The Richest Man in the Congo?

George Forrest embodies the symbiosis of business and politics in the Congo. (He is also very litigation-happy, so I better watch what I say here). There is apparently nothing that the Congolese-Belgian magnate can’t do or become. In addition to his vast existing business empire, he has just this last week announced, together with Belgian’s flagship airlines Brussels Airlines, the creation of a new airplane company in the Congo, Korongo (crane in Swahili).

A bit of background should indicate to what extent he has become a Congolese Rockefeller. His father immigrated to the Congo and founded the Malta Forrest Company in Lubumbashi in 1922. The company began in construction and soon branched out into mining, enjoying the support of the Mobutist elite. By the 1980s, George Forrest had taken the helm of the company, although their fortunes dipped during the last years of Mobutu. But he persevered: according to UN investigators, Forrest was a partner with Angolan UNITA rebels in large diamond venture in northern Angola in the early 1990s.

Forrest’s huge expansion, however, came under Laurent and Joseph Kabila. He was briefly made Chairman of the largest Congolese state mining company Gecamines between 1999 and 2001, during which – in what a UN report termed “a flagrant conflict of interest” – his company negotiated lucrative mining contracts with Gecamines (i.e. with himself). He has been accused by human rights groups and the UN of depriving the Congolese government of huge sums of tax revenues. In 2004, Forrest obtained one of the most lucrative mining concessions in the country, the Kamoto mine, and created the Katanga Mining company. According to an analysis by a well-known law firm, the deal led “extensive assets, part of the national wealth of the [DRC], which are being transferred to be used by the private sector without an evaluation and assurance that the country will be appropriately remunerated for the privilege granted to a private concern.” The World Bank suggested the deal violated all norms of international best practice.

Forrest has long known how to make the friends necessary to do business. He was cozy with Mobutu’s regime and allegedly donated a huge sum ($20 million is the figure batted around, but I don’t know how anyone can know for sure) to Kabila’s election campaign (there are no financial regulations for elections in the Congo). Not all that he does is nefarious: he is the country’s biggest private employer, with 15,000 people on his payroll, and is probably the biggest private taxpayer in the country. He has created a foundation that funds schools and health centers, although all of this is, according to his critics, just a distraction.

Just a few other business interests he owns:

  • The last operating cement factory in the country, in Bas-Congo
  • A controlling stake (bought recently) in BCDC, one of the country’s largest banks
  • An ammunition factory in Belgium, New Lauchaussee
  • A newly created joint venture with Korean partners, Forrest Rowemberg Minerals Korea (FRMK)
  • Over 30,000 head of cattle on his vast ranches in Katanga

Just as important, Forrest knows how to rub elbows with the right people. He recently helped the French uranium giant Areva negotiate a deal to control Sinkolobwe, a huge uranium concession in Katanga (allegedly where the stuff for Hiroshima bomb came from). He has employed as his vice-president the former Belgian Special Envoy to the UN and Secretary of Trade, Pierre Chevalier, (who was forced to resign from diplomatic service when his business connection to Forrest came to light) and is close to several Belgian senators and politicians. Some of the awards that his efforts have earned him:

  • Honorary French consul in the Congo (he is allegedly close to Patrick Balkany, mayor of the French town Levallois-Perret and friend of Nicholas Sarkozy)
  • “Kyalika,” the Great Builder, a title given to him by Katangan traditional chiefs
  • Councilor to the Belgian government in foreign trade
  • Honorary chairman of the United Nations University of Peace in Africa
  • See pictures of him here with Omar Bongo, former president of Gabon (whom he called a visionary), and President Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic.

Not bad. Maybe Fortune 500 (Africa Edition) should be paying attention.

(Correction: in an earlier version of this posting, I had suggested that the Forrest Group had purchased Forsys, a uranium company mining in Namibia – it turns out they failed to buy it. Also, Shinkolobwe produced the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb, but not for the one that fell on Nagasaki.)