A new and controversial bill introduced on July 8 in Kinshasa’s National Assembly aims to prevent a presidential candidate from running because he has a Jewish father. The bill has prompted a backlash, with criticism emerging from inside and outside of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and is casting a shadow over the fate of the new government coalition. The bill also threatens the integrity of the African country.
The bill, introduced by Noel K. Tshiani, an ally of current president Felix Tshisekedi, states that only candidates with two Congolese parents are eligible to run for president. There is currently just one candidate who does not meet the new criteria: Congolese businessman and political leader Moise Katumbi, the leading candidate in the 2023 presidential election and who is considered to have the best chance of defeating the incumbent president.
Katumbi’s grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz. His father, Nissim Soriano, a Greek Sephardic Jew, fled Rhodes and settled in Congo’s Katanga province where he married the granddaughter of the local King Msiri. In his later years, Soriano emigrated to Israel, where he lived until his death. He is buried in Netanya. Katumbi comes to Israel often and visits relatives who live in the country. He was mentioned as a potential buyer for the Maccabi Netanya Football Club and has met with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of a delegation of Congolese governors.
“This law is going to bring about discrimination. If America had such bad laws, Obama wouldn’t have been president,” said Katumbi’s spokesperson. Katumbi is often described as “the Obama of Africa” because of his popularity. “Let the people vote. They should be allowed to choose their leaders, that’s democracy and not changing the law.” Should the law pass, added the spokesperson, Katumbi’s party will leave President Tshisekedi’s coalition, ending the already fragile government.
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, Chairman of the European Jewish Association and a close confidant of Katumbi, attacked the proposed legislation.
“It is an outrage that in 2021 a person can be disqualified for having a Jewish parent. This is a cynical political move aimed at manipulating the will of the people and imposing on them candidates they don’t want. This is a repeat pattern of DRC politics and the reason for the fate of this poor county. Anyone who cares about the future of Africa should fight this dangerous bill to make sure that Congo will hold fair elections for the first time in its history,” he said.
The bill has also prompted calls for the independence of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, Katumbi’s birthplace and where he served as governor. Between 1960-1963 Katanga was an independent state. Earlier this week local leaders announced that they will support secession if the bill passes.
President Tshisekedi has not yet commented on the new bill, but his spokesperson issued an ambiguous comment against “these types of divisive subjects.” Tshiani, the promoter of the bill, has vowed to continue despite the criticism, and fight for what he describes as the sovereignty and independence of the DRC.
This is not the first time Katumbi has faced political rivals who tried to block his candidacy. During the 2018 elections, President Joseph Kabila prohibited Katumbi from entering the country, which prevented him from submitting his name as a candidate. Polls taken at the time had Katumbi winning the election by a large majority. Katumbi eventually returned to the Congo in May 2019 after three years in exile, when he was greeted by crowds of hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets to welcome him home.
Katumbi’s immense popularity stems from his eight years as governor of Katanga province, his birthplace and an area rich in mines. During his tenure, Katumbi implemented a series of comprehensive reforms in the province: Nearly two-thirds of the district's residents were connected to running water, a number that stood at just 3% when he took office. He also increased the number of students in school by 750%, from 400,000 to almost 3 million; and increased tax revenue in the county from $80 million to nearly $3 billion in 2014.