He is the husband of Angola’s Isabel Dos Santos, the other half of an incredible power couple. An entrepreneur and talented businessman, art collector and patron of the arts, at the age of 45 he is entering the battle for political change in DR Congo. Exclusive interview.
We could caricature his life by reducing it – and him – to a few clichés, such as “the husband of…”, “PEP” (politically exposed person), and efficient but flamboyant financial jet-setter dabbling in international affairs, strategic issues, politics and the arts. Yet, obviously, nothing about his life is that simplistic. Sindika Dokolo’s story is not that of a nouveau riche arriviste. On the contrary, one could talk about dispossession, rebuilding a family heritage and restoring strength to a name. All the while writing his own story. Sindika is one of four children born to Augustin Dokolo Sanu and Hanne Kruse, a Danish woman, who were married in 1968.
Dokolo senior built a vast business empire in Zaire at the time of Mobutu with, as its flagship, the Bank of Kinshasa. Sindika, a good-natured, easygoing child, grew up in Africa and Europe, where he attended the Jesuit High School of Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague in Paris. In the late 90s, a Mobutu on the decline turned against Augustin Dokolo who, according to a struggling power structure, had become too powerful himself. The businessman never recovered from the destruction of everything he had built. He died in 2001 and the family left Kinshasa. Sindika moved to Luanda, where he married the beautiful Isabel, daughter of Eduardo dos Santos, president of Angola since 1979. The building of a new empire had begun. Cultured, meticulous, ambitious and unapologetic, he promoted his Congolese heritage and began investing in diamonds, gold mining and, most recently, cement manufacturing. He owns the biggest and most important collection of contemporary African art. Now he has decided to put all his weight behind ending the reign of Joseph Kabila and beginning a real democratic transition in DR Congo.
AM: You’re an entrepreneur, a collector and a patron of the arts. Do you have political ambitions in DR Congo?
Sindika Dokolo: My motivation is not to position myself on the Congolese political scene. DRC has enough politicians and presidential candidates. What we lack is the collective awareness that we have to defend our democratic gains from Mr. Kabila, who wants to remain in power. My approach is, first and foremost, a civil commitment rooted in a two-fold conviction. The first of which is that DRC’s troubles stem from the President of the Republic’s deliberate choice to not respect our Constitution and, particularly, the obligation to hold elections on time and ensure political change. The second is that only the general population of DRC, determined to defend our democracy, can prevent the scuttling of our institutions. I am, therefore, at this stage, more a member of civil society than of the political class.
Why do you want to get involved in politics and in the Congolese debate? Why take the risk?
When a country’s institutions are taken hostage by its leaders, it is up to each and every citizen to act according to his conscience. The risks are commensurate with the stakes.
A court in Kinshasa has just sentenced you to a year in prison for a criminal property offence. What’s this all about?
These are buildings that have belonged to my family since the 1970s. The trying of a case which has already been tried – and of which I was acquitted last February – to which I was summoned by a bailiff who doesn’t seem to work for any court in the city and who apparently served me a summons that I never received. A true parody of justice. The aim is to intimidate or render ineligible, something of a regular occurrence in the DRC for those who denounce the regime’s abuses.
Why return to a country you left years ago?
I never really left my country. My family is linked to DRC’s economic history. My father was the first Congolese person to set up a bank, the Bank of Kinshasa, and was, for a long time, the country’s leading businessman. We still own many strategic assets across the entire Republic.
You know Joseph Kabila well. It was even said that you were on good terms. Why, then, such a clear opposition?
Like many Congolese people, I was sensitive to the fate of a very young president whose father had just been assassinated, in 2001. Even though Joseph Kabila may have had, for a time, the interests of the country at heart, he got a taste for power, to the point of trying to hold onto it by force after his second and last term. In doing so, he weakened our institutions and created chaos. In my view, he bears the moral responsibility for the trouble spots that set DRC on fire. Using this violence as an excuse to postpone the elections finally convinced me that he deliberately crossed the line.
July 2017. (Right to left) Sindika Dokolo, Moïse Katumbi, Félix Tshisekedi and advisor Salomon Kalonda reaffirm their common desire to see Joseph Kabila relinquish by the end of the year.
How do you explain President Kabila's “to the bitter-endism”? Could he be prisoner to a “clan”?
I don’t know anything about his relations with the members of his family nor with those in his inner circle whose loyalty goes so far as to expose them to sanctions or the spectre of international justice. However, I am convinced that Mr. Kabila alone took the decision to violate his constitutional oath. He deliberately set up a system of manipulation of justice and security services in order to nip any opposition in the bud. By choosing abuse of power and lawlessness, he consciously went beyond the point of no return. He now has to cling to power by force, at the risk of being held accountable for the daily abuses committed on his behalf. He created a spiral of political violence that will only end when he is gone.
You use a literal interpretation of Article 64 of the Congolese Constitution. It’s a declaration of war against the regime…
According to this article, every Congolese person has the duty to block someone who is trying to stay in power in violation of the Constitution. Can such a clear article be interpreted any other way? The question that every citizen needs to ask him- or herself, after some soul- and conscious-searching, is “Is Kabila trying to stay in power beyond the end of his term?”. Despite all his communicators’ efforts to convince the public that he is acting in good faith, nobody in DRC is duped. The Catholic Church’s appeal to hinder his attempts will generate unprecedented popular pressure and make political change the priority of the 2017 political agenda.
Do you think that transparent elections are still possible within a reasonable period of time in DRC?
With Joseph Kabila heading up the country, I don’t believe that we can envisage such elections. The idea itself goes against his entire political survival strategy. The way he uses his control over the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court and his refusal to accept a real political opponent are enough proof that democracy is not on the agenda.
How do you relate to personalities like Moïse Katumbi and Felix Tshisekedi?
We share the certainty that the normalisation of DRC’s political life and social appeasement throughout the country can only come about after Mr. Kabila's departure. More and more Congolese politicians, as well as ordinary citizens, have come to the same conclusion. This is important because it allows for the building of a united civil front around principles rather than individuals and beyond political divisions. Only a broad alliance such as this will enable the relinquishing of power without bloodshed. Only then can elections take place. Like all Congolese people, I will, at the appropriate time, choose the best candidate. It’s no secret that I consider Moïse Katumbi's organisational and entrepreneurial capacities as a valuable asset at a time when combating the economic crisis and its social effects is the top priority. It seems important to me, however, that the campaign allows citizens to choose between two visions, two projects, in order to overcome emotional and subjective factors and that the best person wins.
Dare we hope for a peaceful, democratic change of power? Can violence be avoided?
In the face of state coercion, there has to be a peaceful but determined civil reaction. The risk of DRC’s dislocation being real, Mr. Kabila fuels the fire while presenting himself as the only bulwark against the humanitarian chaos that would erupt in a country at the mercy of rebellions. The anti-Kabila sentiment, although widely shared, comes up against this fear of a vacuum and the anarchy that could follow his impromptu departure. It is therefore important to communicate widely on the fact that he is the main source of instability and that there are scenarios for maintaining social peace after his departure.
The country has not undergone any peaceful change of power since independence...
Tragic destinies are indeed omnipresent when we take stock of DRC’s political history, from the violence that marked the end of Lumumba, Mobutu and Kabila senior. These serious events, however, have nothing in common with the extreme violence that we have seen in the East in recent years, particularly in Beni, where people are being killed and raped every day. This unbearable barbarism has never been part of our moral values. It started after the fall of the Mobutu regime and clearly aims to tear the country apart through terror inflicted on the civilian populations of the regions around the Great Lakes. Rather than fight it, Kabila tried to use it politically by allowing it to spread to Kasai and thereby prove that holding elections was impossible.
This is in itself a betrayal that will be judged by history in the absence of a court. Don’t forget that, while many opponents languished in prison after sham trials, Gédéon Kyungu, a warlord convicted of crimes against humanity of a rarely seen barbarism, was pardoned and, by his own admission, works for the regime. As long as he enjoys this impunity, I fear that Joseph Kabila will continue his scorched earth politics.
Can one be a man of money and a politician?
All combinations are possible and none offers an absolute guarantee of probity. I believe that the main challenges facing my country are economic, and it is important for policy-makers to have a deep understanding of the principles that govern the market and allow a country to deploy a real development strategy.
You said in an interview that Central Africa would be the land of choice for future oligarchs. Given your fortune and your ambitions, aren’t you one of its first oligarchs?
I would like my entrepreneurial success to inspire other Africans, especially young people. It’s not right that so many international companies should make Africa their cash cow, their preserve, and that there are not more African champions to compete with them. Producing African captains of industry should be high on the list of priorities of every country on the continent, because we won’t develop by making others rich. Even though the term “oligarch” has a negative connotation, I have always admired the difficult decision taken by the Russians after the collapse of the USSR to cede bankrupt strategic assets to those most capable, sometimes without compensation, rather than sell them to foreign companies.
You’ve been living in Luanda since 1999. Your marriage to Isabel dos Santos has made you a key figure in Angola: the president's son-in-law. Can you ignore Angolan interests with regards to DRC?
I know these two countries inside and out. I believe that a strategic partnership based on mutual respect would be a true source of stability and development for the whole of Central Africa. For this to work, the relationship has to be honest and balanced. The advantage is that the Angolan political culture was forged by its long struggle against Portuguese and South African colonialism. The principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbours is thus a reality, hardly restricted by the needs of its own internal stability. In short, Angola's interest in DRC is limited to ensuring that the undermining of this great neighbour does not create instability in the sub-region.
Can you still be “Congolese”? Can one be a citizen of several countries in Africa today?
Plurinationality is a reality for all our countries. Africans have been exiled from the continent for generations and many of them prosper abroad. To deprive ourselves of these talents is stupid and the debate on nationality in the DRC seems outdated to me, as the Congolese diaspora is strategic to meeting our country’s challenges.
What is your analysis of the situation in Angola? João Lourenço, of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), is the new president. Can there be a smooth transition?
President Dos Santos could have run for president again. There’s nothing in the Constitution to stop him. He preferred to make way for a transition that, like the MPLA slogan, will improve on what has been achieved and correct mistakes. I have no doubt that the collaboration between João Lourenço, as Head of State and the Executive, and President Dos Santos, as head of the party, will be a success. A comfortable majority in Parliament will help maintain the gains made and implement reforms instigated by the oil price crisis.
With Joao Lourenço, Angola’s former Minister of Defence and President Dos Santos’s successor, at the official opening of the Nova Cimangola II cement factory (Luanda).
What’s stopping Angolan growth from translating into “real take-off”?
Time, mainly. The biggest challenges Angola faced after the war in 2002 were education and infrastructure. Considerable progress has been made on both fronts, although major social inequalities persist and the fight against poverty still requires a great deal of effort. It should be noted, however, that hundreds of schools and dozens of institutions of higher education and universities have been opened in fifteen years.
Similarly, the hydroelectric dam construction programme, which cost the state billions of dollars, will culminate by the end of the year with the commissioning of the first dam, at 1,500 MW, and will have a decisive impact on the competitiveness of domestic production. Time is also needed to step back and assess and decide what needs reforming. The oil sector, which is the backbone of the Angolan economy, is in crisis. Sonangol suffered from an overly administrative culture rather than one based remunerating its shareholder, the State. The economic crisis is, from this point of view, and beyond the cyclical difficulties it generates, a real opportunity for the Angolan economy.