Congo Hold-Up: on the trail of Joseph Kabila’s mystery company

Issued on: 05/12/2021 – 17:25

Congo Hold-up is a massive inquiry into corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo by 19 media organisations (including RFI) and numerous NGOs. © RFI

Text by: Christina Okello

Sonia Rolley – 19 min

A leak of millions of documents and transactions at BGFIBank reveals some of the activities of former President of Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila. Nineteen media outlets and five NGOs have investigated one of his lucrative companies, Port de Fisher, of which he became the majority shareholder in 2015.

“Port de Fisher? It hasn’t existed since World War I,” explains Fabrice Mabiala, owner of an inn bearing that name in Boma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on the banks of the mighty Congo River, some 100 kilometers upstream from the Atlantic Ocean.

“It was the private port of a settler and was located over there,” he adds, pointing to a place in the distance. “Right above it is his house and the wreck of his Mercedes. He was the first person to import cars into Congo.”

The story is perhaps not quite accurate and the exact spelling of the name of this second class Belgian citizen, who most likely arrived on the shores of Boma in 1890 and died there four years later, was Fischer.

“Fisher”, “Ficher”, the inhabitants of this commercial town write it in all manner of ways, like the bankers of BGFI. Without knowing that “Port de Fisher”, which has not existed for a century, has become the name of a company. Since November 2015, its largest shareholder is someone famous: the former head of state, Joseph Kabila.

Whistleblowers in Africa

The ‘Congo Hold-up’ investigation reveals that following this takeover, Port de Fisher received an additional 3.3 million dollars in public money, provided by the Central Bank, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and the National Assembly.

The media investigation is based on a trove of more than 3.5 million documents and millions of transactions from BGFIBank, obtained by Mediapart and the NGO Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF).

The data was analysed by 19 media outlets, including Radio France Internationale (RFI) and coordinated by the European network EIC and five international NGOs (PPLAAF, The Sentry, GEC, Resource Matters, Public Eye).

In September 2018, Port de Fisher became the primary depositor at BGFIBank, depositing nearly 10 million dollars, far more than the Ministry of Finance. We sought to understand the real activities of this mysterious company, owned by the now-Senator-for-life Joseph Kabila.

Clue Number 1 : Financing the renovation of the Enigma XK yacht

Port de Fisher has achieved phenomenal success in just six years. According to the Congolese register of companies, it was created only on 20 August, 2012. Based on the company’s statutes dated 28 September, 2013 and obtained by the NGO The Sentry, its business is wide-ranging, involving general trade in agricultural products, port operations, service provision, handling, storage, and water and land transport.

Joseph Kabila’s name does not appear among the initial shareholders. The ownership is in the hands of two companies run by a business duo. These men are members of the former president’s inner circle, already at the centre of our Congo Hold-up investigation: the Belgian-Congolese Alain Wan and the Belgian Marc Piedboeuf.

African Research Maintenance and Development Limited (Aremad), a company managed by the Wan family, holds 65% of shares. It is based in the British Virgin Islands, one of the most secretive tax havens in the world.

When PPLAAF asked about the beneficial owners of this company, André Wan, Alain’s son and provincial deputy for Central Kongo, provided an official Virgin Islands document that presents his sister as the sole shareholder of Aremad and declares that she represents “only” the interests of her family.

Port de Fisher’s other shareholder with 35% of shares is the well-known Congolese construction company, MW Afritec, also owned by Alain Wan and Marc Piedboeuf.

A request for financing for the MW Afritec company the the DR Congo, as seen by PPLAAF / Mediapart © PPLAAF/Mediapart

Port de Fisher is registered at Route des poids lourds in Kinshasa, the headquarters of several of their companies, including MW Afritec and Carrières du Congo. The manager of Port de Fisher, Cleopatra Fumu, a trusted partner of the Wan-Piedboeuf duo, works for all three companies.

In the business partnership between former President Kabila and the Belgian-Congolese duo, it is often difficult to know who owns what. Wan and Piedboeuf were, for example, the majority shareholders in the powerful agricultural company Grands élevages du Bas Congo (GEL), before selling it to Ferme Espoir, a company owned by former President Joseph Kabila. GEL is still managed by Marc Piedboeuf.

A sign indicates the company of large livestock breeding, known as GEL in the Democratic Republic of Congo. © RFI / Sonia Rolley

French connection

The same is also true of the Enigma XK yacht, which turned out to be the property of Joseph Kabila following a 2017 investigation by journalists at Le Monde newspaper. Its owner is officially a company called MW Afritec SA like the Congolese construction company, but registered in the Marshall Islands, a tax haven removed from the European Union’s blacklist in 2019.

This sumptuous yacht measuring 73 meters has all the attributes of a princely folly. A real-life floating palace, it is equipped with a colonnaded lounge, a helipad, a sauna and Jacuzzi. The deck is large enough to accommodate a jeep and jet skis. A former Scottish navy patrol boat, it went through three years of renovation at La Rochelle by French company Atlantic Refit Center. According to Le Monde, the work cost 25 million euros.

In 2014, this colossal construction received the prize for best yacht renovation of the year from Boat International magazine.

When asked at the time about how they paid for this work, Alain Wan and Marc Piedbœuf assured, in an email to Le Monde that “the funds for the construction of the ship came from Mrs. Virginie Mambimbi [Alain Wan’s mother], Marc Piedbœuf and dividends from Afritec during its heyday.”

The Congo Hold-up papers reveal, at least in part, the dark side of this operation. To carry out Enigma’s renovation, three companies of the Wan-Piedboeuf network transferred a total of five million euros from BGFIBank between May 2012 and March 2014 to the French shipyard Atlantic Refit.

MW Afritec and Carrières du Congo paid 2.7 million euros. However, the remaining 2.3, (3.1 million dollars according to the rate at the time), came from a company no one knew existed: Port de Fisher.

Analysis of this company’s accounts reveals that at the time of these transfers, in 2013, Port de Fisher was at least partly funded by the meat and fish import company Egal, owned by people close to Joseph Kabila and run by the Wan-Piedboeuf duo.

Organisation of the DRC company Egal. © RFI

On 29 July, 2013, one of Egal’s accounts at BGFIBank transferred 1.5 million dollars to Port de Fisher.

This may have been topped up with cash. On 14 August, 1.755 million dollars was withdrawn from the same Egal account. From 29 August, that very same amount was paid in two deposits into Port de Fisher’s account.

The following day on 30 August, 2013, Port de Fisher ordered its first transfer to Atlantic Refit Center, in charge of Enigma’s renovation. Two more transfers would be made in the weeks to come.

Colossal amounts

These revelations could cause a ripple effect in the Democratic Republic of Congo because Egal is now under investigation for having received colossal amounts during this period from the Central Bank of Congo (BCC).

The investigation, based on the Congo Hold-up papers, shows that out of the 3.1 million dollars paid by Port de Fisher for the yacht’s renovation, at least 794,000 dollars could have come from these BCC funds.

Wan and Piedboeuf closely supervised Enigma’s work through MW Afritec. One of the French subcontractors filed a lawsuit against the duo’s company to obtain payment of invoices totaling 390,429 euros, which the duo disputed. The subcontractor even obtained the precautionary seizure of the boat by an order dated 31 October, 2014. Two more court decisions confirm this judgment, including the commercial chamber of the court of cassation in 2017.

Note that just before the first decision, Alain Wan and Marc Piedboeuf went to the trouble of changing Enigma XK’s flag. Until 10 October, 2014, this vessel was registered in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a country that ratified the Brussels Convention (just like France) authorising this type of seizure. It then was reflagged to the Marshall Islands, a non-signatory country.

Was the debt eventually paid? At any rate, the yacht was last seen off Cape Town, South Africa. According to its manager Per Brag, from the Shipping FO company, it is currently “under repair” in this port.

When asked by PPLAAF, Per Brag assures that “the ultimate owner of the yacht is Mr. André Wan – he is the person with whom we did all our business” and that his employees “spent some time on board, and did not know about anyone else, nor did the crew, for that matter.”

Clue Number 2 : Obtaining public funds

On 10 November, 2015, at an extraordinary general meeting of the company, the ownership of Port de Fisher changes completely.

Aremad cedes 55% of capital to the Société Les Grands Élevages du Bas-Congo (GEL), which is 100% owned by Ferme Espoir, which itself belongs to Joseph Kabila (80%) and two of his children, Joséphine Sifa Kabange (10%) and Laurent Désiré Kabila (10%), a child who bears the same name as his famous grandfather.

An unknown company, Allamanda Trading Limited, becomes its partner with 35% of the share capital. A source in Joseph Kabila’s inner circle assures our colleagues at The Sentry that he also owns it. When contacted, Joseph Kabila did not respond.

The former president is therefore the majority shareholder of Port de Fisher and the main beneficiary of its accounts at BGFI Bank.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila, center, leaves the polling station after casting his vote Sunday Dec. 30, 2018 in Kinshasa, Congo. © AP Photo/Jerome Delay

This company controlled by Joseph Kabila received public funds. Port de Fisher indirectly received several transfers totaling over 1.5 million dollars from the DRC’s electoral commission (CENI). Between December 2016 and June 2017, these funds went through an internal account at BGFI called “OAR Change”.

For the Congolese electoral commission, these transactions showed up as foreign exchange transactions.

In December 2016, 953,000 dollars was taken in this way.

Between March and June 2017, Ceni exchanged, on eight occasions, Congolese francs (CDF) for dollars. But each time, the BGFI under the control of Francis Selemani Mtwale, Joseph Kabila’s brother, took a portion and transferred it to Port de Fisher, to the tune of 593,000 dollars.

Port de Fisher also received funds from the Central Bank of Congo from its account at BGFI. In October 2017, this account transferred the equivalent of 1.75 million dollars to Port de Fisher, including 225,000 dollars provided a few days earlier by the National Assembly.

Among the other contributors to Port de Fisher, we discover in February 2017, the existence of Établissements Sinaco, a Chinese cement importer that transferred 1.1 million dollars from the Sinaco account to BGFI. Its manager, Tony Kapalata, assures that he has “no relationship” with Joseph Kabila’s company, adding “if it turns out that what you are telling me is true, I will be the first to file a complaint against the bank.”

Clue Number 3 : Paying a shell company

In Port de Fisher’s expenses, some stand out.

On 5 February, 2016, 500,000 dollars in cash was deposited into the company’s account. Four days later, Port de Fisher transferred the money into an account at ING bank in Brussels belonging to a company named “Mambimbi Wan Afritec”. The name is similar to MW Afritec, the Congolese public works company of the Wan-Piedboeuf duo or better still MW Afritec SA, the owner of the Enigma yacht.

Except that another company issued the invoice justifying this payment, “MW-Afritec Marine”, based at 14/10 rue Gatti de Gamond, in a residential area of buildings in the upscale Brussels municipality of Uccle. Officially, it was a payment by Port de Fisher to cover the “repair costs, architecture and design” of the “Casino II” ship at La Rochelle, the same place where the Enigma yacht was renovated.

We found no trace of a “Casino II” in the public database. When contacted, the La Rochelle Atlantic Refit Center shipyard did not answer.

Even more embarrassing is that the company that received the money does not exist. There is no trace of any company called “Afritec”, “Mambimbi Wan Afritec”, or “MW-Afritec Marine” in the Belgian trade register, nor on the sidewalks of the rue Gatti de Gamond in Uccle.

At house number 14, there is only a family home. At number 24/10, our colleagues at De Standaard found three other companies linked to the Wan family, in an ordinary building with a rear view of a youth football academy. The name on the doorbell is “Wan/Egal EU SRL”. In another invoice, the shell company “Mambimbi Wan Afritec” is said to be based at 1416 of the same street. This street number does not exist.

Overall, this company with no known address, “Mambimbi Wan Afritec”, received a total of 9.1 million dollars in its account at BGFI: 6.6 million dollars from Afritec and another company of the Wan and Piedboeuf duo, 500,000 dollars from Port de Fisher, and 2 million from Sud Oil. The latter is a shell company, at the heart of the Congo Hold-Up revelations, accused of embezzling 92 million dollars from the state’s coffers. 

Organisation of the Sud Oil company, a focus of the corruption inquiry called Congo Hold up. © RFI

Legal complaint

Who was the owner of the ING bank account in Brussels? What happened to the money? ING bank refused to answer, as did the Wan and Piedboeuf families, reckoning that our information is “mostly false” and that our approach is motivated by “a clear intention to harm”. On 3 November, even before the publication of this article, their lawyer filed a complaint with Kinshasa’s public prosecutor for “slanderous accusation” against our partners Mediapart, De Standaard and PPLAAF.

Two years later, in June 2018, Port de Fisher transferred 940,692 dollars to the company Congo Premier. It belongs to Vicor Kasongo Shomary, who at the time was BGFI’s director and a former board member of Kwanza Capital, one of the companies in the Sud Oil galaxy. This transfer allowed Victor Kasongo to repay a loan of more than 900,000 dollars that he had taken out with this bank.

When questioned by the Congo Hold-up investigation, Shomary gave his own version: at the time, he owned a farm and land, adjacent to the massive presidential estate in Kingakati. Owned by Ferme Espoir, the personal company of Joseph Kabila, this estate is home to one of the former president’s favourite residences and his personal zoo.

To pay off his loan, Victor Kasongo says he sold his land to “Ferme Espoir owned by the Kabila family,” and not at all to Port de Fisher. “I do not know the company mentioned and I didn’t sign anything with them,” he insists. Despite this, it was Port de Fisher that paid.

Clue Number 4 : Building a port?

Port de Fisher became the largest depositor at BGFIBank and all its transactions took place while the bank had “no information about the shareholders and the company’s directors.” This is what we learnt in the excel spreadsheet entitled “activity tracker” shared internally on 24 July, 2017 by the bank’s compliance department.

The Congo Hold-up papers even reveal that Port de Fisher’s accounts were frozen in 2018 and that all transactions, be it a wire transfer, check or cash withdrawal, were “forced” at the request of the “customer”.

For example, on 11 May, 2018, an employee asked Moreau Kaghoma, BGFIBank’s operations manager the following: “Can you force a withdrawal transaction. Reason: Debit block. Amount : $799,300. Customer: SPRL Port de Fisher.” No further explanation is required, even internally.

When contacted, Moreau Kaghoma referred us to BGFI, which failed to respond to our questions.

But what work is Port de Fisher actually doing? It’s hard to figure out, despite having 3.5 million bank documents and even more transactions in our possession.

In the minutes of Port de Fisher’s extraordinary assembly, dated November 2015, which made Joseph Kabila’s participation official, another company entered the capital: la Société commerciale des transports et des ports (SCTP, formerly ONATRA), a moribund public company that manages, among other things, the main port of Boma, with 10% of shares.

Un porte-conteneurs passe au large de Boma en RDC. © RFI/AFP

We put the question to Port de Fisher’s manager Cleopatre Fumu, manager of the company and a trusted partner of the Wan-Piedboeuf duo. She told us that Port de Fisher tried, at an unspecified date, to establish with SCTP a “dry port” intended to decongest the main Boma port, a project which “unfortunately (…) did not attract the attention of the ministry.” According to her, Joseph Kabila was not a shareholder at Port de Fisher at the time. Our documents show, however, that he entered the capital at the same time as SCTP.

Analysis of a funding request by MW Afritec Company calls this version into question. In a document sent by email on 30 January, 2017 to the managing director of BGFIBank RDC, Francis Selemani Mtwale–who is also Joseph Kabila’s brother– we learn that “as part of the refurbishment of the SCTP container park in Boma, MW Afritec signed a contract with SCTP for value of 18,093,348.75.” Moreover, “given the work to be done, the existing containers must be moved to Port de Fisher.”

According to this document, this contract was signed on 21 August, 2015, less than three months before the change in ownership at Port de Fisher.

SCTP’s managing director, accompanied by officials from MW Afritec, officially launched these upgrades in August 2017.

Mystery port

This move of containers to Port de Fisher announced at the BGFI is intriguing because, officially, no port bearing this name exists at Boma. For residents, Fischer Port is the name of an inn, an avenue, a market, and this name hails from the Belgian soldier who arrived at the end of the 19th century.

On the internet, only one case could correspond to the mystery company of Joseph Kabila. In a brochure from 2019, Group Guang Ping International (GGPI) boasted having built a “Port de Fisher in Boma.” 

Yet in this town of Kongo Central, there are only two ports: the state port managed by SCTP, which was due to be renovated, and the Kuntuala Terminal, whose construction began exactly in 2017. We went to the site. On the hill towering this private port, a “Kuntuala private concession” is established and on the panels indicating the entrance, there are signs that mention Group Guang Ping International. It is indeed here the village where its employees who built the Kuntuala port are settled.

Is Kuntuala the new name of Port de Fisher? In any case, it is the port of Joseph Kabila’s inner circle. From the terminal, trucks can be seen popping up through its gates; all belonging to this core group of businessmen, whose interests often overlap with those of the former head of state. There are trucks from MW Afritec, the construction company owned by the Wan-Piedboeuf duo, and those of Egal and Coete Gaz, linked in particular to Albert Yuma, the current boss of Gecamines.

Clue Number 5 : Going international

When contacted, Kuntuala Terminal, in writing, denied having any link to Port de Fisher and referred instead to a “misunderstanding.” Although “Kuntuala Terminal” does not appear on the website of the national companies register, it is presented as a “company” having “joined” an “economic interest group” (GIE).

“The various stakeholders and members of the GIE are known and identified on our website,” we are told. On the site, the logos of Egal and several other companies belonging to the first circle of Joseph Kabila appear, notably the Wan-Piedboeuf duo: Oritrans, Agence Maritime Kuntuala, African Shipping and Kuntuala Terminal.

Did Kuntuala Terminal benefit from a transfer of container traffic from the public port of Boma or even money intended for the renovation of this port? Kuntuala denies this and says that the work was done “in stages” and that the port “was never closed.”

Were all the planned works carried out? When contacted, SCTP did not respond to our questions. At any rate, on 15 May, 2021, during his inaugural speech, the new Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde again listed the refurbishment and modernisation of the Boma public port as one of his objectives.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s prime minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde. © RFI

Kuntuala Terminal has become in any case a window to the outside world for the DRC. One of the most telling examples is African Shipping, a member of the economic interest group behind Kuntuala Terminal. This company shut down its website in 2019 for an unknown reason. But we had access to an earlier copy.

African Shipping offered services to at least five refrigerated cargo ships: El Nino, Kuntuala, Erini, Nova Caledonia, Kubilai Khan, and was registered in different ports. Its main partner is a company of the Dutch Kloosterboer Group, Flushing Shipping Agencies (FSA), which in turn offers on its website “direct shipment of containers to Boma, DRC, with a transfer time of 16 days” and shipment “of containers to India and the Middle East.”

We sought to understand the business relationship between African Shipping and this Dutch firm and their links to Kuntuala Terminal. It turns out that since June 2021, the Dutch Kloosterboer Group and FSA have been owned by one of the world leaders in the import of frozen goods: American Lineage Logistics. When questioned, this industry giant assures us that it is “completely unaware” of any links to Joseph Kabila and his inner circle. FSA “acts as an agent and broker for African Shipping in the Dutch port of Vlissingen.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, nobody seems to know Port de Fisher, but Kuntuala regularly makes the news.

Kuntuala Terminal in Boma, DRC. © PPLAAF/Mediapart

Last year, in the midst of a crisis between Joseph Kabila and his successor Felix Tshisekedi, Acacia Bandubola, the then finance minister, urged Kuntuala Terminal to comply with the laws in place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the Congolese press agency.

Asked about these statements, Kuntuala Terminal asserts that it is “a regular company with all the required authorisations, approvals, and certifications issued by Congolese institutions to fulfill its corporate purpose.” 

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Indeed, in the month of September 2020, it obtained two approvals one after the other, as a port and as a ship charterer. The Congo Hold-up investigation, however, establishes that this private port had already been operating for over a year.

These accusations about the illegality of Kuntuala Terminal persist. Since October 2021, STCP employees have been on strike in a bid to obtain payment for several years’ of salary arrears and investments promised by the state. They are also demanding the closure of “illegal private ports” including Kuntuala, which they say is “strangling state ports.” 

“President Tshisekedi promised to close them in January,” says one striker. “But so far, nothing has happened. Who can oppose an order from the head of state?” When asked about the real owners of these private ports, which have sprung up in several cities in DRC, the SCTP worker smiles: “You know very well who it is! All this is for Kabila.”

This report stems from an investigation by RFI’s Sonia Rolley in collaboration with Mediapart, De Standaard, KVF, NRC, PPLAAF and The Sentry. Translated by Christina Okello.

sSOURCE: https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20211205-congo-hold-up-on-the-trail-of-joseph-kabila-s-mystery-company-port-de-fisher-corruption-tax-haven-bank

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