Is Tshisekedi dangling an economic deal for non-economic reasons?
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Felix Tshisekedi has been busy on the regional integration front since he became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo two years ago. But he has particularly been busier this year.
On June 25, President Tshisekedi met his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in Rubavu to allegedly assess the damage caused by the recent Nyiragongo volcanic eruption among other bilateral discussions.
A week earlier, on June 16, Tshisekedi and President Museveni met at the border post of Mpondwe in the western district of Kasese to launch joint infrastructure construction projects. Museveni says Uganda’s footing of a substantial amount of money to construct the roads inside Congolese territory is aimed at boosting trade between the neigbouring countries.
In April this year, Kenya and the DR Congo signed four framework cooperation agreements covering several economic sectors, security and defence as well as maritime transport. Among the four pacts, signed on the second day of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s three-day state visit to DR Congo, was the general cooperation agreement which provides a framework for joint promotion of economic, technical, scientific and socio-cultural programmes.
The economic sectors targetted by the broad framework are agriculture, education, health, sports and tourism. Others are environment, SMEs, housing, energy and infrastructure development. Also signed were two separate bilateral agreements on security and defence which provide mechanisms for cooperation between Kenya and DR Congo in areas such as counterterrorism, immigration, cyber security, and customs and border control.
The revitalised agreement on maritime freight is aimed at repositioning the port of Mombasa as DR Congo’s main gateway by streamlining the handling of the country’s transit cargo. “Indeed the relations between our two countries have been cordial over many decades and the relationship has continued to broaden and deepen especially since you ascended to power in areas of trade, security as well as our multilateral engagements,” President Kenyatta told his host.
In a joint press address with his Congolese host shortly after witnessing the signing of the agreements, President Kenyatta announced Kenya’s plans to expand its diplomatic footprints in DR Congo by setting up outposts in Goma and Lubumbashi.
“Kenya is committed to establishing a consulate in Goma as well as an honorary consulate in Lubumbashi,” Kenyatta said.
Resistance and attraction
For many, Tshisekedi’s gravitation towards East Africa has indeed been selling like a hot cake.
But according to Pecos Kulihoshi Musikami, who heads the Global Refugee Leaders Forum, a Goma-based non-profit, the idea does not resonate much with Tshisekedi’s main constituency; the citizens of DR Congo.
“On the contrary, ordinary Congolese have been asking why exactly Congo is getting into the EAC,” he told The Independent on June 30.
Kulihoshi says he is not convinced about the DR Congo’s current clamour to be a part of the East African Community.
“If you look at the driving forces, the DR Congo’s entry into the EAC appears a vague diplomatic approach of Tshisekedi,” he told The Independent.
Kulihoshi told The Independent on June 30 that Tshisekedi’s drive to integrate Congo into the EAC is not driven by trade or economics, which is the main driver of the other partner states. Instead, according to Kulihoshi, Tshisekedi’s main interest seems to do more with finding a long lasting solution to the restive eastern part of the country.
Kulihoshi says Tshisekedi has been clearer on this issue and he has on many occasions been telling the Congolese that to ensure there is peace and security in the eastern DR Congo; he needs to integrate the region with the EAC.
“I doubt Congo will be in the EAC in the next ten years. I think DR Congo is still militarily weak and so the country has to rely mostly on negotiations and diplomatic approach to end the conflict in eastern DR Congo. I don’t think Congo will need so much the EAC in the next ten years.”
Kulihoshi told The Independent that the collective mentality of the people of eastern DR Congo does not tilt towards East Africa.
“The Congolese are tuned towards Kinshasa which is to the far west of Congo. What they want more is to have the option to move towards Kinshasa. This is because of the Francophone culture which is quite different from the Anglophone culture.”
Kulihoshi adds that contrary to what the rest of the people in Africa think, the Congo want to take their country as a democratic society.
“Congo seems to be a democratic country and yet if you look at three of Congo’s EAC neighbours (Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda), they are autocratic in nature. Some of us who are so interested in understanding regional affairs, it seems there might not be a long term relationship between Uganda and the DR Congo or DR Congo and Rwanda or Burundi.”
“If Congo is able to strengthen its military so that it protects the entire country, I doubt the DR Congo will remain in the East African Community. For now it will be within the EAC and there will be free movement of goods and services but the EAC is not the ideal for many Congolese people.”
Kulihoshi is not a lone contrarian voice. Many analysts take the same position but from a different vintage point. They say Congo is not ready for admission to the East African Community.
“The DR Congo is already a hotspot country,” says Jane Nalunga, the country director of the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI), a non-profit that promotes pro-development policies in Uganda and the East African Community.
She told The Independent on June 30 that although, generally, getting the DR Congo into the fold of the East African Community would be a great idea; lessons should be picked from the admission of South Sudan.
She told The Independent that admitting South Sudan into the EAC was done so quickly and it has since impacted the rating of the EAC as a bloc.
“We already have a problem child; we can’t afford to bring on another. Let us review the treaty, address political challenges and the non-tariff barriers. We are already strong enough. DR Congo falls short on so many parameters of the EAC membership credentials,” she says.
Nalunga says like South Sudan, the DR Congo is already a hotspot country when it comes to security issues. Besides widespread poverty, the DR Congo often battles dangerous epidemics like Ebola.
The people have also lived with violence for decades and armed groups, most from the neighbouring countries of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi roam the Congolese jungles and occasionally wreak havoc on the hapless Congolese population.
The eastern part of the country also suffers from an infrastructure deficit; its roads are almost non-existent and these could pose a huge challenge to enthusiastic East Africans who want to venture into the country.
“We should take time to evaluate DR Congo’s membership,” Nalunga says.
But DRC’s entry into the EAC equally has many supporters.
Dan Kidega, the former Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) also told The Independent that there is no option.
“Congo is a twin brother of the East African Community and we have no option other than admitting it within the East African Community. Linking up two coastlines using DR Congo presents a great opportunity for Africa in terms of trade and security,” Kidega told The Independent.
Kidega added: “People must know regional blocs like the East African Community are blocks which are aimed at building a strong and competitive Africa. The politics could have delayed its being a part of the East African Community but geographically, in terms of our human interaction and survival, there is no way we can do away with DR Congo.”
Kidega says the most important thing that people in East Africa should appreciate is that the East African Community integration is a process which is aimed at ultimately uniting the African continent.
“It remains a continuous struggle to unite Africa and bringing South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and (now) DR Congo is not a mistake but a deliberate exercise which is aimed at uniting Africa.”
Most experts agree that despite several governance challenges in DR Congo, its membership into the EAC “would bring something to the table.”
Dr. Umar Kabanda, an associate research fellow at the Makerere University-based Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) also told The Independent on June 30 that, “As far as economic benefits go, the DR Congo’s membership could not only widen the EAC market but also provide a vast access to critical raw materials needed to meet the regional members’ industrialization aspirations.”
A regional market stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean is a tantalizing prospect. The East African Community could suddenly bulge in market size. At 2.4 million sq. km, DR Congo is the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa and it will obviously become the biggest member in the EAC bloc after Tanzania (947,000 sq km).
The DR Congo also has a population of 87 million, about a half of the current EAC population. The bloc’s population will, therefore, swell to more than 270 million and swell the bloc’s GDP to about US$183 billion from the current US$146 bn.
But DR Congo also has huge and untapped deposits of raw minerals, estimated to be worth in excess of US$ 24 trillion. Among them is 70% of the world’s coltan, one of the most sought after minerals needed to manufacture things like aircraft engines.