Congo Hold-up: the City of the River, the other story of the “wonderful city” in the heart of Kinshasa

View of Kinshasa, DRC.

© RFI

Text by: Sonia Rolley Follow

27 mins

The “City of the River”, a luxury real estate project, was to be an “international class urban center” in the Congolese capital.

Ten years later, there are a few buildings vulnerable to flooding.

In the meantime, its French promoter has increased the number of suspicious transfers, withdrawn more than two million dollars in cash and concealed from its clients the sanctions to which it was subject from the Congolese financial authorities.

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The owner of the place is anxious to keep the list of his rich clients a secret. But some do not hesitate to post their new property on social networks. Congolese singer Inoss'B films himself discovering his new interior, empty and marbled. Another star of Congolese music, Fally Ipupa strolls through the streets at the wheel of his canary yellow sports car. Ministers and ex-ministers, high-ranking officers and wealthy businessmen also have their base here. All had to pay a minimum of 150,000 dollars - 280 years of salary for an average Congolese - to be able to live there.

The City of the River, a new district of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is built on former dry marshes on the banks of the Congo River.

If we are to believe promotional videos and sponsored articles, it is destined to become a “world

-class urban center

”.

3D projections intended for future buyers show futuristic towers, huge shopping centers, villas with swimming pools and alleys lined with lush palm trees.

A sweet voice over promises “

schools, parks, marinas and hotels (…), an effervescent business district, pleasant workplaces

”.

The district is an "

ideal environment

" with "

the atmosphere of peace and the marvelous finery

", moved clearly sponsored articles. A "

dream come true

", a "

paradise

", "

an architectural renewal for a large modern Congo", in short, "the most beautiful city in Africa

". When Joseph Kabila was still president, the pro-government press regularly cited the City as an illustration of the “

revolution of modernity

” driven by the Head of State.

Ten years after the start of the works, the City of the river is however far from the promised paradise.

A few massive, unimaginative buildings have come out of the ground.

But for the urban center of international class, it will be necessary to iron.

Only 40 of the planned 400 hectares have been equipped and around 500 apartments built out of the 10,000 announced.

The district is not connected to the city's water network, which is drawn from the river.

Homeowners complain of devaluation of their property and power cuts (a common scourge in the Congolese capital).

In December 2019, part of the Cité du Fleuve was flooded by a flood of the Congo River.

And residents of neighboring neighborhoods, who often live on less than two dollars a day, take a dim view of the arrival of this bunkerised elite.

In the media, its promoter, the French businessman Robert Choudury, nevertheless consistently defends his company.

Putting his difficulties on the account of buyers who have not settled their debts, he assured a Congolese television channel at the end of 2020: “

Since 2016, the market, the financial situation in Kinshasa is a little difficult, but we are in the process of to recover, I am very confident for the future

.

"Our" Congo Hold-up "survey, based on 3.5 million confidential documents from the BGFI bank obtained by Mediapart and the NGO PPLAAF, and coordinated by the EIC media network, reveals for the first time the financial backstage of this emblematic real estate project.

Contacted, the French businessman Robert Choudury did not respond to our questions.

Our investigation shows that the project was already suffering from serious difficulties in 2012: blacklisting by the Central Bank of Congo, investigation by the national financial intelligence unit, blocking of accounts, etc.

Despite these difficulties, which it was aware of, BGFIBank helped the Cité du rivière find new clients, in particular members of parliament - who therefore unknowingly invested in a very risky project.

Our documents finally demonstrate how several suspicious financial transactions passed through the accounts of the French promoter and how he withdrew very large sums of cash, not explained to date.

Blacklisting and blocking of accounts, the other story of the "Marvelous City"

"

Can this customer benefit from the service he is requesting?"

“On July 19, 2012, the bank employee Alain N. expressed his surprise.

This account manager at the BGFI has just received the “

remote banking

” agreements

from a client - the contract which will allow the latter to monitor his accounts and carry out transactions online.

But there is a problem: the client in question has just been blacklisted by the Central Bank of Congo.

This is Robert Choudury, the patron of the City of the River.

This French citizen is the owner of the ambitious real estate project.

More specifically, he is the manager of Hawkwood Properties SPRL, the company that is developing the City.

The rest is an arrangement of which only Robert Choudury and his associates have mastered the subtleties: Hawkwood Properties SPRL is 80% owned by a fund called Mukwa Investments, which suggests that it is Zambian but is actually registered in a tax haven, Bermuda.

Mukwa's contact office was in Lusaka

”, Zambia, because “

Bermuda was in a bad time zone to [respond to] inquiries

,” explains the fund's investment director, Hillary Duckworth.

The man is used to the archipelagos with advantageous taxation: he already appeared in the Panama papers for having been a shareholder in a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

That's not all: the Mukwa Investments fund, itself was launched by a company registered in the United Kingdom, Hawkwood Capital LLP, to attract investors for the City of the river.

A Frenchman at the helm of a pharaonic real estate project, erected in the Congolese capital with funds based in Bermuda but managed by a British company: the scenario is a bit convoluted, but it can work.

The affair becomes more difficult, however, when the company set up to develop the "wonderful" City takes water.

This is happening in 2011, barely two years after the launch of the project.

The first alert took place on February 16, 2011. Hawkwood Properties SPRL, overdraft of $ 10,000, received a garnishment notification on its accounts.

It can no longer carry out any debtor movement.

For a construction company, which has to pay for materials and workers, this is embarrassing.

According to documents from the Central Bank of Congo, the General Directorate of Taxes and the BGFI that we were able to consult, this is only the beginning of a long succession of alerts and sanctions from the financial authorities.

On May 23, the garnishment was lifted.

But less than a month later, on June 13, 2011, Hawkwood and its manager were this time blacklisted by the Central Bank of Congo.

The measure, intended for people who maintain bad debts or issue checks without funds, prohibits the use of banking services in all credit institutions in the country.

The sanction was pronounced again in June 2012, then in April 2014. It was accompanied by a myriad of seizures on the accounts of Hawkwood Properties (in July 2011, in February 2015, in September 2015, in June 2017).

The Congolese Directorate General of Taxes also has the City of the River in its sights: it issues opinions to third party holders against Hawkwood Properties in November 2012, April 2015 and January 2016 - a procedure aimed at recovering sums due to the Public Treasury.

Again, this has the effect of freezing the company's bank accounts.

The French businessman appears to have concealed his run-ins with Congolese financial authorities, including from his partner Hillary Duckworth.

Asked about blacklisting and other seizures of Hawkwood accounts, Mr. Duckworth said "

he was not informed and would like to know more

."

Blacklist for Robert Choudury “la Citédu rivière” and Hawkwood Properties © Congo Hold up

Over $ 400,000 in "living expenses"

Bank documents from “Congo Hold-up” show that Robert Choudury has found a way to get around these sanctions.

He activated another company, SOGEMO, which took over from the failed Hawkwood Properties.

On February 16, 2011, Hawkwood Properties received its notice of garnishment.

Seven days later, SOGEMO opens an account with BGFI.

In the months and years that follow, the activities of the two companies merge happily, depending on the blockages of the accounts of one or the other and the accounting creativity of their manager.

However, there is a major problem: despite all our research, we could not find any trace of registration of SOGEMO in the Congolese trade register.

The company is also not included in the directory of active taxpayers subject to value added tax.

Despite this, buyers of apartments in the City of the River sometimes pay Hawkwood, sometimes SOGEMO, as evidenced by several bank statements.

Example of this curious financial management: in June 2016, Robert Choudury needed urgent credit in order to pay for the construction of housing in the Cité.

Hawkwood Properties files a $ 500,000 credit application.

It was examined and accepted by the BGFI on June 7, 2016.

On June 10, the 500,000 dollars were indeed released… but paid into the SOGEMO account.

On the same day, the funds are transferred to the company which is to build the new housing, Sinoma Congo Contracting.

But on other occasions, the sums which pass through the accounts of Hawkwood and SOGEMO feed into the personal accounts of Robert Choudury.

Between 2011 and 2017, $ 382,000 in “living expenses” were paid by SOGEMO to its manager.

Of the $ 4.2 million that passed through the company's account during this period, $ 2.3 million was withdrawn in cash, including at least $ 1.8 million personally by Robert Choudury.

Hawkwood Properties' accounts are brewing less money, but the scenario is the same: of the $ 1.9 million we were able to trace, just over half was withdrawn in cash, and $ 40,000 was withdrawn. was paid to Robert Choudury for his "living expenses" or "stay".

Above all, 100,000 dollars from Hawkwood and SOGEMO were transferred to the Société Générale Industrielle (SGI), whose financial movements seem suspect.

This Congolese company, officially specializing in construction materials, sees large sums arriving on its account, in an always round amount (50,000, 100,000, 200,000 dollars), which are systematically withdrawn in cash the same day or on the following day.

In total, $ 1.2 million was withdrawn in cash in the space of a year, between January and December 2011, before SGI ceased its activities and was blacklisted by the central bank of Congo. .

The four companies using SGI's services that year are all linked to the Kabila networks.

Hawkwood and SOGEMO are owned by Robert Choudury, who maintains links with Francis Selemani, brother of the former president and boss at the time of BGFI DRC.

The two other companies making large transfers to SGI, Modern Construction and IFI construction, belong to an Indian businessman close to the Kabila couple, Harish Jagtani.

 To read also:

Congo Hold-up: how are the most beautiful towers in Kinshasa financed?

Asked about these arrivals of money systematically followed by cash withdrawals, SGI ensures that it was in no way money laundering.

These funds were "

immediately withdrawn

" to "

feed the general fund of the company in order to proceed to the payment of invoices and purchases of products and raw materials

", she said via her lawyer Me Blanchard Adombe.

The company Modern Construction makes it known through the voice of its manager Harish Jagtani that SGI was its "

supplier of reinforced concrete

" and that the use made by SGI of the funds paid "

is not [its] responsibility.

".

Asked about the activities of SOGEMO, Hillary Duckworth, who is nevertheless co-owner of the Cité du rivière, said "

no longer remember the context

" and needed to go back to her archives to answer in detail.

He ultimately did not.

A letter from the Tax Department for the Hawkwood company belonging to Robert Choudury © Congo Hold up

High friendships

Yet in a bad position vis-à-vis the Congolese financial authorities, Robert Choudury multiplies public statements completely disconnected from the reality that show his bank accounts. Ten days after another pronounced blocking of Hawkwood's accounts in early November 2015, he confidently assures us in a television interview: "

We made the right choices, we chose the right strategy from the start, we were able to adapt. , we had a very strong demand (…) Difficulties are neither selling nor financing, difficulties are building, building and delivering

”.

On August 17, 2017, while SOGEMO was under the threat of being blacklisted by the Congo's central bank for not having repaid its loan to the BGFI, Robert Choudury was enthusiastic about "

the urban environment first world

”of his City, and launches:“

Imagine Kinshasa with ten Cities of the River

”.

The bank is fully aware of the sanctions and alerts vis-à-vis this problematic customer.

Yet she closes her eyes.

In June 2016, the BGFI loaned $ 500,000 to SOGEMO when Robert Choudury had already been blacklisted three times, but in addition when the credit application file was largely incomplete.

The firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which controls the accounts of the BGFI, noted it a month later in a memo.

Among the “

internal control deficiencies

” within the bank, the auditors note that several important documents are missing from the credit file granted to SOGEMO, including the company's articles of association and its last three financial statements.

In August 2017, SOGEMO will in turn be blacklisted due to the non-repayment of this loan.

How to explain that the BGFI took such a risk? The explanation may lie in the high-ranking friendships of Robert Choudury. The Frenchman seems to know some of the bank's executives well. He calls the customer relations manager, Freddy Olela, by his first name and sometimes asks him for news of members of his family. He also addresses familiarity to the boss (and brother of President Kabila) himself, Francis Selemani, whom he calls "Francis" and to whom he writes on his personal email address.

This one intervened at least once in favor of the Frenchman. On August 16, 2017, an employee of the BGFI explained in a letter to a hierarchical superior that SOGEMO is "

one step away

" from undergoing a request for blacklisting of the BGFI addressed to the central bank of Congo, but that this process was "

slowed down at the request of the general management

".

Robert Choudury also knows the director of internal audit of the bank, who resides at the Cité du Fleuve.

Astonishing detail: this director lives in an apartment rented by his employer, the BGFI, at

the Sud Oil company

, a front company controlled by Francis Selemani who served President Kabila and his entourage to divert tens of millions of dollars from public money (see our survey - LINK).

► To read also:

Congo Hold-up: Sud Oil, the siphonneuse of the first circle of Joseph Kabila

In other words, the bank finds itself tenant of one of its customers, Sud Oil, which is also controlled by its managing director, in violation of all the rules on conflicts of interest.

An aberrant operation which, as often, is above all a good deal for the Kabila galaxy.

On the strength of this network, the owner of the Cité du rivière has also joined forces with the BGFI to recruit new clients, and not just any: deputies.

In camera with the deputies

The deputy K. saw himself there already, in this "

urban center of international class

".

In 2012, newly elected, he arrived from his distant constituency in the capital Kinshasa, and looked for a place to stay there.

The City of the River and its promises made with well-licked 3D video clips come at the right time.

One day, in the Assembly, during a closed session, the French Robert Choudury came to present to the deputies his high-end housing project with breathtaking views of the river.

The National Assembly provides its financial guarantee.

Deputy K. does not hesitate for long.

You are told that in two or three months [the apartment] will be for you, even though you have not yet finished paying off the debt.

Of course you accept!

"

It remains to choose a bank for the loan.

The deputy naturally turns to the BGFI, "

where everyone is

", and where the authorities of the Assembly encourage parliamentarians to go.

They said to us: 'Go ahead, the coffers of the Parliament are there, you will not have problems to be paid quickly'

”, he remembers.

He therefore opened an account at the BGFI and signed for an apartment of 125 square meters.

His story with the City of the River will end after a few months, due to lack of sufficient resources to complete the purchase.

Not for other of his colleagues.

In July 2012, according to our documents, forty deputies took out a loan for the purchase of an apartment or a villa in the City, via the BGFI.

"

I learned later, from people who had stayed there, that there was something wrong

," adds the deputy.

In fact, his colleagues in the hemicycle found themselves linked to a company in a catastrophic situation, encouraged to invest by a bank which nevertheless knew its setbacks.

Other parliamentarians, ministers or senior officials certainly had less valid reasons for investing in the City. “

The Cité du rivière started out in a period of low economic conditions, with insufficient demand. This is undoubtedly why its initiators were forced to accept 'political' money: money from politicians of the Kabila regime, who had significant incomes of not very avowable origin - bonuses received to vote certain laws for example - and went to place them in flats in the City,

”details a former banker from the Kinshasa area. In the DRC, real estate is indeed "

the easiest way to invest funds with which we do not know what else to do

", including those "

of somewhat murky origin,

”he adds.

According to this expert, the official emoluments of Congolese parliamentarians represent only 20 to 25% of their income.

A stone's throw from the new City of the River, the daily life of the inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods has not changed.

More than two years after the departure of Joseph Kabila, they still harbor a muffled anger against the elite who have enriched themselves at their expense.

One of them is Joel L., 26.

Unable to find a job in his field (accounting), he occasionally works for a Chinese company that pays him less than two dollars a day to transport stones and rubble.

"

The thought of how much Kabila has stolen from us arouses in my chest a hatred so great that it makes me want to become a thief myself

", he confides.

Contacted, Joseph Kabila, Francis Selemani, and Freddy Olela did not respond.

► To read also on Médiapart: The City of the river: the other story of the new district of Kinshasa

SUPPLEMENT TO ARTICLE

All persons, companies and public entities named have received detailed questions in writing.

Robert Choudury did not answer our questions.

Mr. Hazaa Saad, former manager of Societe Generale Industrielle, responded by the voice of his lawyer, on November 3, 2021, to our questions.

We quote in the article the most relevant.

Here they are in full:

1. Does the Société Générale Industrielle (SGI SPRL) still exist?

Are you still the director?

Société Générale Industrielle SPRL (created in 2007), of which he was the manager until March 27, 2010, exists to this day but is in cessation of activities.

2. Can you give us its RCCM registration number?

When he left the management of the said company, OHADA law was not yet in force to refer to any RCCM number.

3. According to the FEC 2010-2011 directory, its field of activity was as follows: Construction: Import & Distribution of Building Materials.- Industry: Manufacturing of Building Materials.

- Mine: Operator.

- Services: Customs and Real Estate Agency.

Is it correct ?

Can you be more specific?

This corporate purpose of SGI Sprl is correct, but specifying that it was very specialized in the exploitation of sandstone quarries (gravel, rubble, etc.), asphalt, fresh concrete and bricks at Kasangulu (Kongo-Central / DRC).

4. In a 2009 press article that appeared in Le Potentiel, Ms. Olive Lembe di Sita praised the quality of SGI's work. Do you have professional or personal ties with Ms. Lembe as well as with her husband, Mr. Joseph Kabila? If yes, which ones ?

Maman Olive LEMBE or her husband Joseph KABILA are not and have never been in the share capital of SGI SPRL, as you can check in the Official Journal or in the Unique Business Creation Guide, but she- even was invited by the SGI company and the governorate of the Kongo - Central province at the time, to inaugurate the electrical installations, water wells and two schools (Catholic and Kimbanguiste) built on their own of SGI SPRL and that, only in its capacity of origin of the province of Kongo - Central. It is only on this occasion that she speaks for the good of SGI.

5. According to documents and correspondence that we have been able to consult, the account opened by SGI SPRL at BGFI DRC saw 1.2 million US dollars in transit in the space of one year (year 2011), in from four large companies: Modern Construction, Financial and Real Estate Industries, Hawkwood Properties, Real Estate Management Company (SOGEMO). These $ 1.2 million were systematically withdrawn in cash the same day or the day after the transfers. Can you confirm ? Can you detail what type of activity justified these transfers and immediate cash withdrawals?

As part of its activities, SGI SPRL had concluded contracts for the supply of construction materials and products (rubble, gravel, bricks, fresh concrete, asphalt, etc.) with these different companies (MODERN CONSTRUCTION, IFI, HAWK WOOD PROPERTIES ) for the construction of their various buildings and structures located in the city of Kinshasa (see: Cité du rivière, Immeubles CTC, KIYO YA SITA, MODERN PARADISE, etc.). The funds paid by these companies in return for the services rendered were immediately withdrawn to supply the general cash register of the company in order to proceed with the payment of invoices and purchases of products and raw materials (cements, oil gas, asphalt, lubricants, explosives, spare parts. recharge, etc.) for the proper functioning of the Company;

6. Did you know that Congolese law prohibits cash withdrawals over USD 10,000?

If so, why not have applied it?

During this period the current ban on withdrawing more than 10,000 USD in cash did not apply, otherwise the banks would not have served commercial companies.

7. Il s’agissait à chaque fois de chiffres ronds (50 000, 100 000, 150 000 USD). Les flux financiers en provenance de et vers les comptes de la SGI à la BGFI sont par ailleurs très concentrés dans le temps (un an) avant de cesser presque complètement. La SGI et ses dirigeants ont par ailleurs une existence publique assez réduite. Mis bout à bout, ces éléments constituent des indicateurs de possibles activités de blanchiment d’argent. Pouvez-vous démontrer le contraire, par exemple en apportant des éléments démontrant que ces virements et ces retraits en liquide correspondaient à une activité réelle, légale et justifiée (factures, photos ou vidéos, …) ?

Tout en vous renvoyant aux éléments de réponse donnés à la sixième question, notre client vous signale que les immeubles et ouvrages construits grâce aux différents contrats conclus par la SGI avec les sociétés citées, existent bel et bien dans la ville jusqu'à ce jour et vous pouvez facilement vérifier la véracité de ses réponses auprès de ces propriétaires.

8. Selon nos informations, la SGI SPRL a été mise à l’index par la BCC en 2012 et en 2014. Pouvez-vous confirmer ? Pour quelle raison ? Quand cette mise à l’index a-t-elle pris fin ?

La SGI SPRL est toujours mise à l'index jusqu'à ce jour par la Banque centrale du Congo dans le cadre du recouvrement de la créance de l'ancienne Banque congolaise en liquidation sur elle. Ce qui a, du reste, entrainé la cessation de ses activités car ne pouvant plus fonctionner dans le système bancaire du pays.

9. Selon nos informations, vous avez été personnellement mis à l’index par la BCC en 2012 et en 2014. Pouvez-vous confirmer ? Pour quelle raison ? Quand cette mise à l’index a-t-elle pris fin ?

Notre client était mis à l'index par la Banque centrale du Congo par erreur, lorsqu'elle croyait qu'il était toujours gérant de la SGI SPRL, mais la mesure fut levée depuis.

10. Souhaitez-vous faire d’autres commentaires ?

La franche collaboration de notre client est avérée et il attend recevoir la même en retour. Merci.

*

M. Hillary Duckworth, associé de Robert Choudury au sein de la Cité du fleuve, a répondu le 16 octobre 2021, à nos questions. Nous citons dans l'article les plus pertinentes. Les voici en intégralité. Relancé sur les différents points qui nécessitaient vérification, M. Duckworth nous a fait savoir qu'il n'avait plus accès aux archives financières qui lui aurait permis de répondre.

1. Are you still CEO of Hawkwood Properties, a company registered in the UK? Can you tell us about the nature of the activities of this company?

No I am not the CEO of Hawkwood Properties UK “HPUK". There is no trading relationship between Hawkwood Properties sprl DRC which is developing LCDF and HPUK.

2. Can you specify the links between Mukwa Investments, Hawkwood Properties (UK), Hawkwood Capital LLP, Hawkwood Properties SPRL (DRC), Hawkwood Property Investment (Zambia), La Cité du fleuve and the Société de gestion immobilière (SOGEMO) ?

HP Sprl is the developer of LCDF and is owned 80% by Mukwa investments. Hawkwood Capital LLP launched Mukwa investments to raise funding from international investors. I will check my records about SOGEMO as I don't remember the context and revert.

3. Are you still chief investment officer of Mukwa Investments?

Yes.

4. Is Mukwa Investment still an 80% shareholder in Hawkwood Properties (DRC)?

Yes.

5. La Cité du Fleuve website indicates that Mukwa Investments is based in Lusaka, Zambia. A fund called Mukwa Investments was registered in 2005 with the Bermuda Companies Registry. Is it the same one? YES If so, why does it say on the Cité du fleuve website that it is based in Zambia? 

The contact office for Mukwa was in Lusaka where we had a contact officer for the fund; Bermuda is in the wrong time zone for queries.

6. How did you meet Mr. Choudury?

In Lusaka at a dinner party.

7. As an investor, are you satisfied with the implementation of the Cité du fleuve project and its management by Mr. Robert Choudury ?

As outlined in all our communication with Mukwa investors, the original LCDF business plan of selling properties off plan for a deposit followed by part payments failed when a large number of buyers did not conclude their contractual payment arrangements resulting in many court cases; the cash flow dried up as did the development.

Mr Choudury changed the original business plan. Now the building of the platform and infra structure is subcontracted to a Chinese company for a cost of 50% of the land. Although delayed by Covid this new plan is looking promising. The new Chinese dredge has been in operation for a few months and we anticipate first land sales in the next quarter. New sales will not be for credit terms.

8. According to our informations, on February 13, 2012 you sent, in your own name, 110,000 USD to SOGEMO. Can you confirm this? For what reason was this payment made? Why was it made in your own name and not via Hawkwood Properties (UK) or Mukwa Investments?

As in I above i will try to find the records and revert.

9. According to our information, Mr. Choudury's personal account at BGFI DRC as well as the accounts of Hawkwood Properties SPRL (DRC) and SOGEMO have been the subject of numerous alerts by the DRC's financial control authorities since 2010: blacklisting by the Central Bank of Congo, blocking, garnishments, seizures, notices to third parties... Were you informed of this? Would you like to comment?

I have not been informed of this and would like to be provided with the relevant information.

10. Are you still the manager of Congo-Foret?

Is the main activity of this company still the exploitation of a palm and rubber concession in the Bandudu and Equateur provinces?

Congo Foret was placed into liquidation sone six years ago and during the three year liquidation period all external liabilities were settled.

Outstanding liabilities to management and to the shareholder remained unsettled when the remaining assets were sold.

11. According to our information, Hawkwood Properties (DRC) sent the sum of USD 40,000 to Congo Forêt on November 26, 2013. Can you confirm this?

Can you specify the reason for this transaction?

Would you like to comment?

I will check if there is any record of this transaction. "

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