Congo says it won't renew contract with passport maker Semlex

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo will not renew a contract with Belgian manufacturer Semlex to make its passports, according to a senior official and a letter seen by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: View of the Semlex Group headquarters in Brussels, Belgium January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Prosecutors have been investigating allegations of money laundering and corruption by Semlex, which makes biometric passports for Congo under a contract agreed under former president Joseph Kabila that expires on June 11.

In a 2017 report, Reuters detailed here how Semlex, which supplies passports to various African countries, won the contract.

The deal greatly increased the price citizens have to pay for passports, and documents showed a Gulf company owned by a relative of Congo’s then-president received almost a third of the revenues.

In a letter dated May 7 seen by Reuters, Congo’s minister of foreign affairs, Marie Tumba Nzeza, told Semlex that the government did not plan to renew the contract. The spokesman for Congo’s presidency, Kasongo Mwema, confirmed that the contract would not be renewed.

Luc Stalars, a lawyer for Semlex, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. He has previously denied all accusations of impropriety by the company, calling them part of a “defamatory smear campaign”.

He has previously referred Reuters to a company statement from 2017 that said that Semlex’s “economic success, in particular on the African continent, has apparently given rise to increasing jealousy or even strategic frustration”.

Reuters could not immediately determine who will produce passports after June 11.

At $185, Congo’s passport is among the world’s most expensive, even though its people are on average among the poorest.

Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi has promised to clear up corruption that campaign groups say flourished under his predecessor.

Belgian prosecutors launched an investigation into possible money laundering and corruption soon after Reuters’ report and raided the company’s headquarters in 2018, but they have not made any further comment on the investigation since then.

Last week, Congolese citizens and international campaign groups filed a civil action in Belgium against Semlex.

The petition, which was organised by anti-corruption campaign group Congo Is Not For Sale (CINFS), allows the petitioners to ask for case records related to the Belgian investigation and request further investigative measures.

Fred Bauma, a member of CINFS, said the ending of the contract with Semlex would be a “good first step” if officially announced but called for a transparent process to select a successor and a significantly lower passport price.

Reporting by Stanis Bujakera; writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Edward McAllister and Nick Tattersall