time, he was seen as a leading Presidential candidate, owing to the success of his work in Katanga. He gave firebrand speeches against corruption, to crowds who chanted, “Carry me on your back so I can see Moïse!” Under the Congolese constitution, Kabila was supposed to step down after his second term in office, but the President had begun trying to change the constitution, in order to run for a third term. It is unclear quite what was said between the governor and the President, but things soon became acrimonious. Returning to Lubumbashi, Katumbi tried to organize a mass resignation of governors, but his colleagues balked. “The day of resigning, I started calling my friends,” Katumbi told me. “We were supposed to resign, six governors, because they didn’t want Kabila to change the constitution. They didn’t have the courage to resign.”

The D.R.C is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources. Besides copper and cobalt, it has huge reserves of diamonds, tin, tungsten, gold, and tantalite, which is used in electric capacitors—but it remains one of the world’s poorest nations in absolute terms. From the late nineteenth century and until the country’s independence, in 1960, Belgian colonists brutally extracted rubber and copper from the country. The historian Adam Hochschild contends that some ten million people lost their lives during the period. Post-independence, Congo veered into kleptocracy under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Today, the country has one of the world’s lowest G.D.P.s per capita.

Katumbi believes that the country has been dismantled by venal politicians. “The biggest disease, the reason why things are not profiting the Congo, is corruption,” he told me. “People think that going into politics is a way to make money. Politics becomes like a career, you understand?” The wealthiest of these politicians is almost certainly Kabila himself, who has amassed untold riches for himself and his family since he became President, in 2001. A report by the Congo Research Group, published in 2017, found that Kabila’s family’s businesses “are invested in almost every part of the Congolese economy, including farming, mining, banking, real estate, telecommunications and airlines.”

When Kabila finally agreed not to run for a third term and to hold elections last December, he triggered an almost Shakespearean power struggle in the opposition. In November, seven major opposition leaders, including Katumbi and Félix Tshisekedi, met in Geneva to figure out who would represent the opposition. (Katumbi was prevented from running, because of his legal troubles with the government.) After a series of contentious votes, Martin Fayulu, a fairly obscure parliamentarian, was chosen as the main opposition candidate.

What happened next is the subject of continued speculation, but Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa and soon announced that he would be running independently of Fayulu, after apparently striking a deal with Kabila. After the election, independent monitoring by the country’s Catholic Church found that Fayulu won in a landslide, and the African Union said that it had “serious doubts” about the electoral process. After the Constitutional Court ruled in Tshisekedi’s favor, the U.S. State Department issued a statement congratulating the Congolese people on a “peaceful and democratic transfer of power.” Stearns, the N.Y.U. researcher, assailed the American decision. “There is substantial reason to believe that the results were rigged,” Stearns said. “Until today, the electoral commission has not released the breakdown of the official results.”

For his part, Katumbi told me, he is willing to “maintain a constructive opposition” with the new President in the wake of the court decision. “I’m not above the court of law, so everyone, even other countries, they’ve said, ‘Let’s continue for a better Congo.’ ” Katumbi is unapologetically in favor of big business and international investment. Politicians in the country use sovereignty as an excuse to steal, Katumbi told me. “They don’t like transparency, because Americans ask for transparency—Europeans asks for transparency,” he said. “Now, if somebody ask for transparency, you say, “No, what about sovereignty? But sovereignty doesn’t mean to steal.”

Days before Katumbi returned to the country, I asked a group of men outside the headquarters of Tshisekedi’s party, in Lubumbashi, what people thought of the return of their former governor. José Mkonkone, a party activist, told me that the return of Katumbi was a “non-event.” While he was governor, Katumbi “tried to change the situation, but he didn’t succeed,” Mkonkone said. A slender man in a white shirt approached me and identified himself as François Kadilu, an assistant instructor on the law faculty of the University of Lubumbashi. “Moïse left lots of traces of good governance,” he said, referring to Katumbi by his first name. “He built roads, he built a church, and he helped all the Congolese population. That’s why he is coming—to support the development of the Congo.”

On the day Katumbi returned, his supporters filled the streets for miles. “There must have been a million people,” Katumbi told me later. Videos show people dancing on top of vehicles and chanting his name as if he were a soccer star. His supporters camped out for days near his home in Lumbumbashi, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. In our conversation after he returned to D.R.C., Katumbi said that he was planning to tour the country to assess what has changed in the past three years. So far, when he has tried to travel to regions outside the province he used to govern, he has been stymied by a lack of state approval. Still, Katumbi insisted that he would persist. “Nobody can touch the rights. Nobody can touch the constitution,” he told me. “No one has the title deeds to the Congo.”

ViaNewYorker