Vital Kamerhe. Picture: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Vital Kamerhe. Picture: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Kinshasa — Vital Kamerhe, chief of staff of Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was sentenced to 20 years forced labour and faces millions of dollars in fines after a court convicted him of embezzlement and corruption.

Kamerhe was convicted of participating in the theft of more than $50m from infrastructure projects linked to the first 100 days of Tshisekedi’s tenure last year.

The 61-year-old has said the trial is a political attack by enemies of the president. Tshisekedi himself has declined to comment on the case.

A tribunal based in the capital, Kinshasa, called the fact that Kamerhe intended to commit the crimes “unequivocal” in a reading of the judgment. As the judge read the verdict, Kamerhe laughed out loud.

Captive audience

The case, which has captivated the nation for months, caused a sensation on Tuesday when Congo’s justice minister announced that the original judge in the trial, Raphael Yanyi Ovungu, did not die of natural causes as announced last month. An autopsy of the body found his death was caused by a brain haemorrhage after trauma to the head and a murder investigation is under way.

Kamerhe has been a powerful player in the country’s politics for more than 15 years. He helped lead former President Joseph Kabila’s first election campaign in 2006, after which he became National Assembly head. Kamerhe broke with Kabila in 2009, then ran for president against his former boss in 2011, finishing third.

He became Tshisekedi’s chief of staff after the two men brokered an agreement in 2018 that was supposed to let Kamerhe run for president in 2023. He is no longer eligible to run due to the conviction. The judgment also prohibited him from voting or serving in government for 10 years.

More convictions

“The verdict gives hope to Congolese who continue to decry the theft of their resources by political elites and the impunity they’ve enjoyed until now,” Fred Bauma of the Congo Research Group at New York University said on Saturday. “However, Vital isn’t the only guilty one and justice will be incomplete if he’s the sole person prosecuted and convicted.”

Kamerhe’s conviction removes a key political player from the scene, and boosts the young Tshisekedi administration’s fight against endemic corruption. But it also sidelines one of the president’s allies in his power struggle with Kabila, whose supporters control most of the country’s institutions.

“It’s not lost on anyone who knows the DRC that this will make both Kabila and the Tshisekedi camp very happy and I’m sure they’re drinking champagne if not together than in their separate homes because both Kabila and Tshisekedi always saw Vital Kamerhe as an important political rival,” said Stephanie Wolters, senior research fellow at the SA Institute of International Affairs.

“So there are a number of reasons to be sceptical about the motivation of this and also to be sceptical about the longevity of any kind of sustained effort to go after anybody in the DRC who’s involved in corruption,” Wolters said on Saturday. “And of course that would also mean the Kabila camp.”

Kamerhe was accused of embezzlement alongside 78-year-old Lebanese businessman Jammal Samih and another adviser to Tshisekedi, Jeannot Muhima. Samih was also accused of money laundering and corruption of a public official. Both men were convicted. Samih was sentenced to 20 years forced labour and Muhima to two years. Both face millions of dollars in penalties and damages for their crimes.

The three men can appeal against the decision.