February 13, 2012 / 5:45 PM / 7 years ago

Death of Kabila deal-maker leaves void in Congo

* Key adviser Katumba killed in plane crash

* Deprives President Kabila of trusted confidant

* Creates uncertainty in political, mining circles

By Jonny Hogg

KINSHASA, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The death of President Joseph Kabila’s chief adviser has removed a secretive but powerful deal-maker from Democratic Republic of Congo’s politics and mining business, and deprived the leader of a trusted aide as he seeks to form a new government.

Augustin Katumba Mwanke, 48, died with four other people in a plane crash on Sunday that also injured the Central African country’s finance minister.

Katumba was regarded by many as Kabila’s right-hand man in politics and business. His absence leaves the president struggling to stabilise his vast, chaotic nation, which is a major minerals producer, after he won troubled elections late last year.

Katumba had spent some 15 years in a mix of official and unofficial positions, ranging from provincial governor and negotiator of peace accords to fixer of multi-billion dollar deals with mining firms and foreign governments.

“Democratic Republic of Congo has lost half the presidency,” said Tara O’Connor of the London-based Africa Risk Consulting group.

“Without (Katumba) Mwanke you have the potential for further policy drift, further prevarication on decision-making and great uncertainty,” she added.

When he died, Katumba’s only official position was that of a newly re-elected member of parliament.

But his close relationship with the president extended back to the war years before Kabila’s 2001 accession to power, when Kabila was the military commander and Katumba the governor of Katanga, the copper-rich province the pair both came from.

Since then, the two have remained close and Katumba rose to become a quiet but highly influential figure at the heart of Kabila’s presidential office, which diplomats and analysts say often wields more clout than the government on key issues.

A leaked 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable said Katumba was seen by many as “the power behind the throne”.

This influence was confirmed by a Congolese official, who knows the president and also knew Katumba well.

“(Kabila) trusted him a lot and he was very loyal ... Finding someone else like (him) will be very difficult,” the official told Reuters, asking not to be named.

Katumba was killed when the Gulfstream jet he was travelling in overshot the runway in the eastern town of Bukavu.

On Monday, hundreds gathered at the Kinshasa headquarters of Kabila’s PPRD party as Katumba’s coffin was put on display, draped in the party’s blue and yellow flag.

Kabila won re-election in a Nov. 28 vote last year, but the poll was rejected by his rivals as fraudulent and criticised as flawed and chaotic by many international observers.

FEARS OF POWER STRUGGLE

After losing some 40 percent of its legislative seats to rivals in the election, Kabila’s camp must now secure a majority in parliament through a coalition with many other parties.

“Katumba would have been a key power-broker in these negotiations,” said Tom Wilson, senior consultant at the advisory firm Africa Practice.

“His removal from the political scene at this stage will almost certainly result in a power struggle among politicians keen to fill the void left by his death,” he added.

Katumba was temporarily sidelined at one stage after being accused in a 2002 United Nations report of being part of a Congolese elite that profited from the plundering of the country’s resources while a civil war as underway.

He was also a divisive figure within Kabila’s political circle, where some senior officials complained that he had isolated the president, according to the leaked U.S. cables.

However, even when removed from any government posts, Katumba retained the president’s ear and the power to act.

“It’s going to be quite a shock, we’ll have to find someone else to help us out,” a senior official from a mining firm operating in Congo told Reuters, asking not to be named.

“He used to talk directly to the president. Now the only chance is to go directly through the government,” he added.

Katumba was also a key player in overseeing negotiations for Congo’s $6 billion minerals-for-infrastructure deal with China.

“Every major player in the mining sector has negotiated with him or through him, and his death will reshape power dynamics in the sector,” Africa Practice’s Wilson said.

“It creates uncertainty for projects reliant on his continued political support, and more broadly across the sector.”

Kazakh miner ENRC, one of the largest foreign miners operating in Congo, is in the final stages of tying up its settlement with Canadian firm First Quantum Minerals ending a months-long dispute over several key assets, in a $1.25 billion deal that will require Kinshasa’s blessing.

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