Going for the Gold


Here’s the set-up: a US basketball star, known for his massive philanthropic contributions, sets up a gold deal in a New York hotel room, complete with a PowerPoint presentation, with a politically well-connected Texas oilman and a shady Houston-based diamond dealer.

After a serious of run-arounds, which has the gold going from Kenya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with nobody really sure who the true owner of the gold actually is, the deal finally goes sour when a Congolese warlord, wanted by the International Criminal Court, meets the plane in the lawless eastern DRC town of Goma. Instead of handing over the gold to the buyers, the warlord seizes the plane and carts off the diamond dealer who is released almost two months later, but only after $3 million in “fines” are paid to the government. In the end, the oilman, who financed the deal, is out of pocket more than $30 million – bribes, transport costs, upfront payments – and doesn’t have one single ounce of gold to show for it.

The plot is fast-paced, intense, all playing out over a few months in late 2010 and early 2011, in upmarket hotel rooms in the US, exclusive private parties in Texas, customs warehouses in Kenya and on a military tarmac in Goma.

But it is the characters, really, that make the whole story pop.

At centre court is Dikembe Mutombo. In 1987, the towering Mutombo, who was born in Kinshasa, wins a pre-med scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington DC. Not long after, he joins the school’s basketball team. A star is born. He plays for nearly two decades on the National Basketball Association circuit, an adored sportsman whose finger-wagging – his playful admonition towards his opponents in the game – made him a larger than life personality and reportedly earned him more than $100 million over his astounding career. He starts a foundation, builds a hospital in Kinshasa, is mentioned in George W Bush’s 2007 State of the Nation speech as a shining example of heroic kindness and self-sacrifice, only to shock the sporting world by his central involvement in setting up the scam.

There’s Kase Lawal, a Nigerian-born oil tycoon. He’s served as a trade advisor for both former US President Bill Clinton as well as Barack Obama. In his native Nigeria, he sat on President Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential advisory council. In South Africa, he’s been a funder of President Jacob Zuma’s charitable foundation and educational trust. But he’s also been accused of conspiring to steal an oil block in Nigeria, pumping million of barrels of oil from it – although he was never prosecuted and has consistently denied the allegations.

The shady diamond dealer was a cadet at the prestigious West Point military academy who grew up in Houston, Texas, before gaining a reputation for his penchant for risky deals in Africa. Carlos St Mary had already been fingered in a lawsuit brought by investors he failed to repay in a diamond deal gone wrong before acting as a middleman in the gold scam. St Mary appears to be the main source in a United Nations report on the incident that had Lawal in contravention of UN resolutions that ban individuals and corporations from financing illegal armed groups in the eastern DRC.

And finally, there’s Bosco Ntaganda, head of said illegal armed group. The warlord who faces allegations of recruiting child soldiers and presiding over mass rapes and murder by his troops, in addition to his penchant for smuggling natural resources, is also the likely recipient of much of those tens of millions of dollars from Lawal. But, then, he might not have been acting alone. St Mary tells a prominent UK newspaper that while he was being detained at the Goma airport, Ntaganda was on the phone with DRC President Joseph Kabila, “arguing over how to split the cash”.

Great script, huh? Thing is, I don’t think anyone would ever buy it. Not in Hollywood at least. The story line is entirely unbelievable, even if the whole thing is true. Besides, the ending is too depressing. The bad guy wins, and the hero isn’t a hero at all.

The moral of the story? Africa isn’t for sissies and corruption is global. And it appears that it doesn’t matter how politically connected you are around the globe, or how much money you’ve got stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. In the end, it all comes back to basics. The guys with the biggest guns win.

April 2012, The-African.org