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Former NBA star caught up in gold-smuggling scandal

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2012-01-19

Dikembe Mutombo's reputation as a champion of humanitarian causes appears in jeopardy as the former basketball star finds himself at the heart of a gold-smuggling scandal in his native Democratic Republic of Congo.

Former NBA basketball star Dikembe Mutombo has been accused of playing a leading role in a failed gold-smuggling operation in his native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year. While the botched plan to illegally fly $10 million worth of gold out of the DRC made international headlines in March 2011, Mutombo was only linked to the affair in a news report on January 15.

Texas businessman Carlos St. Mary told the Houston Chronicle on Sunday that Mutombo was the instigator of the operation. According to St. Mary, Motumbo approached Kase Lawal, a Houston energy mogul, to present him with the original plan in November 2010.

St. Mary says he was recruited by Lawal to execute the transaction, which Motumbo repeatedly described to St. Mary and Lawal as legal.

However, on February 3, 2010, Lawal’s private jet was grounded in the eastern Congolese city of Goma. Local newspapers reported at the time that 400kgs of gold and $4 million in cash had been seized from the plane.

The jet’s four passengers, including St. Mary, were held by the authorities on charges of mineral smuggling and were transferred to the Makala prison in the capital of Kinshasa, according to local reports. But when the news first broke, the former basketball star was not mentioned.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Mutombo’s name surfaced in a recent UN report. Contacted by the daily, St. Mary said Mutombo was involved in the gold transaction until just before the arrests at Goma airport.

The former Houston Rockets player would not talk about his involvement when contacted by phone, the daily reported. Through a spokesman, businessman Lawal also declined to comment.

The towering basketball centre was a notorious shot-blocker for the NBA, but also gained broad recognition through his humanitarian efforts in his native DRC and across Africa. The Dikembe Mutombo Foundation website boasts of opening a $29 million hospital in the DRC, and as recently as August 2011, Mutombo toured the Horn of Africa with UNICEF to raise awareness of the plight of refugees.

Gold in the Congo

News organizations quickly picked up the Houston Chronicles scoop, but the claims of Mutombo’s involvement in gold smuggling did not immediately make headlines in his home country, where he is revered as a hero.

Mineral trafficking has been a blight on the DRC, promoting corruption and fuelling decades of war. According to John Katunga, an expert on peace building with Catholic Relief Services who has written on illegal mineral trafficking in eastern Congo, violence in the region is explained by poverty and the central government’s weakness when it comes to controlling the abundant mineral resources.

“This has led to a persistent situation of insecurity and violence that continues today, although more covertly,” Katunga said.

According to a March 22 article by Congolese daily L’Observateur, armed men loyal to General Bosco Ntaganda, a Goma-region warlord, helped escort the 400 Kgs of gold allegedly linked to Mutombo to the airport before they were seized. Gen. Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court for enlisting children to fight as soldiers.

The Houston Chronicle also referred to the involvement of Gen. Ntaganda in the affair, raising suspicion that Mutombo was not just potentially guilty of gold smuggling, but of affiliation to a wanted war criminal.

For many DRC experts like Katunga, the illegal extraction of minerals, including gold, coltan and other precious metals, still threatens regional security.

“Just two weeks ago members of the FDLR [Rwandan Hutu rebel movement] killed 42 Congolese civilians in retaliation for an army attack on a position where they were mining gold,” Katunga said. “People continue to suffer in the DRC as a result of minerals smuggling and exploitation.”

Date created : 2012-01-19


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