LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - His trademark Stetson aside, Moise Katumbi has worn many hats in Democratic Republic of Congo, as one of the vast African country’s most successful businessman and its most powerful provincial governor.
But it could be his ownership of Africa’s top soccer club, TP Mazembe, and the popular clout that bestows, that propels Katumbi all the way to the top job in the country should he try to succeed President Joseph Kabila next year.
For big Mazembe matches, supporters trek overnight for up to 40 km (25 miles) to watch on big screens in Lubumbashi, the provincial capital.
Since Katumbi, governor of copper-rich Katanga province from 2007 until September, was elected club chairman in 1997, he and Mazembe have become practically synonymous.
Before each home game, the 50-year-old walks around the field in his familiar match-day outfit of white suit and black cowboy hat, greeting the club’s fanatical supporters, including the hard-core “100 percent”.
At this month’s African Champions League triumph over Algeria’s USM Alger at Lubumbashi’s Kenya stadium, the loudest cheers from 20,000 fans were reserved for him, the public address system booming “Moise! Katumbi!” as the golden trophy was raised aloft.
As Katumbi builds his national profile ahead of next year’s election, Mazembe’s three African crowns in the last six years gain added significance in a country often derided as a failure.
“Many look to Katumbi as someone who can uplift the Congo’s reputation and Congolese dignity after years and years of humiliation,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at New York University. “Here’s a man who’s been able to make a Congolese team famous across the continent.”
Katumbi has made millions through mining and other investments but during his time as governor took care to cultivate a man-of-the-people image through high-profile contributions to schools and hospitals.
However, above the gyrating masses of black and white clad fans at Kenya Stadium sit other clues to his electoral strength.
Luxury boxes that sell for $150,000-a-year bear the names of some of Congo’s largest foreign investors. Above the doorway to one is a sign reserving it for Swiss-based commodities house Glencore and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. Another is for Freeport-McMoRan’s Tenke Fungurume Mining.
Malta David Forrest, the chief executive of Belgian mining giant Groupe Forrest International, is Mazembe’s vice president.
Despite sometimes populist rhetoric, Katumbi is a favourite of foreign investors who saw him as a bulwark against what they regard as harassment by state agents and overzealous regulation.
At times, that has made for an awkward balancing act, as when he tried to satisfy both Katanga’s hundreds of thousands of artisanal miners and the large commercial mines on whose land they encroach.
In an interview with Reuters, Katumbi said his record as governor had benefited all Katangans by developing infrastructure and social programmes.
“Katanga was the pilot programme for Congo,” Katumbi said.
He remained coy about whether he would be a presidential candidate in 2016 but sources close to him confirm he is planning to run.
A longtime ally of Kabila, Katumbi quit the ruling party and resigned as governor in September over what he said were attempts to violate the constitution and keep Kabila in power beyond his second and final mandate next year.
Katumbi will need all the support he can get if he hopes to dislodge Kabila after close to 15 years in power. Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father Laurent’s assassination, won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011.
A government spokesman has said Kabila intends to respect the constitution, but the president himself has remained silent on the subject and his supporters have suggested delaying the election by up to four years to clean up voter rolls.
Katumbi is not admired by all, with critics routinely accusing him of using the governor’s office to advance personal business interests.
“Moise’s management was not transparent in any sense,” said Jean-Claude Katende, president of the Kinshasa-based African Association for Defence of Human Rights (ASADHO).
Excesses by the “100 percent”, including attacks on Katumbi political opponents, have also led some to label the fan club Katumbi’s personal militia.
Katumbi rejected the accusations, describing the “100 percent” as “very disciplined”.
Besides his star appeal, analysts say his popularity is as much a reflection of popular frustration with Kabila, whose presidency many Congolese say has failed to improve their quality of life despite strong economic growth.
“In elections, it’s said ‘If there are two bad candidates, choose the less bad one,’” said Gregoire Mulamba, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (CDH) in Lubumbashi.
For the crowd at Kenya stadium, there was little question who that was. Shortly after Katumbi entered - to rapturous applause - interior minister and Kabila loyalist Evariste Boshab took his seat in the director’s box. He was roundly booed.
Additional reporting by Bienvenu-Marie Bakumanya in Kinshasa; Editing by Ed Cropley and Peter Graff