Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Richest Man in the Congo?

George Forrest embodies the symbiosis of business and politics in the Congo. (He is also very litigation-happy, so I better watch what I say here). There is apparently nothing that the Congolese-Belgian magnate can't do or become. In addition to his vast existing business empire, he has just this last week announced, together with Belgian's flagship airlines Brussels Airlines, the creation of a new airplane company in the Congo, Korongo (crane in Swahili).

A bit of background should indicate to what extent he has become a Congolese Rockefeller. His father immigrated to the Congo and founded the Malta Forrest Company in Lubumbashi in 1922. The company began in construction and soon branched out into mining, enjoying the support of the Mobutist elite. By the 1980s, George Forrest had taken the helm of the company, although their fortunes dipped during the last years of Mobutu. But he persevered: according to UN investigators, Forrest was a partner with Angolan UNITA rebels in large diamond venture in northern Angola in the early 1990s.

Forrest's huge expansion, however, came under Laurent and Joseph Kabila. He was briefly made Chairman of the largest Congolese state mining company Gecamines between 1999 and 2001, during which - in what a UN report termed "a flagrant conflict of interest" - his company negotiated lucrative mining contracts with Gecamines (i.e. with himself). He has been accused by human rights groups and the UN of depriving the Congolese government of huge sums of tax revenues. In 2004, Forrest obtained one of the most lucrative mining concessions in the country, the Kamoto mine, and created the Katanga Mining company. According to an analysis by a well-known law firm, the deal led “extensive assets, part of the national wealth of the [DRC], which are being transferred to be used by the private sector without an evaluation and assurance that the country will be appropriately remunerated for the privilege granted to a private concern.” The World Bank suggested the deal violated all norms of international best practice.

Forrest has long known how to make the friends necessary to do business. He was cozy with Mobutu's regime and allegedly donated a huge sum ($20 million is the figure batted around, but I don't know how anyone can know for sure) to Kabila's election campaign (there are no financial regulations for elections in the Congo). Not all that he does is nefarious: he is the country's biggest private employer, with 15,000 people on his payroll, and is probably the biggest private taxpayer in the country. He has created a foundation that funds schools and health centers, although all of this is, according to his critics, just a distraction.

Just a few other business interests he owns:
  • The last operating cement factory in the country, in Bas-Congo
  • A controlling stake (bought recently) in BCDC, one of the country's largest banks
  • An ammunition factory in Belgium, New Lauchaussee
  • A newly created joint venture with Korean partners, Forrest Rowemberg Minerals Korea (FRMK)
  • Over 30,000 head of cattle on his vast ranches in Katanga
Just as important, Forrest knows how to rub elbows with the right people. He recently helped the French uranium giant Areva negotiate a deal to control Sinkolobwe, a huge uranium concession in Katanga (allegedly where the stuff for Hiroshima bomb came from). He has employed as his vice-president the former Belgian Special Envoy to the UN and Secretary of Trade, Pierre Chevalier, (who was forced to resign from diplomatic service when his business connection to Forrest came to light) and is close to several Belgian senators and politicians. Some of the awards that his efforts have earned him:
  • Honorary French consul in the Congo (he is allegedly close to Patrick Balkany, mayor of the French town Levallois-Perret and friend of Nicholas Sarkozy)
  • "Kyalika," the Great Builder, a title given to him by Katangan traditional chiefs
  • Councilor to the Belgian government in foreign trade
  • Honorary chairman of the United Nations University of Peace in Africa
  • See pictures of him here with Omar Bongo, former president of Gabon (whom he called a visionary), and President Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic.
Not bad. Maybe Fortune 500 (Africa Edition) should be paying attention.

(Correction: in an earlier version of this posting, I had suggested that the Forrest Group had purchased Forsys, a uranium company mining in Namibia - it turns out they failed to buy it. Also, Shinkolobwe produced the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb, but not for the one that fell on Nagasaki.)

11 comments:

james said...

Hi Jason,
just for the record: Pierre Chevalier was never the Belgian amabssador to the UN, he served as a special 'messenger' for the Belgian government when Belgium was president of the OSCE. You could call him a special assistent to former minister of Foreign Affairs Karel De Gucht. Chevalier was already on the board of Forrest's company when he was a Belgian senator. He even testified before the special 'Great Lakes' commission of the Belgian Senate on the exploitation of Congolese raw materials where he scolded journalists because they reported on the activities of Forrest. He even intimidated individual Senators, who are to afraid to testify about it.

Jason Stearns said...

Thanks - I guess the press accounts are a bit confused. They refer to him as "the special representative to the UN security council," which sounds like PermRep. Wasn't he supposed to become the PermRep for Belgium?

Emin Pasha said...

It is where the uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from. But the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, as well as the very first A-bomb tested in the Nevada desert, used plutonium.

Jason Stearns said...

Thanks, will correct.

Alex Engwete said...

What really pisses me off (pardon my French!) is to read that this guy is a "Belgian-Congolese"! Which means that he can travel in and out of the the Congo without the need of a visa while I have to cough up more than 200 bucks in increments of 3-month stays in the country where all my relatives live! And they claim it's the law: Congolese nationality is one and exclusive! I feel like taking to the bush with my own small ragtag army of bandits to just change that stupid law!... And sorry for the rant...

Jason Stearns said...

You'll be happy to know that it is one of the things they are considering revising in the constitution - along with the decoupage and the term limits (perhaps) - because so many Congolese politicians have "double nationalite."

And don't take to the bush quite yet. No good track record for that kind of endeavor in the Congo.

james said...

Jason,

Concerning Forrest: his father Malta Forrest was Jewish and came from New Zealand. It was only in the nineties that George Forrest acquired the Belgian nationality, undoubtedly because it was more interesting for him to be Belgian and to get credit insurance form the Belgian Office du Ducroire (state run credit insurance) for his various endeavours in the Congo and the rest of Africa. Forrest got a credit insurance for his part in the takover of the Big Hill (OMG). Forrest will be mad as hell because you stated that his company New Lachaussee is an ammunition company: he always claims the company only supplies equipment which can also be used in ammunition company. Don't forget Forrest supplied the El Doret (Kenya)ammunition factory with the neceassary equipment somewhere in the middle of the nineties.
In 2005 he also tried to export equipment to be used in an ammunition factory to Mwanza (Tanzania). Although the Walloon government issued a licence, after an intervention of the then minister of Foreign Affairs De Gucht this Walloon government cancelled the licence.

salentoroots said...

salve sono un giornalistae mi chiamo stefano.
5 anni fa ho conosciuto a londra il congolese più ricco, che è un genio ed è considerato il più grande matematico al mondo.
egli si è pure aperto una scuola a londra di matematica.
serei grato anzi veramente grato a chi mi desse i contatti suoi o della sua scuola, per fargli un 'intervista.
vi lascio i miei contatti.
cell. 3403777661
email: salentoroots@hotmail.it
molte grazie

salentoroots said...

ciao i 're in cerca di uomo delle Nazioni Unite Dal Congo (Africa) e delle Nazioni Unite thet Genio del athematica, ah Aperto Una scuola uno Londra.
potete darmi Il Riferimento? Carri Armati SI
salentoroots@hotmail.it

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