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On the banks of the furious Congo river, a 5-Star emporium of ambition

Mutombo is among a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major U.S. mining companies and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.

By: New York Times | Kinshasa (congo) |
December 8, 2021 12:31:50 pm
A mine owned by Glencore, a Swiss-based firm that is facing a corruption investigation, in Kolwezi, Congo, on April 25, 2021. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

Written by Dionne Searcey, Eric Lipton and Michael Forsythe

The lobby of the Fleuve Congo Hotel was a swirl of double-breasted suits and tailored dresses one April morning. Shiny gold watches dangled from wrists. Stilettos clacked across marble floors. Smooth jazz played as men in designer loafers sipped espressos.

Situated on the banks of the muddy, furious Congo River, the Fleuve is an emporium of ambition in a nation that, despite extreme poverty and chronic corruption, serves up raw materials crucial to the planet’s battle against climate change.

The soil in the Congo is bursting with cobalt and other metals used in the production of electric car batteries, wind turbines and other mainstays of the green energy revolution. Practically everyone who passes through the hotel, where the air conditioning battles the sweltering heat, seems determined to grab a piece of the wealth.

Just off the lobby that day, near a sumptuous brunch buffet, sat Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot-2 former NBA All-Star player. He had teamed up in his quest for mineral riches with Gentry Beach, a Texas hedge fund manager who is a family friend and major fundraiser to former President Donald Trump. Mutombo shared his table with a top Congolese mining lawyer turned politician whose office is conveniently located in a complex near the hotel.

Mutombo is among a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major U.S. mining companies and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.

The list of fortune hunters includes Erik Prince, a security contractor and ex-Navy SEAL; Jide Zeitlin, the Nigerian-born former CEO of the parent company of Coach and Kate Spade; and Aliaune Thiam, the Senegalese American musician known as Akon.

All have been drawn to Congo’s high-risk, high-reward mining sector as the demand for cobalt has skyrocketed because automakers around the world are speeding up plans to convert from gasoline- to electric-powered fleets.

Most recently, Ford Motor, General Motors and Toyota announced they would spend billions of dollars to build battery factories in the United States. The price of cobalt has doubled since January, and more than two-thirds of the global supply is here in Congo.

A security guard, employed by a firm that the security contractor Erik Prince helped found, keeps watch at the Tenke Fungurume cobalt mine in Fungurume, Congo, on April 29, 2021. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

The Fleuve became the go-to luxury destination after a politically connected Chinese businessman — himself a mining dealmaker — was awarded a contract to run what had once been an abandoned 1970s-era office building.

The now five-star hotel has usurped the elite status of its competitor next door, built in the 1960s with U.S. government financing, and it is the kind of place where swashbucklers arrive by private plane trailed by paparazzi, and where some guests keep suitcases of cash and nuggets of gold locked in their rooms.

The frenzied atmosphere at the hotel reflects a pivotal moment for the country — and the world — as the clean energy revolution upends the centuries-long lock of fossil fuels on the global economy.

“Congo is the one who is going to deliver the EV of the future,” Mutombo said of electric vehicles. “There is no other answer.”

But such bravado signals trouble to some seasoned businesspeople, who see a lot of show and little substance in the new class of deal seekers.

“The country has become the prey of international adventurers,” said Jozsef M. Kovacs, who built the neighboring hotel, originally an InterContinental, which once hosted waves of executives from major Western mining companies that had billions of dollars in capital available to them and decades of mining experience.

A handful of those traditional investors remain in Congo, including Robert Friedland, founder of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Ivanhoe Mines. But Ivanhoe’s operations are now in large part financed by Chinese investors, who dominate the industrial mining sector in Congo.

“You don’t have a lot of these Fortune 500 mining companies,” said Luc Gerard Nyafé, a regular at the Fleuve who advises the Congolese president and is pursuing mining interests here. “That is something that needs to change.”

But for now, at least, the adventurers have taken center stage, and sometimes their ambitions converge at the Fleuve. Ambassadors, mercenaries, celebrities, musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs — they all pass through.

One morning a red carpet was rolled out for a delegation arriving a few hours ahead of the president of Kenya. Hotel workers quickly replaced it with a fancier carpet when they learned the Congolese president was coming, too.

Flanked by a dozen men, President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo made his way into the hotel and up a set of stairs. Witnessing the entourage from the lobby was Pascal Rufi, a French businessman who owns a logistics company in Nigeria that provides assistance to war-torn areas there.

FILE Ñ Erik Prince, the security contractor and ex-Navy SEAL, at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 30, 2017. Prince has pursued mining projects in Congo. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

Now he sensed a new business opportunity. A longtime friend was an aide to Tshisekedi, so he had come to the Fleuve to try to get in on the action.

“First copper,” Rufi said, explaining his interests, “and then cobalt.”

A Trump Connection

The Fleuve is a place where Congo’s widespread misery — armed conflict flares up in the eastern part of the country, electricity can be scarce even in the capital, and most of the population lives on less than $2 a day — is nowhere to be found.

The breakfast buffet is piled with fresh pastries and Swiss yogurt. A poolside restaurant features a chef from Italy who dishes up handmade pasta and lamb chops with polenta. Prefer to dine at the lobby bar? Try the $29 cheeseburger.

The presidential suite was the chosen destination for Akon, the Missouri-born rhythm and blues musician who has the hits “Smack That” and “I’m So Paid” and is now chasing a deal to develop a new cobalt and copper mine.

Mutombo, born and raised in Congo, turned up at least twice this year, once with Beach in tow. The two were an odd pairing.

Mutombo had been a supporter of President Barack Obama and is known for his philanthropy work. Beach, a lifelong Texan and gun enthusiast who had asked a Congolese official about open-carry laws before arriving in the country, helped raise $150 million for Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“I am not in the same category of opportunist investors that are seizing the hot deal of the moment,” Mutombo said in a text message to The New York Times last month. “We honestly got a bit lucky because the timeline of the electric car escalated so drastically over the past 12-18 months.”

Mutombo has set up a private equity firm called BlueTech and now says he is planning a $1 billion mining project. He has talked to representatives of the state mining enterprise, Gécamines, about possible joint ventures.

But he has not identified his investors, beyond telling the Times that he has met with “all the billionaires” in the United States and that he has decided to raise capital only from North American investors despite interest from Asia. “In light of the current geopolitical component of this matter, we have gracefully discontinued any talks with our friends from the East,” he said.

Beach, meanwhile, arrived in Congo this year flashing photos of himself with Trump and contacted an adviser to Tshisekedi several times, portraying himself as an operator who could bring together investors in the mining sector. He and Mutombo met with Tshisekedi in Kinshasa, the capital, and had a separate meeting with the American ambassador, Mike Hammer.

“Ready to assist U.S. companies interested,” Hammer wrote in a tweet that included a photo of him with Mutombo and Beach.

Beach also has a history of investments with Donald Trump Jr. They met in college, and Trump Jr. is godfather to one of Beach’s children.

More than a decade ago, Trump Jr. and Beach put money into a company in Congo called Katanga Mining. Trump Jr. made the investment after Beach suggested it during a golf outing in New York, he said in a court deposition.

In an interview, Trump Jr. said he was not involved in Beach’s current efforts.

When Trump Jr.’s father was president, Beach’s mining ambitions were made known in the White House, a former administration official said. “His name was pinged twice to me — that he was interested in mining opportunities in Congo and wanted to talk,” recalled Nicole Widdersheim, who served as the Central Africa officer on the National Security Council during the first two years of the administration.

“I Googled him, and I was like, ‘No, thanks,’” she said. “And so I just kept dodging that.”

A boat captain on the Congo river in Kinshasa, Congo, on April 21, 2021. As the clean energy revolution upends the centuries-long lock of fossil fuels on the global economy, dealmakers and hustlers converge on the Fleuve Congo Hotel. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

Mutombo, through much of this year, has continued his search for investors, saying recently that he hoped to have a deal nailed down by the end of the year.

But ties between the odd couple have frayed. Two mining executives said Beach and Mutombo had gone separate ways, a development Mutombo confirmed in a brief phone interview as he boarded a plane for Congo. Beach did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Finding New Frontiers’

Prince himself has checked in at the Fleuve, and for those working with the former Navy SEAL, the hotel provides a comfortable escape in a chaotic city.

“It’s a good place where most of the movers and shakers go,” said Yves Kabongo, a Congolese venture capitalist who was a shareholder in West River, one of Prince’s mining ventures.

Prince got his start in mining in Congo after running what he described as a “counter-piracy program” off the coast of Somalia. He figured if he could pull that off, he could work in Congo, despite its reputation as a hard place to do business.

“Maybe building a mine isn’t so difficult,” he told a group of mining investors in China in 2019, boasting that he had picked the Chinese as partners because “when China puts its shoulder to something,” he said, “a lot of things start to happen.”

West River set out to prove copper could be found outside Congo’s traditional Copperbelt, and after getting permission from the government in 2014, it began by exploring a site known for diamonds.

“He started trenching, picking and ordered up drilling,” said Kabongo. “And he found it.”

The effort produced a small amount of copper, and the company is still raising money to push ahead.

Prince in 2014 became chair of the Chinese-based company Frontier Services Group, which quickly moved to offer a range of security, transport and insurance services in Congo’s mining sector. Its offerings this year included a truck and rail network in southern Congo to move cobalt, copper and other materials to shipping ports in Angola.

Frontier security officers were spotted outside Tenke Fungurume, one of the country’s largest cobalt and copper mines, owned by a Chinese conglomerate since 2016. Frontier has provided security for other Chinese mining companies, including Sicomines, a joint venture between the Congolese and Chinese governments.

Prince is perhaps best known for having run the private security firm Blackwater, which was accused of breaching ethical and legal boundaries. In 2007, Blackwater employees killed 17 civilians in Iraq. This year, Prince was found by United Nations investigators to have violated an arms embargo on Libya.

Shortly after the U.N. report on the embargo violation, Prince resigned as a top officer at Frontier, though his lawyer has said the move was “over disagreements with the management performance and direction of the company.” At the time of his resignation, Prince sold most of his holdings in Frontier Services. A spokesperson said he no longer had any financial interest in the company.

Asked about the mining activities, the spokesperson said Prince had for years seen substantial exploratory opportunities in Africa and elsewhere. “Those activities,” he added, “can be undertaken in a way that is at the same time profitable, environmentally responsible and ethical.”

To Kabongo, Prince is well suited for a high-risk place like Congo. “I like his passion for being able to move things from the moon to the middle of the jungle,” he said. “He’s interested in finding new frontiers. That’s what we need here. We need someone daring.”

From Kate Spade to Congo

Jide Zeitlin has been a partner at Goldman Sachs. He has run Tapestry, the parent company of Kate Spade and Coach. He has served as chair of Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority, and Obama nominated him for a United Nations post — though Zeitlin withdrew amid personal and business troubles, some of which also led him to resign from Tapestry.

Now Zeitlin is another high-profile investor with a laser focus on Congo’s minerals and metals and an occasional guest at the Fleuve, where he booked a stay this month planning to meet with top Congolese officials.

Insisting he is not “a hotel lobby entrepreneur,” Zeitlin said his investment plan could give him and his partners access to one of the country’s largest cobalt and copper mines by pressing the Swiss-based mining giant Glencore to sell it. He just wants the muscle of the U.S. government to help make the sale happen.

Glencore, which owns two mines in Congo, is the subject of a long-running corruption investigation that involves the Department of Justice and authorities in Britain and Switzerland.

Zeitlin suggests that any settlement of the investigation could be crafted to push Glencore to sell at least one of the mines. He and his investors, whom he has not identified, would then bid to buy the mine after making their case in both Washington and Kinshasa. A spokesperson for Glencore declined to comment when asked about Zeitlin’s plan.

His lobbyists helped round up signatures on a letter sent by seven Senate Democrats raising Glencore’s possible sale of the mine and pressing President Joe Biden to address the matter, arguing that “time is of the essence, and it is in our best interest to act as soon as possible.”

One goal, Zeitlin said, is to help the United States secure direct access to a supply of cobalt, which was cut off when the last U.S.-owned cobalt site in Congo was sold last year to the Chinese.

As he pushes the plan, Zeitlin is pursuing financial support from the International Development Finance Corp., a U.S. government agency. He has lined up influential allies including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the retired Army commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Mark Erwin, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command; Kalaa Mpinga, a Congolese global mining executive; and Walé Adeosun, an accountant and multinational investor. All four men hold high-level positions in Zeitlin’s new company, Integrated Energy Materials.

Tom Daschle, the former South Dakota senator and Democratic majority leader, is also part of the effort. And Zeitlin has hired a lobbying firm, Cornerstone Government Affairs, that sent seven former Capitol Hill staff members and a onetime Clinton-Gore campaign aide to rally support in Congress, according to a lobbyist disclosure report.

“We’ve been running around the Hill talking to senators,” Zeitlin said.

The Chinese Influencer

At the heart of the Fleuve is Simon Cong, who came to Congo from China three decades ago as a translator and eventually took over management of the building that now houses the hotel.

Meant to be part of grandiose plans to make Kinshasa a glittering capital, the building was constructed in the 1970s as the International Trade Center but soon went into disrepair and sat abandoned and decaying for years.

It was renovated as a hotel in time for an international summit in 2012, and Cong was awarded a 20-year concession to run it. He recently hired an Emirati company called Blazon to manage the property, he said.

Cong, whose Chinese name is Cong Maohuai, describes his encounters with his high-rolling guests as a listener and conversationalist, rather than someone who is looking to cut a deal.

“I get to meet them, talk to them, talk about what’s going on in Congo, but I don’t do business with them,” he said. “I am not that important. I am just a businessman.”

But his holdings are extensive, with investments in two Australian-based mining companies that have lithium and gold projects in Congo, as well as a Congolese cobalt mine that he said he had inherited from a friend. He has been head of the Katanga Chinese Chamber of Commerce, named for a mining region of Congo. And in an interview, he said he owned a toll company that collects fees on a road used by trucks carrying cobalt and copper out of mines.

To Cong, it is not surprising that the Chinese have come to dominate cobalt and copper mining here. Chinese companies are good at doing the grunt work of the industrial world, he said, and Americans by and large are not prepared for the rigors of life in Congo.

“Mining,” he said, “is tough.”

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