Most people do not give much thought to The Democratic Republic of Congo which is a prudent thing to do—investors lose most everything which can include their lives, diplomats can be killed and conservationists suffer physical injuries without adequate medical attention. With a last-minute presidential pardon, our former President did not give it much thought and lifted sanctions on one of the most corrupt foreign businessmen in the DRC, if not anywhere. However, the businessman had retained the same lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who represented the former president in his first impeachment trial. Maybe the flash cash and legal connection made all of the difference. However, in 2017 the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Israeli businessman Dan Gertler for years of corruption in the DRC which arose by financially influencing President Kabila. As a result, Gertler’s bank accounts were frozen in the United States. Nonetheless, shortly before his term ended, Trump lifted the sanctions on Gertler which released the billionaire’s money.
The New York Times article Tough Sanctions, Then a Mysterious Last-Minute Turnabout provides a comprehensive account of Gertler’s rise to fame and fortune in DRC. The “keys to the kingdom of Congo” began when Gertler arrived there in 1997 as a 23-year-old Israeli diamond dealer. He served as an ideal intermediary to broker conflict diamonds on behalf of Laurent Kabila, president of Congo, in exchange for Israeli weapons. Kabila was desperate for weapons in his quest to win a guerilla war in the unwieldy country. Gertler’s relationship was clearly defined in 2002 when Kabila sent a letter to President George W. Bush authorizing Gertler to speak on his behalf. Gertler and Kabila are shown together in the image below.
Gertler then moved on to a host of resource areas including mining and energy. His competitive advantage in those endeavors is headlined by a U.S. Justice Department court filing in 2016 that he had paid $100 million in bribes to Congo officials for preferential treatment in the government-controlled mining sector. Gertler once approached us to join in an oil production-sharing contract. We respectfully declined as we already had too much of a good thing that had been acquired properly. Of Gertler’s reported $1.5 billion net worth, some significant portion is said to have come from oil though to my knowledge he has yet to drill a well in the country. Further, it is likely that his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a favorable impact on Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to push for the lifting of sanctions. Netanyahu has long faced corruption allegations though he is continually re-elected which provides him immunity illustrating that being in office is better than being out in the cold. You have to admit Gertler looks the part of a good resource operator in the picture below though I have never worn a suit coat in the field.
During our miserable time in the eastern part of DRC, we maintained a small office in lawless Goma. Our security was a detachment of eight Congolese soldiers armed with 50 caliber machine guns sitting without cover in the back of a Japanese pick-up truck and led by the affable but fearless Major Furusi. No Congolese, much less me or any of our staff, would visit our office or venture out to the field without Furusi’s escort. Sadly, Luca Attanasio, the 43-year- old Italian ambassador to DRC, along with two others, were killed in an ambush outside Goma as they were visiting a World Food Program-supported school feeding effort. Although they were part of a UN armed convoy, we have commented in the past that the UN must never issue bullets to their soldiers as they are seldom used. It appears from the image below that the armored vehicle suffered some damage though none of the UN soldiers look any worse for wear.
Although the murder of the Italian ambassador may appear to have occurred in a developed area, it is close to the wilds of the Virunga National Park. It was there in the jungle portion of the Virunga National Park, at about the same time, Ashley Judd suffered a devastating multiple fracture to her leg as she was on a mission to document the endangered bonobos monkeys. In the dense rain forest, she tripped over a fallen log which led to a 55-hour harrowing journey that began in the image shown below and ended in a South African hospital.
Ashley Judd has nothing but the highest praise for the devotion of the Congolese to transport her to safety and save her life and leg. I share her observations about the care and compassion of the common people of this war-torn country. Even in the capital of Kinshasa, life can be pretty grim. Abject poverty coupled with rampant disease should not exist in a country with vast mineral resources. In such a grim setting, it is no wonder that the people choose such colorful fabrics for their clothing as shown in the market below.
It is particularly sad that the western world does not provide any assistance to do anything but reward the endemic corruption present there. On the other hand, who are we to talk?