By Alexandra Zavis*
On paper, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s richest nations.
Its eastern hills are estimated to contain about $24 trillion worth of mineral deposits, including gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt. Its nearly 200 million acres of arable land could feed much of Africa, and the mighty Congo River holds the power to light up the continent.
Yet it remains one of the poorest, most hopeless and corrupt nations on Earth. More than two decades of conflict — fueled by an array of militias, some supported by the country’s eastern neighbors — have killed millions and caused the United Nations to label Congo the rape capital of the world.
Now a businessman in Denver is trying to convince donors and influencers that he can turn Congo around.
Emmanuel Weyi, who was born in the Central African nation and founded a fair-trade mining company with operations in four Congolese provinces, is running for president in elections slated for November.
It is unclear whether Weyi, who left Congo at 18, can rally significant support — or even whether the election will take place this year. The government’s opponents accuse President Joseph Kabila, a former taxi driver who succeeded his slain father as leader, of delaying tactics in an attempt to circumvent a two-term limit.
But Weyi, 56, says that peace and prosperity are within Congo’s grasp. What the country lacks, he told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview, is good leadership. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Why did a Colorado businessman decide to run for president in Congo?
The decision was in 2009. I was in the mining business, a company I co-founded, a renewable business. When I went home, when I saw what the country has become, the poverty, the misery, people going three or four days without eating anything, that’s really when I decided that the country needs a better leader, and I know I can do better.
Why are people living like this?
I believe the problem starts from the top. We have a very incompetent president, a very weak government. They don’t really understand what it takes to run a country.
That is why there are all those troubles in the eastern part of the Congo. Those bad guys, they know when a government is weak, and they take advantage.
The conflicts in the east go back years. How do you propose to bring peace to the region?
I’m going to propose two elements. The first one is as a government, to call on those countries that we border in the east — Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi — to sit down and create a treaty [so] that everybody is watching everybody’s back. If we have peace, if we help people do commerce on both sides, and they are paying taxes, everybody is winning.
The second one is an effective army. In Congo, what they do is they take young guys, they give them uniforms, they don’t pay them, they don’t give them accurate training. They just give them guns. We know that the army has to be trained, it has to be paid, it has to be housed, and you have to give them healthcare. Without those elements, I don’t think you’re going to have a good army. That’s why the bad guys are coming and doing all the bad things they do.
That will take money. How do you propose to get the resources?
We have more than 300 different minerals. So it’s a rich country.
Those minerals have often been used to line the pockets of corrupt officials and fund armed groups. How do you change that in a country that has become a poster child for the idea of the “resource curse.”
I don’t like that word, mineral curse or resource curse. The minerals are something that God gave to us and it’s a blessing. The only thing God didn’t send yet is a good leader.
I know people, before they started working for the government, they didn’t even own a bike. But now they own villas in the south of France.
My father was a banker. My mom was a businesswoman. So riches for me, it’s not something new. We had a chance to go live in Europe. I came to the United States. I started my business. Little by little, the business grew.
I took half of my company back home. I created good paying jobs. My sons went to college. They’re doing well. So there isn’t anything that I’m going to see for the first time and say, “let’s start stealing from the government.” No.
But how do you fight pervasive corruption?
There is no way you can eliminate corruption 100%. But first you pay people well. Second, you hold people accountable.
A former prime minister of Israel is going to prison because of what? Corruption. It doesn’t mean because we are in Israel, we are in the United States, there is no corruption. No, the difference is when you get caught, you are going to pay the price.
Second, if I know that every month, my paycheck is there, do you think I’m going to jeopardize my job by letting someone corrupt me?
In Congo, sometimes people go two or three months without getting paid. So, if you bring him 100, 200, 1,000 dollars, yes he’s going to take the money.
Questions have been raised about whether President Kabila will step aside. Do you think the elections will even take place?
Kabila knows that the constitution clearly says you have two terms. If he doesn’t respect the constitution, there will be pressure coming from the international community, so we know that he is going to step down.
Even if he does, do you think the vote will be fair?
It’s a good question. We are going to have everyone who can vote in a database, and everyone is going to have a biometric card. I’m not saying we’re going to have an election that is fraud free, but with technology, I’m expecting things to go well this time around.
Tell me about the people you are running against.
All of them, without exception, they worked for the government. [And] when they came to work for the government, they didn’t have what they have, so there is a real question of integrity.
I am the only one who can say every penny I have, I sweated for it, and all the taxes, every last cent, are paid. I never even cheated one penny out of the government.
Should your lack of political experience be of concern to voters?
I have never been in politics, but as a businessman I believe I am bringing more. Because as a businessman, I know how to create jobs.
Why should Congolese voters support someone who has lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years?
It’s a fair question. I have been going to Congo every year. I own land there. I have a home there. My parents are there. I have a company there. I know the country well. I am a tribal chief. Maybe as somebody who comes from outside, I can see things from a different angle. I can bring [solutions] they didn’t see.