Katumba Mwanke, key presidential advisor, dies

Augustin Katumba Mwanke, one of the most important political leaders in the Congo, died this afternoon in a plane crash in Bukavu. According to preliminary reports, the pilots misjudged the descent and slid the plane off the runway. Katumba, who had taken his seatbelt off after the plane touched down, was catapulted forward and died. Several other regime stalwarts were on the flight and were seriously injured, including Antoine Ghonda (roaming ambassador), Matata Ponyo (finance minister) and Marcellin Cisambo  (governor of South Kivu). I have not heard any suspicions that the crash was caused intentionally.

Katumba – or AKM, as he was often called – is probably the only senior figure in Joseph Kabila’s inner circle to have weathered the ups-and-downs of his presidency and to have remained by his side throughout the past eleven years. A business executive I spoke to today in Kinshasa told me: “[Katumba’s death] is more momentous for the country than the elections. While that is probably an exaggeration, it is difficult to understate Katumba’s influence in Congolese business and politics.

He initially entered into Congolese politics after working for HSBC Equator Bank in South Africa – his family ties (he was married to the sister of a former finance minister), his ethnicity (he was from a minority group in Katanga province, which allowed him to avoid the messy North-South tussles) and his business savoir-faire were key assets. He first worked as governor of Katanga under Laurent Kabila, where he first got to know Joseph Kabila, who spent much of his time in the province in charge of military operations. When the latter became president, he brought Katumba to Kinshasa to become minister for state companies (Portefeuille de l’État). It was in this position that he came under fire from the United Nations for having helped transfer state assets to Zimbabwean businessmen in exchange for war funding.

Given this bad publicity, he stepped out of the limelight and never again held an official cabinet position. He was itinerant ambassador (the catch-all term for troubleshooters in the presidency), then secretary-general of the Alliance pour la majorité presidentielle (AMP), the presidential coalition, then – as of 2010 – had no official position other than as parliamentarian from Pweto (he renewed that position during the last elections). But he was always active behind the scenes, helping Kabila with the political and financial management of the government.

Katumba elicited bile from his critics and admiration from many around him. He was the mastermind behind crucial financial deals, including most of the big mining deals concluded in the past decade. He was also very close to Dan Gertler, the Israeli businessman who has become increasingly prominent in Congolese business circles. “No mining contract is signed without Katumba’s approval,” is a phrase I heard more than once among Kinshasa businessmen. “Everytime I saw Katumba, he would speak with the president at least two or three times on the phone,” another business executive told me today after his death.

Augustin Katumba Mwanke

Rasputin, Dick Cheney, éminence grise – these were all epithets applied to Katumba. The qualities that endeared him to Kabila were his extreme loyalty, as well as his efficiency in getting things done.
Now that he is gone, there is bound to be a struggle over power in the inner circle, a struggle that will be all the fiercer given the tumultuous elections and the ongoing negotiations over the formation of a new government. Over the past five years, Katumba had become increasingly incontournable as, one by one, other advisors fell by the wayside – Mwenze Kongolo (sidelined in 2002), Samba Kaputo (died in 2007), Vital Kamerhe (dissented in 2009), Henri Mova (appointed ambassador to Belgium), Kikaya bin Karubi (appointed ambassador to the UK), and so on. With Katumba gone, the various luminaries who had emerged with his help will vie for influence, including Evariste Boshab (the outgoing head of the national assembly) and Adolphe Lumanu (minister of interior). Matata Ponyo, the influential finance minister who is also close to Katumba, was injured in the plane crash.

There are not many who carried as much weight as Katumba. One recent rival has been Pierre Lumbi, the national security advisor, head of the MSR party and former minister of infrastructure. Given the MSR’s strong electoral performance, he is well positioned within Kabila’s inner circle.

But it is also clear that no one had the combination of intellect, business know-how and expansive networks that Katumba did, especially in the business sector. To that extent, there no one can easily fill his shoes. Mining executives who show up in Kinshasa these days will probably be confronted with an even more confused decision-making process, while palace intrigues at the presidency will inevitably crescendo. For all else, we will have to wait until the dust settles.