Congolese President Joseph Kabila Picture: Reuters
Joseph Kabila, like Mobutu Sese Seko before him, has used his position as Democratic Republic of Congo president to amass wealth for himself and his family. Unfortunately democracy hasn’t changed the equation that political power has been the road to self-enrichment.

As new political elites have come to the fore, the race to fill their personal coffers has been accompanied by little redistribution of wealth by the government, scant investment in infrastructure, job creation or social services.

The story of Mobutu’s 30-year reign as the military dictator of Africa’s most resource-rich country saw him amass a fortune estimated by various sources (including Transparency International) of somewhere between $1billion (R13.5bn) and $5bn. Experts believe virtually all of it was illicitly acquired from the nation's coffers and stashed in Swiss banks.

Kabila has amassed his wealth somewhat differently. He and his family established a vast business empire. According to a report recently released by the Congo Research Group, companies owned by the Kabila family are estimated to have generated revenue worth hundreds of millions of dollars since 2003, and relatives are believed to own assets worth tens of millions of dollars. The extent of the business empire has been documented, but Kabila's financial worth is unclear, thanks to a lack of transparency in his declaration of assets, as well as those of his sister Jaynet and his brother Zoe, both members of parliament.

Joseph’s father Laurent Kabila started the trend of creating a business empire when he ousted Mobutu from office through a military coup in 1997. Laurent Kabila’s rise to power proved to be a rags-to-riches story. The Kabila family had lived covertly in Tanzania since the 1970s under assumed names, as they were wanted by Mobutu. Their lifestyle was austere but they ran small businesses and managed to pay private school fees for their children.

But when Kabila overthrew Mobutu in a coup in 1997, his fortunes changed rapidly. According to the Congo Research Group, he used state assets - $31million for a company he started called Comiex-Conga. The company was involved in banks, mines and fuel distribution. It was dissolved in 2003, but its assets were never fully recovered by the state. After Laurent Kabila’s assassination in 2001, his children Jaynet and Zoe began building the business empire. By 2003, when Kabila was the transitional government president, his siblings were involved in the diamond industry - the largest source of revenue at the time.

Over a relatively short space of time, the Kabila family amassed significant wealth, and it would seem that their proximity to the president enabled them to enjoy advantages not available to business people. The family owned the companies Acacia and Kwango Mines, and obtained nearly 100 exploration permits along the DRC’s diamond-rich border with Angola. They also allegedly used the president's Republican Guard to protect some of the mining sites.

As the price of diamonds fell, and the prices of copper and cobalt increased, so did the focus of the Kabila business empire. The family ended up controlling three copper and cobalt sites, where the workers were not given formal employment contracts or social protection. According to the Congo Research Group, Jaynet got more mining permits from the Ministry of Mines than was allowed under the mining code.

Tax payments for many of the permits linked to the family were also suspended. All the while Jaynet and Zoe were members of parliament, but it is unclear whether they declared their assets. As for Kabila, he has declared his assets to the judiciary as required by the constitution, but this has not been made public, and there is no requirement to publish property or corporate taxes.

The Kabila family partially or wholly own 80 companies, and Kabila and his children own 71000 hectares of farmland. The family's companies have benefited from government contracts and from contracts with the World Bank and US Overseas Public Investment Corporation. The hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue generated since 2003 is a far cry from their financial position just two decades ago when they lived in Tanzania.

It is no wonder Kabila refused to step down as required by the constitution in December. The longer he holds on to power the more instability the DRC faces, but the challenge remains that whoever takes over will probably belong to the ranks of the political elite and continue the same trend.

At times like these we sorely miss the values and vision of people like Patrice Lumumba.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

The Sunday Independent