Will he, or won’t he? That has long been the question asked of Moïse Katumbi (58).
He is one of the most powerful people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a man whose presidential ambitions were never in doubt. Yet numerous obstacles had blocked him in the past, including a jail sentence, death threats and exile.
Now the multimillionaire mining magnate and popular football boss hopes 2023 will be the year he finally lands the top job.
Katumbi says his prior success in boosting infrastructure and education while governor of the country’s richest province, Katanga, was “the pilot programme for Congo”.
If he wins the 20 December presidential election, he is also promising to overhaul security and steer eastern DRC towards long-awaited peace.
The leader of the Together for the Republic party is considered a front-runner.
But Katumbi’s critics are questioning his record on transparency, and are accusing him of using politics to advance his personal business interests – something he has always denied.
The recent, unsolved murder of his party spokesman, Chérubin Okende, plus a ban on opposition leaders protesting against the electoral body’s chaotic preparation for the polls, mean the stakes going into next week’s general election could hardly feel higher.
He was born on 28 December 1964 at Kashobwe near the Ugandan border.
Young Moïse spent his childhood near Lake Mweru in Katanga, which he would one day go on to govern.
His father ran a booming fishing business, and Katumbi himself is said to have sold fish to DRC’s state-owned mining giant Gécamines while still a teenager.
His business education came courtesy of his elder half-brother, Raphaël Soriano, with whom he went on to become a sole supplier of rations to Gécamines miners.
The pair also ran an import-export business in neighbouring Zambia.
Some of these earnings were funnelled into restoring a much-loved football club to its former glory.
TP Mazembe (the initials are short for ‘Tout Puissant’ or ‘All Powerful’) was founded by Benedictine monks. It became one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most successful teams during Raphaël Soriano’s two decades as president, and has kept that distinction since Moïse Katumbi took the reins 26 years ago.
Katumbi is believed to have made the bulk of his fortune in mining.
He founded the subcontracting firm Mining Company of Katanga (MCK) in 1997, which in 2004 joined forces with controversial Canadian firm Anvil to become AMCK Mining.
Anvil had been accused of backing a deadly Congolese army mission near one of its mines, which resulted in at least 70 civilians being killed.
Katumbi insisted that his company “was not involved and as far as I know, Anvil had not been convicted by the courts”.
As a close ally of president Joseph Kabila, Katumbi was given his blessing to stand as governor in DRC’s economic powerhouse Katanga.
His election in 2007 was a shoo-in, given his popularity as TP Mazembe’s boss and the fact that the other two candidates dropped out.
Despite his influence across sport, mining and later politics, Katumbi has long denied any conflicts of interest.
“I never mix politics and business,” he told the BBC in 2016.
Katumbi’s plans to stand for president in 2016 were dashed after he was sentenced in absentia for hiring United States (US) and foreign mercenaries, forcing him to leave the country for three years.
He said the charges were politically motivated, coming a year after he quit Kabila’s PPRD party and the governorship, and accused Kabila of planning an unconstitutional third term. The charges were later dropped.
Rumours swirled of death threats and Katumbi accused the Congolese government of trying to poison him, which they dismissed.
“Their plan was to kill me,” Katumbi insisted at the time, “because they are scared about my popularity”.
In October this year a court case that suggested Katumbi was a dual national – and therefore not eligible to run for president – was thrown out.
His supporters called it yet another attempt to derail him.
Katumbi’s most ardent supporters compare him to his Biblical namesake, Moses, leading his people to a brighter future.
Cynics argue that some of the people who throng him in the streets are probably paid to do so.
Of all 20 presidential candidates standing this year, only the incumbent has spent more on his campaign than Katumbi.
Travelling far and wide across the vast nation in a private jet, Katumbi’s rallies are slickly run and well received.
He proudly points to his record as governor of Katanga between 2007 and 2015, where he built roads, increased access to drinking water, doubled the number of children in school, and enacted mining regulations.
But his biggest campaign pledge is to bring security to the country’s east, parts of which are held by M23 rebels and other militia groups whose murderous grip shows little sign of weakening as regional peacekeeping missions are kicked out.
What I want above all is the return of peace,” Katumbi said last week, announcing a “special fund” of US$5 billion for the North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
“Since I was born, there has been war here. Whoever has the highest authority in this country simply has to bring us peace in eastern DRC, where our Congolese compatriots are suffering bitterly.”
The implicit criticism of his former ally, president Félix Tshisekedi, is glaring.
Katumbi has also accused the government of running a smear campaign against him in recent months, which it denies.
Whether or not the Congolese people will join his flock remains to be seen.
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