Sunday, May 15, 2016

Obambi Paul: Profile of Congo's Aliko Dangote

Congo, for all the noises made by its happy corrupt few, it is a strange country. It is a country that has been destroyed by more than 3 decades of Sassou Nguesso misrule.  The more than 3 decades of Sassou Nguesso rule has not only seen the destruction of the education and health systems, it has also made the country  to produce the laziest and less ambitious  women in the word, especially those born between 1978 and 2000. Sassou Nguesso has also destroyed the entrepreneurial character in both men and women of Congo. Hence, it is hard to see a successful business man in Congo Brazzaville today. Most businessmen and women are briefcase businessmen and woman or are people who survive on contracts from the civil service. However in that entrepreneurial desert, there are nonetheless some oases of entrepreneurs such as Pierre Otto Mbongo, late Charles Ebina and to a certain level Maurice Nguesso. These old generation businessmen are the few who can boast of having established businesses in the private sector, even though they are not always very successful. But one thing is clear; the private sector in Congo is a desert for indigenes. Those controlling what could be described as the private sector are foreigners, in particular Lebanese, West Africans from Mauritania, Mali, Senegal and Guinea, some Cameroonians and Nigerians and also the French. They are mostly operating in the retail business sector and very little in the service and industrial sectors.

Paul Obambi is therefore one of the few young or new generation indigenous businessmen of the country. However, for all his talents and business ingenuity, he can’t justify how he got his wealth. Pierre Otto Mbongo, who is also related to Paul Obambi, once told me that, Mr Obambi was an investment or business straw man for Sassou Nguesso. In other words, what Pierre Otto Mbongo fondly known as “Pierrot” meant was that, the business investments of Paul Obambi, was in fact that of Denis Sassou Nguesso. However, when I asked Paul Obambi about the claim of Pierre Otto Mbongo, he rejected the allegation as pure jealousy from an old man. Whatever the allegations made against Paul Obambi, there are nonetheless two things which are true. He is an organized soft spoken man, who makes many promises and seldom keeps them.  On the other hand, he is also an astute businessman. Hence he has been able to join the league of top African businessmen.  And because of his business successes, he is regularly received by some African leaders with whom they discuss business ventures. Paul Obambi enjoys meeting with top political figures and also his business peers. However, his other pleasure is his love to be in the company top African musical stars such as Koffi Olumide or Papa Wemba.  His business bases are: Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Abidjan and Paris. However, the headquarters of his business empire is located in Brazzaville on the Edith Lucie Bongo Ondimba Avenue.

This avenue is located within the industrial district of Mpila, a neighbourhood situated north east of Brazzaville. Although Paul Obambi presents himself as a self-made man and attempts to distance himself from the President of the Republic and the Congolese government, the walls of in his vast office are strewn with souvenirs which are also evidence of who has made him to be what he is today financially. He also has a large photo that he took in the company of President Denis Sassou Nguesso and his wife Antoinette Sassou Nguesso. Paul Obambi is the CEO of an agro-industrial group called SAPRO and he also doubles as chairman of the Chambers of Commerce, industry, agriculture and trade and mines of Brazzaville. He has been the chair of the Brazzaville chamber of Commerce since 1996. Paul Obambi is always clean shaven, strapped in his trademark sumptuous navy blue suit, probably crafted in France as any typical Congolese elite will do. Paul Obambi also likes to be informal. Hence, he prefers to be simply called as “Yaya Paul or Ya Paul" (big brother Paul, a sign of respect). He is a flamboyant geek. Paul Obambi is not yet Congo’s Aliko Dangote, but he is aspiring to become one of the continent’s richest men and hence he is focusing the expansion of his business mostly out of Congo, because he claims, his country is not business friendly coupled with the fact that, it has a small population. Hence he focuses on Cameroon and neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Paul Obambi was on the 13th of December 1959 and founded his Sapro group immediately he returned from France, where he studied economics. As far as the source of his wealth is concern, Paul Obambi claims  that, it was savings that he made during his brief spell in the public service, which he used to start his own business. But the reality is that, without the help of President Denis Sassou Nguesso, he won’t have been successful as he is today. Even though he vehemently refuses, he truly seems to be fronting for the President of the Republic of Congo. For given the business reality in the country, it is almost impossible to succeed without support from someone influential within the system. It is claimed from reliable sources that, it is the President who facilitates his meetings with African head of states. And the question this: why will Sassou Nguesso, who prefers his children and immediate family members help Obami if he has no interest in what he is doing? Paul Obambi doesn’t give any convincing answer but focuses at giving candid responses when addressing the reason why Congolese don’t succeed in private entrepreneurship.

He claims that, Congo is a country destroyed by communism and also where the culture of mediocrity and economic and educational stagnations constitutes a real handicap to development". He also adds that: Congolese are very lazy. Paul Obambi is not only an Intellectual, but also a shrewd businessman, known for his objective analysis of developmental issues in Africa. His mastery of developmental challenges in Africa has been demonstrated by a presentation that he delivered at the Forbes Africa Summit, which was held on the 29th of July 2013 in Brazzaville. After a slow start in 1990, Sapro group that he leads has extended its tentacles in the industrial, Oil and Gas and Food sectors. The Sapro Group is also present in the services and construction sectors.  Today, for all its shortcomings, Sapro group is one of the successful models of private initiative in Congo. It has more than 1,000 employees across its ten subsidiaries spread in Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Chad, Niger, Ivory Coast, and Central African Republic and soon in Cameroon. In the DRC, its oil subsidiary, Sapro Oil, recently bought Congo Oil. Congo Oil was a state owned lost making company, which the DRC authorities had decided to privatize. Solupac is another subsidiary of Sapro. This company was set up in partnership with a German company called German Mirror & Co. It is a company that specializes in the production of a wide range of lubricants for vehicle engines. While international media, the first independent billboard display company in Congo, controls 80% market share of outdoor advertisement in the country. According to Paul Obambi, he wants to become the market leader in the African market of bill boarding or outdoor marketing.

International Media, the adverting arm of Sapro has 1,000 bill boards of different types across the country. In Ivory Coast, International Media is the second company in the sector, says, Paul Obambi, while smiling from ear to ear. Paul Obambi is also in the mobile phone business, which is currently experiencing a great boom, albeit with changing consumption attitudes on the continent. He is the majority shareholder of Azur Telecom, which is the fourth mobile telephony operator in the Congo. The parent company of Azur Telecom is Equator Telecom, which is a subsidiary of SAPRO group. Through Equator Telecom, he has taken   control of Azur Gabon and Azur CAR. Paul Obambi once told me that: Our ambition now is to create an investment bank, before listing at the Abidjan regional stock Exchange.” He however added: Before we get there, we are already going into mining and we will soon be producing iron ore from Mayoko-Moussondji in the Niari department”. The SAPRO group, he continued: owns three operating licenses in partnership with Congo Mining, which is a subsidiary of Australia's Equatorial Resources”. While it is true that Sapro group is worth over FCFA 500 billion in terms of capitalization, Paul Obambi doesn’t like to talk about his wealth or that of his group. "Money hates noise, and in Congo, a country of jealous and lazy people, it better not to speak too much about your success" he once told me. Paul Obambi, who was born in the populous Poto-poto neighborhood of Brazzaville, used to play football, barefoot and he was also a militant or activist of the former Union of Congolese Socialist Youth abbreviated UJCS. This was during the one-party communist rule state (1969-1991). "Now I'm away from political passions and I prefer my hat of a businessman", he told me. 

When I told him that, it seems his success is simply because of his links with the President of the Republic and his connections with friends within the ruling Congolese Workers Party abbreviated PCT, he replied:  those are words from lazy and envious people, who are jealous of my success. And he concluded: I am what I am today because of hard work and not because of imaginary connections with the President. Paul Obambi is a member of an African or an indigenous Congolese Christian church known as Kibanguist. This church was created by Simon Kibangu. Kibangu was born according to the on line dictionary Wikipedia, in the village of Nkamba on 12th or the 24th of September 1887 and died in prison on the 12th of October 1951. He was the son of a religious leader and became a Baptist in 1915 and worked as a catechist for several years before beginning his own ministry. He is the founder of Kimbaguism and his followers consider him to be the special envoy of Jesus Christ as quoted in the fourteenth chapter of the biblical gospel of John. 

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