Hunt for the ‘blood diamond of batteries’ impedes green energy push

Jose Bumba, left, pulls a 220-pound bag of cobalt from a 26-foot-deep hole in the makeshift mine in Kasulo, Congo, on April 26, 2021. Working conditions on such sites can be extremely dangerous. The New York Times
A man in a pinstripe suit with a red pocket square walked around the edge of a giant pit one April afternoon where hundreds of workers often toil in flip-flops, burrowing deep into the ground with shovels and pickaxes.

His polished leather shoes crunched on dust the miners had spilled from nylon bags stuffed with cobalt-laden rocks.

The man, Albert Yuma Mulimbi, is a longtime power broker in Congo and chair of a government agency that works with international mining companies to tap the nation’s copper and cobalt reserves, used in the fight against global warming.

Yuma’s professed goal is to turn Congo into a reliable supplier of cobalt, a critical metal in electric vehicles, and shed its anything-goes reputation for tolerating an underworld where children are put to work and unskilled and ill-equipped diggers of all ages get injured or killed.

“We have to reorganize the country and take control of the mining sector,” said Yuma, who had pulled up to the Kasulo site in a fleet of SUVs carrying a high-level delegation to observe the challenges there.

But to many in Congo and the United States, Yuma himself is a problem. As chair of Gécamines, Congo’s state-owned mining enterprise, he has been accused of helping to divert billions of dollars in revenues, according to confidential State Department legal filings reviewed by The New York Times and interviews with a dozen current and former officials in both countries.

Top State Department officials have tried to force him out of the mining agency and pushed for him to be put on a sanctions list, arguing he has for years abused his position to enrich friends, family members and political allies.

Yuma denies any wrongdoing and is waging an elaborate lobbying and legal campaign to clear his name in Washington and Congo’s capital of Kinshasa, all while pushing ahead with his plans to overhaul cobalt mining.

Effectively operating his own foreign policy apparatus, Yuma has hired a roster of well-connected lobbyists, wired an undisclosed $1.5 million to a former White House official, offered the United States purported intelligence about Russia and critical minerals and made a visit to Trump Tower in New York, according to interviews and confidential documents.

Yuma met with Donald Trump Jr there in 2018, a session the mining executive described as a quick meet-and-greet. Despite such high-level access during the Trump administration, he was barred just two months later from entering the United States.

His grip on the mining industry has complicated Congo’s effort to attract new Western investors and secure its place in the clean energy revolution, which it is already helping to fuel with its vast wealth of minerals and metals like cobalt.

Batteries containing cobalt reduce overheating in electric cars and extend their range, but the metal has become known as “the blood diamond of batteries” because of its high price and the perilous conditions in Congo, the largest producer of cobalt in the world. As a result, carmakers concerned about consumer blowback are rapidly moving to find alternatives to the element in electric vehicles, and they are increasingly looking to other nations with smaller reserves as possible suppliers.

There is a chance that Congo’s role in the emerging economy could be diminished if it fails to confront human-rights issues in its mines. And even if Yuma works to resolve those problems, as he has pledged to do, it still may not be enough for new American investors who want to be assured the country has taken steps to curb a history of mining-industry corruption.

Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, has tried to sideline Yuma by stacking Gécamines with his own appointees, but he has been unwilling to cross him further. During an interview at his hillside palace in Kinshasa, Tshisekedi said he had his own strategy for fixing the country’s dangerous mining conditions.

“It is not going to be up to Mr. Yuma,” he said. “It will be the government that will decide.”

The standoff between Yuma and the president echoes power struggles that have torn apart African countries rich with natural resources in the past. How this one plays out has implications that reach far beyond the continent, as the global battle against climate change calls for a stepped-up transition from gasoline-burning vehicles to battery-powered ones.

For Congo, the question boils down to this: Will Yuma help the country ride the global green wave into an era of new prosperity, or will he help condemn it to more strife and turmoil?

‘TIRED OF DIGGING’ 

Statues greet motorists at the main roundabout in a mining hub in Congo’s Copperbelt. One depicts an industrial miner in hard hat, headlamp and boots; another a shoeless, shirtless man in ragged shorts holding a pickax. They tell the story of the country’s dual mining economies: industrial and artisanal.

High-tech, industrial mines run by global corporations like China Molybdenum employ thousands of people in Congo’s cobalt sector, and while they have their own problems, they are largely not responsible for the country’s tarnished reputation abroad.

It’s a different story for the artisanal sector, where Yuma plans to focus the bulk of his stated reforms. Consisting of ordinary adults with no formal training, and sometimes even children, artisanal mining is mostly unregulated and often involves trespassers scavenging on land owned by the industrial mines. Along the main highway bisecting many of the mines, steady streams of diggers on motorbikes loaded down with bags of looted cobalt — each worth about $175 — dodge checkpoints by popping out of sunflower thickets.

Unable to find other jobs, thousands of parents send their children in search of cobalt. On a recent morning, a group of young boys were hunched over a road running through two industrial mines, collecting rocks that had dropped off large trucks.

The work for other children is more dangerous — in makeshift mines where some have died after climbing dozens of feet into the earth through narrow tunnels that are prone to collapse.

Kasulo, where Yuma is showcasing his plans, illustrates the gold-rush-like fervor that can trigger the dangerous mining practices. The mine, authorized by Gécamines, is nothing more than a series of crude gashes the size of city blocks that have been carved into the earth.

Once a thriving rural village, Kasulo became a mining strip after a resident uncovered chunks of cobalt underneath a home. The discovery set off a frenzy, with hundreds of people digging up their yards.

Today, a mango tree and a few purple bougainvillea bushes, leftovers of residents’ gardens, are the only remnants of village life. Orange tarps tied down with frayed ropes block rainwater from flooding the hand-dug shafts where workers lower themselves and chip at the rock to extract chunks of cobalt.

Georges Punga is a regular at the mine. Now 41, Punga said he started working in diamond mines when he was 11. Ever since, he has travelled the country searching Congo’s unrivalled storehouse for treasures underfoot: first gold, then copper, and, for the past three years, cobalt.

Punga paused from his digging one afternoon and tugged his dusty blue trousers away from his sneakers. Scars crisscrossed his shins from years of injuries on the job. He earns less than $10 a day — just enough, he said, to support his family and keep his children in school instead of sending them to the mines.

“If I could find another job, I’d do it,” he said. “I’m tired of digging.”

Officials in Congo have begun taking corrective steps, including creating a subsidiary of Gécamines to try to curtail the haphazard methods used by the miners, improve safety and stop child labour, which is already illegal.

Under the plan, miners at sites like Kasulo will soon be issued hard hats and boots, tunnelling will be forbidden and pit depths will be regulated to prevent collapses. Workers will also be paid more uniformly and electronically, rather than in cash, to prevent fraud.

As chair of the board of directors, Yuma is at the centre of these reforms. That leaves Western investors and mining companies that are already in Congo little choice but to work with him as the growing demand for cobalt makes the small-scale mines — which account for as much as 30% of the country’s output — all the more essential.

Once the cobalt is mined, a new agency will buy it from the miners and standardize pricing for diggers, ensuring the government can tax the sales. Yuma envisions a new fund to offer workers financial help if cobalt prices decline.

Right now, diggers often sell the cobalt at a mile-long stretch of tin shacks where the sound of sledgehammers smashing rocks drowns out all other noise. There, international traders crudely assess the metal’s purity before buying it, and miners complain of being cheated.

Yuma led journalists from the Times on a tour of Kasulo and a nearby newly constructed warehouse and laboratory complex intended to replace the buying shacks.

“We are going through an economic transition, and cobalt is the key product,” said Yuma, who marched around the pristine but yet-to-be-occupied complex, showing it off like a proud father.

Seeking solutions for the artisanal mining problem is a better approach than simply turning away from Congo, argues the International Energy Agency, because that would create even more hardships for impoverished miners and their families.

But activists point out that Yuma’s plans, beyond spending money on new buildings, have yet to really get underway, or to substantially improve conditions for miners. And many senior government officials in both Congo and the United States question if Yuma is the right leader for the task — openly wondering if his efforts are mainly designed to enhance his reputation and further monetize the cobalt trade while doing little to curb the child labour and work hazards.

MILLIONS GONE MISSING

Bottles of Dom Pérignon were chilling on ice beside Yuma as he sat in his Gécamines office, where chunks of precious metals and minerals found in Congo’s soil were encased in glass. He downed an espresso before his interview with the Times, surrounded by contemporary Congolese art from his private collection. His lifestyle, on open display, was clear evidence, he said, that he need not scheme or steal to get ahead.

“I was 20 years old when I drove my first BMW in Belgium, so what are we talking about?” he said of allegations that he had pilfered money from the Congolese government.

Yuma is one of Congo’s richest businessmen. He secured a prime swath of riverside real estate in Kinshasa where his family set up a textile business that holds a contract to make the nation’s military uniforms. A perpetual flashy presence, he is known for his extravagance. People still talk about his daughter’s 2019 wedding, which had the aura of a Las Vegas show, with dancers wearing light-up costumes and large white giraffe statues as table centerpieces.

He has served on the board of Congo’s central bank and was reelected this year as president of the country’s powerful trade association, the equivalent of the US Chamber of Commerce.

The huge mining agency where he is chair was nationalized and renamed under President Mobutu Sese Seko after Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Gécamines once had a monopoly on copper and cobalt mining and, by the 1980s, was among the top copper producers in the world. Jobs there offered a good salary, health care and schooling for employees’ families.

But Mobutu, who ruled for 32 years, raided its funds to support himself and his cronies, a pattern followed by his successors, according to anti-corruption groups. By the 1990s, production from Gécamines had declined dramatically. Money wasn’t reinvested into operations, and the agency amassed debt of more than $1 billion. Eventually, half of its workforce was laid off.

To survive, Gécamines was restructured, turning to joint ventures with private, mostly foreign, investors in which the agency had a minority stake.

Yuma took over in 2010, promising to return Gécamines to its former glory. But instead, according to anti-corruption groups, mining revenues soon disappeared. The Carter Centre, a nonprofit, estimated that between 2011 and 2014 alone some $750 million vanished from Gécamines’ coffers, placing the blame in part on Yuma.

The winners of Gécamines’ partnership deals under Yuma included Dan Gertler, a billionaire diamond dealer from Israel. Gertler was later put under US sanctions for “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals,” according to the Treasury Department.

A confidential investigative report that was submitted to the State Department and Treasury and obtained by the Times accuses Yuma of nepotism, holding stakes in textile and food-importing businesses that got funding from a government agency he helped oversee, and steering work to a mining contractor in which he was alleged to have shares.

US authorities also believed that Yuma was using some of the mining-sector money to help prop up supporters of Joseph Kabila, the kleptocratic president of Congo for 18 years who had first put him in charge of Gécamines.

“Suspicious financial transactions appeared to coincide with the country’s electoral cycles,” said the State Department’s 2018 annual report on human rights in Congo, crediting the Carter Centre for the research.

By his own tally, Yuma has been accused of cheating Congo out of some $8.8 billion, an amount he thinks is absurd, saying he has brought in billions of dollars in revenue to the country.

Yuma has launched a bombastic counterattack on watchdog groups and his critics, calling them “new colonialists.” He has claimed that they somehow conspired with mining companies to stymie his efforts to revamp the industry, which, in his assessment, has left “the Congolese population in a form of modern slavery.”

Yuma also sent the Times a 33-page document outlining his defence, noting the many “veritable smear campaigns that seek to sully his reputation and blur his major role in favour of the country through the reform of its mining policy.”

WASHINGTON APPEAL 

The room was packed. Top White House and State Department officials, mining executives, Senate staffers and other Washington elites sat rapt one day in 2018 at the DC headquarters of a foreign policy group as the microphone was handed to the guest of honour: Yuma.

“We understand President Donald Trump’s desire to diversify and secure the US supply chain,” he said, speaking to the Atlantic Council. “It would be of our best interests to consider partnerships with American companies to develop projects for the supply of these minerals.”

Accused at home of pillaging the country’s revenues, Yuma had taken his image-cleansing campaign abroad, seeking redemption by convincing Washington that he was a critical link to Congo’s minerals and metals.

Yuma’s team of lobbyists and lawyers included Joseph Szlavik, who had served in the White House under President George Bush, and Erich Ferrari, a prominent sanctions lawyer.

Lodging at the Four Seasons, he held meetings on two trips that spring with officials from the World Bank and the departments of Defence, Energy and the Interior. He also travelled to New York, where he met with Donald Trump Jr

There, he was accompanied by Gentry Beach, a Texas hedge fund manager who was a major campaign fundraiser for the former president as well as a close friend and erstwhile business partner of the younger Trump. Beach has been trying to secure a mining deal in Congo, and was previously invested with Trump in a mining project there. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“Someone wanted to introduce me to say hello,” Yuma said, playing down the exchange with the president’s son.

Trump said he did not recall the meeting.

Through all the encounters, Yuma said, he recited the same message: America needed him, and he was ready to help.

In Washington, he even offered what he considered crucial intelligence about Russia’s efforts to acquire Congolese niobium, a shiny white metal that resists corrosion and can handle super-high temperatures like those found in fighter jet engines. Yuma said he had helped thwart the sale to benefit the United States, according to two US officials involved in the meeting.

Signs of trouble emerged during one of the trips. A member of his lobbying team was pulled aside by a State Department official and given a stark warning. Yuma was now a target of a corruption investigation by the United States, and he was about to be punished.

A few weeks later, in June 2018, the State Department formally prohibited him from returning to the United States.

“Today’s actions send a strong signal that the US government is committed to fighting corruption,” the State Department said in a statement at the time that did not name Yuma, and instead said the actions involved “several senior” officials from Congo, which the Times confirmed included Yuma.

A ‘FORMIDABLE PERSON’

For Yuma, the action signalled that he needed even more muscle. He would hire Herman Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bush, and George Denison, who had worked for President Gerald Ford.

A former Congolese airline and telephone executive named Joseph Gatt, who lives in Virginia and is close to Yuma, also took up his cause. Gatt stationed a personal aide at the Fairmont, a luxury hotel about a mile from the White House, who organised meetings with the lobbyists to push for permission for Yuma to visit the United States.

“He’s a very formidable person,” Gatt said of Yuma in an interview, insisting that the allegations against him were false and that he was “quite clean.”

At the same time, Yuma worked on elevating his standing in Congo. He hatched a plan with the exiting president, Kabila: Yuma would act as his proxy by becoming prime minister, State Department officials told the Times.

But a top US diplomat was sent to meet with Yuma at his home in Kinshasa to make clear that the United States strongly objected to the plan, according to an interview with the diplomat, J Peter Pham. After pulling out a bottle of Cristal Champagne, Yuma talked with Pham about political events in Congo, but things soon turned sour.

Pham, then a special envoy to the region, told Yuma that the Americans were prepared to deport two of his daughters, who were completing graduate degrees in the United States, if he pursued Kabila’s scheme.

“If we revoked your visa, we could revoke theirs,” Pham recalled telling Yuma.

Yuma was undeterred, and his team recruited an aide to Rep Hank Johnson, to deliver an invitation for Yuma to visit the United States and discuss his work in Congo. The invitation was even shared with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though the State Department shut it down. “We saw it for what it was: an attempt to get around the visa ban,” Pham said.

Still determined to get his way, Yuma bolstered his collection of influencers. Denison briefly joined the Washington lobbying team with instructions to ensure that Yuma could travel to the United States and that he “not face legal sanctions,” a June 2020 email shows. The United States was considering putting Yuma on a sanctions list, according to State Department officials, a move that could freeze money he had in international banks.

But a $3 million contract between the men did not mention that assignment, instead saying that Denison was to “promote the attractiveness of the business climate” in Congo, according to a copy of the document.

Shortly after he started the work, Denison received $1.5 million, emails show, with instructions to transfer most of it to an account belonging to an associate of Yuma’s. The transaction drew scrutiny from the bank — and alarm bells went off for Denison, who said he was concerned that he might be unknowingly participating in a money-laundering scheme.

Denison hired a lawyer, quit the job and ultimately returned all the funds.

“He’s a huge crook,” Denison said.

Yuma did not respond to a question on the matter.

DUELING PRESIDENTS

Tshisekedi and Yuma walked near a large terraced canyon at one of Glencore’s cobalt mines in the Copperbelt, a region so defined by mining that roadside markets sell steel-toed boots and hard hats alongside fresh eggs and spears of okra.

The outing in May was awkward for these two political rivals.

Tshisekedi, a longtime opposition member who took office in early 2019 in a disputed election, has been fully embraced by the Biden administration, which sees him as an ally in battling global warming. He is chair of the African Union and has repeatedly appeared with President Joe Biden at international events, including a meeting in Rome last month and then again a few days later in Glasgow, Scotland, at the global climate conference.

Back home, Tshisekedi has announced that he intends to make Congo “the world capital for strategic minerals.” But some Congolese and US officials think that in order for that to happen, Yuma needs to be ousted.

“We have continuously tried to apply pressure” to have Yuma removed, said one State Department official. Yet Yuma “retains considerable influence,” the official said, baffling the State Department.

Meanwhile, Yuma is carrying on as usual, trailed by an entourage of aides who address him as President Yuma, as he is known throughout much of Congo for his business leadership. It is also a nod to his power base and ambitions.

He talks of installing seven new floors and a helipad at his office building in downtown Kinshasa. He even had one of his lobbyists track down Tshisekedi in September in New York, during the United Nations General Assembly meeting, to press him to stand by Yuma.

In Congo, Yuma also embarked on a nationwide tour this year that looked a lot like a campaign for public office. He set out to visit every province, strategically making his first stop in Tshisekedi’s hometown, where he met with a group of struggling pineapple juice sellers.

Before leaving, he handed the group $5,000 in cash to jump-start their business.

“Just to show them that I’m supportive,” he explained in an interview.

Like the president, Yuma is hoping to get credit for attracting more US investors, convinced that his reform efforts will turn the tide.

“I’m a friend of America,” he said in the interview. “I always work in goodwill to protect and to help the US invest in DRC [Congo]. And I told you, I love America. My children were at university there. One of these days, people will understand I’m a real good friend of America and I will continue to help.”

If his success depends on transforming the mining sector, the task will be formidable.

All day long on a main highway that runs through dozens of industrial mines, trucks groan with loads of copper and tubs of chemicals used to extract metals from ore.

But snaking between them is motorcycle after motorcycle, with one man driving and one sitting backward, acting as a lookout, atop huge bags of stolen cobalt.

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