Exposing a Congolese bank’s dirty secrets

There was nothing particularly exceptional about the day that Gradi Koko’s life changed forever.

It was early 2018, and he was at his office. He was working in the Kinshasa branch of Afriland First Bank, in the upmarket Gombe district, near government buildings and embassies. Returning to his desk, he passed someone on their way to the restroom. It was a man who looked vaguely familiar, flanked by a security guard, coming from the office of the bank’s director-general.

When he sat down, his colleague Navy Malela called him over. “Did you see that person?” said Malela. “That’s Dan Gertler. We are going to have problems.”

Blacklisted

Koko had always wanted to be a banker, like his father before him, and his career was going strong. In just five years, he had risen to become Afriland’s head of accounting and risk, which meant that it was his job to make sure the bank did everything by the book. It was a heavy responsibility, and one he took seriously.

He asked Malela what he knew about the unusual visitor. Malela said that Gertler was an Israeli businessman who was close friends with the then president, Joseph Kabila. That he was in mining. That he was rarely far from scandal. And, most concerning of all — at least from the bank’s perspective — that just months previously the United States had targeted him with economic sanctions because of allegations that his vast fortune had been amassed through corrupt oil and mining deals.

This meant that Gertler, who is worth more than a billion dollars, was not supposed to be doing business with any bank, anywhere in the world, that deals in US dollars — including Afriland.

This was more than enough for Koko to launch his own internal investigation. A few weeks later, in a letter seen by the Mail & Guardian, he wrote to Afriland’s director general Patrick Kafindo to express his reservations. 

“The account of Monsieur Dan Gertler continues to be active despite being blacklisted by the [United States],” he wrote. He also said that Gertler had been signing bank orders on accounts for other businesses at the bank, and recommended that all these accounts be immediately suspended pending further investigation.

Koko said that he was immediately summoned to Kafindo’s office. “The bank director was mad,” Koko told the M&G. “He said that these persons were not random individuals. He said Kinshasa is a dangerous place, I might go into the street and get shot.”

Koko was horrified, and scared. He knew, at that moment, that his career was over. He couldn’t keep quiet. But nor could he speak out without endangering both himself and his family. Not in Kinshasa, at least.

Just a few days later, he fled to Europe, together with his wife and children. He took a trove of bank documents with him. 

These later formed the basis of several hard-hitting reports, including by Global Witness and Bloomberg, that accused Gertler of using Afriland to transfer tens of millions of dollars internationally, circumventing the sanctions regime. 

Gertler strongly denies these allegations — he says the documents were illegally obtained and fabricated — and is suing for defamation in a court in Paris. 

The bank director, Kafindo, echoed Gertler. He said the whistleblowers had forged documents, and had never brought their concerns to him. He questioned their motives: “I don’t come to tell stories to get a visa in Europe,” Kafindo told Radio France Internationale’s Sonia Rolley in an interview last week.

“I don’t have any regrets,” said Koko. “I did it for my country. Yes, my life in Kinshasa was better. But this is not about me. It’s about my profession. I needed to respect the role of banker.”

Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, who the United States has placed under economic sanctions. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A life in exile

For his own protection, there are details about Koko’s flight from Kinshasa and his current location that cannot be made public. What we can say is that from a place of relative safety, with money running low, he considered his next steps.

For inspiration, Koko read up on the fate of another Congolese banker-turned-whistleblower: Jean-Jacques Lumumba, the grand-nephew of independence leader Patrice. In 2016, Lumumba was the head of credit for BGFI Bank in Kinshasa when he noticed millions of dollars in dodgy transactions between former president Joseph Kabila’s family-controlled bank and other organisations with close ties to the president.

When Lumumba raised the alarm with the head of the bank, he was threatened with a gun. He too sought safety outside the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and has subsequently become a prominent anti-corruption crusader.

Lumumba received support in exile by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, better known by the French acronym, PPLAAF. Following in his footsteps, in early 2019, Koko sent a Facebook message to PPLAAF. He said he was ready to blow the whistle, and had the documents to prove it.

It was these documents that formed the basis of the media reports into Afriland last year. But soon PPLAAF noticed something strange. Some of the documents were dated after Koko had fled Kinshasa.

There was a second whistleblower.

Just in case

In Kinshasa, Navy Malela was nervous. He stayed at the bank after Koko left, but everyone there knew that the two of them were close, and that he had helped with the initial investigation. He wasn’t sure what to do. But just in case the worst happened, he started copying documents — which, as an IT specialist, was easy enough to do. “I told myself it might protect me but I had no idea how,” he told The Continent. He shared some of these with Koko.

Eventually the stress, and the fear, became too much, and in early 2019 he put his wife and children on a plane to Europe, with support from PPLAAF. A few days later, he followed them, claiming asylum.

To protect both Koko and Malela from retribution, their exact locations are not being disclosed. 

His kids go to school, but neither Malela nor his wife can work. They miss the DRC every day. “It’s my country. Kinshasa is where I grew up. I miss my city, I miss the heat and I miss my life. The first moment I can, I will go back,” he said.

Like Koko, Malela brought a stash of documents with him. But these were far more extensive. They provided an extraordinary insight into the inner workings of Afriland First Bank’s Congolese branch, and raised a number of red flags.

It is not just Gertler and his alleged associates who are skirting the legalities of international sanctions regimes, apparently. The documents reveal Afriland’s links to companies with alleged links to Hezbollah (the Lebanese Islamist group, considered by the US to be a terrorist organisation); and to a construction company linked to the North Korean government, which was revealed by The Sentry last year to be part of Pyongyang’s efforts to evade economic sanctions.

Also present in the documents is fascinating insight into the enormous sums that flow into and out of the bank accounts of some of Congo’s political elite, including Zoe Kabila (brother of Joseph); Richard Muyej, the governor of the copper-rich Lualaba Province; and the official Senate account.

The documents are not necessarily proof of wrongdoing, but raise uncomfortable questions for the implicated parties, particularly for Afriland, whose credibility and due diligence has been called into account. That, as far as the whistleblowers are concerned, is the point.

“What I want is to make Congolese authorities start investigating these affairs. I don’t understand how they haven’t already done it,” said Malela.

“Thanks to the silent revolution of whistleblowers like Gradi [Koko] and Navy [Malela] on the African continent, no crime will remain a secret forever, and the change we desire will eventually make itself felt,” said the other famous Congolese whistleblower, Jean-Jacques Lumumba. “Acts like theirs are a hope for the DRC and for our continent.”

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