The chairman of the Democratic Republic of Congoâ€™s state mining company was ousted on Friday after longtime allegations that billions of dollars in revenue had gone missing, a move officials said was intended to fight corruption as the country becomes increasingly important in the global clean energy revolution.
Albert Yuma Mulimbi, the chairman of the company since 2010, was replaced by President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo just days after The New York Times published an article revealing new allegations against Mr. Yuma.
The government agency, known as GÃ©camines, controls production of metals such as cobalt and copper, crucial resources in the push to expand electric vehicles and other renewables. Without his chairmanship, Mr. Yuma will no longer have a significant role in partnering with international companies over major mining deals.
â€œIt is hard to underestimate the importance of this development â€” it is a significant step in the fight against corruption in Congo,â€ said J. Peter Pham, who until January served as a senior Central Africa official with the U.S. State Department. â€œAlbert Yuma and the mining sector stand at the nexus of natural resources, political and economic power in the country.â€
At least for now, Mr. Yuma will retain his role supervising the reform of small-scale and informal mining in Congo, one industry executive said. His plans include buying cobalt from the informal miners, also known as artisanal miners, and regulating pricing. Cobalt produced by artisanal mining, as opposed to industrial operations, makes up about 30 percent of the nationâ€™s output.
He has also announced plans to increase safety at these sites. Child labor and frequent injuries and deaths associated with such mining have drawn international attention, driven away new U.S. investors and even made some automakers reluctant to buy cobalt from Congo.
The country is responsible for more than two-thirds of the worldâ€™s cobalt and is also a major copper producer. Though prices have skyrocketed in recent years, GÃ©camines was criticized during Mr. Yumaâ€™s tenure for signing deals with foreign mining companies, including entities backed by the Chinese government. The arrangements effectively turned over the countryâ€™s extraordinary mineral wealth for foreigners to profit.
Top State Department officials had urged the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Mr. Yuma, who told The Times that he had by his own count been accused of diverting as much as $8.8 billion in mining revenues over the years.
He was separately banned in 2018 from entering the United States, and he has since hired a team of lobbyists and lawyers in Washington to try to fight back and head off any sanctions, which could freeze money he has in international banks.
Mr. Yuma, a longtime power broker in Congo and one of the countryâ€™s richest businessmen, did not respond on Friday to a request for comment. But in a series of interviews with The Times in recent months, he called the accusations against him fabrications by outside provocateurs seeking to undermine Congoâ€™s sovereignty.
In one document he provided in October, he called the allegations â€œveritable smear campaigns,â€ saying that his critics wanted â€œto sully his reputation and blur his major role in favor of the country through the reform of its mining policy.â€
For decades, GÃ©camines has been one of Congoâ€™s largest sources of revenue, controlling concessions granted to major international mining companies and collecting royalties from them. Last year, the firm generated $324 million.
Mr. Yuma was placed in his post as chairman by the countryâ€™s former president, Joseph Kabila, who American officials believe worked closely with Mr. Yuma to divert agency funds toward political ends, and also possibly to enrich Mr. Kabilaâ€™s family.
He was reappointed chairman in 2019, after Mr. Tshisekedi took office. That year, Mr. Yuma had been under consideration to serve as prime minister of Congo, a move the United States opposed because he was planning to serve as Mr. Kabilaâ€™s proxy, State Department officials told The Times.
Mr. Yuma will now be replaced by Kaputo Kalubi Alphonse, whom Mr. Tshisekedi had named to GÃ©caminesâ€™ administrative council three years ago. As a sign of the key role that GÃ©camines plays in Congo, Mr. Tshisekediâ€™s spokesman announced the new appointment on national television on Friday.
Leon Mwine, who was appointed by Mr. Tshisekedi to a top post at GÃ©camines in 2019, said executives realized they had to prove to the world that the agency could change course.
â€œValues â€” such as honesty and transparency and integrity â€” these core values are what we need to be competitive on the international market,â€ Mr. Mwine said.