For motorists in Kinshasa, Lumumba Boulevard is a nightmare. Construction has obstructed this artery, linking the city centre of the Congolese capital to its airport, for several months. In the long run, it should make traffic flow more smoothly, but for the time being, passengers are trapped for hours at a time.
On May 29, a special convoy made its way along the road in the middle of the day, carrying two containers with four African elephants. They were heading to Kingakati farm, owned by former President Joseph Kabila.
In this estate, located 50km east of the city, the former head of state built a large, second home while he was still in power. He had trees planted, and streetlights erected. A group of eight buildings are set on a plateau, overlooking the valley of the N’Sele River. In recent years, Kabila has been in the habit of bringing employees together to discuss strategy.
But, since leaving the presidency in January, he has made it his main residence. On March 4, he received his successor, Felix Tshisekedi. Now as leader of the parliamentary majority, Kabila continues to bring together the political leaders who have remained loyal to him, and there are many of them: on 1 May, it was the provincial governors of the Common Front for Congo (FCC) who were invited to attend; on 22 June, it was the turn of the senators of this coalition. But few have been able to enter his private apartments.
Private Noah’s Ark
Kabila’s home occupies only a small part of a much larger area. The N’Sele Valley Park is 10,000 hectares of green nature, cut off from the hustle and bustle of the capital, and surrounded by a 32km fence. There are antelopes, zebras, wildebeests, crocodiles, giraffes, buffaloes, and a 4-metre python. A dozen rhinos graze in a private enclosure. White and brown lions also have their own space. And, since May 29, a herd of elephants roam the area.
In this private Noah’s Ark, only the two emblems of the DR Congo are missing: the leopard, too difficult to keep in captivity, and the okapi, endemic to the DR Congo and protected by an American organization, the Okapi Conservation Project.
But that hasn’t hurt its appeal. Since its public opening in June 2018, six months before Kabila left the presidency, the park has become a major attraction in Kinshasa. Every weekend, some 1,700 visitors flock to this island for safaris, at a cost of 50,000 Congolese francs (€27).
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Kabila discovered this Garden of Eden almost twenty years ago after becoming president following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Désiré. At the age of 29, Kabila had grown up between the maquis rebellion in South Kivu and Tanzania, where some of the continent’s most beautiful wildlife reserves were already located. He never felt too comfortable in Kinshasa – an anarchic capital of more than 10 million people – until he fell on this valley, where a peaceful river meanders.
Quickly, he installed a few prefabricated structures on one of the banks. “It was in these buildings that we prepared the negotiations for the Sun City agreements in 2002,” recalls Barnabé Kikaya bin Karubi, a close friend of Kabila since he took power. At this place, where the N’Sele river draws an “S”, the barracks has been replaced by a restaurant with a swimming pool.
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Kabila still walks there, posing for selfies with visitors.
To make it his kingdom, he had to negotiate with the Batéké chieftaincy. “He has built schools, roads and clinics,” says Kikaya bin Karubi. But, the formal acquisition of this immense land (19,000 ha in total, only half of which is devoted to the N’Sele reserve) remains shrouded in mystery. It’s one of the few Kabila properties that was never found during the exhaustive investigation by Bloomberg and the Congo Research Group in 2017.
100,000 trees, artificial lakes….
Over the years, impressive investments have made it possible to develop the site. Impeccable asphalt roads have been built, 100,000 trees have been planted, and dikes have been built to create several artificial lakes. In total, between 300 and 400 workers are active on the property every day. A pumping and purification station has been built to supply the former president’s residence with drinking water. Kabila has also started an animal breeding project: he owns 1,300 pigs and 400 oxen. The animals’ waste material produces gas to operate an electric generator.
The area is almost entirely self-sufficient. A newly-built diversion canal generates 2MW of electricity for the exclusive benefit of the park. It will soon host 15 lodges for tourists, and currently houses three aircraft (A Lockheed Tristar, which once linked Kinshasa to Brussels, a Boeing 727 and a Boeing 707).
Clearly visible from the air and on Google Maps, they have fuelled many fantasies. Some see this as evidence that the former president is preparing for a clandestine military action from his private residence. But, the aircraft are sitting idle at the top of a hill, out of order, with no engine, or runway nearby. Kabila actually wants to repaint them in his favourite colour – blue – and make the site a new restaurant with a view.
Animals imported from Namibia
Animal imports only began in 2017. One of the paradoxes of the park is that all of its animals are native to the country, but most of them come from abroad. In the DRC, capturing animals in the wild is difficult without having much access to open ground. And, above all, the poor state of infrastructure, left by successive governments under Kabila’s presidency, makes it impossible to transport animals from the interior of the country.
The owner, therefore, called on the Namibian organization, Wildlife Vets, which already works with several private reserves. But, not all the animals survived: seven giraffes died due to lack of adequate food, one rhino was fatally injured, and two elephants died in transit. The entire operation represented a logistical puzzle.
The rhinos were moved by plane, and the elephants by sea, from Namibia. They were transported on board the ship, El Niño which is owned by the General Food and Logistics Company (Egal). The two businessmen at the centre of the company, Alain Wan and Albert Yuma, are very close to Kabila.
The company found itself in the spotlight after the accounts of former banker Jean-Jacques Lumumba revealed illegal transfers from the Congolese Central Bank for more than $40 million.
Are the money transfers related to the park’s development? ‘Ferme Espoir’ (Hope Farm), which manages the estate under the leadership of Belgian Marc Piedbœuf, refuses to comment on the state of its finances. But, other prices in the sector gives you an idea. Drought-hit Namibia hopes to sell 1,000 wild animals to generate $1.1 million in revenue this year. The N’Sele Valley Park has already imported 1,200 of them, including its most spectacular specimens, such as lions and rhinos.
In 2017, these transactions attracted the attention of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project(OCCRP). When questioned by them, the Namibian veterinarian in charge of the transfer programme, Ulf Dubessing said the park “was part of Kabila’s plans to withdraw from politics, perhaps earlier than expected”.
At the time, analysts did not believe it. They were convinced that the president would stay in power at all costs. Today, park officials claim that the former head of state now spends more time dealing with his estate than with political life. Who to believe?
While Kingakati Farm is the former president’s largest property, it’s far from his only one. According to his followers, Joseph Kabila is passionate about animal protection. He even entertained the idea of building an animal tourism circuit to accommodate visitors in different domains across the country.
Kabila brought animals from Namibia to a vast piece of land that he owns on the island of Mateba at the mouth of the Congo River. The 5,000 ha ‘Ferme Espoir’ (Hope Farm), near Lubumbashi, is also populated by animals from Zimbabwe.
Finally, the former president owns a ranch on the Kundelungu Plateau in Haut-Katanga province, where he wants to bring wild animals. For now, only cattle occupy the area. Tours are still far from being commercialized.