Congo copperlands boss prefers business to politics

Wed Nov 24, 2010 7:04am EST

* Katanga Governor Moise Katumbi to step down next year

* Wants to boost Congolese participation in mining boom

* Insists no conflicts of interest

By Katrina Manson

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Moise Katumbi, one of Congo's most powerful men and political leader of its richest province, is handling two black cowboy hats as he sits in his office in the country's copper heartland.

"People say I am bullet-proof, even my hat, but feel this," says the 45-year-old governor, a lean and muscled millionaire, of his sartorial trademark, fingering first a floppy leather hat and then a felt one.

"This is a fake story," he says of the local yarn, a phrase he repeats often throughout four separate interviews in which he addressed accusations of graft, theft, tax evasion and undue influence on the nation's massive mining sector.

The top politician in Katanga, home to 55 percent of the world's cobalt production and five percent of copper, Katumbi's political career took off when elected local deputy in 2006 with the highest score recorded in a Congolese parliamentary vote. He was appointed local governor a year later with an overwhelming 98 percent backing from the provincial assembly.

Yet Katumbi has got used to taking the flak, whether from political rivals or Congo's business federation, whose members struggle with steep local taxes they say are levied illegally.

Regularly touted as a presidential contender -- a dangerous destiny in Congo, where several past hopefuls have been toppled or killed -- Katumbi admits politics has won him many enemies, even if he doesn't actually sport body armour.

"People are saying 'He's getting money from the province, he's stealing left and right, he's not paying duty'," said Katumbi, who says he no longer has a role in his family's trucking and heavy machinery businesses and has sold former mining interests.

"I said I'm going to run this province like a private company: that's what I'm doing," said Katumbi, the son of Congolese royalty on his mother's side and whose father was an Italian Jewish emigre from the Greek island of Rhodes.

Congo's richest province has long been divided between an under-developed but politically influential north nicknamed "useless Katanga", and the "useful" mineral-rich south, whose wealth and independent streak is seen as a threat to Kinshasa.

Katumbi says that copper exports are rising and Katanga will this year supply 65 percent of national receipts.

"NO WORRIES"

Katumbi's role has already proved pivotal for investors: setting provincial taxes, managing investor relations and grappling with Congo's reputation for extensive corruption.

Congo has moved up four places in the World Bank's Doing Business rankings this year, but still comes 175 out of 183. The country is ranked 164th most corrupt of 178 countries surveyed by Transparency International.

The name of his family's trucking business, "Hakuna Matata", might mean "no worries" in Swahili, but investors in the province complain of mounting problems that threaten to put them out of business, from local corruption to poor roads.

Canada's First Quantum Minerals (FM.TO) is in international arbitration after the government withdrew rights to its $750 million mining project after a review and handed them to Kazakh rivals ENRC, sending Congolese political risk premiums up 40 percent.

Yet Katumbi said investment is pouring in after resolution of a separate dispute with U.S. miner Freeport-McMoRan (FCX.N), which last month conceded a share of its $2 billion Tenke project and more than $70 million to the state last month.

"Tenke went for negotiation and Tenke got it," said Katumbi, underlining investors are welcome so long as they are open.

"CASH-STUFFED BRIEFCASES"

The keen tennis player lists his achievements as raising road toll collection from $3.7 million a year to more than $60 million, building more than 1,000 kilometres of roads, boosting mining taxes from $2 million to $150 million and cutting customs fraud.

He wants to boost Congo's share of profits from mining in the province, noting only 200 of 32,000 trucks arriving every month are Congolese-owned. Too many foreigners arrive with "cash-stuffed briefcases" to bribe their way into the sector and leave as billionaires, he says without elaborating.

Pictured driving a bus as poster boy for "November" in a locally-produced 2010 wall calendar in his office, Katumbi said he will step down as governor next year to preserve his family's reputation and return to business, particularly transport.

As chairman of Africa's top football club, TP Mazembe, which took the African Champions League this month after clinching victory against Tunis, he has already secured fame.

His wealthy businessman brother Raphael Katebe also gave up politics and now lives in Belgium, while previous governors of Katanga have gone on to exercise great political and investment influence, including in Kinshasa.

Katumbi said he remains "very sad" at losing out on what he estimates could have been a profit of up to $800 million by choosing to sell out his 30 percent stake of Toronto-listed copper miner Anvil Mining AVM.TO for $60 million in 2006-2007 to avoid a conflict of interest when he went into politics.

"Maybe I am supposed to be one of the billionaires in this country (rather) than to stay as a poor governor," he mused.

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