16 April 2019 – A notorious Congolese army officer illegally traded timber licences in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the run-up to disputed presidential elections at the end of last year, Global Witness reveals today.
General Gabriel Amisi Kumba (known as “Tango Four”), sanctioned by the EU and US for human rights abuses, is a powerful figure in DRC and a close ally of former President Joseph Kabila, raising concerns that he used his influence to sidestep the law in his acquisition and subsequent sale of logging permits.
Amisi’s family obtained five logging concessions in June 2018, in contravention of DRC’s longstanding moratorium on the allocation of industrial logging concessions, which was intended to protect the country’s biodiverse and environmentally-critical rainforests.
The DRC’s Minister of Environment had confiscated these licences from other logging companies without warning, before transferring them to Amisi’s family-held company, Maniema Union 2.
The cancellation of the licences and their allocation to Maniema Union 2 occurred within four days. Within weeks, the Amisi family sold the company and its licences on to Lei Hua Zhang, a Chinese timber magnate who is an owner of a sizeable but mysterious logging company operating in DRC.
Peter Jones, Campaign Leader, Global Witness said, “General Amisi, a powerful Kabila regime insider, appears to have managed to acquire and sell on logging licences at record speed, even though obtaining new licences was illegal at the time.
“This raises fears that Congolese elites close to power have been able to flout environmental regulations to make money, potentially lining the pockets of politically-connected individuals at the expense of the Congolese treasury and the country’s forests. This is especially worrisome as DRC’s controversial elections appear to have resulted in a coalition arrangement that allows Kabila to remain highly influential in DRC politics despite not having stood for president,” added Jones.
In addition, Amisi has a track record of involvement in human rights abuses. He was sanctioned in 2016 by the EU and the US for his alleged role overseeing the deadly suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Kinshasa as Congolese citizens protested against delays to presidential elections that were originally supposed to be held in 2016. In the wake of these events and international sanctions, Amisi was promoted by Kabila.
Global Witness wrote to General Amisi and contacted his lawyer by telephone, but did not receive a substantive response.
Kabila’s reign was characterised by widespread mismanagement and corruption, especially in DRC’s lucrative timber and mining sectors. Amisi’s quick-fire acquisition and sale of logging permits is another example of a failure to uphold the law in the timber sector and the opacity around the trade in DRC’s forests.
Evidence of a deeply opaque logging sector
Lei Hua Zhang acquired Amisi’s permits by buying Maniema Union 2, which was held at the time by Amisi’s wife and children. Company records show that the General managed several of the children’s holdings as they were too young to do so themselves. Documents seen by Global Witness show that Amisi’s wife continued to manage Maniema Union 2’s logging concessions several months after she relinquished her shares in the company.
Mr Zhang is the chairman of Wan Peng International, a major Chinese timber, shipping and cement conglomerate active across Africa and Asia. Wan Peng appears to have extensive logging and timber trading operations in DRC, however almost no trace of the company exists on official records for DRC’s timber sector or export records seen by Global Witness. The company claims that in 2015 it purchased 1.09 million hectares of virgin forest in DRC, but the concessions were not visible on the Environment Ministry’s online map of concessions holders at the time Global Witness went to press.
Its recent activities in the region show that Mr Zhang’s company, Wan Peng, is also not shy of going into business with politically-connected figures. In 2017, Wan Peng purchased an 80 percent share of Christelle SARL, a timber company belonging to Kelly Christelle Sassou Nguesso, the daughter of Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of neighbouring Republic of Congo.
“The patchy information around Wan Peng’s DRC logging operations is reflective of an opaque sector more broadly,” said Jones. “It’s vital that the country’s timber sector is run transparently so that logging activities in one of the world’s most climate-critical forests do not carry on without any effective oversight, as the results would be devastating.”
In response to questions from Global Witness about Wan Peng’s business in DRC, including links to Amisi, a spokesman said that our enquiries pertained to trade secrets and that they were not at liberty to disclose any information.
What the DRC Environment Ministry has said, and what it must do now
Despite a legal obligation to do so, the DRC Environment Ministry has yet to publish any information on the licence holders of the concessions linked to Maniema Union 2. It has also failed to publish copies of any Maniema Union 2 logging contracts online. This opacity around logging in DRC creates a risk that illegally harvested timber can be sold on the global market, as buyers will be unable to independently verify who owns the concessions from which their purchases are sourced, a key requirement for effective due diligence when buying timber.
The new DRC government should immediately revoke all concessions allocated in violation of its moratorium and publish all details of concession owners and contracts. The international community, which provides some funding for the DRC Environment Ministry, should ensure that transparency initiatives are genuinely enacted by the institutions they are funding and demand all illegal logging concessions are cancelled and returned to the State. International timber traders purchasing timber originating from DRC must conduct in-depth due diligence to ensure that they are not purchasing timber sourced from illegally allocated concessions or linked to sanctioned individuals.