Congo Ousts Mining Leader in a Cloud of Corruption Claims

The country’s president removed Albert Yuma Mulimbi as chairman of the state mining firm. Cobalt in Congo is a crucial resource in the global clean energy revolution.

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The chairman of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s state mining company was ousted on Friday after longtime allegations that billions of dollars in revenue had gone missing, a move officials said was intended to fight corruption as the country becomes increasingly important in the global clean energy revolution.

Albert Yuma Mulimbi, the chairman of the company since 2010, was replaced by President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo just days after The New York Times published an article revealing new allegations against Mr. Yuma.

The government agency, known as Gecamines, controls production of metals such as cobalt and copper, crucial resources in the push to expand electric vehicles and other renewables. Without his chairmanship, Mr. Yuma will no longer have a significant role in partnering with international companies over major mining deals.

“It is hard to underestimate the importance of this development — it is a significant step in the fight against corruption in Congo,” said J. Peter Pham, who until January served as a senior Central Africa official with the U.S. State Department. “Albert Yuma and the mining sector stand at the nexus of natural resources, political and economic power in the country.”

At least for now, Mr. Yuma will retain his role supervising the reform of small-scale and informal mining in Congo, one industry executive said. His plans include buying cobalt from the informal miners, also known as artisanal miners, and regulating pricing. Cobalt produced by artisanal mining, as opposed to industrial operations, makes up about 30 percent of the nation’s output.

He has also announced plans to increase safety at these sites. Child labor and frequent injuries and deaths associated with such mining have drawn international attention, driven away new U.S. investors and even made some automakers reluctant to buy cobalt from Congo.

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

On most days, hundreds of men trudge into this mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo wearing plastic headlamps and hoisting shovels in search of treasure underground: cobalt.

Here’s the backstory ->

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

This pockmarked canyon was once a thriving village, until someone turned up a chunk of cobalt while doing construction around his home. It set off a frenzy for the metal, used in cellphones and electric vehicle batteries.

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

The price of cobalt has skyrocketed in recent years, and the impact is clear in the cobalt-rich area near Kasulo. Trucks driving vats of chemicals rumble onto giant mines that produce hundreds of thousands of tons of ore.

But regular people, and sometimes children, also grab a pickax and start digging. They’re known as artisanal miners, as opposed to industrial miners.

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Artisanal work can be dangerous, especially when deep tunnels collapse. Some people trespass on massive industrial mines, stealing the rocks they uncover and selling them at makeshift depots to international traders.

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

The government of Congo is trying to clean up artisanal mining, formalizing mine sites with better safety rules and protections for workers. Some automakers and other corporations have also made safety pledges.

What to Know About Mining in Congo

Dionne Searcey and Eric Lipton?Reporting from Democratic Republic of Congo

Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

For now, artisanal mining remains a huge part of the industry. As much as 30 percent of Congo’s cobalt production comes from artisanal mining. And it’s unclear whether Congo’s plans for reform will turn into reality.

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The country is responsible for more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt and is also a major copper producer. Though prices have skyrocketed in recent years, Gecamines was criticized during Mr. Yuma’s tenure for signing deals with foreign mining companies, including entities backed by the Chinese government. The arrangements effectively turned over the country’s extraordinary mineral wealth for foreigners to profit.

Top State Department officials had urged the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Mr. Yuma, who told The Times that he had by his own count been accused of diverting as much as $8.8 billion in mining revenues over the years.

He was separately banned in 2018 from entering the United States, and he has since hired a team of lobbyists and lawyers in Washington to try to fight back and head off any sanctions, which could freeze money he has in international banks.

Mr. Yuma, a longtime power broker in Congo and one of the country’s richest businessmen, did not respond on Friday to a request for comment. But in a series of interviews with The Times in recent months, he called the accusations against him fabrications by outside provocateurs seeking to undermine Congo’s sovereignty.

In one document he provided in October, he called the allegations “veritable smear campaigns,” saying that his critics wanted “to sully his reputation and blur his major role in favor of the country through the reform of its mining policy.”

For decades, Gecamines has been one of Congo’s largest sources of revenue, controlling concessions granted to major international mining companies and collecting royalties from them. Last year, the firm generated $324 million.

Mr. Yuma was placed in his post as chairman by the country’s former president, Joseph Kabila, who American officials believe worked closely with Mr. Yuma to divert agency funds toward political ends, and also possibly to enrich Mr. Kabila’s family.

He was reappointed chairman in 2019, after Mr. Tshisekedi took office. That year, Mr. Yuma had been under consideration to serve as prime minister of Congo, a move the United States opposed because he was planning to serve as Mr. Kabila’s proxy, State Department officials told The Times.

Mr. Yuma will now be replaced by Kaputo Kalubi Alphonse, whom Mr. Tshisekedi had named to Gecamines’ administrative council three years ago. As a sign of the key role that Gecamines plays in Congo, Mr. Tshisekedi’s spokesman announced the new appointment on national television on Friday.

Leon Mwine, who was appointed by Mr. Tshisekedi to a top post at Gecamines in 2019, said executives realized they had to prove to the world that the agency could change course.

“Values — such as honesty and transparency and integrity — these core values are what we need to be competitive on the international market,” Mr. Mwine said.

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